Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Sam Bray has an extremely interesting reflection on a change in the language of a central prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, the General Confession in Morning and Evening Prayer. The prayer contains the line "And there is no health in us," whose meaning is either that there is no spiritual health in us or that we are not the authors of our own salvation. Either way, the phrase suggests, as Sam puts it, that "we are prone to curve inward away from God, we need his forgiveness."
But the phrase has proved troublesome and has been touched up in several revisions. The cause of the trouble is that it is felt to sound a little rough to modern speakers and hearers. It needed some kind of toning down. Really, no health at all in us? Not even a little bit of health?
The Anglican Church in North America, in a recent update, changed the language to: "And apart from your grace, there is no health in us." That keeps Cranmer's original phrase, but softens it a little bit to reassure people that God does not think us totally irredeemable just the way we are. And the added phrase is surely not wrong; it's true that God's grace is necessary for spiritual health as well as salvation.
And yet, as Sam notes, "truth does not quite settle the question," since many things that are true do not make it into the prayer. Sam shows how the absolute language and sentiment of the original is in keeping with many other Biblical passages (Isaiah, Psalms, Daniel, and even in Luke). This is language without qualification, a pattern of speaking that may be seen even in the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the poor in spirit," not Blessed are those who are often, even if not 100% of the time, spiritually impoverished) and elsewhere. As Sam says, "Even where a qualification is denotatively true, its destruction of the proper attitude can make it connotatively false."
There is much more in Sam's rich reflection, which considers the rhetorical power of the original and the changed versions (matters of style are not only matters of style, and, as Sam says, "the form can be an integral part of the message") as well as the genuine difficulties facing would-be revisers who wish not to damage the true sense of the original. You should read it.