Straining at gnats: on liturgy and language

A recent post here on the Missal, focusing on another clerical blogger using a forum with apparent ecclesiastical status, criticised in it the translation, by way of example, of the collect for the second Sunday of Lent, which begins “O God, who have commanded us…”. He and his language-savvy friends were aghast, with one exclaiming that the text had not been proof-read, and that this was a grammatical error. The blogger took me to task in the comments box for opposing him, as he is free to do, but never really dealt with my issue: that the grammar in the Missal is actually correct. Indeed, in the last of his many comments he persists in claiming that the faithful will continue to labour under “the (mis) understanding that we pray to God in the plural.”

The identity of the blogger is not important, but some issues arising from his posts do deserve attention early on lest they develop a life of their own.

First, the collect itself. The prayer is addressing God, talking to God as “you” – this is the vocative case, usually signified in English by use of “O”, thus “O God”; and employing the second person form of the verb. The prayer then goes on to remind God what he has done – “you have”, as it were. So the verb must agree with “God”. And it does – “O God, who have…”. Let’s be clear about this. The verb to have, in the present tense, has only two variants – “have” and “has”. “Has” is used only for the third person in the singular, “she has” for instance. In all 5 other possibilities it uses “have” – “I have”, “you (singular) have”, “we have”, “you (plural) have”, “they have”.

So when you see “have” there could be several possibilities. We can determine which is the correct one by looking, in this case, just before it, “O God, who have commanded…”. The “who” doing the commanding is God, to whom we are talking, so the second person must be used, and in both singular and plural this would be “have”. Now my interlocutor seems to think that most will opt for the plural understanding, even though we are clearly saying “O God”, not “O Gods”. The meaning is quite clear if we will but look.

Now if, as my interlocutor claims, most people do in fact read this as a plural (and I doubt it, but let’s run with it) then we have two remedies possible. Either we dumb down our language to suit the lowest common denominator among our audience vis a vis their level of grammatical knowledge, or we can teach them the grammar involved.

One could argue that another construction could have been used in this translation, and indeed there are several ways of translating the original Latin into English. However, we would then be into the realm of taste and personal preference. As to grammatical correctness, the construction employed by the Missal is correct. End of story. It is the option that has been chosen, and so it is the one we must explain to any who do not understand it. Some priests seem to prefer consoling the people who do not understand by saying that it is poor English, archaic, inelegant, too formal and the like. This seems a betrayal of their duty to serve the Church and not themselves. There is a time and place for cleric’s personal opinions, but not usually in forums carrying the approbation (real or implied) of the Church. There, the servants of the Church should explain the Church’s teachings or decisions and so promote the understanding and peace of mind of the faithful.

Of course, sometimes it is easier to be the rebel, appoint oneself a prophet and claim to know better than the Church. Certain people will love it, as it suits their temper or prejudice. But an opportunity for real growth in the Church will have been lost. Moreover, if the many experts and bishops involved in the process of translation have chosen this construction, quite frankly, who am I to gainsay their decision? They made a choice for a register of language that suited the formal nature of the Church’s liturgy. The mania in many places for cosy, home-made, smorgasbord liturgies is modern and has no warrant in either the history or the rubrics of the liturgy. The liturgy is not ours to change as we will; it is the Church’s liturgy which we enact in our local communities for our own benefit as well as that of all the Church.

My interlocutor dared me to find a similar construction outside the realm of liturgy. In doing so he missed the real point. This choice is precisely for the liturgy, so a non-liturgical or secular example is irrelevant. Again, it is a matter of taste not of grammar. The bishops have opted for a grammatical register that reinforces the formality of the liturgy, an elevated tone used to address the Most High God in formal worship. We can address God in cosier terms in our private prayer, wherein it would be quite fitting at times to adopt a more familiar tone with Him. Liturgy and private or personal prayer are not the same thing. Occasionally they can meet: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name… (which looks suspiciously like the construction complained of in the new Missal!)

ImageAnother issue which emerges here into the light, and which extends beyond the relatively narrow confines of the liturgy, is the state of the English language in general. Our language has been dumbed down. Mobile phone text-speak, media-mutilations of words to suit advertising campaigns and the like, the television 10-second soundbite, and other forces, have stripped away the depth and complexity of our language. The English of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Hopkins, Newman, Monsignor Knox, Chesterton and the many other great writers has been all too often reduced to a series of simple, one-clause sentences. The demands of political correctness have forced on us the absurdity of such horrors as “if a person would like a copy, they should come to the office”, a grammatical atrocity.

