A rant

Two things I miss from my Anglican days: the King James Version, and the Book of Common Prayer. My friends who remained Anglican also miss them, for both have been removed from church services by the Anglican bureaucracy. As the priest who received me into the Roman Church said, Anglicans make ideal converts. We already know at first hand what happens when liturgical, scriptural, and other received norms are “progressively” abandoned: the church itself disintegrates. Thus no one need hold our hands when we discover e.g. Roman bishops much like the cowardly, patronizing Anglican ones we left behind. We are ready to face them.

The deliquescence is everywhere; why would it not be here, in the Catholic Church, too? All the once-familiar markers of Christian teaching and prayer are in the process of demolition, by revolutionary forces within each denomination; and those who long for consistent order are denounced for “nostalgia.”

As we are reminded in daily mutterings from Rome, the Swinging Sixties aren’t over. The swinging balls are still crashing through the ancient glass, and the sacrifices are still being made: of manners, dress, comportment, modesty, custom, courtesy, propriety, decorum, form, taste, decency, reasoned argument, logical consistency, &c. Parousia may now be interpreted as, “let it all hang out.”

But returning to my topic, it was the beauty and poetry, the precision of phrase in the named works that appealed to me. Stable, as they had been for so many generations, and breathing elevation, it was possible to memorize extensive passages; to absorb something timeless, in its nature and in its aspirations. Almost every phrase in KJV and BCP could be read and prayed as catholic. One was drawn out of oneself; lifted. One learnt the language with the gestures, and in the dance of tradition, did not have to think where to step. For the dancer who must think is always stepping on one’s toes.

The (characteristically glib and fatuous) argument of the progressives was that the KJV translation had, in the course of three or four centuries, gone out of date. Many words had changed in meaning. (A good example is “temptation,” as in the Lord’s Prayer. It meant a testing then, as Jesus in the desert; it means a chocolate cake now.) And scholarship was marching. New manuscripts, fragments and palimpsests continued to emerge from obscure monastic archives and the sands of Egypt.

I once had on my shelves the massive Variorum Teacher’s Edition of the Holy Bible, edited by Cheyne, Clarke, Driver, Goodwin, Sanday — all once names to reckon with — anno Domini 1881. It contained the text of the King James, unrevised. But it also contained extensive notes, alternative readings, explanatory essays and other materials to help even the reader without Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or any dialect of Syriac, to see into the text. Books like Frederic Kenyon’s Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1895) keyed into this Variorum. That book I still have, and although it is now more than a century past its “sell-by,” it continues to offer a foundation on which an intelligent, independent reader may build an understanding of all the genuine advances in biblical scholarship, since — decidedly better than any later introduction I know of.

In my former life, when I entertained grand schemes, I dreamt of publishing a multi-volume revision of that Variorum, with the latest scholarship, but attached to the same old, resonant King James text. (This project could as well have been mounted on the explicitly Roman, and similarly magnificent, Douay-Rheims.)

There are now, in print, more than one hundred alternative English translations of the Bible, and the reader who buys, say, the top twenty, to compare them, is wasting time. He could actually save time by mastering the original languages. I rather think it was the Devil’s idea, to undermine the simple Christian’s confidence in Scripture by means of multiple translations, and innumerable petty and irrelevant distractions.

The New English Bible’s first volume, a translation into “modern idiom” of the New Testament, was published in 1961. It is dated now in a way the KJV will never be, and has in fact been succeeded by the many other “improved” — and desperately flawed — ever more “modern” editions, including those which intentionally misrepresent the original texts to keep up with the latest “gender” abominations. Yet even when it first appeared, T. S. Eliot could say that the new translation “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic.”

That criticism holds, so far as I can see, for every modern-language “update” of scripture and liturgy. The hard truth is that the medium of contemporary language is incapable of conveying the substance we require.

Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.