Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Elevated diction. . .

If you are like me and are glued to the telley for every unfolding episode of Downton Abbey, you undoubtedly noticed that the final season is sloughing off the remains of the formal era of living, eating, drinking, and dying as if it were a moth eaten old waistcoat.  They got a wireless to listen to the King and then everything else seemed to go downhill... a daughter married the chauffeur, another daughter had a child out of wedlock, and another daughter is a snob with a raucous past of lovers dying in her bed and suitors being tried out as lovers before husbands...  well, you know.  The problem is not that these things occurred -- of course they did back then as they do now.  But they are almost becoming a thing to celebrate while the decorum and diction of a more polite era are treated as the real scandals and offense.

A whole column could be written by Julian Fellowes' efforts to divorce faith from the series (when everyone who is anyone knows that in reality it was imbued into every aspect of life.  But I will forego that point for the time being as I relish the last tidbits of the series that has grown into something of an obsession for me and the other anglophile in my household.

There was a time when how you said something mattered as well as what you said.  Some have described it as an era of politeness and formality.  In reality it was never merely about being polite or being formal.  It proceeded from the idea that there actually such things as elevated ideas and elevated ways of speaking about them. It was not a perfect time, to be sure, but one idea that is worthy of our consideration today is the idea that somethings deserve more than common and vulgar speech but well crafted words that fully use the resources of language to address God.  Such elevated diction is no less authentic to us than the common and even base words that proceed from our mouths and represent a more thoughtful approach to the things of God.

Thomas Cranmer certainly set the high standard for elevated diction.  His collects remain as the gold standard of prayer in English.  We hold the King James in high esteem more so for its elevated diction than for it ease of understanding and so it continues to garner a significant piece of the Bible book market while other translations offer a more obvious version of the Scriptures in English.  We continue to sing the hymns whose words are not only timeless but compact into the few words of careful poetry the riches of the images and truths we sing.

My point is simply this.  We have tried to be common and ordinary, relevant and contemporary, vulgar and base and none of these has done much to improve the state of worship, prayer, hymn, or preaching.  Maybe it is high time we thought about elevated diction, about the fuller use of language that requires us to spend at least as much effort in mastering its craft as we do sensing the pulse of the moment.  Maybe it is time we recalled the sound of a well crafted collect or a King James Psalm or a timeless hymn and gave it one more chance.

As I entered adulthood, liturgy was a trial balloon, when liturgical songs were bound in newsprint without the expectation that they would last, when we listened as much to what people sounded like in pubs and bowling alleys and such as much as we listened to the language of the prayer books, hymnals, and Bibles of old.  It evolved into throw away items never meant for more than a generation or a moment.  Now we have borrowed the sounds and ambiance of our culture to the point where many churches no longer have any real tradition to pass on.  In the midst of all of this, the elevated diction of the past calls us to reconsider what we too quickly cast aside.  Sound bite politics has given way to sound bite religion and sound bite worship and I am not convinced that it has born any good fruit at all in any of the arenas where sound bites have come to dominate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters has mentioned Cranmer's Collects as the gold standard for English prayer, and this is true. It is also true, however, that the content of those Collects, the ideas, in most cases did not originate with Cranmer. While some of them are his original compositions, many are in fact his translations from much older Latin sources. In the latter case, his contribution was simply an great understanding and appreciation for the use of elegant and elevated English to express those ideas.

One other item that may be of interest is in regard to the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer. For the BCP 1928 and older, these are not the KJV Psalms; they cannot be because the first BCP was in 1549 and the KJV did not come along until 1611. No, the BCP Psalms are those from Coverdale's translation of about 1425. While they are similar, there are also distinct differences that will be noted in a flash by someone familiar with the KJV Psalms.

One of the unusual things that appears a number of places in the BCP is the use of the word "prevent," such as in the phrase "may thy grace prevent and follow us." Prevent comes from the Latin pre venio, to go before. So the phrase just mentioned means, "may thy grace precede and follow us." On any Sunday when this occurs in the service, I always make a point to mention it so that we may no lose the richness of our language.

Continuing Anglican Priest