Crossing the Tiber

IN a textbook world, a Protestant contemplating leaving his church for Romish regions would make his choice by examining the doctrines of the two communions and entering whichever communion he found most faithful to the teachings of Christ. But very frequently, other factors will intrude on the process. For one thing, the potential convert will have to weigh how his conversion will be perceived by his fellows. Romish apologists delight in telling tales of heroic Protestants who realize the folly of their creed and sacrifice jobs, family ties, and social standing to save their souls in the Barque of Peter. There is another obstacle, however, about which Rome is understandably less eager to speak. For it is one of the facts of life that Anglicans have better taste than Romanists, at least when it comes to English composition. An Anglican crossing the Tiber loses not only his denomination but also the literary treasures of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

This is less true now than it once was, of course, thanks to the Anglican Use liturgy established under Pope John Paul II and greatly expanded under Pope Benedict XVI. While I do not think I shall be joining the Ordinariate, I cannot help but admire it, for it is both a clever scheme to draw in lost sheep and a humble admission that heretical rites can hold truth and beauty. It is quite possibly the wisest thing Rome has done since the Reformation.

But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was no such option, and it is most interesting to see some writings by Romanists of the period lamenting that their Church’s poor skill in English prose could repulse inquiring souls.

Consider Early Steps in the Fold: Instructions for Converts, and Enquirers , a little handbook written by a Francis M. De Zulueta in 1910. It admits to the fledgling Romanist the glory of the Coverdale Psalter, yet protests that the glory is but an unhallowed one. Zulueta goes so far as to make a rather unfriendly comparison between reading Protestant translations and toiling under Pharaoh’s lash:

So far no mention has been made of the Psalms in the Bible—those unrivaled praises of God—though obviously taking precedence of any form of prayer fashioned by men. For these songs of worship come to us directly inspired by the Holy Ghost.

In the Catholic English version they will doubtless seem to the convert shorn of much of their literary beauty. It cannot be questioned that the approved Anglican translation is superior as a specimen of literature. But the convert, animated by the true Catholic spirit, will attach far greater value to the guarantee afforded by the infallible Church that the translation approved by her is faithful, than to the gratification of his aesthetic sense, and will repress all sighing after the flesh-pots of Egypt.

But clearly such bombast is just him trying to hide his own longing for the flesh-pots of the Prayer-Book, right?

The Catholic World of November 1895, for its part, takes a more conciliatory approach. No warning against the forbidden pleasures of Anglican translations here, but an urge for their adoption, so long as they are cleansed of any heretical phrasing.

There has for a long time been a feeling among English Catholics that a new version of the Scriptures is much needed and would be a great boon.

In the Second Provincial Council of Westminster it was decreed : “That an accurate version of the Holy Scriptures from the Latin Vulgate may be had as soon as possible; the bishops are of opinion that this undertaking should be entrusted to learned men to be selected by his Eminence the Archbishop, care being taken, however, to observe the rules of the Index, as to the revision of the work,” etc. It is understood that the late Cardinal Newman was asked to superintend the work. But it came to nothing, and the decree of the Council is still a dead-letter.

Surely we can’t remain much longer in this position. And the only satisfactory solution is to follow Challoner’s lead more boldly, and take the Vulgate in one hand and the Authorized Version in the other, and wherever the latter is true to the Latin, to use and follow it. “What, use the Protestant Version!” my readers will exclaim. “ Protestant Version! ” we exclaim in our turn. “ We don’t know such a thing. The faults in the Authorized Version are Protestant, if you will, and these we of course cast aside; but the version itself, its most sweet melody and balance of parts, its truly English ring, its very touch of quaintness and archaic flavor which is so desirable in a sacred book (mutatis mutandis as the use of a dead language in the liturgy), its phraseology, which has wound itself round the speech of the English people and enters into all our literature, and has moulded our tongue, why should this be cast aside ? It is not Protestant; it is Catholic. Protestantism never brought forth anything beautiful. All that is good, all that is beautiful is Catholic; and if Protestants have originated them, it is not because they are Protestants, but because they have not got rid of the influence of Catholicity. We are sure a revision of the Authorized Version, made according to the Vulgate by Catholics, would do much to smooth the way to reunion. For the Englishman does love his Bible even if he does not understand it; and it is a grievous trial for him to lose the version he learned at his mother’s knee for the sometimes uncouth and unauthorized version used by us to-day.

Why should this be cast aside, indeed? Rome has already come out with two purified editions of Protestant Bibles: the RSV-CE and the NRSV-CE.  So it would not be terribly unprecedented for her to take up this century-old suggestion and make a KJV-CE. Until this happens, the  Ordinariates’ claim to preserve “Anglican Patrimony” will stand a bit hollow, for while they do get to use a version of the Prayer-Book Psalter, their other biblical readings have to come from the RSV-CE. And that is no fun at all.


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