One of the glories of the Anglican tradition is our Prayer Book, which represents an earnest effort to combine Biblical texts into a theologically sound and eloquent expression of Christian worship. Despite its many merits, the Prayer Book (our version was published in 1928) contains some old words and phrases that could cause confusion, particularly because some words have changed meaning over time. The Anglican Church in North America has just published a modern language version of the Prayer Book intended to address this issue. Until that new version is widely accepted, however, the following notes may be helpful.
Comfort. Many prayers talk about God comforting us, or providing comfortable words. In its original meaning, comfort means to strengthen (same root as fortitude).
Vouchsafe. This means literally to promise or guaranty that something is safe. The meaning is to grant, particularly when used of someone of higher status (like God). So ask God, vouchsafe to bless us, which means to condescend to give us a blessing.
Grace. We ask for God’s grace, or we ask God to be gracious towards us. These days, grace and graceful are words we use to describe figure skaters. The original meaning of grace is a free gift provided by one who has no need to give it. This was a huge concept for Reformation theologians, who emphasized how our salvation was a free gift of God, not something we had earned or could earn.
Thee, thou and ye. These older pronouns have been replaced in modern English by “you.” Although obsolete, the older versions have two interesting features. First, they distinguish between singular and plural as “you” does not (except in the South, where one can say “y’all”). Second, they were an informal way of address. The distinction remains in German (between “du” and “Sie”) and in French (between “tu” and “vous”). In other words, when we address God using “thee” and “thou,” we are treating God, as a family member, which Jesus encouraged by teaching us to call God “Father” (in the Lord’s Prayer). Unfortunately, some people, hearing God referred to as “thou,” assume that “thee” and “thou” are words of special reverence, and consequently you see people in movies referring to kings as “thou.” The “common speech” use of “thee” and “thou” as familiar forms of address remains among the Quakers, who use it to signify that all are equal brothers and sisters in the service of God.