A member showed me an AT&T ad from Sunday’s paper. At the top of the page in block letters in the question: “How do I love thee?” He has written to the side, “Even AT&T understands what editors of modern Lutheran hymnals do not.”
He’s right. AT&T and most English speaking people of reasonable intelligence know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous line doesn’t work, doesn’t mean the same thing with ‘you’ instead of ‘thee’ because you in modern English can be a plural as well as a singular. If Browning’s sonnet sought to answer “How do I love you,” she would be counting still.
The defenders of ‘you’ versus ‘thee,” say people don’t talk that way today. They didn’t talk that way in the 1940s either, but churches retained the language. They say it “puts off young people.” I say, some, young people need to be put off.
Furthermore, I think it a small thing for the generation that expects me to understand, appreciate, and use their clipped, broken, digitized (meaning they added numbers to words – 4sure) language to do likewise with my ‘thee’s, thy’s, and thou’s.’ And finally, this generation that revels in the absurd ought to appreciate the hilarity of the people of God sounding like a resident of Appalachia yodeling down a holler as they address God in prayer as “You who.” (Say it five times fast and you’ll get the point.)
However, it’s not just that I want to retain an older, clearer, nobler way of speaking; I want to retain correct theology. The Proper Preface of the Communion liturgy closes in Lutheran Worship and The Lutheran Service Book as follows: “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, ever more praising You and saying.” Though we know the original, ancient formula was singular, you can only tell this in The Lutheran Hymnal which renders it, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, every more praising Thee and saying.” Since most Proper Prefaces (Try saying that 5 times fast!) mention the Father and the Son and sometimes the Holy Spirit, I think that people will naturally take these ‘you’s’ as plurals.
What does it matter? One, the Church bequeathed them to our generation as singulars not plurals. “This is a liturgical introduction which leads into the heart of the communion office. In its exalted sentences we have the oldest and least changed part of the liturgy” (Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 324). Two, Sasse notes somewhere that in the East the Church understand the Trinity as 3 in 1 while the West understands the Trinity as three-fold. The East is always thinking of oneness when speaking of three-ness; the West three-ness when speaking of oneness. In the Proper Preface, the East bleeds over to our West reminding us of the importance of God’s oneness even when we’re speaking of His three-ness.
Does it really matter if we fail to distinguish a singular from a plural? Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought so, AT&T thinks so, and the Church for centuries before us thought so. If you think not, try saying on Valentine’s Day to your sweetie, “How do I love you?” If we are hesitant to alter a 19th century sonnet this way, perhaps we should hesitate before altering a 19 centuries old prayer that way.