17 MARCH 1961, Page 12

The Churches

In the Vernacular?

By MONICA FURLONG Turn to the New English Bible and, however valiant for change one may be, one is inevitably slightly chilled. It has not the elegance of Knox, nor the knock-down simplicity which enabled Phillips's that of the disciple, the New English words: 'At the beginning God expressed Him- self.' If Knox's Bible is a scholar's Bible, and Phillips's that of the disciple, the New English Bible is essentially a public and ecclesiastical Bible. Safe, tolerably euphonious, here and there a shade pretentious, it sounds well read aloud, and unfamiliar meanings show up effectively against its sober tone. It is not a work of genius, but it is decent and good. By the Christian to whom, un- like the scholar or the aesthete, the meaning behind the New Testament is of more importance than its text or its poetry, the new translation like all new attempts at understanding should be re- ceived with gratitude and charity. The new I3ible is, of course, merely one of a number of green shoots on an old and splendid tree. There is a small army of reformers slogging away at new canon laws, new liturgical forms. new catechisms, new forms of church administra- tion. new deployment of the clergy, new forms of ecclesiastical architecture and art. The depress- ing thing is that the results of their labours, good or bad, are almost certain to be greeted with the cry : `Of course we much preferred it as it was.' The climate of admiration and encouragement which fertilises superlative human achievement is not yet established.

And thankless as it is to say it, the arguments put forward in their own defence by the brave new churchmen are nearly always the wrong ones. It may, in fact, be that they shouldn't argue the toss for reform at all, just as women should no longer argue their equality with men but should assume it. When an argument becomes too silly for debate it is more dignified to ignore it. However, the reformers are to some extent con- stitutionally bound to put their case and one knows in advance the weary old course it will take. One speaker will recall the old and noble Protestant cry for a Bible in the vernacular, another will talk about the necessity for putting the liturgy into the language of the plain man, a third will maunder on about glOrifying God in the twentieth-century idiom. (If I hear another preacher crack that 'Glory to God in the High St.' joke I shall turn Buddhist.) In a way they will all be perfectly right, and in a way they will be pitifully and hypocritically wrong, afraid to give the philistine diehards their real reasons.

'This Joseph may be a madman, all right. But it's certainly going to be great for the grain-storage business.' A few months ago at Richmond Hill in York- shire II saw a new church designed by Sir Basil Spence and found myself almost reduced to tears by the beauty and simplicity of it. Sir Basil may have said to himself as he designed it: 'What we need is a building in the vernacular.'

Or 'The plain man will love this.' Or 'Goodness, what a twentieth-century architect I am.' But I doubt it. What almost certainly produced some- thing so fresh and convincing was a laborious fusion of what he knew about Christianity with what he knew about his art and the result was a tribute to his knowledge and honesty in both fields. And what is true of church architecture is true of liturgy and Biblical language and church law and parochial organisation. The vernacular cannot be stuck on afterwards like strips of wood on the walls of a mock-Tudor building but must he the authentic and unselfconscious accent of the day. The chances are that the plain man (notoriously a one for the religious cliché, the gothic arch, the stained glass window, Stainer's Crucifixion and the tearful singing of 'Abide with me.) won't care for it a bit, but this does not alter anything. Honesty is as important in religion as in love or art, and giving people the sort of Christianity one thinks (usually mis- takenly) they will like instead of what comes of its own accord is nearly always doomed to failure. (See The Sunday Break almost any Sunday night you care to look.) The watched pots of evangel- ism and religious revival never boil.

Because of historical circumstances the Church of England has some special difficulties in pro- ducing an easy and natural attitude to change. After the religious gangsterism of the sixteenth century all the Christian divisions appeared to sink into a kind of stupor like mortally hurt men afraid to move for fear of surprising their wounds. And their fear was largely justified since the knife of politics was always waiting to dig them in the ribs if they gave any unwary signs of life. In this harsh school Catholics and Dissenters eventually learned to survive and make necessary adjustments. Their constant need of vigilance to protect themselves from legal, professional and educational discrimination, the perpetual running fights they were engaged in to preserve such elementary freedoms as burial rights or (in the case of Catholics) unrestricted movement, kept them nervously alert and men- tally spry.

The Established Church, as the chosen cham- pion of the English faith, suffered what was for Christians a worse fate. As the indulged and licensed pet of the State she appeared to enjoy a boundless freedom but in fact had put herself under an obligation and could never venture far without a kindly master's permission. And since the last thing a State is likely to interest itself in is the nuances of Christian self-expression, and since the Charles II Prayer Book was such a price- less tourniquet in its day that nobody has cared to remove it since, and since the King James's Bible is still remarkably good stuff, spiders have been spinning webs up and down our perpen- dicular work for a good many years. With or without parliamentary approval, however, it is now clear that reform is blasting its way through the Church of England, beating as it sweeps as it cleans. We may find ourselves talking in the vernacular any minute now.