Ever since the liturgical reforms of the mid- to late-twentieth century, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians (as well as Christians in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and several other denominations) have shared a number of common texts in the Eucharistic liturgy, mainly texts sung or recited by the entire congregation. These have included the Hymn of Praise Gloria in excelsis, the Creed (with slight variations), the Sanctus, the Memorial Acclamation “Christ has died” and the Fraction Anthem Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God”. These common texts, soon to be lost to Roman Catholics, were largely products of the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET), an interdenominational group that adopted some of the earlier work of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) while also producing common translations of other canticles and acclamations used in a number of Christian churches but not proper to the Roman liturgy. ICET eventually evolved into the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC); ICEL remains a separate body.
The great gift of such common texts was their contribution to ecumenism. So notes the Rev. David Holeton, Anglican liturgiologist and professor of liturgy at Charles University in Prague: “Both the sense of being ‘at home’ and of being ‘among friends’ are foundational paving stones on the way to Christian unity and it is the liturgy, more than anything else, that has nurtured this sense of communality.” Holeton reports that the loss of common texts “is a very raw point at the moment and has created an atmosphere of ecumenical mistrust.” He goes on to say “We have seen the fruit that has been borne since the (Second Vatican) council, and we hope that the tree that bore it has just been badly pruned and not hewn down.”
One of the fruits of which Holeton speaks is the music with which congregations have given voice to the common texts. Many settings of the people’s acclamations of the mass ordinary have been shared among Roman Catholics and other Christian bodies for a number of years, becoming deeply ingrained in congregational consciousness. In the United States, the Community Mass of the late Richard Proulx, as well as that composer’s arrangement of Franz Schubert’s Deutsche Messe, and David Hurd’s New Plainsong appear not only in The Hymnal 1982 but in Roman Catholic hymnals as well. The Mass of Creation by Marty Haugen, the Celtic Mass of Christopher Walker, and several other settings originally composed for Roman Catholic use (and not all by Roman Catholic composers, mind you) have become standard fare in many Episcopal congregations. Until now, composers from many churches have been able to prepare settings for use across denominational lines, and publishers have been able to market to an audience beyond the confines of their particular ecclesial affiliation; such a situation prevails not only in North America, but also in the United Kingdom.
So we all have been able to sing shared settings of the common acclamations at the core of our respective liturgies, being brought closer to one another in song by the God-given talents and cultivated stewardship of skilled composers, all without concern for other liturgical, theological and organizational issues that, sadly, still hold us apart.
But soon enough, English-speaking Roman Catholics will discover the (very) mixed blessing of their new translation.
The rest of us stand to lose not only the experience of sharing with them common texts, but also the ongoing outgrowth of musical fruits engendered by those texts. The liturgical music market is flooded at the moment with settings of the new Roman Catholic texts for the people’s acclamations. “Lush,” “elegant,” “powerful” and “rich” are adjectives that come to mind when sampling the audio clips of many of these settings, as posted on music publishers’ websites. From my vantage point — shaped as it is by my various ministries (present and past) as an academic liturgiologist, priest-celebrant, and sometime music director — I can only feel deeply saddened at the thought that these treasures might not continue to be shared for the common Christian good.
It would seem, however, that this need not be the final word on the matter. Under the heading “Concerning the Service of the Church” in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, one finds a rather interesting note of provision: “In any of the Proper Liturgies for Special Days, and in other services contained within this Book celebrated in the context of a Rite One service, the contemporary idiom may be conformed to traditional language” (14). This essentially pastoral proviso was framed at a time when The Episcopal Church was first moving away from “traditional language” to the “contemporary idiom,” the idea being that the then-new contemporary texts would thereby be available to congregations that wished to retain traditional (i.e., Rite I) language.
What has happened in the thirty-some years since is that Rite II, the “contemporary idiom” liturgy (including the ICEL/ICET/ELLC texts for the people’s parts) has become the practical, if not the historical or theological, norm. Along the way, the provision from “Concerning the Service” has come to be understood and applied as working both ways. Not only have the texts of Rite II have been conformed to traditional language, but in some places the texts of Rite I have been “translated” into the contemporary idiom of Rite II. Given the unforeseen cultural, liturgical and pastoral concerns of the last thirty years, I am convinced that this vice-versa approach is a fair, responsible and canonically acceptable (if not rubrically explicit) application of the principle underlying the provision. The end results are, admittedly, sometimes uneven: traditional Prayer Book English as found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer differs from its predecessors, as they each differed from one another, and there are no definite rules accepted by all for “translating” into or out of it. The best efforts not only change thou, thee and thine to you, you and your (or vice-versa), but also take into account syntactical and vocabulary differences, and respect the Formelgut or stock-phraseology of liturgical expression proper to each idiom. For example, the statement “Grant that we may hear your Word” in the contemporary idiom can become “Grant, we pray thee, that we might hear thy Word,” or “Grant us, we beseech thee, to hear thy Word,” or “Vouchsafe unto us, we beseech thee, to hear thy Word” depending on just how traditional, archaic or complex one wishes to get.
“Translation” or movement in the other direction (traditional into modern) is similarly complex, as there is no one single “modern” English idiom even in the United States. The ICEL/ICET/ELLC common texts were not an attempt to “modernize” extant English translations, whether from the Book of Common Prayer or another source; they were fresh translations from Latin and Greek antecedents, made according to a particular set of principles. Taking already-translated traditional language English texts (such as those found in Rite I) as the basis for a modern-idiom casting would yield different results than those we have known in Rite II — and this brings me to my main point: the people’s acclamations in the Roman Missal newly translated, while differing from the ICEL/ICET/ELLC common texts, bear a striking similarity to their equivalents in the Rite I liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer — so much so, in fact, that the new musical settings of these acclamations could easily be employed (in Rite II, at least) under the pastoral principle of conforming one rite’s language to that of the other.
The Hymn of Praise Gloria in Excelsis, easily the most evident point of difference in the popular acclamations between Rite I and Rite II, serves as a primary example.
1979 Book of Common Prayer
Rite I Gloria excerpt:
We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee,*
we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.
O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takes away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.
*Since the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) “worship” has been the preferred (and particularly “English”) way of translating the word adoramus or προσκυνοῦμέν in the Gloria.
Newly-translated Roman Missal
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
Certainly, there are differences between these two texts; those differences can be accounted for in the process of reconciling the traditional or literal idiom with the demands of modern English. At some points, less effort is needed: in both the new Missal and the Rite I texts, the Sanctus begins, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.” Other than the first “Hosanna in the highest” in the Missal, as contrasted with “Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High,” in Rite I, the texts are nearly the same, traditional/contemporary idiomatic differences excepted.
I want to be quite clear: I am not advocating for the adoption of the new translation of the Roman Missal in whole or substantial part by parishes, dioceses, or the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. If we are interested in texts originally produced by and for the Roman Catholic Church — as, we must admit, some provinces of the Anglican Communion are — then we would do better to follow the lead of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and look at the linguistically (and, at points, theologically) superior texts produced by ICEL in the 1990s. What I am advocating for is a continuing tradition of shared popular texts and shared musical settings; for easy access among Episcopalians to the ritual music contributed by Roman Catholic (and other churches’) composers; and for The Episcopal Church to make the best use of the liturgical provisions already in place in The Book of Common Prayer. If at some time in the future, the General Convention sees fit to adopt (or exclude) these texts on a widespread basis, so be it. Until then, we can still sing common words with a common song, in a common prayer (however fractured), continuing to make good use of the best and brightest among the musical gifts of Christians everywhere.