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'Passeth all understanding'? You wot?

Blog | By A.S.H. Smyth | Sep 19, 2017


Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran a story about the Book of Common Prayer: trainee clergy are to be given glossaries so they can understand it.

The Prayer Book Society – supported by such level heads as Richard Chartres, sometime Bishop of London and official Voice of God™ – gives out copies of the 1662 edition to every Church of England ordinand embarking on their training, and henceforth (or 'from this time') will also include a bookmark featuring some of its more 'potentially confusing' words.

The Society's press officer says – and I really do apologise for this – 'The language is quite Shakespearey.' The list has been compiled by, ahem, a 25-year-old.

True enough, 'vouchsafe', 'suffrages' and 'Sabaoth' may not crop up routinely at the breakfast table. But 'propitiate', 'quicken' and 'concord' (as in 'a concordance', perhaps?) are not all that confusing, surely? 'Vulgar', 'profession' and 'eschew' can fairly easily be figured out, in context. And 'curate', 'brethren', 'man/men' (inevitably, 'an inclusive term for all human beings') are just, well, words.

I'm all for learning, particularly about words. And specialist lexicons can be quite daunting, especially if they're several hundred years old (which is not, pace the press officer, 'very ancient'). For newbie congregants to need this 'partial' word list would be one thing. But trainee priests?

How have they made it this far without knowing all these words and phrases backwards? Why, come to that, do they need free copies of the BCP when they've already got to theological college? What educations do they or do they not have? Where is their basic sense of etymology? Why can't they look things up? 

A genuine question: is it possible they've not spent that much time in church...? 

A church and chapel singer for some thirty years now, I'm about as far from entering a theological college as it is possible to be. But in the last few days (off the top of my head), I have instinctively used the phrases 'like as the hart', 'man that is born of woman', 'soft, self-wounding pelican' and 'quit you like men.' These may not all be in the BCP, I grant you; but they are all reflective of a register that apparently the future vicars of the church do not possess. 

Someone who is going to have to preach meaningfully and often ought to have a higher grasp of his own language than that; a more involved relationship with the written word/Word. I gather some other aspects of 'the ministry' can be quite challenging. What hope for these would-be spiritual leaders if they can't fight their way out of this linguistic paper bag?

A.S.H. SMYTH