Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 May 2007

Psalms in wartime
Czech New Testament and Psalms, 1845

As a lifelong aficionado of old books, I have made a point of visiting the local antiquarian bookshops while travelling. During a visit to Prague in what was then still called Czechoslovakia in November 1976, I found more than one such shop and purchased a number of volumes dating from the 19th century. One of these was a metrical psalter and hymnal published in 1900, a scanned photograph of which can be found on my Genevan Psalter website.

Another volume dates from 1845 and contains the New Testament and Psalms translated into the Czech language. (Years later I was struck by the irony of my having taken a Bible out of a communist country!) The print is in the old German blackletter and the text uses an older spelling (with "w" for "v", "j" for "i", &c.). The frontispiece (shown above) indicates that this edition was intended for use by "Evangelical Christians of the Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions," i.e., by Lutheran and Reformed Christians.

Czech Psalms
The Psalms are, of course, of special interest to me, especially the various ways they are used in the course of the liturgy or by individual believers at prayer. Two days ago, while paging through this section, I discovered something I hadn't before noticed. The owner of this volume at the beginning of the 20th century, whose name seems to have been Karel (spelt "Carl" in the handwritten name at the bottom of the page opposite the frontispiece) Lány, read through the Psalms at the pace of one psalm per day (except for Psalm 119), taking time to mark the date at the top of each. (Might it have been this Karel Lány?) He started with Psalm 1 on "1./8.", i.e., 1 August 1914, and continued until he read Psalm 150 on "18./I. 1915", i.e., 18 January 1915.

The timing may not have been incidental. Lány lived in Austria-Hungary, whose heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June. Tensions had mounted after that, with Austria-Hungary issuing an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July and declaring war five days later. This quickly brought the other European powers onside of either Austria or Serbia, with battles beginning and intensifying into the autumn and winter months. It seems rather likely that Lány — apparently a Lutheran or Reformed Christian living in the predominantly Catholic Czech provinces — turned to the Psalms as the Great War was breaking out.

Perhaps he had a son of conscription age and was concerned for his safety should his country go to war. As a member of a religious minority (and with Hungarian origins at that), he may have sensed how fragile his country's unity really was at the outset of what proved to be the defining event of the 20th century. One can only imagine the subsequent history of this little book. It is possible that Lány lived into the nazi and communist eras, when atheistic régimes made it costly to maintain a public witness to the faith. After Lány's death, the volume may have passed down to his children and grandchildren who were perhaps less appreciative of its significance, selling it to an antiquarian bookseller, whence it came into my hands three decades ago. Of course this can only be speculation.

One thing is certain. While the Battle of Tannenberg was raging to the north between Germany and Russia, Lány read these words from Psalm 27:

Though a host encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
yet I will be confident.
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD,
and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent,
he will set me high upon a rock.

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29 May 2007

A nonmarxist sartorial flourish

Lenin wearing bowtie
Note the neckwear (click to enlarge)

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27 May 2007

Pentecost and Psalm 104

A little over two decades ago I wrote a hymn text titled simply A Hymn for Pentecost, which I have just posted on my Genevan Psalter website. Here is the text:

O Spirit of God, descend as a dove,
alight on our hearts, fill them with your love.
As once the apostles were touched by your flame,
so rest upon us that new life we may claim.

O Fount of our faith, come, grant us your grace
that we might believe and so find a place
within your blest Kingdom, as promised to all
whom God in his mercy has chosen to call.

O Breath of true life, breathe into our pleas
the words that we dare to speak on our knees;
for we are God's children and heirs of his love,
therefore may we call on our Father above.

O Source of all strength, make us to be bold,
as oft you inspired your prophets of old.
Now give us the courage plainly to declare
your life-giving message to all who will hear.

O Counsellor, come: our spirit renew,
and guide your elect in paths that are true.
O lead us through shadows that darken our way
that we may walk joyfully into the day.

Text copyright © 1985 by David T. Koyzis

The tune I chose was OLD 104TH, composed by Thomas Ravenscroft for his Whole Book of Psalms, published in 1621. I had recently heard a recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, which was my introduction to this melody. My choice was influenced by the ancient tradition appointing the singing of Psalm 104 on the feast of Pentecost.

There appears to be a curious relationship between Ravenscroft's 104 and the Genevan Psalter's tune for the same psalm. The metre (10.10.11.11) is identical save for two things: (1) That of the Genevan melody is double that of Ravenscroft (10.10.11.11.10.10.11.11), and (2) the internal stresses are quite different. In Ravenscroft's Psalter this text is joined to his tune, as sung by the choral ensemble in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia. Yet it seems that in the Scottish Psalter of 1635 the Genevan melody was used, as indicated here. I personally find it more difficult to sing "My soul, Praise the Lord, speak good of his Name" to the Genevan tune than to Ravenscroft's, which better fits the text. Yet my own assessment was obviously not shared by many Christians in the 17th century.

