Late Spring 2001 in an English country parish, where the dancing daffodils compete with yellow notices against Foot & Mouth which warn of 5,000 fines for walking on public footpaths. Our congregation is sampling the Church of England’s new Common Worship and stumbling a bit over unfamiliar responses.

The first ever liturgy in English was written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549:

Then so manye as shall be partakers of the holy Communion, shall tarry still in the quire... the men on the one syde, and the women on the other syde.

This instruction led some to describe the new form of worship as ‘a Christmas game’. Whether, or not, the men should keep their hats on led to decades of controversy.

      Then the Priest shall saye. The Lorde be with you.
      Aunswere. And with thy spirite.
      Priest. Lift up your heartes.
      Aunswere. We lift them up unto the Lorde.
      Priest. Let us geue thanks to our Lorde God.
      Aunswere. It is mete and right so to do.
      The Priest. It is very mete, righte, and our bounden dutie ....

This exchange and affirmation between celebrant and people goes back to the 6th century liturgy of St John Chrysostom (‘John of the Golden Mouth’), which is still used daily in the Orthodox Church. The Greek word translated as ‘meet’ is ‘axion’ from which we get ‘axiom’, meaning ‘a proposition that commends itself to general acceptance, assented to as soon as stated’. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines ‘meet’ as: ‘fitting, becoming, proper’, with the Book of Common Prayer as reference.

Odysseus Elytis, a Greek Nobel winner, called his masterwork Axion Esti (‘It is meet’). The poem interweaves passages from the Greek liturgy with references to the brutalities of the War and his own personal life. I was once on holiday near Mount Athos, the ancient community of monasteries on a peninsular in Thessaly, in the Northern Aegean. A small over-loaded boat chugged out to sea. With a combination of the everyday and the sacred, typical to Greece, the name painted on its bows was ‘It is meet’.

In 1833 the Rev. Henry Ives Bailey published The Liturgy compared with the Bible, in which he relates almost every word of Cranmer’s liturgy to scripture. This little phrase he pins down to 2 Thessalonians 1 v.3. Translated by William Tyndale it reads:

We are bound to thank God always for you brethren, as it is meet...

The AV follows Tyndale exactly. The NIV turns it into:

We ought always to thank God for you brothers, and rightly so...

‘Meet’ has gone, lost, outdated in our world where ‘fitting, becoming, proper’ is not the flavour of the day. But examine where Tyndale goes next in the passage, translating Paul who is trying to comfort and give courage to the Thessalonians as they suffer terrible persecution. The AV continues:

because your faith groweth exceedingly and the charity of everyone one of you all toward each other aboundeth.

The NIV makes this:

the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.

The essential Greek word for the last element in this passage is ‘pleonazei’. For Demosthenes it meant ‘to claim too much’; for Thucydides ‘to be exaggerated’; for Aristotle ‘to be more than enough, to be superfluous’. William Tyndale translated it by writing:

We are bound to thank God always for you brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and everyone of you swimmeth in love.

No one before or after ever wrote that, but the ploughboy would have understood, and perhaps Paul would have felt it caught his drift.

Mary Clow, July 2001

Valid XHTML 1.0!