One Sunday in high school, we went to the Anglo-Catholic parish where my headmaster served as an assistant priest. Catechized by evangelical Episcopalians and Presbyterians, I believed that the Bible was divinely inspired by God. But I had never seen it treated as such in a physical or ritual way. Down Mr. Jarvis came, robed in damask and the smoke of incense, into the congregation to sing and kiss the Word of God. He spoke the words of the King James Bible, a language steeped in the same reverence for Scripture that the liturgy made manifest.

My thoughts drifted to that day on seeing the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to review Liturgiam Authenticam, the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2001 instruction governing translations of the Mass and sacramental rites into vernacular languages. More recently, he issued a decree giving local bishops’ conferences greater control over such translations. The conflict is partly over jurisdiction: Who should decide what is an acceptable Japanese translation of the liturgy, a committee in Japan or in Rome?

It is also a matter of aesthetics. America magazine’s Gerard O’Connell reported that some bishops’ conferences are unhappy with the instruction’s requirements, which, they claim, prescribe translations that are literal to the point of being unsatisfactory and rigid. More than that, they “do not accept that there is such a thing as ‘sacral language.’”

The aesthetic concerns raise theological ones. Fr. Michael G. Ryan, the pastor of Seattle’s Cathedral of St. James, has argued that Liturgiam Authenticam is not in the spirit of Pope Francis, who “points to the importance of simplicity, clarity, directness and adapting to ‘the language of the people in order to reach them with God’s word . . . and to share in their lives.’” Therefore, we cannot justify “using words like ‘consubstantial,’ ‘conciliation,’ ‘oblation’ or ‘regeneration.’” Moreover, Fr. Ryan charges the recent English translation with exalting “merit over mercy” and emphasizing “human weakness at the expense of human dignity.” Its “sacral vernacular” keeps God “at a majestic distance.” Anglophone episcopal conferences should take the opportunity Pope Francis has given them and revise accordingly.

If we put aside the jurisdictional issues, the questions at hand are: Is there such a thing as sacral language? Should rites use uncommon or theologically technical vocabulary? In what way should they be poetic or beautiful? And does sacral language conflict with the ability to speak God’s Word into the lives of ordinary people? The formation and ongoing use of the King James Bible help us answer all of these questions.

Liturgiam Authenticam says that translation must be comprehensible within its intended cultural context. That culture’s genius, its particular animating spirit, must be in some way part of it. But we should not be surprised if liturgical language differs from ordinary speech, because it is not ordinary speech. Hence, the document continues, liturgical translation should “facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterized by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship.”

According to these terms, sacral language unquestionably exists in English. It is the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible; it is also the language of the Douay-Rheims translation from the Vulgate, published in its entirety two years before the King James but less influential. More than any other documents, their words have shaped English language and culture. They constitute a vernacular proper to the worship of God and recognizable as such, to believers and unbelievers alike.

In the case of the Prayer Book, the language came largely from the mind of one man, Thomas Cranmer. The origin of King James was more miraculous. Committee documents are ungainly and turgid. This is no less true of ecclesiastical documents: Think of the organization of Gaudium et Spes, the proclamations of denominational bodies, and the prose of Liturgiam Authenticam. It should be impossible for committees to construct a thing of beauty, but that is what happened in the birth of the King James.

The translators split the enormous task of creating one version authorized by the Crown into a variety of committees. Rather like the guidelines of Liturgiam Authenticam, they sought to maintain great fidelity to the original text. In God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson writes that we still possess notes from a translation committee that are in Latin and Greek, the standard languages of Renaissance humanism. The translators had been immersed in the biblical text for decades and were using their learning to prepare English sentences for those who lacked their study. It was more important “to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishman would have written.”

That is a key to the King James and to sacral language as a whole: It communicates the words and truths of God. It does not sound like ordinary writing because its words are not ordinary. Hence the Jacobean translators were interested “not only in clarity and fidelity but in a grandeur of statement which colors the translation as a whole.” 

Take, for example, the Nunc Dimittis, the song Simeon sings after taking the infant Christ into his arms in the temple. In the King James, it reads: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” The text is simple, literal, and profoundly beautiful. The words embody the rest and release they represent. But they do so, Nicolson observes, with “great imperturbability, the air of irreproachable authority, which is the essence of sacred ritual. The Translators made a ceremony of the word. But the passage is also astonishingly vivid, turning those words into a tangible experience.” The authority the text conveys does not destroy its immediacy or comprehensibility.