There is obviously a story to be told about the relationship between these two tunes, but I don't know whether anyone has ever looked into it. It could, I suppose, make up a chapter in someone's dissertation, if there's a graduate student somewhere interested in pursuing the topic.

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25 May 2007

So soon?

Only weeks after the recent provincial election in La Belle Province comes this: Opposition to Quebec budget may trigger snap election. If so, then it seems to me that the new Lieutenant Governor might be within his constitutional authority to refuse dissolution of the National Assembly, either requesting Premier Jean Charest to negotiate further with the ADQ or the PQ, or summoning the leaders of the other two parties to see whether they might be able to form an alternative coalition government. Voters shouldn't have to go to the polls every few months, much less weeks. It's time for heads of minority governments at federal and provincial levels to recognize that they cannot continue to govern as if they had a majority.

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23 May 2007

Church hostage to its own canon law

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is still in a state of uncertainty after the Kingdom of Jordan withdrew its recognition of Theophilos III as patriarch. "Church law dictates the Patriarch must have the blessing of the Holy Land's ruling powers — Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel." So change the law already!

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Tehran supports Cyprus

It is good to know that Iran, under its beneficent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a force for peace and justice in the region: Iran supports fair settlement of Cyprus problem. The Nobel committee should keep this in mind for future reference.

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Fountain of youth in Canada

This is good news for us middle-aged folk: Exercise 'reverses' muscle ageing. And to think it all started here in Hamilton.

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Skillen on Turkey

The latest contribution to the Center for Public Justice's new Root & Branch series is by James Skillen and titled, Watch Turkey! Skillen analyzes the current debate in that country as one between two religions: Islam and Kemalist securalism. He has fairly kind words for the current prime minister and would-be president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). These, he believes, are advancing, not an islamist establishment, but public pluralism:

[T]he AKP has demonstrated that it is not necessary for citizens to believe in secularism in order to enjoy full citizenship in the republic. In essence, the AKP is putting something new into practice, different from both monopolistic secularism and monopolistic Islam. We might call it public pluralism through which people of all faiths, including both secularists and Muslims, are given room to live out their faiths in public life without any one of them being allowed to monopolize the political arena.

The thing to watch in Turkey now, with the upcoming July election for president (the only office not yet won by the AKP), is whether the AKP government can maintain popular support for public pluralism and an open democratic society. Will the more radical Islamists support such a society in which they have more room to express themselves but cannot dominate? And will radical secularists, including the military leaders, accept a system that gives believing secularists continued access to political life but no longer a monopoly on government, the military, and the bureaucracy? If so, Turkey may well be developing a model that could have potent significance for other Muslim countries, for religiously diversified countries such as India and Indonesia, and even for Western countries such as France and the United States.

Those with experience of Turkey, whether direct or indirect, might be forgiven for doubting the plausibility of such a happy outcome. To secure the agreement of both radical Islamists and radical secularists for a new public pluralism would be a considerable task that runs counter to both post-1920s republican and pre-1920s Ottoman history. It is unclear whether Erdogan is up to it or whether the military would even allow it. Nevertheless it would unquestionably be an improvement over the status quo.

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21 May 2007

Victoria Psalter

Victoria Psalter
What better way to spend Victoria Day than to page through a copy of Owen Jones' The Psalms of David, "with permission dedicated to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria," also known as the Victoria Psalter. Jones (1809-1874) was an architect and ornamental designer who served as a superintendent of works at the Great Exhibition of 1851. His 1856 Grammar of Ornament had an influence on subsequent architects and designers in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1862 he published the Victoria Psalter, a chromolithographed illuminated psalter with colours limited to red, blue and gold. The text of the Psalms is that of Miles Coverdale's translation, as found in the Book of Common Prayer. The 150 Psalms are divided into 30 groups so as to be said or sung over a 30-day period. Each day is further divided into two for morning and evening prayer. The Psalm at the beginning of each group is preceded by chant tones, as can be seen by clicking on the image above.

