The church of my childhood was St. Mary’s, Handsworth, just outside Birmingham, in England. Although I probably attended services there only a few dozen times, while we stayed with Granny and Grandpa during my father’s infrequent “leave” periods from the Colonial Service in Nigeria, it was a bulwark of stability in my life.
Like the thousands of churches dotting the English landscape, St. Mary’s has had a presence on its site since the time of William the Conqueror, with the first known building being erected in about 1150. There are still a few surviving Norman bits in the current church, most of which dates from the mid-sixteenth century. It’s a cool, quiet church on a busy road with a terribly neglected churchyard, and memorials inside to Matthew Bolton, James Watt and William Murdoch–memorials and connections which have led to its being known as the Cathedral of the Industrial Revolution.
It’s the church where my grandparents were married, where my parents were married, and where I was christened. It’s the church where Grandpa, a talented pianist, filled in for the organist when needed, and where my formidable granny and great-granny were stalwarts of the parish for decades.
It’s the church where I first recited The Lord’s Prayer. And learned how to talk to God.
Now, I’m not a scholar of the Bible, nor of the Talmud. And I’m not eager to tangle with anyone who is on matters of origin, derivation, translation, nomenclature, eschatology, or any of the other myriad scholarly debates and disagreements that surround the tradition of what we know as The Lord’s Prayer. I’d end up looking pretty silly if I did, although I’ll certainly welcome any and all insights and observations in the comments.
I’m just writing about what I know. And what I know are words.
The Reverend James Charles Harrison Tompkins, Rector of St. Mary’s when I was a child, was a great storyteller. I learned, quite early on, that there are two passages in the New Testament that deal with The Lord’s Prayer. The stories that are told in them are framed quite differently:
In Matthew 6, Jesus is in the throes of his longest teaching moment, the Sermon on the Mount, explaining to his disciples that showing off, advertising one’s righteousness and charity, and praying ostentatiously and loudly is emphatically not the way to win God’s favor. Instead, he tells them, be quiet, go into a room, close the door and pray, not babbling like pagans, but peacefully and reverently. And he gives them the words they need to pray in that way.
In Luke 11, Jesus is explicitly asked by one of the disciples how they should pray. And he answers as a patient teacher or gentle parent would, “Do it this way. Say this.” He doesn’t say, “pray by dancing.” Or “pray by drawing a picture,” or “pray by barking at the moon.” He says something like, “keep it simple, for Heaven’s sake. Just use your words.”
And it’s the words he gives his disciples that have come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer.
By the time it made its first appearance in English, around AD 1000, the Prayer had been through several translations from the Aramaic, starting with Matthew’s translation into Greek (much debate about the hash he might have made of it, but his translation set the stage for all versions to follow), and the subsequent rendering into the Latin Pater Noster by (mostly) St. Jerome in the fourth century Vulgate, which version and Bible remained an authoritative text of the Roman Catholic church until well into the twentieth century.
But even while the monks in the abbeys and monasteries of England were studying the ancient texts and polishing up the finer points of the verbiage, Fathers and Brothers without quite so much learning were pounding the pavements, rounding up the faithful, and beseeching them to pray. And they often found it easier to do so the vernacular, which was better understood by both themselves and their congregations.
So, for example, by the end of the tenth century, the Wessex Gospels, the first full translation of all four books into Old English, were in widespread use across large parts of England. And, perhaps they were sometimes brought to bear in the first incarnation of my church, St. Mary’s, Handsworth. If that’s true, The Lord’s Prayer spoken during the service might have sounded something like this (shout out to Mr. Right):
Almost certainly, by 1394, when the unauthorized, but wildly popular, Wycliffe Bible came into widespread use, The Lord’s Prayer was often recited in English (I expect the elites found this practice pretty deplorable, but there it was). And, perhaps the little congregation at St. Mary’s Handsworth, said it this way:
Two hundred fifty years later, Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549) set the text of The Lord’s Prayer in the Church of England for the next four hundred years. It needs no translation, still today:
After much debate and to-ing and fro-ing about whether it was authentic, legitimate, or timely, the Doxology was appended to the end of The Lord’s Prayer before the final “Amen,” in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and that remains the way that it is usually recited in the Church of England to this day.
And thus, the prayer of my childhood came into being. For all the tortuous years in between, the acrimony, the politics, the schisms the councils, the wars, the arguments about angels dancing on the head of a pin, excepting the last three lines, it’s hardly different from the version painstakingly translated from the Latin by those “Dark Ages” (them’s fighting words, in this household) monks at the end of the first millennium A.D.
When I remember the church of my childhood, I like to think that there’s an unbroken chain of people, like me, who’ve been talking to God, in the same way I did, in the same place I did, for over a thousand years. Asking for help. Asking for sustenance. Petitioning for forgiveness, and the strength to forgive, both for themselves and for others. Trusting in the life to come.
Such simple words. such plain words.
And therein lies their paradox. And their power, their glory, and their truth.