It would be interesting to see a study on the correlation between the level of a person’s language skills and his (or her) powers of reasoning, thought and comprehension. It would be no surprise if we were to find that with less ability both to use and to understand complex language, there is a corresponding lack of ability to comprehend complex ideas or arguments. As our language dumbs down, perhaps also our thinking dumbs down. This might explain why so many people get their information from quick-fire sources such as tabloids and internet news sites. They have little attention span for more, and their brains have become used to a diet of easily digestible and insubstantial crumbs of information and argument.

There is no need for our liturgy to reflect this decay in the English language. Indeed it should sit somewhat above the fads, fashions and decayings of the vernacular as far as possible, lest it become their victim. Our worship should be a constant, a rock of security in the midst of a too-quickly (and often too-fruitlessly) changing world.

Whether it suits our taste or not, the bishops have made their choice in the language of the new Missal. We can either get on with drinking deeply from its riches, and helping others to do so, even if this means a grammar lesson or two; or we can white-ant the Church’s enterprise, putting our preferences first. In the latter case we might find ourselves on the wrong side of our Lord’s judgement, “whoever is not for me, is against me” (Luke 11:23).

8 thoughts on “Straining at gnats: on liturgy and language

  1. “Oh God, who have . . .” is grammatically correct, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good English. After all, “Oh God, who hast . . .” would also be grammatically correct, wouldn’t it? But the archaic second person singular is eschewed in liturgical English because it’s no longer used in current idiomatic English. Surely the same applies to “Oh God, who have . . .”? If you need to explain to even a minority of readers of ordinary educational attainment why “have” is grammatically correct here, that in itself is pretty strong evidence that it’s not idiomatically good.

    This was tackled 50 years ago by the Anglicans. The BCP is full of “Oh God, who hast . . .” constructions. Rendering them in revised prayer books as “Oh God, who have . . .” was found to be confusing. “Hast” may be archaic, but at least it is uniquely used for the second person singular. “Have” is not, and using it in this context elicited precisely the reaction that you report from New Zealand; people didn’t identify it as the second person singular, because they didn’t expect to find the second person singular in that relative clause because, although grammatically English speakers [i]could[/i] use the second person singular in a relative clause in that context, idiomatically they [i]don’t[/i].

    There are two ways to avoid the problem. First, grammar be damned, and use the third person – “Oh God, who has . . .”. This is common, instantly understood and idiomatically correct. Grammatically, you can label it an anomaly or an exception, according to taste.

    Second, you can restructure your sentence to include the second person pronoun – “Oh God, you who have . . .” The “you” there is arguably redundant, but it agrees with the “have” and therefore explains why it is “have” and not the idiomatically-expected “has”. (This, incidentally, is the approach taken in the ESV, e.g. in Ps 27:9.)


    1. Salve.

      Thanks for your contribution. I accept all that you say, to a point. I am not denying that there are more idiomatically familiar ways of rendering the construction, and somewhere (I am losing track!), either in a post or a comment, I state as much. My point is that the register of language used in a prayer addressed formally to God on behalf of the whole Church is rightly more elevated. That people need to think twice about a prayer due to the unfamiliarity of its construction is, for me, no bad thing. They might take on board a lot more of what the prayer is actually asking, rather than letting it slide in one ear and out the other, as so often happens when something is too familiar. As it happens, no parishioner here has yet complained that the prayers are incomprehensible to them. People cope far better with it than some might think. A lot, I suspect, depends on the priest’s execution of the prayer. If he does not understand it, if he has not prepared it, then it will show when he recites it.

      The ESV, as you say, has adopted another course, and I like it. But a Bible for personal use is not the same as a prayer for formal liturgical use. The Bible addresses the reader; the prayer addresses God, not the congregation, so its comprehension is not the primary motivation. Of course, it should not be beyond their possible comprehension either. My experience without Sunday congregation is that it is not. Last Sunday I sang the proper of the Mass, and the texts worked perfectly. Maybe that is something for reflection: the texts are geared to singing.

      As to your options, your first is impossible as it would entail a nonsense: we cannot address God in the third person. Your second is certainly valid. But maybe there is also a third option, ie getting rid of the auxiliary verb “have” entirely in the perfect construction, leaving us with “O God, who commanded…”. But it is all rather academic at the end of the day. Time will tell; we have only had the Missal a few months.



  2. This is a fascinating subject, and a discusion about the new translation, though academic, is useful in that it shows how far people have lost touch with the rules of grammar of their own language.

