Does college need a new grace?
Our students at College (or some of them, at least) are worried that the grace we use in Formal Hall is too Christian. Here we are, a college proud not to have a chapel (the only mainstream, undergraduate college in Cambridge for which that is true) -- and yet before formal dinners we are always thanking "Jesum Christum dominum nostrum" (not to mention "deum omnipotentem") , "pro largitate tua . . ." etc etc. A fair point, in a way.
So they brought to last week's college meeting an alternative grace for our consideration: "Pro cibo inter esurientes, pro comitate inter desolatos, pro pace inter bellantes, gratias agimus" ("For food in a hungry world, for companionship in a world of loneliness, for peace in an age of violence, we give thanks").
Now a lot of work had gone into this, and there were no obvious grammatical howlers in the Latin. But, irreligious as I am, I just couldn't stomach it.
For a start it was all terribly non-classical, indeed medieval in tone (true, agreed the Bursar -- but then the classical Romans didn't actually have grace did they? And what we say already would be more at home in a fifteenth-century cathedral than at Cicero's dinner table). But worse, the undergraduates' rewrite was a classic case of disguising a load of well meaning platitudes in some posh dead language, which was actually an insult to that dead language. The Beard line was simple. Could we imagine getting up and saying this in English? No. Well don't say it in Latin then. (At this point someone asked if one could say the existing grace in English with a straight face. Maybe not I thought -- but at least it has the virtue of hoary tradition.)
The debate got more complicated than this. Did the undergraduates want a secular grace or a multi-faith grace? If secular, then whom were they thanking in the new version? If it was simply a multi-faith version, then couldn't we just remove the "Jesum Christum" bit (presumably Jews and Muslims and almost every faith could tolerate a "deum omnipotentem"). After the meeting, we wondered if we shouldn't actually be thanking the cooks (or, to put it more crudely, those arguably exploited by us to bring us our nice food). But how would that go into Latin? 'Servi oppressi', suggested the Keeper of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam. Hardly a tactful way of thanking the staff, piped up the bursar.
We then began to wonder if we needed formally to approve any form of grace at all. Maybe anyone who said grace should be able to say whatever form of grace they wanted. A carte blanche there I thought, and suddenly warmed to a task I had previously shunned. And then there was the issue of the history of the existing grace. How long had it been said, and who had devised it. Noone knew. (Some later research revealed that it had actually been framed by Jocelyn Toynbee, one of Newnham's most illustrious fellows ever -- and a Catholic.)
Anyway, after this meeting, we went as usual to dinner. What grace would the Principal say?
She cleverly avoided the issue. "Please be seated", she invited us.