I recently purchased a reprinted edition of this Psalter, published in 2002 by North Parade Publishing. For those who like illuminated manuscripts, this is worth purchasing, especially at the discounted price offered at Chapters. However, there are flaws in this edition. The dedicatory pages are in reverse order. It suffers from the lack of a comprehensive introduction to Jones and the Psalter. The dust jacket has two brief paragraphs on the inner flaps, but one of these manages to confuse this Jones with another Owen Jones by citing the latter's birth and death years. It further has him visiting the Middle East 9 years after his own death! The other flap claims that Jones created his Psalter at 79, an age he again never lived to see. These evident defects may explain the discount. Still, if one ignores these, the book is a visual feast.

For those wishing to explore further the tradition of illuminated manuscripts, check out the considerably more ancient — and more visually stunning — Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels.

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17 May 2007

UK PM to be RC?

Rumour has it that the soon-to-be former British Prime Minister, Mr. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, will take the plunge and swim the Tiber once he has left office. We shall see.

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Put away your skates

This sounds like something out of science fiction: Distant, hot world mostly ice: scientists. If you tried to play hockey on this ice, not only might your skates melt, but the pressure would get to you too.

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Ecclesial reconciliation

The longstanding schism between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia is no more: Russian Orthodox Church Reunites After 80-Year Split.

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14 May 2007

Is the Social Gospel Christian?

On the centenary of the publication of Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis, Joseph Loconte offers a hard-hitting assessment of the impact of the Social Gospel on the churches in North America: Christianity Without Salvation.

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The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

For the first years following Confederation in 1867, Canada had no federal supreme court, though it had the right to establish one under section 101 of what was then called the British North America Act. Not until 1875 was the Supreme Court of Canada set up, and even then it was not technically supreme. Those dissatisfied with rulings of this court could appeal one more level to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. After the Statute of Westminster of 1931, however, Canada was authorized to abolish such appeals which it did in 1949. Probably the most famous Privy Council ruling for this country was the 1929 "Persons" case, which established that women are persons under the law and thus eligible for Senate appointments.

Gradually most Commonwealth countries have abolished appeals to the Privy Council, including New Zealand as recently as 2004. However, appeals of cases decided before then have continued to make their way across two oceans to London for final decision. In what is apparently its last decision relevant to New Zealand, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has thrown out the murder convictions of David Bain, thereby calling into question the justice system of that country. Many New Zealanders see merit in cutting one more tie to the United Kingdom. However, the Campaign for the Privy Council is not persuaded, as indicated in the group's press release: Bain Decision Vindicates Privy Council Appeals. Supporters argue that "however good the New Zealand judiciary might be, there is nothing to equal an independent outside body to ensure quality control." Prime Minister Helen Clark defends the decision to abolish appeals and believes that access to a local Supreme Court may actually facilitate the appeal process.

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PQ in turmoil, part 2

Bonjour, Gilles? Mais non.

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12 May 2007

True North a dieter's paradise

They've finally discovered why efforts at weight loss are so famously successful in this country: Canada's odd low gravity a relic of the ice age.

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And now today's headlines. . .

Here are some stories that were either not covered by the media or not deemed of sufficient importance to make the front page.

While thursday's March for Life in Ottawa was reported by the National Post, a Google News search reveals that few others paid attention to it. Footage of the march has been posted on Youtube but will likely not be seen on television. Joanne (True Blue) surveys media coverage of the event. Several Anglo-Catholic Ninjas (one of whom I taught a few years ago) were in attendance as well.

That same day my esteemed colleague, Deani Van Pelt, at a public event at Redeemer, presented the findings of a study exploring Ontario's Private Schools: Who Chooses Them and Why? The study was a collaborative effort amongst Van Pelt, Derek J. Allison and Patricia A. Allison of the University of Western Ontario, and was sponsored by the Fraser Institute. A report on this appears in the Ottawa Sun. Congratulations to Van Pelt and her associates.

Going overseas to what was once the heartland of the christian faith in ancient times, three Christians were murdered by Turkish nationals last month at a bible publishing house in the city of Malatya in east-central Turkey. This latest atrocity follows other attacks on Christians in that predominantly muslim but officially secular country.

Finally, Christians in Baghdad are being forced by Sunni insurgents to flee their homes and neighbourhoods. Sadly, American-led troops appear to be unaware of the Christians' plight and are thus doing nothing to stop it.

All of these stories deserve more publicity than they have received thus far.

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10 May 2007

Swimming the Tiber

Here is a name that, admittedly, I had not known before, but this news is making waves in evangelical circles: Evangelical professor becomes Catholic. Christianity Today's David Neff interviews Francis Beckwith about his reconversion and the unexpected reverberations. Here's Beckwith himself on My Return to the Catholic Church. All of this reminds me of the fuss made over Tom Howard's reception into the Roman Catholic Church back in 1985. After reading such stories, I keep coming back to this question: Why Rome and not Constantinople?

