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Hallo again to all.

A recent Collect included the phrase 'those ineffable joys', ineffable being, the preacher admitted, not a word that he used often in daily conversation. (Nor do most of us, we suspect.) Ineffable -- from the Latin word meaning 'impossible to describe, transcending expression' -- is one of a number of unusual words still found in odd corners of Anglican liturgy. We delight when one makes its way into our ears. Why? Probably because such words are not, in fact, heard in daily conversation, read in the newspapers, or escaping the barrier of the teeth of television presenters.

Fata Morgana (Derby Hill Theme, Summer)
Pavel Tchelitchew

In the periodic efforts to modernise liturgy, ineffable and its ilk are often the first victims. We understand the reasons and rationale for taking a hard look at the language of our public prayers and praises every several decades. After time, there are words and phrases whose meaning has become nearly opaque, even to the theologically literate or classically trained. There is language that to 'insiders' can be comforting and familiar, but to those on the threshold of our church can be off-putting or intimidating. In the good and worthy efforts behind our prayer book revisions, we wonder if the striving to be understandable has occasionally reduced the 'godde of hiegh pitee inmense and ineffable'* to Someone understandable, circumscribed, and neatly boxed in. If it is tempting to render liturgy in the words we might use with our neighbour in an over-the-garden-wall chat, what have we gained -- and what have we lost? We venture to say that much is lost in eschewing words that, every now and then, might possibly require the use of a dictionary.

In addition to word choice, earlier writers (we are focussing at present on the English language) had a gift that we have nearly lost for the rhythm of the spoken word. With few exceptions, we find that wanting in modern liturgy. Most of us have something of an innate sense of the rhythm of words, whether from lullabies, nursery rhymes, or children's counting games (eeny meeny miny mo) and it's generally found that words set to some rhythm or chant are easiest to memorise. But modernised collects, psalms, and prayers often sound to us rhythmically dull or bumpy, a result, no doubt, of committee politics, group editing, undue adherence to the original language, time constraints -- or any of the sublunary forces that affect committees from time to time.

Certainly there have been great scholars, theologians, and liturgists on our prayer book revision committees. But have we routinely invited poets? Masters of prose? Deft and graceful essayists? We recall the story that WH Auden served on a committee labouring to parturiate what eventually became the ECUSA Book of Common Prayer (1979). It was, for him, a purgatorial assignment. He stayed on the committee, but nearly lost his faith. Perhaps it's a risk that poets -- should we invite them -- might be willing to essay.

It's easy to seem curmudgeonly or unduly precious when cautioning against the unthinking embrace of 'modern' language. We don't want to be either. We hold a brief for the good, the true, and the beautiful in language (as well as in life). 'Modern' words can easily be such. We'd like to see revised liturgies that manage to be clear, rhythmic, graceful, moving -- and mysterious, where mystery is appropriate. We're all for including words like winsome, mirth, and fey, and for matching every liturgist on a committee with a poet. We're for eschewing literal translations, where the letter of the translation trumps the spirit of the words. And we'll take

Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well


Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs

any day. Quam dilecta!

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 14 November 2004

*Mirour Saluacioun, circa 1450; the first known citation for ineffable.

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