English a Protestant Language?

At the very end of the Rose Dinner, the yearly banquet in conjunction with the National March for Life here in Ottawa, I briefly participated in a conversation in which a former Anglican who had converted about seven or eight years ago and now attends a Traditional Latin Mass regularly, said something to the effect that English is a Protestant language.

He said that just as the Reformation was taking place, the English of Cranmer — he probably added the he was a heretic or he didn't need to as it would be assumed — had something to do with the gelling or establishment of the English language in a consistent form — some kind of standardizing perhaps? — and that somehow made the language  inherently Protestant.  There is no way for English to express the concept of Transubstantiation, he said.

Jeeesh!  It had been a looooooong day and most of it I was on my feet walking and lugging my camera around, so I quickly exited, hoping and praying that after seven years as a Catholic I am not like this, seeing everything as either Catholic or Protestant anything with the least taint of the latter is irredeemably bad.  Now, in my crabbiness, I might certainly be unfairly judging my friend, because I didn't stick around for the extended commentary.

If I weren't so tired I would have said that English is very good at saying whatever it needs to say, even if it has to rob another language to say it.  Esprit de corps, Schadenfreude, running amok, are some examples that come to mind.  As for Transubstantiation, how about Real Presence?  Captures the mystery of what happens in reality without one's having to get an explanation of Aristotle's substance and accident.  And looks like in the word Transubstantiation, English robbed Latin, no?

And I recall from some conversations during this whole Ordinariate roll-out hearing that many Anglo-Papalists threw out the Prayer Book because of that dastardly Cranmer, that horrible Protestant.  Can't even say a syllable by the man, so let's opt for the modern translation!  Doesn't matter if it has a tin ear for music and is a dynamic equivalent translation that isn't really true to the Latin or Greek, let's shun Cranmer like he's got Protestant cooties that will cause heretic disease if you catch them.

Thankfully that attitude seems to be changing.   Here's an excerpt of an article in the Catholic Herald that talks about the renovation of Cranmer:

Evensong’s beauties are the work of Coverdale and Cranmer, two men who led the revolt against the unity of the Church, and overthrew the great work of time, the historic faith of this country. Cranmer’s liturgical reforms were not reforms in any true sense, they were a wrecking of the monastic offices and their replacement with something superficially like yet utterly alien. The Cranmerian Prayer Book provoked rebellions in England, let us remember. The West Country rebels of 1549 protested that they found the Cranmerian service that replaced the Mass no more than “a Christmas game” . The Northern Rebels who entered Durham in 1569 tore up the Prayer Book and had the Mass celebrated in the Cathedral once more. In 1596 one of my collateral ancestors, the Blessed George Errington, was hanged, drawn and quartered at York, along with three others martyrs, because of his Catholic faith, a faith he and many others simply could not recognise in the Cranmerian Prayer Book.

Thus the experience of Cranmerian English leaves me feeling conflicted. I love it and I hate it, and I feel I ought to love it, as it is so beautiful, and because it has inspired so many of our great poets, not least among whom is T.S. Eliot.

That’s why I am profoundly pleased by something that happened earlier that day in London. I attended a meeting about the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, at which Mgr Burnham, the assistant to the Ordinary, told the assembled guests that a Customary is in preparation.  This is essentially what we might call an office book, with various readings drawn from the English spiritual tradition, such as Newman’s writings from his Anglican days; but it also draws on those fine psalms and prayers used by Cranmer, with some doctrinal alterations. Mgr Burnham also spoke of the growing popularity of Evensong and Benediction amidst Ordinariate congregations.

What this Customary will do, it seems to me, is posthumously reCatholicise Cranmer and reclaim him for our tradition; it will make the Cranmerian liturgy, which I find a cause of division and conflict, into something that will bring about unity. It will mean that from now on, I need not find Evensong alien. Perhaps Dr Cranmer himself would approve. I hope so! It certainly promotes the healing of a cultural and religious wound.

The Ordinariate, which I greatly welcome, is already enriching us in many ways. Long may it continue to grow and flourish.

* * *

Amen!  And eventually the Catholic Church did come around to translating the Mass into the vernacular, though centuries later.

The original English translation was done by men who, even if they were heretics, knew their Latin, knew their Greek, knew their English, knew that texts needed to be metered to be sung or chanted, and that they had to be easy on the ear so they could be more easily committed to memory.