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09 May 2007

PQ in turmoil

Au revoir, André. Bonjour, Gilles?

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07 May 2007

Canada's established religion

If, as Melanie Philips puts it, human rights is a religion for a godless age, then this edifice must be its temple: Human rights museum details unveiled. The magisterium for this new faith will be located in Winnipeg. Of course every ecclesial establishment must have its own website. Just how many Canadians can be expected to make the annual hajj to the holy city on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers is unclear.

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Is it just coincidence. . .

. . . or is there a genuine medical reason why my shoes are considerably more comfortable since my appendectomy? Just curious.

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And now from Paris. . .

The tough guy goes to the Élysée Palace: Sarkozy wins French presidency amid decades-high turnout. Socialist opponent Ségolène Royal tries to remain upbeat after her defeat.

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04 May 2007

Fixed election dates

It is rare for a sitting government to make a change that would limit its ability to act, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done just that with this overdue constitutional reform: Bill setting federal elections every 4 years about to become law. Now if only we could adopt proportional representation on the federal level.

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Tallis' famous theme

Thomas Tallis
One of my favourite pieces of music is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written by the famed English composer in 1910. I fell in love with this magnificent work 25 years ago while studying for one of my written comprehensive exams at Notre Dame. The “theme” in the title is a tune composed by the Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter to which a versification of Psalm 2 is set. In most hymnals it is given the title THIRD MODE MELODY, because it’s in the phrygian mode, and it is sometimes paired with Horatius Bonar’s text, I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. In the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnal a metrical version of Psalm 62 is set to it.

The tune itself doesn’t seem especially strong, at least at first. There’s not much movement in the first half of the melody, which sneaks up on the listener hesitantly with a chant-like quality. But there’s something compelling about it, all the same. Like most music of the period, it lacks a regular time signature, yet it’s in the double common metre ubiquitous in English psalmody and hymnody. Above all it is an “ecclesiastical” tune, breathing the spirit of the church’s liturgy.

In the hands of Vaughan Williams this tune takes on an unforgettably haunting quality. The Fantasia is played entirely by strings, and the composer even employs parallel fifths, which defy musical convention but work wonderfully to heighten a sense of awe and mystery. When the piece finally brings us back to the original tune, we recognize that we have been on a remarkable musical journey – perhaps into a nearly forgotten past of some four and a half centuries ago. On more than one occasion this piece has left me with moist eyes. Listen for yourself below:



One can nearly picture the peaceful nobility of the English countryside in the composer’s swelling cadences. I myself tend to associate it with another tranquil landscape, viz., that formed by the land along the Illinois Prairie Path, where I rode my bicycle during that summer of a quarter century ago.

Remarkably, Vaughan Williams seems to have considered himself an agnostic, despite his having contributed so much to the music of the English church. Who does not love to sing For All the Saints, set to his whimsically (un)named SINE NOMINE? Incidentally Vaughan Williams was the grandnephew of Charles Darwin.

As for Tallis' THIRD MODE MELODY, here is another elaboration composed by the late Texas composer Fisher Tull in 1971, Sketches on a Tudor Psalm. This has a quite different feel to it. While Vaughan Williams' Fantasia is written entirely for strings, Tull's Sketches are for brass band. This gives the piece a less tranquil and more dynamic and agitated flavour, as underscored by the discordant tonality and energetic percussion. There are echoes of Vaughan Williams in a very few of Tull's phrases. Here is a description of Tull's work:

Sketches on a Tudor Psalm is based on a 16th Century setting of the Second Psalm by Thomas Tallis. The original version was in the Phygian mode with the melody in the tenor voice. A modern adaptation is still used today in Anglican services. The introduction sets the harmonic character by emphasizing the juxtaposition of major and minor triads. The theme is first presented by solo alto saxophone, continued by horns, and followed by a fully harmonized version from the brass. The variations begin to unfold in an Allegro section with a melody in the clarinets that was constructed from the retrograde of the theme. Fragments of the theme are selected for rhythmic and melodic transformation. Finally, the opening harmonic sequence returns in highly punctuated rhythms to herald the recapitulation of the theme beginning in the low woodwinds and culminating in a full-scored setting of the climactic measures. A coda continues the development as the music builds to a triumphal close on a major chord.

Finally, soon after discovering Tallis' tune, I wrote a metrical versification of Psalm 25 to be sung to it, along with my own arrangement of the melody. I will not claim it to be the equal of Vaughan Williams' or Tull's efforts, but it is intended to return it to its original use, namely, as a setting for a psalm.

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