Project Canterbury

Convocation and the Psalter.
A Criticism of the proposals of the Lower
House of Convocation in the Province of
Canterbury in regard to the revision of the

By the Rev. A. H. Baverstock, M.A.,
Rector of Hinton Martel, Dorset.

London: The Catholic Literature Association, nd.


The Lower House of Convocation has definitely decided in favour of a revision of the Prayer Book Psalter which shall delete one Psalm, the 58th, entirely, and omit verses of other Psalms, on the ground of an alleged unsuitability for use in public worship. It may be noticed at the outset that the word "revision" as applied to these proposals covers a process which might be more aptly described as expurgation. There is no proposal to revise the translation, sometimes obscure, of the original Hebrew. There is, it is true, the suggestion of an extension of the principle involved in the use of special Psalms for festival use in the place of the Psalms for the day of the month. But the main feature of the revision scheme is the abandonment of the age-long principle of the Catholic Church, reaffirmed by the Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of the recitation of the whole Psalter in divine worship. And the ground of this abandonment is a departure from the consistent teaching of the Church from the beginning, that the Psalms, being uttered by the Holy Ghost concerning Christ, have a spiritual meaning for Christians, a meaning lying behind their immediate meaning for those who originally received them, yet intended by their ultimate Author as their ultimate meaning, which makes them throughout suitable for use in the praises of God.

The object of this pamphlet is to state the case against the novelty of an expurgated Psalter, and against the novel view of the Psalter which underlies the proposal. It will be made clear in the first instance that the author and those who, in great numbers, think with him neither ignore the fact that the present use of the Psalter presents difficulties, nor object to a genuine revision of that use which may do something to meet these difficulties. Their attitude is a conservative one, in the sense that they are not willing to discard as unsuitable for the present age spiritual songs which they believe to have been given by the Holy Ghost for the spiritual profit of all ages, and which have yielded fruit of holiness in the past. But they are not blindly conservative in the sense of thinking the present use of the Psalter beyond possibility of improvement. They have reasoned objections of the strongest to the merely negative process of expurgation. They have no unreasonable prejudices against an attempt on positive lines to revise the existing use of the Psalter in the spiritual interest of English Christians.


Hinton Martel,
Michaelmas 1917

I. The Difficulties of the Psalter.

It is obvious that the Psalter presents many difficulties, not only to the unlearned, but even to many persons of average or more than average intelligence. Were the principle conceded that ordinary people should not be set to sing words which they cannot perfectly understand, which they may indeed easily misunderstand, there would be an overwhelming case for the exclusion of a very large portion of the Psalter from at any rate our Sunday services. How many of the average members of our congregations can understand, for instance, more than a few verses of the 45th Psalm? And if we are to delete what is difficult to understand, how many Psalms shall we be able to leave intact? Besides the difficulty of seeing an intelligible meaning in such verses as, "or ever your pots be made hot with thorns, so let indignation vex him, even as a thing that is raw," there is the difficulty of perceiving any profitable spiritual meaning, which the worshipper can appropriate, in a vastly greater number of verses. A very few instances of such difficulties may be quoted. On what principle does the worshipper who has confessed "We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep" proceed to sing "I have stuck unto thy testimonies, O Lord"? What can it mean to him to sing of the glories of the "king's daughter"? What does he understand when he sings "Moab is my washpot, over Edom will least out my shoe"? He knows that Christians may not cherish revengeful thoughts, but must love their enemies. How then shall he sing the terrible imprecations of the 109th Psalm against "mine enemies"?

Obviously there are difficulties. How are they to be met?

Something could be done, doubtless, by a retranslation of many verses of the Psalms. But this would meet only one class of difficulties and leave others untouched. Something again might be done by adopting a selection of the simpler Psalms for use at the Sunday services. This would be in effect to abandon the principle of the Reformation which aimed at an extended use of the Holy Scriptures generally, and the Psalter in particular, by the laity. It would be a reversion to some extent to pre-reformation usage, which left the recitation of the whole Psalter and the reading of the Bible mainly to the clergy and religious, and gave simple people a much simpler form of religious worship. If we are to revert to this plan, we should at least see how much it involves, and what is to be said against it. It would involve a parallel simplification of the lessons, and the deletion of a great part not only of the Old Testament lections, but also of the New Testament. We may be reminded that, on St. Peter's testimony, St. Paul's epistles contain "some things hard to be understood."

Are we then to have, at any rate on Sundays, simplified offices which will present a minimum of difficulty to the intelligence of the average worshipper? Is this the way to meet the acknowledged difficulties, not only in main of the Psalms, but also in the Lectionary? The Reformation, in this respect at any rate, had a noble ideal in view. The Church of England was to aim at a public worship which should draw upon the Holy Scriptures to the utmost. She sought to educate her children by this use: to make her services such as should raise the level of the ordinary worshipper, rather than adapt themselves to the level of the simplest. This public use of the Bible was to be accompanied by the private use, in devout study and meditation, of the Holy Scriptures.

And the result of the Reformation in this regard, during the centuries that followed, was far-reaching. The extended use of the Scriptures in the vernacular had a profound result not only upon English literature, but upon the thoughts and language of the common people.

A simplified service, the abandonment of the many difficult passages in holy scripture, involves in some degree not only the abandonment of the aims of the reformers, but the surrender of some at least of their accomplishments.

It must be confessed that the Reformation ideal has to some extent failed, and failed for some generations past in increasing measure. Very few Churchman attend the weekday offices, as it was contemplated that they should. The Bible is certainly less heard and read than was intended.

The effects of the Bible upon English language and t