I hope the King James Version is next to get Catholicized.

As a journalist who covers the Catholic Church, among the places I see the most life and vibrancy are those that have re-incorporated Protestant zeal — for the Bible, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit via the charismatic renewal — into the Church.  When brought back into the fullness of the faith, these gifts that gained traction in the evangelical or charismatic world illuminate aspects of the faith that were always there but were neglected by modernism, formalism, post-Vatican II trendiness or whatever.  Yes, the Traditional Latin Mass Catholic are often horrified by this stuff, but then I'm kind of horrified by their horror.  While I respect TLM folks and the desire to keep alive tradition in the Church, I am not a traditionalist.  I almost don't dare go now to a TLM in case I become one. (Just kidding.  I will go and probably enjoy it.)

Author: Deborah Gyapong

Deborah Gyapong is a member of the Sodality of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (www.annunciationofthebvm.org) in Ottawa, a former parish of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada (Traditional Anglican Communion) whose members were received individually and corporately into the Roman Catholic Church on April 15, 2012 by Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast at St. Patrick’s Basilica. Under the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, the community will celebrate an approved Anglican Use liturgy and hopes to soon join with other sodalities across Canada to form the Canadian Deanery of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter under Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, Ordinary. As we wait for our priest(s) to be ordained as Catholic priests, God willing, Archbishop Prendergast will provide priests to celebrate our Sunday Eucharist according to the Anglican Use. Deborah is a journalist who covers religion and politics in Canada’s national capital, writing primarily for Roman Catholic newspapers since 2004. Her novel The Defilers, published in 2006, was not a best seller, alas. She spent 17 years at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in news and current affairs, including 12 years as a television producer.

14 thoughts on “English a Protestant Language?”

  1. "I hope the King James Version is next to get Catholicized."
    Amen! And "recatholicising" need only consist of allowing it to be used. To say we can bring elements of our patrimony, and then leave us to wait to be told what our patrimony is, is infantilizing. The Authorized Version is, with BCP, one of the very first things we should list as patrimonial. Anybody who says we can't use it should be disregarded.
    And as for "protestant": the ordinariates ought to be the means of incorporating, or reincorporating, the good aspects of protestantism into the Catholic church.

    1. "Anybody who says we can't use it should be disregarded."
      So, if the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments says no… ?

  2. Shakespeare is considered as many as crypto Catholic… Robert Southwell is a Catholic Jesuit martyr among others who wrote splendid prose and poetry during the flowering of the English Language during Elizabeth I's reign. Can a language be Protestant without withering it? Languages are a patrimony of all not just by one religious tradition and thus language lives.

    English can capture "transubstantiation" quite well as "True Presence" but the Latin made latinate in English is almost never poetic. This is where Thomas Cranmer the heretic achieved the miraculous. The Book of Common Prayer is latinate and yet so English. No one ever has equalled Cranmer's effort, not ICEL or the droll translations offered by the Catholic Latin traditionalists.

  3. Written English went through its formative period in the fifteenth century and especially in the 1420s and 1430s. This is a very long story but standardisation was not, as is popularly thought a product of the printing press, introduced by the 1470s.

    England was also largely Catholic in spirit to the end of the sixteenth century. It is absurd to suggest that it is a 'Protestant' language. Also, the editor of the King James Bible was Catholic, and so, in all probablility was Shakespeare. It is true that both faiths had a profound effect on forms in the language. I don' t suppose we can say more than that.


  4. Deborah, IMO this is one of your best and clearest pieces. Thank you for a challenging concept and your robust appreciation of the enrichment of the Catholic tradition when re-invigorated by some themes from the Protestant historical tradition.

  5. The problem with the Authorised Version of the Bible is that it has hardly been read in public in Anglican churches for many years. It largely been replaced by the Revised Standar Verions which is not only a more accurate translation but has much sonority. But surely true Anglican patrimony should include the New English Bible? However, with the disappearance of Matins and Evensong from regular Sunday worship none of these versions are heard in public very often. One of the many ironies of the Ordinariate is that it is being encouraged to revive long-abandoned Anglican practicies which have little meaning for the lay members..

  6. By coincidence, over on Father Stephen Smut's blog there was some discussion of the SSPX schism and I had just posted something which may have some relevance to the debate on language.

