C.S. Lewis on Revising the Language of Worship

C.S. Lewis wrote this several decades ago about the proposed updating of the language of the Anglican liturgy. Perhaps you will find interesting parallels to contemporary discussions.  –Ed.

If you have a vernacular liturgy you must have a changing liturgy: otherwise it will finally be vernacular only in name. The ideal of “timeless English” is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.

I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occurred gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little; one obsolete word replaced in a century—like the gradual change of spelling in successive editions of Shakespeare.

If we were—I thank my stars I’m not—in a position to give [the Prayer book] authors advice, would you have any advice to give them? Mine could hardly go beyond unhelpful cautions: “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelettes.”

Already our liturgy is one of the very few remaining elements of unity in our hideously divided Church. The good to be done by revision needs to be very great and very certain before we throw that away. Can you imagine any new Book which will not be a source of new schism? …

I find that people re-act to archaism most diversely. It antagonizes some; makes what is said unreal. To others, not necessarily more learned, it is highly numinous and a real aid to devotion. We can’t please both.

I know there must be change. But is this the right moment? Two signs of the right moment occur to me. One would be a unity among us all which enabled the Church—not some momentarily triumphant party—to speak through the new work with a united voice. The other would be the manifest presence, somewhere in the Church, of the specifically literary talent needed for composing a good prayer. Prose needs to be not only very good but very good in a very special way, if it is to stand up to reiterated reading aloud. Cranmer may have his defects as a theologian; as a style, he can play all the moderns, and many of his predecessors, off the field. I don’t see either sign at the moment.

–Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 1963.


  1. Good thoughts, well expressed. Of course.

    My own thought is that the Roman Missal and its vernacular translations should be issued in generational editions – regular but slow, as it were – perhaps with every other ordinary jubilee (real 50 year jubilees!). Get rid of the idea that the Missal is changeless, but also the idea of changing it to make it au courant.

    But changes to the vernacular will, by the nature of these being ritual books, reflect changes that are relatively settled – and thus on a significant lag.

    Inclusive language as envisioned by many of us in the 1980s and 1990s has not yet become settled. But there are other usage issues that may free other unexplored avenues up – for example, the “schoolmarm” rules about agreement (“everyone has his/their day’) are fairly recent as rules of usage, and have never fully settled into common speech (though many of us who excelled at communication in school will find our pride chafing at the undoing of “rules” we learned well)…..

  2. I don’t believe that radical changes should be made to the Liturgy. My personal belief is that this is why the Vatican is pushing for the New translation, to start the process of healing (with regard to radical changes made in the 1960’s).

  3. Lewis is so pragmatic here – no matter what is done, there will be those for whom the translation is not an aid to devotion.

    It has me thinking about the distinctions between the devotional and the liturgical in this debate, which I think are not always clear. There is a sharpness to the language which the “lex orandi, lex credendi” connection requires. But then there is the devotional aspect. For some, a Eucharist prayer in rhyme might be an aid to devotion (please note I am not advocating such and have never heard one) , to another (me!) a travesty. But as long as the language were orthodox, it boils down to a devotional preference, and perhaps things would be well enough left alone.

  4. What if neither of “two signs of the right moment” ever occur?

    As someone who thinks that the upcoming translations, depsite their clear deficiencies, are at least acceptable while the current ones are not, I hope I won’t be guilty of thinking of myself as a member of a “momentarily triumphant party” when the new translations go into effect. I hope it really will be the case that all are winners.

  5. I doubt the quotation is terrifically relevant. No offense, but we’re talking about completely different orders of liturgical language. The BCP is an original English work and a stunning literary masterpiece. It is not a translation, and it is not the fumbling prose of the 1973 ICEL.

    I’d like to be with Ioannes on this, and I am, to the extent that it’s not allegiance to a party that will make me feel triumphant at the promulgation. The important factor is this: the new texts are more faithful expressions of our religion than the old texts. The presidential prayers are more quiet and reflective, leaving more space in the Mass for recollection. The orations are truer, re-rooting the help we ask for in the saving mysteries, the work of the Lord.

    The overall effect will be a greater sense of the Lord’s intimate presence and activity in our lives.

  6. Kathy – as Thomas Aquinas ever said, “Distinguo…” Parts of it are not relevant, parts of it are highly so. I think these parts are highly relevant – that a new text should be the united voice of the church and not of one triumphant party, and that the literary quality should be high. Other parts are clearly timebound and tied to the situation of his time.

    1. Fr. Ruff,

      I think that the new text IS the united voice of the Church in the most important way. The Church isn’t what we think it is, or what we make of it. Our theology isn’t altogether changeable.

      “We depend entirely on God.” This is a central tenet of our faith, worked out over the centuries. This comes through loud and clear in the new texts and was quite muddled in the old.

      “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is the author of all of our actions. In depending on God, and in worshipping, we find our freedom.” Again this is an indisputable truth of our religion, obscured in the old translation, bright and clear in the new.

      I could go on and on…

      1. Kathy – So, it is the united voice of the Church because the authorities and you share the same theology? And that some of our fellow Catholics are angry, feel hurt, are considering resigning their priesthood, will not implement it in their parish, etc., says nothing about whether we’re a united Church? Well that simplifies things. Now we know that strong disagreements and outright battles pose no danger to Church unity… as long as we define unity correctly.

