Sunday, January 24, 2010

Transitory modern liturgy

When I was a kid, a common gift given by your godparents/relatives for baptism, confirmation or perhaps birthday or Christmas was a Bible; for us Episcopalians, it might also include the Book of Common Prayer. So when I went shopping for such a gift this month, I was struck by an unfamiliar dilemma, brought on by transitory nature of our modern liturgy, as well as the fragmentation of US Anglican worship.

For example, in my childhood, our Bible readings came from the Authorized Version (KJV), which had been the gold standard for 300+ years of Anglican worship. Yes, the 1950s-era Revised Standard Version was out — an updated version of the 1901 American Standard Version — but I don’t ever recall reading it or hearing it in the pews.

But in the past two decades, the ESV has been rendered obsolete by two separate updates to the RSV: the politically correct NRSV (1990) and the traditionalist update, ESV (2001). Even in centuries-old King James was updated in 1982 with the NKJV.

Of course, some of our modern proliferation — and dilemma — is due to the profit motives of Bible publishers seeking to crank out new translations in hopes of generating new sales. (Just walk into your local Christian bookstore to see them peddle a 4th, 5th or 10th Bible to the existing faithful.) Thomas Nelson owns the NKJV, Crossways owns the ESV, and Zondervan own rights to the mother lode of all modern translations, the 1978 NIV. (Let’s ignore the TNIV).

So with all this proliferation of Bible translations in the past few decades, it seems reasonable to expect there will be even more the in the decades to come. If you gave any of these Bibles to a child today, would they still be in use 20 years from now?

The prayer book problem is similar and different. What’s similar is the proliferation of choices and the more rapid turnover of changes. What’s different is that being a Continuing Anglican is so much more confusing than my childhood experience as an Episcopalian, as evidenced by our liturgy. When I grew up, the 1928 BCP was in use for more than 30 years. (The Brits had been using the 1662 BCP for 300+ years).

Today, the Schism I churches still use the 1928 BCP, but most of the Schism II (e.g. ACNA) parishes use the 1979 prayer book — in both cases, published by a church entity that they no longer wish to associate with. (Let’s ignore that the TEC will likely produce an even more politically correct prayer book in the coming decade, with same-sex “marriage” rites, etc. etc.) The AMiA asked Dr. Peter Toon to make a contemporary language version of the 1662 BCP, but I’ve never been to a church that uses it, and it seems like a merely interim measure.

Then there is problem I never could have imagined: what denomination will the child be attending 20 years from now? Plausibly, it could be an ACNA parish, a Schism I parish or even across the Tiber. So there’s no prayer book that’s an even remotely plausible choice.

Well, what about a hymnal? After all, today I still love and use my first hymnal, which I received as a gift for being a good choirboy. Any kid who loves our traditional hymns could sing the same hymns for decades.

The British used the same The English Hymnal from 1906-1986 — more than two generations with the same tunes. The Americans got one generation out of Hymnal 1940, although its predecessor (Hymnal 1916) lasted less than half as long.

On the one hand, I think the chances of a new Anglican hymnal (at least among traditionalists) are remote, due to the fragmented nature of the Schism I and II parishes. On the other hand, that same fragmentation means that Continuing Anglicans today use both Hymnal 1940 and Hymnal 1982. So I can’t imagine any choice holding up here.

So, between the modern conceit of updating the liturgy, the egos and greed of those promoting “new and improved [sic],” and the fragmentation of the Anglican faith, what was once a simple choice for parents and godparents has become an impossible one.

What did I do? I bought an NIV Bible. It’s the second only to the KJV in current ownership (if not sales), and seems to be a common denominator for Bible studies. Although not a literal translation, it has the added benefit of being more easy to read than most translations, thus making a good choice for a first Bible and for someone not yet in high school.


Warren said...

To add to your confusion, were you aware that, on 1 Sep 09, it was announced that the TNIV would be discontinued, and that it will be replaced by a future revision of the NIV text? From what I read, I think I might buy a copy.

9.West said...

I'm fine with TNIV being axed, but no, I had not heard about yet another NIV.

The arguments for a new NIV are suspect:

"As time passes and English changes, the NIV is becoming increasingly dated," Keith Danby, global president of Biblica. …

"The NIV charter anticipated this, and it obliges us to respond. If we want to maintain the NIV as a Bible that English speakers around the world can understand, we have to listen to and respect the vocabulary they are using today," Danby said.

The English language has not drifted that much in 30 years; the KJV was kept for 300 years, so it seems as though we could keep the NIV for 50 or 100.

Obviously Zondervan wants everyone to throw out their existing Bibles and buy new ones. I'm guessing the scholars want to create memorials to themselves, without regards to the impact upon Christian worship.

Warren said...

I don't doubt that profit may be part of the motivation for a new translation, but I'm not so cynical to think that that is the primary motivation for the translation team. Regardless, Zondervan may get some of my money. I switched to the ESV a few years ago and plan to stick with it for most of my reading, study and memory work.