    One of my meories of Vatican II is that of two Irish clerics who came up from the Apostolic Delegation to deliver to an Iraqi friend of mine an invitation to attend the Council as an observer. They spend much time over tea expressing the view that it was not a good idea to celebrate Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin – the ancient language of the Church. My friend pointed out that in his rite (Chaldean), the Aramaic language was still used and that since this was the language used by Our Lord, perhahps Aramaic should be a compulsory subject at Maynooth and other seminaries in the West.

    I love the Latin Mass because it was the Mass of my youth. But I was an alterboy in a church where priests of many different nationalities celebrated and we allterboys were quick to pick up on how different the same words sounded when said by a Italian as opposed to a German, or a Spaniard both by reason of different pronunciation and different cadences and I remember that we used to enjoy naughtily imitating the different fathers. We Angli were not Angeli.

    Of course the English language can express thought beautifully and it can be used in quite another way as anyone who has to wrestle on a regular basis with Eurobabble from Brussels can readily testify. I have to say that some modern liturgical English does rather resemble Eurobabble and I do sometimes wonder whether part of the problem is that the texts are often drafted by committees.

    I have high hopes for the the forthcoming Customary. The idenity of the two editors justifies that hope – but the definitive texts will go to the Interdicasterial wqorking group process and be scrutinsed and tinkered with and I do so hope that what we finally get will not be more homogenised Eurobabble.

  7. I think the Ordinariate has already made a good move in selecting and getting approval to use the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition) for liturgical use. I agree that it is probably the best combination of translational accuracy with respect for the beauty and elegance of the Authorized Version tradition, and fortunately completed in mid-century before political correctness and gender neutral language unduly affected Biblical translation.

    Another alternative for those who miss the more Elizabethan English register would be also to allow the Ordinariate to use the Douay-Rheims version. The language of the Douay-Rheims is in many places very close to the AV / KJV, largely a result of Bishop Challoner's 18th century revision of earlier, more latinate versions of the Douay-Rheims to reflect the rich and more familiar English of the AV / KJV.

    So in a sense, there are two authorized English translations of scripture – the RSV and Douay-Rheims – which have already been deeply influenced by the AV / KJV tradition. To create and win ecclesiastical approval for a Catholic Edition of the Authorized Version would be a large and difficult undertaking with an audience limited to that small number of English-speaking Catholics who want a more dignified translation of Scripture but feel that neither the RSV or Douay will do the job (or the Confraternity Version, which is sort of the RSV of the Douay tradition).

  8. A number of priests that celebrate the Latin Mass tend to use the Douai when reading the Epistle and Gospel in English before preaching the sermon. I am somewhat surprised that the Douai wasn't approved for the Pastoral Provision and the Ordinariate. An oversight, perhaps?

  9. Something I thought of this morning, in response to those who would say that Cranmer's legacy has shaped English into a "Protestant" language, is that the religious heritage of Latin is hardly any better! Modern English at the very least developed in a Christian context, and many of the landmarks in its development — Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc. — were Catholic in nature as well. Latin, conversely, was fully developed as a language long before the Western Church appropriated it — and the context in which it arose was thoroughly pagan! Even after coming to be used largely as an ecclesiastical language, its overall grammatical structure and vocabulary did not change greatly; why ever then should a tongue so heathen in origin be more suited to the task of adequately expressing weighty sacramental concepts than Modern English?

  10. Latin used to be the lingua franca. That's how it became the standard language of the CC. Latin was never a divine language given from on high; it was simply the closest thing to a universal language and that matched up with the closest thing to a universal church.

    But Latin is now a dead language. English is the closest thing to a universal language, already surpassing what Latin did and rushing headlong to levels of linguistic commonality never before seen.

    The Catholic Church still likes to see itself as Christianity's best chance at having a universal church. Shall we connect the dots? The CC didn't fall in love with Latin overnight- it did take centuries. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before it connects the dots one more time.

  11. Neither German nor English is a Protestant language, although Martin Luther played a more decisive role than Cranmer in standardizing his vernacular language and beautiful Psalms ans Chorals. And now there is talk to create within some months an Evangelisch-Katholisch Ordinariatus, which cetainly retain the wole Lutheran linguistic and musical heritage as well asits pietism, and its strict morality. There ara indeed quite a number of North Germen and Scandinavian Lutherans which cannot bear their proud sodomy-friendly leaders!

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