Newman on Revising Liturgical Language


In light of the fact that we’re drawing near to the implementation of the Roman Missal, I found this little nugget from Newman’s Anglican phase interesting.  Apparently, a general enthusiasm arose in the 1820s to revise the Book of Common Prayer.  Newman, however, demurred.  Always the pastor, he resisted any measure that, in an age of ‘liberalism’, would diminish popular attachment to the Church of England.  As he saw it, moreover, the chief ‘influence’ that the Church of England exerted ‘in the hearts of her people’ came

by a reverential attachment to those prayers which they have heard from childhood and have been their solace often in their most trying seasons, and have shed a grace on the high solemnities of marriages and births.—Should we not dread disturbing this feeling? (Letters and Diaries, ii, 191).

The quote, of course, can’t really be used to score any points in contemporary liturgical debates.  It argues as much against the change to the vernacular as against the change within the vernacular.  Still, I think Newman is on to something about the true seat of religious influence.  We might at least piously hope that the imminent transition to the Roman Missal will be the last of its kind for many years.


3 Responses to Newman on Revising Liturgical Language

  1. How’s your Latin these days….

  2. Br. Charles Shonk, O.P. says:

    Thanks very much for this quote from Newman. You may be aware that he treats this topic in greater depth in one of his (Anglican) sermons, “Ceremonies of the Church,” which (I think) should be required reading for every liturgist. A pertinent paragraph:

    “Even so, no one can really respect religion, and insult its forms. Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened them, that to destroy them is, in respect to the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself. In most minds usage has so identified them with the notion of religion, that the one cannot be extirpated without the other. Their faith will not bear transplanting. Till we have given some attention to the peculiarities of human nature, whether from watching our own hearts, or from experience of life, we can scarcely form a correct estimate how intimately great and little matters are connected together in all cases; how the circumstances and accidents (as they might seem) of our habits are almost conditions of those habits themselves. How common it is for men to have seasons of seriousness, how exact is their devotion during them, how suddenly they come to an end, how completely all traces of them vanish, yet how comparatively trifling is the cause of the relapse, a change of place or occupation, or a day’s interruption of regularity in their religious course. Consider the sudden changes in opinion and profession, religious or secular, which occur in life, the proverbial fickleness of the multitude, the influence of watchwords and badges upon the fortunes of political parties, the surprising falls which sometimes overtake well-meaning and really respectable men, the inconsistencies of even the holiest and most perfect, and you will have some insight into the danger of practising on the externals of faith and devotion. Precious doctrines are strung, like jewels, upon slender threads.”

    And another wonderful line: “And so in the case of all…forms, even the least binding in themselves, it continually happens that a speculative improvement is a practical folly, and the wise are taken in their own craftiness.”

    The entire sermon can be read here:

    A cost of using the vernacular in the liturgy is that it will need to be revised occasionally. But if sound principles of translation (such as those articulated in Liturgiam Authenticam) are employed, then such revisions need not be too jarring. Hopefully, the new translation is formal enough and stable enough that it will not need to be changed for many, many years.

    • Aaron Pidel, SJ says:

      A very apposite addition, Br. Charles. Thanks for sharing–this is one of Newman’s homilies that I’ve never read.

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