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Why the old Lord’s Prayer makes more sense

18 July 2014

I HAVE a problem with the contemporary-language version of the Lord's Prayer. I noticed it coming on some years ago, when, as Vicar of St Bene't's, Cambridge, I presided at the weekday eucharist. One member of the small congregation would always revert to the traditional language version in the fifth line. So "on earth as in heaven" became "on earth as it is in heaven".

I thought then that it was a simple mistake. But recently I have found more and more people falling into the old version, and not only on that line. "Sins" suddenly come out as "trespasses"; "today" becomes "this day"; and "for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours" goes back to "for thine is", etc., until it is obviously wrong and crashes back into ". . . the glory are yours".

This is all about the persistence of aural memory, and how the way in which a phrase begins triggers the way we expect it to end. Perhaps we get it right only when our eyes are glued to the text. Once we become more confident to pray the liturgy from memory, the older form, which some, at least, may have had handed down in school or home, reasserts itself.

I consulted my good friend the Revd Dr Cally Hammond, the Dean of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge. She is a Latin scholar, and understands the rhythms of English speech (things like dactyls and trochees).

She pointed out that, in the line that annoyed me so much at St Bene't's, the two words with weight are "earth" and "heaven". They are at either end of the phrase, they stand for opposites in meaning, and the run of short syllables "as it is in" holds them together effectively in the mind and on the tongue. The shorter "as in" does not do this nearly as well.

To say it rhythmically means leaving a minute gap after "earth", which is not instinctive. It also leaves "earth" strangely stranded from "heaven". And so, over time, we forget the new version, and go back to what feels right.

At the time that the ASB came out, I came to the conclusion that some of those who produce our liturgical texts have cloth ears. I now know, having worked for more than a decade in the liturgy business, that it is an anxious desire for relevance, linked to over-cautious pedantry, which leads to the worst decisions.

Our mission would have been less damaged if we had left the Lord's Prayer alone.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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