  7. Kathy,

    Just to clarify, the BCP is not an original work in its entirety, but contains both translations of the Latin Mass parts that were to be incorporated into the Anglican Rite as well as prayers composed by Cramner. The latter were drawn from the Sarum Rite. Cramner’s translations were an attempt not only to find elegant vernacular translations of the Latin Rite, but also to more firmly ground the Anglican Rite in its theology. Not so different from what we are about here.

    I agree with Fr. Ruff that the literary quality should be high – or perhaps I would prefer to say that the words should breathe life into our prayer. The current translation taste bland to me, much like the controlled vocabulary readers of my youth – but the new one reads aloud like a 19th century theology lesson. I’m hoping that when celebrated as liturgy it will come to life!

  8. Father,

    You wrote, “I think these parts are highly relevant – that a new text should be the united voice of the church and not of one triumphant party, and that the literary quality should be high.” Can we reflect back on the 1973 translation using the same standards? Was it not one triumphant party “in the know” who originally provided us with the translations we now have? Is the literary quality high? Of course, I have my own assumed answers to these questions, but I ask them with sincerity. Setting aside the fact that C.S. Lewis had no magisterial authority, nor was he even Catholic, can any of us envision a time, prior to the Second Coming, that the Church will have one united voice with regard to Liturgical issues, especially given the level of ignorance most of us possess when it comes to liturgy (myself included… and I’m an enthusiast!)? Regarding quality – if the hierarchy which gave us the first translation should recognize its defects, should it not attempt…

  9. Mark, you raise good points. Personally I would say that the literary quality of 1973 is not good, but my sense is that the unity of the church was quite strong then. The vast majority of Catholics accepted the reforms which were implemented from above. Of course the reforms were from above back then because we didn’t yet have all the consultative structures as now and hadn’t yet applied all the Council’s teachings on collegiality and consultation. In comparison, I’m hearing very mixed opinions on the literary quality of the coming translation. And it is being imposed from above with much more opposition than in 1973, and upon people who have come to believe in and expect collegiality and consultation. And of course ultimately, whatever was wrong about 1973 would not justify doing the some wrongs this time around.

  10. Michelle,

    I agree that the upcoming translation sounds a bit surprising. However, how much of our expectations have been shaped by the banal language of the last forty years? I think we should wait–to pass judgment on the “prayerfulness” of the new texts. I share your hope. When I speak the presidential prayers, I hear quite a bit of silence.

    Let me put this another, personal way. When I have trouble expressing my thoughts in prayer to God, sometimes I deliberately pray in Spanish instead. I don’t speak Spanish well, and somehow this helps.

  11. I got a chance to study some of the new translation texts in a class on the Roman Missal, and overall I’d say that they’re better than the current ICEL translation i.e. They sound better read aloud and carry more of what’s actually in the Latin. Having said that, however, I wouldn’t consider it fully English vernacular. Instead, it seems to be trying to create some hybridized “sacral vernacular” as called for in Liturgiam Authenticam that retains strict faithfulness to the original Latin.

    One of my big questions, though, is what happens with translations into other languages that have no relation at all to Latin. How much “faithfulness” to Latin vocabulary and syntax is possible in those languages?

  12. Fr. Ruff,

    I doubt I share the same theology, whatever that means, with “the authorities.” I’m a Thomist second, a sanjuanist first, with a soupcon of Benedictine. I’m a mutt like everyone else. Una voce is not univocity. I do share the same religion with the authorities. The new texts reflect this religion.

    The theology I’m speaking of is not disputed by any Doctor or Council that I can think of. Can you? I’m talking about our religion, not a party or caucus. It’s the universal Catholic religion. Our total dependency on God is perhaps the common thread of all of the introit antiphons of ordinary time. Thank goodness those haven’t been lost. They have clearly fallen into disuse.

    1. Having been a vocation director for over eleven years, if I heard a candidate who was applying for the priesthood tell me that he would leave the seminary if the proper Church authorities changed the language of the Mass without consulting him, I would not recommend him to the bishop for acceptance as a candidate for the seminary. If a seminarian voiced the same immature resentment, I doubt that I could recommend him to the bishop for ordination. Now we’re being told that priests are going to resign the priesthood or not implement the new translation? This is meant to move those who respect authority to sympathize with the immature and the disobedient, who by the way made a promise or vow of obedience supposedly out of mature consent? We have problems, big one, and it’s not just language in our Mass. Come Holy Spirit!

  13. Anthony Ruff, OSB :
    Kathy – So, it is the united voice of the Church because the authorities and you share the same theology? And that some of our fellow Catholics are angry, feel hurt, are considering resigning their priesthood, will not implement it in their parish, etc., says nothing about whether we’re a united Church?

    You mean sort of like what happened with Vatican II, Father? This seems like a Pot – Kettle moment.

  14. Tony, hopefully liturgical decisions would never be made from motives of revenge, if that’s what you’re suggesting.

    There are firm principles that support the new translations. I propose we keep our eyes on the ball.

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