Gloria in exELLCis?

Gloria in excelsis, written in Greek (the familiar Latin translation is traditionally ascribed to St Hilary of Poitiers, in which case it would have predated the Vulgate, from whose translation of Lk 2.14 it differs), is an expansion of the song the angels sang at the birth of Christ in St Luke’s Gospel, one of several very early Christian psalmi idiotici (‘private Psalms’ newly written in imitation of Biblical Psalms, of which the Te Deum laudamus is another example) that come down to us. It was early appointed to be sung at Matins and only later became a standard part of the Sunday Mass in the West (where it is still omitted in Advent and Lent and at Masses of the Dead), having first been so used on Christmas Day, then on Sunday but only by bishops, then by priests but only at Easter, before becoming universal.

At the Reformation it was first retained by the Church of England in its traditional place in the Mass, but in bcp1552 it was moved to the end of the Communion service, where it remained in all English and American Prayer Books until 1979. In the latter book it is found not only in the Eucharistic rite but also among the Canticles that may be sung at Morning Prayer – a return to its original use – and in the Hymnal it is grouped with those Canticles rather than with the music for the Holy Eucharist. Also from 1552, when the Agnus Dei was suppressed, an extra ‘thou that takest away the sins of the world’ was added to the Anglican version of the Gloria; this was removed in bcp1928, and this version remains in Rite I of bcp1979:

Glory be to God on high,
     and on earth peace, good will towards men.

We praise thee, we bless thee,
     we worship thee,
     we glorify thee,
     we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
     that takest away the sins of the world,
     have mercy upon us.
Thou that takest away the sins of the world,
     receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
     have mercy upon us.

For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
     with the Holy Ghost,
     art most high in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Rite II of bcp1979, on the other hand, features the 1975 version of the Gloria by the International Consultation on English Texts (now the English Language Liturgical Consultation):

Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his
[God’s] people on earth.

Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
     we worship you, we give you thanks,
     we praise you for your glory.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
     have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
     receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
     Jesus Christ,
     with the Holy Spirit,
     in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Though various early versions of the Gloria exist and the present-day Greek, Latin, and traditional English texts differ in certain details, this version has been very considerably altered from the shape of the Latin, and the notes adduced to it in the ellc’s current set of ecumenical texts, Praying Together, make it clear that the members of the Consultation have little understanding of the nature of this text:

Since it is not a dogmatic text like the creeds, a modern version may adapt its pattern to hymn structures that are more readily understood in English, without any basic modification of its substance and spirit. An analysis of the structure of the hymn shows that it consists of an opening antiphon based on Luke 2:14, followed by three stanzas of acclamation: the first addressed to God the Father, the second and third to God the Son. The above translation of the text... preserves this structure, but transposes certain lines and phrases and omits others to avoid unnecessary repetition. It has proved widely acceptable in use.

The supposed structure proposed here is not at all obvious, especially given that the original would have had no punctuation and no line (or word) breaks in written form, and that the Gloria furthermore is patently an oral-literary text whose structure is not necessarily susceptible of this kind of analysis from the written page. More importantly, transposition and omission ‘to avoid unnecessary repetition’ wrecks the effect, for repetition is a (perhaps the) fundamental oral-literary technique in this text: the fivefold act of praise ‘we praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee, we give thanks to thee...’; the threefold invocation ‘O Lord God... O Lord... O Lord God’ (hearing these as a unit in this way makes at least as much sense as the stanzaic structure conjectured by the Consultation, and as for transposing the first invocation to precede the fivefold praise, was it really not ‘clear at once to whom the acclamations refer’ in the original text?); the threefold relative ‘Thou that...’; the threefold ‘Thou only’ add up, overlapping layer upon layer (indeed parts of this text have often been sung antiphonally), to a massive ascription of praise and prayer that bespeaks eternity. (A similar situation obtains with regard to the Nicene Creed, whose doxological piling-up of praise through a long chain of participles linked by ‘and’ has been flattened by icet into a bland series of declarative sentences.) How this could be said not to be ‘readily understood in English’, and how the icet version could be said to be ‘without any basic modification of its substance and spirit’, is difficult to comprehend. If one is going to ‘avoid unnecessary repetition’, one might as well emend the Tersanctus to read simply ‘Holy’.

Msgr Andrew Wadsworth, chair of icel, the Roman Catholic body responsible for English translations of that Church’s liturgical texts, speaking several years ago at the cmaa Colloquium in Salt Lake City, pointed out that the parallel effort in Chinese – being a new endeavor in that language – had already gone through four or five successive waves, taking a while to find the right style, register, sacred vocabulary. English translation of Scripture and rite, however, has a history as long and venerable as that of the written language itself, and it should be possible in the twenty-first century, no less than in the sixteenth, the fourteenth, or the tenth, to achieve excellence and beauty in this venture. After forty years of living with the icet texts, it is high time to reëxamine them and their use.