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Online Edition - July-August 2006
Vol. XII, No. 5

New International Group Plans NRSV-based Lectionary
Bible version "will need a certain amount of adaptation" to conform to liturgical norms

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The first meeting of the new International Commission for the Preparation of an English Language Lectionary (ICPEL) was held in Roehampton, England in April. An effort initiated in 2003, the aim of ICPEL is to produce a Lectionary based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV) for several English-speaking national Churches: Australia, Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Since 1966, all these countries have been using lectionaries based on the Jerusalem Bible.

ICPEL’s plan is to have its new Lectionary ready when the new Missal translation is approved for use. A Lectionary based on the same 1989 NRSV translation has been in use in Canada since the early 1990s.

Other conferences were involved in early discussions: Canada, New Zealand, Malaysia-Singapore, the Philippines and South Africa. The United States conference did not participate, as it remains committed to using the New American Bible translation whose copyright it holds. The Philippines also uses the NAB Lectionary.

At the April meeting, the ICPEL “mixed commission” elected as chairman Bishop Mark Coleridge, then-auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, Australia. (A few weeks later, on June 19, Bishop Coleridge, 57, was appointed archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn.)

Father Henry Wansbrough, OSB, of Ampleforth Abbey in England, Cathedral Prior of Norwich, and until 2005, Master of St. Benet’s Hall in Oxford, was elected ICPEL Executive Director. At the end of the meeting, members of ICPEL met with Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who was in London for a lecture.

Preliminary discussions with Cardinal Arinze had taken place in early 2004, to seek approval for the new NRSV Lectionary undertaking. In February 2006, the Liturgy Commission of England and Wales, in its Liturgy Newsletter, announced the Holy See’s approval of ICPEL’s project. The Liturgy Newsletter reported, “The Holy See has agreed that the NRSV translation should be used as the basis of the new edition”, and noted that “[t]he NRSV translation will need a certain amount of adaptation so that it conforms to the expectations of the Church as presented in Liturgiam authenticam”.

NRSV “Inclusivist” Problems

In 1994, the NRSV was expressly rejected by the Holy See for liturgical use, because of its commitment to feminist translation principles, so-called “inclusive” language — a main objective of the National Council of Churches in revising the earlier Revised Standard Version (RSV). This objective is stressed in the preface to the NRSV that Bruce Metzger wrote for the NCC committee:

Paraphrastic renderings have been adopted only sparingly, and then chiefly to compensate for a deficiency in the English language — the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun.

During the almost half a century since the publication of the RSV, many in the churches have become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising from the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text. The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture. As can be appreciated, more than once the Committee found that the several mandates stood in tension and even in conflict. The various concerns had to be balanced case by case in order to provide a faithful and acceptable rendering without using contrived English. Only very occasionally has the pronoun “he” or “him” been retained in passages where the reference may have been to a woman as well as to a man; for example, in several legal texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In such instances of formal, legal language, the options of either putting the passage in the plural or of introducing additional nouns to avoid masculine pronouns in English seemed to the Committee to obscure the historic structure and literary character of the original. In the vast majority of cases, however, inclusiveness has been attained by simple rephrasing or by introducing plural forms when this does not distort the meaning of the passage. Of course, in narrative and in parable no attempt was made to generalize the sex of individual persons.

(The Preface to the NRSV is accessible on the National Council of Churches web site — http://www.ncccusa.org/newbtu/reader.html.)

ICPEL must alter the NRSV text in order to conform to Liturgiam authenticam, the 2001 Instruction on biblical and liturgical translations, which requires translations to be “exact in wording, free from all ideological influence”. [LA §3]

Specifically addressing the gender-neutering of biblical and liturgical texts to conform to feminist views of “linguistic sexism”, the Instruction said,

In many languages there exist nouns and pronouns denoting both genders, masculine and feminine, together in a single term. The insistence that such a usage should be changed is not necessarily to be regarded as the effect or the manifestation of an authentic development of the language as such. Even if it may be necessary by means of catechesis to ensure that such words continue to be understood in the “inclusive” sense just described, it may not be possible to employ different words in the translations themselves without detriment to the precise intended meaning of the text, the correlation of its various words or expressions, or its aesthetic qualities. When the original text, for example, employs a single term in expressing the interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human family or community (such as the Hebrew word ‘adam, the Greek anthropos, or the Latin homo), this property of the language of the original text should be maintained in the translation. Just as has occurred at other times in history, the Church herself must freely decide upon the system of language that will serve her doctrinal mission most effectively, and should not be subject to externally imposed linguistic norms that are detrimental to that mission. [LA § 30]

The RSV-Catholic Edition (RSV-CE) is considered the most accurate of contemporary biblical translations. Though its English style is generally contemporary, the Psalms (and other prayers addressed to God) retained the second-person singular pronouns and verb forms (thee, thy, thou, art, hast, wert, etc.) This is the version used in the highly regarded Navarre Bible series, published by Scepter Press. It also appears as the “Ignatius Bible”, published by Ignatius Press.

Early this year, a new, Second Edition of the RSV-CE was published by Ignatius Press, along with a Lectionary that has been approved by the Holy See for the Antilles Bishops’ Conference. The new edition conforms to the principles of Liturgiam authenticam, and, like the NRSV, it eliminates the remaining traditional archaic English. The Lectionary is also the only English-language Lectionary whose text is identical to that found in a published edition of the Bible.

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