If necessary, use liturgy

It’s the feast of St Thomas of Canterbury, midway between Christmas and New Year, and the clergy of the Church of England have finally started to relax. You can tell, because there’s an almighty argument going on sparked by an article in the Church Times. This time, it’s about the language we use in liturgy, and whether our language is ‘accessible’ enough.

Like all good rows, it started with a simple mistake. A box in the article suggested that words like ‘almighty,’ ‘family,’ ‘grace,’ and ‘worship’ are ‘complex’ and ‘might be avoided.’

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Reading the article carefully, however, it’s clear that these are the core words ‘that will be difficult to avoid,’ not those that should or might be avoided. We seem to have the familiar sub-editing problem.

This mistake has not prevented some people from defending the list as printed, rather than as intended. This shows that there is some sympathy for the idea that liturgy as a whole should consist of texts far simpler than those we currently have. Indeed, Geoff Bayliss, who wrote the piece, is right to point out the problem that only 44% of Collects designed to be accessible achieve this aim.

However, I feel that Bayliss has not taken his opening comment,’liturgy is about more than just the text,’ seriously enough. While he discusses reading ages and readability scores, he does not discuss the more appropriate ‘Speaking and Listening’ descriptors. These suggest that students should ‘listen to […] a wide range of poems, stories and non-fiction at a level beyond that at which they can read independently’ (English KS1 & 2 2013, 11).

Doug Chaplin has already made the point that ‘readability’ might not be the correct measure for intelligibility in liturgy, so I’d like to add some brief thoughts from my own background in theatre studies.

Shakespeare is perhaps the archetypical ‘hard writer’ students will encounter at school. Even those of us with English degrees would admit to having to pause over a phrase like ‘I had as leif…’ (Hamlet 3.iii). However, teachers still persevere in making him, to some extent, understood. Not every word, perhaps, but the broad sweep of the narrative.

One way in which teachers try to help students understand Shakespeare is by showing them videos or taking them to live performances. This is because texts for performance come alive when spoken and acted – spoken language is an embodied, communal medium. I once watched a wonderful production of A Streetcar Named Desire, or, more properly, Endstation Sehnsucht, performed entirely in German. I don’t speak any German, and was not very familiar with the play, yet I could follow the plot. Of course I missed some nuances, and of course German speakers ‘got more out of it,’ but there was still plenty to ‘get’ without the language.

This phenomenon is why live performance is used to teach Shakespeare – because language is only a small aspect of communication. As a result, if I was concerned that a congregation was failing to follow the liturgy, my first instinct would not be to simplify the language, as though somehow I could offer God more comprehensively in easier words. Rather, I’d look at whether and how the liturgy worked as a whole dramatic action. Is it clear why there is a confession at the start of the service? Is there a clear difference between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament? Are the priest and other ‘speaking roles’ speaking clearly? Would manual actions during the Eucharistic Prayer clarify what is happening?

I have certainly attended churches where these things are not clear, where the only logic organising the service seems to be ‘this comes next because it’s next on the pew sheet.’ I’m sure I’m not alone in having wandered into a lunchtime Communion service, where an elderly priest is mumbling through the liturgy as though no-one were present. In these situations it isn’t primarily the language which is impeding understanding, but the performance.

Some of this, as I’ve suggested before, is a result of an ‘anti-theatrical prejudice,’ an over-valuation of text resulting, at least in the Church of England, from the Protestant rejection of Medieval Catholic ceremonial. Indeed, when there is little ceremony in a service, and when the majority of what happens is simply a priest reading aloud, more simple language may be required. This is because a liturgy with this shape understands itself to be more about the priest teaching the congregation than about the priest and congregation together offering worship to God.

However, this is not to say that ceremony, manual action, and an awareness of the performance of liturgy will always make everything comprehensible. Lively sermons which take the time to explain more difficult words and ideas are always vital. Sometimes, as we once did in my sending parish, a ‘commentated Mass’ can help to make things easier to understand. Annotated pew sheets can also provide information for newcomers and visitors, like the programme notes at the theatre. A comprehensive desire to teach the Christian faith is essential.

If we do all of this, if we offer worship which engages all the senses, rather than simply relying on words, we’ll find that complex words become more comprehensible. If we really commit to teaching the faith, we’ll find that congregations come with more and deeper questions. And, if we might worry that we or our congregations are still missing something, we needn’t worry. Most audience members don’t understand everything in an RSC Shakespeare production. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas would remind us that, while understanding of God is possible, it is only ever partial. We only understand God ‘after the manner of composite things’ (ST 1.13.9) even though God Himself is not composite.

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