Why 16th and 17th Century English is Lovely in Worship

Sometimes people say to me, “why do people use 17th Century English in worship? We don’t speak like that anymore.”

To which, if I’m pushed for time, I will respond, “why are you sitting on that self-assembly piece of furniture, watching Downton Abbey? We don’t have an empire and we’ve won another war since then, and futons are so 1987, don’t you think? And you live in a bedsit. Do you think you are Mark Almond? And the first version of the BCP was written in the 16th Century, and the Authorised Version of the Bible was based on earlier versions, as well – so it’s not even a sensible question. It should be 17th Century and earlier English.”

There is another set of answers, the longer set, however, and they go like this:

“In the first place, I would not recommend using the King James Version of the Bible for serious Bible study. Not to preach from, not to get to the very heart of a passage in personal study or a Bible Study group. It is not based on the most reliable texts.

“Nor would I recommend it for use in the main services of the church – the showcase, if you like, where seekers have a reasonable chance of attending and clarity is quite important- whether this be the 9.30 Communion of a Sunday, an October Outreach Occasion (acronymed so people go “ooo” when others see the light) or a Cafe (or other food-and-beverage-based) Church. If we ran a Coffee House  Church or Pie Shop Church, on the other hand, led by one Revd Miggins, then the use of both KJV and BCP would be perfectly appropriate in the context.

“Also, if the main church service is a Service of the Word on a Sunday morning, then it seems completely reasonable not to use the Book of Common Prayer because it’s so tediously long when you have to say all the first confession bit, and then if you’ve got newcomers they spend all their time wondering why you say the Our Father twice. Though, on a Sunday evensong,  if the few gathered consenting adults wish to use Cranmer’s matchless if interminable prose, I would argue that it’s entirely reasonable for them to do so. And, if you think the confession at the start is a bit grovelly, then I would put it to you that, before the Almighty God who made heaven and earth, and expects us to love everybody else as ourselves, we’ve a lot to grovel about.

“But it’s 8am on a Tuesday. There’s four of us here. And we choose to use Matins as set down (without the introductory confession) because it’s actually less verbose than the Common Worship equivalent. It’s what some of us (although not I) grew up with. We use the King James Version not because it’s the ultimate expression of God’s Holy Revelation- because it’s not – but because it fits in perfectly with the BCP. And whatever NRSV fundamentalists say, it’s not incomprehensible to anyone with sufficient literary skill to read any other English version of the Bible. And if we didn’t use the BCP  and KJV, we’d never get to refer to the Israelites “whoring with their own inventions”, or the threats to anyone that “pisseth against the wall”, and our lives would be the poorer for it.

And most of all we use it because it’s beautiful, and beauty’s sometimes hard to find, and there is nothing wrong with beauty in worship. Now will you switch off your DVD of Downtown Abbey, pick up your futon and get out of our church, and go back to your bedsit? We’re trying to hold a service here.”

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