Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The English language at prayer

I went to an evening service recently which was conducted entirely according to Rite One (Thomas Cranmer's prayer book, or a presentable version thereof). However, the cumulative effect of the great cadences was marred by the Scripture readings from the wooden NRSV and other modern translations which I did not recognize. This sort of mixing and mingling seems mistaken to me. If we are going to have a (rare) service from Rite One, it should be all in one register. (Especially in this 400th year of the KJV! OK, OK, the 401st--)

Yesterday, St Thomas Fifth Avenue offered a Requiem for Gerre Hancock, beloved former organist and choirmaster who died recently. As one expects from St Thomas, the readings and the liturgy were all in one register. I was not there, but I read the order of service online. There were many edifying selections, but for me the best of all was this prayer by one of the greatest masters of the English language ever to live, John Donne:

AT THE OFFERTORY, ANTHEM William H. Harris (1888-1973)

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate and dwell in that house,
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of thy glory and dominion,
world without end. Amen.
John Donne

Some two hundred-odd years after Donne, some nameless lowly slave on the other side of the ocean took hold of the same language and, in a very much plainer but in its way equally powerful fashion put it to work to evoke the same hope and the same faith:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Deep river, my heart is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
To that promised land where all is peace?
African-American Spiritual

Thus was Gerre Hancock laid to rest with the riches of some of the best music and best words to be found anywhere. What a blessing.