    In the earlier post, a commenter asked for an example of non liturgical use of the vocative singular + “who have” without the “you”. The only example I could think of was from a book. It was a manservant addressing his master, a titled gentleman. In fact, it was Bunter addressing Lord Peter Wimsey (in, I think, the 1930s). Had I quoted it, not only might I have been in breach of copyright (!), but also I would no doubt have been told that it was, if not archaic, very old fashioned English. Well, that’s my point, actually. Bunter was quite consciously being very correct, without being archaic, in adressing his master. His grammar is formal, hieratic, and sounds unfamiliar to those of us used to more idiomatic ( and grammatically incorrect) English. But Bunter, the impeccably correct manservant, is not going to address his lordship in idiomatic language.

    Well, God is more important than Lord Peter Wimsey, so when we address him in prayer, that is to say, in the formal, structured language of the liturgy, shouldn’t we follow Bunter’s example in using correct grammar ? It really wouldn’t do to use incorrect grammar or idiomatic language in the formal prayers of the Church. And if archaisms are to be eschewed, (O God, who hast ..etc.,) it does not follow that we have to use incorrect or idiomatic language. If grammatically correct language sounds wrong, then it is (presumably) because we have lost touch with correct grammar. If that is so, then the only thing to do is relearn it.

    As to using idiomatic language in everyday conversation, well, we all do that, don’t we ? Who is there ? We all reply : ” It’s me.” We know that grammatically we should say : “It is I.” (Well, I hope we all know this.)

    But isn’t that the point ? Everyday idiomatic language with its sloppy grammar doesn’t belong in the formal prayer of the Church.

    Or does it ? From the comments on the previous post, at least some people think it does Well, I don’t agree with them !

    With apologies to Fr. Hugh for another long meander. I promise to stop it immediately.

    Pax et bonum



    1. Salve Petrus,

      Really, you can meander verbally here as long as you want.

      Well, points to you for remembering a non-liturgical vocative + who have. You could have quoted with safety from Lord Peter Wimsey as one little quote does not breach copyright, and I am not entirely sure who would have the copyright after all this time. The 50 years must surely be up.

      It gladdens me that at least one other person can see the need not to change the words but re-educate the hearers. As you say, the liturgy is no place for grammatically incorrect English – is that the best we can do for God (who is, as you say, somewhat greater than my Lord Wimsey)?

      As I hinted before, I am glad for the unfamiliarity of the English in some respects. It grabs attention, forces the hearer to grapple with it and engage with it, which strikes me as only just if we expect God to engage with it too. These prayers are condensed nuggets of spiritual theology that we can all take time to savour and digest fully to our profit. The problem with the previous Missal was that the theology had been neutered, or even replaced with banalities, trite truisms and motherhood statements.

      So if struggling a little with the text brings one to come to understand and appreciate the spiritual theology of the prayers, then I can only say “Bravo” to the new Missal for that reason alone.

      Pax semper!


  3. I certainly agree with the desirability of re-educating the hearers. How many times have we heard the cry “But the children won’t understand!” – often concerning the use of hymns using words of more than one syllable. My response is to point out that when I was born I understood no words but I gradually learnt to speak, read and write English. In my state junior school we sang

    ‘ O measureless Might,
    Ineffable Love. . .

    (verse 6 of ‘O worship the King’)

    Pretty heavy stuff for a seven-year old but the sense was obvious, whilst the exact meaning dawned on us gradually over the years.

    If babies are only ever fed pap how will they ever manage hog roast and all the trimmings?

    Happy Feast Day!


    1. Thanks for your contribution. You seem to get exactly what I am on about. For a start, you , like most children, can grasp the beauty of words if not always their meaning at first. The modern mania for knowing everything instantly is unrealistic. Do we ever totally understand complex concepts instantly? I doubt it. We get an initial appreciation or even intuition, then over time and continued exposure, we comprehend more and more, enriched each time we advance a little further.

      In other words, language, spirituality, theology, maturity and the like are things we grow into. They are so important that this is the only way. A huge problem with the previous Missal was that its paraphrases of the original prayers were so trite that there was sometimes nothing to comprehend. They became stale from the outset, and taught us nothing as they simultaneously asked God for almost nothing. It is a harsh criticism but the more I look back over the old Missal the more convinced I am that we were done a great disservice with it.

      Now, people who have got used to the “pap”, object when the meat is served. You got that spot on. It is time for the anglophone Church to grow up a little more, and leave behind tantrums and dummy-spittings. We’re ready!

      A happy feast to you! Pax.


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