The most important truth Nicolson and the King James translators recognize is this: Sacral language presumes that God is God, that we are not, and that we should speak to him as such. It captures the conflicts at the heart of the Christian faith, the heights of transcendence and the intimacy of indwelling. Recall that “thou” is the informal second-person form, which was used to address one’s family and intimates. Those who read the King James and pray the Prayer Book speak to God as a friend, but not in the way they speak to friends on the street. They are reminded that while God calls them friends, they remain his unworthy servants.

Of course, “thou” no longer connotes intimacy, but seems archaic and off-putting to many. Hence the many attempts to translate the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible into a more modern idiom. But these attempts usually end up removing sacral language, not updating its vocabulary and syntax for modern audiences. Here, for comparison, are three translations of Luke 1:57, from the King James, the New English Bible, and the New American Bible (the version heard in American Catholic churches):

KJV: “Now Elizabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered, and she brought forth a son.”
NEB: “Now the time came for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son.”
NAB: “When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.”

Nicolson notes that in Jacobean English, “full can mean plump, perfect, and overbrimming, and all of those meanings are here.” The NEB and NAB, by contrast, have no polyvalence. They do not proclaim; they state. They do not update the words of Scripture for a modern audience; they make them disenchanted and flat. The NAB brings to mind H. L. Mencken’s mock warning: “If [Catholic clergy] keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.”

This stylistic problem has theological causes. The emphasis in these later translations—as in the English translation of the Roman rite—is not simply on the listeners’ comprehension. It adapts texts to contemporary tastes and prejudices. The translators envision human beings not as sinners before an awesome God, but as good people who’ve messed up and need to try again—as Fr. Ryan put it, human dignity over human weakness. Or in the words of Dogma’s Cardinal Glick, “Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies; he came to help us out. He was a booster.” Since we have become more like equals with God, our language should reflect our state. Sacral language captures a tension between slave and friend. Those who seek to abandon it do so because they hope to domesticate the Christian tradition, to subject it to the authority of their own opinion, not to put themselves under its tutelage.

This is not a question of traditionalist taste or “the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar,” Nicolson observes. “The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning.” The Bible’s language should reflect the authority with which it speaks and the message it conveys. It should be comprehensible, but also call us to submission instead of coddling us with easy familiarity. This enhances its power to instruct, move, horrify, and even entertain.

Sacral language gets to the heart of modern theology: Is the Bible the authoritative Word of God, or a collection of good attempts at grasping the divine? Is our God a consuming fire who is mysteriously farther above and deeper within us than we can imagine, or is he domesticated and unthreatening, a cosmic version of a beloved dog or grandparent? Sacral language assumes the first realities, as does Christian tradition. When you desacralize the language, you lower the faith.

Catholics should pay attention to the lessons of the King James Bible. We need sacral language to help us worship God and keep from succumbing to the spiritual ills of our time. English already has a sacral language, one that should serve as a model for our translations. We can match its cadences without using words like “thou,” “cockatrice,” and “unicorn” (which the King James has nine times). Subsequent translations can improve on the current one by all means, but the laity can handle sentences with multiple clauses and rich ideas. We in the pews should be elevated by what we hear, moved to reverent worship by the language with which we pray, invited to ruminate on its depths and mysteries. Such language is not an affront to simplicity but a gift of beauty to all the faithful.

The creators of the King James Bible did not expect their countrymen to understand all of what they produced. But they left a rich feast from which any reader or hearer could have his fill. Centuries later, the Anglo-Catholic slum priests who labored mightily on behalf of the urban poor stayed true to this inspiration. They described themselves as Christian socialists relieving the victims of the capitalist age. And they saw liturgical beauty as an essential part of their ministry. The poor needed material assistance and spiritual sustenance. The slum priests spoke a sacral language, a great gift to those who needed inspiration. They did not condescend to their congregation; they enriched their people with silk vestments, frankincense, and language to match.

They are also the reason why, at sophomore year’s enchanting liturgy, I found myself in Dorchester, the working-class neighbor to Boston’s most dangerous parts. One Sunday an older woman, probably from Cape Verde or the Azores, slowly made her way to the lectern to read from Isaiah. She wore a wide-brimmed black hat and spoke with an authority I have never forgotten. The fact that her words were centuries old did not bother her. She embodied their majesty: “Thus saith the Lord.”  

Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.

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