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Liturgy as language (part 4)

If you have skipped the last couple of posts in this series because they have had a particularly Kiwi Anglican focus, do not skip this one. This post is what the series has been leading up to and why the series has the title “Liturgy as language”.

(Series so far: Introductory post; Kiwi Anglican history 1, Kiwi Anglican history 2)

Language as a model for liturgy

Language is picked up naturally during our formative years by participating in a community that uses that language fluently and creatively. As we grow up we also normally complement this formation by receiving some instruction in how to use this language from those who have studied the way the language functions well. Historically there may be moments when language makes a significant change. Shakespeare was such a change within the English language. In the sixteenth century the English language became acceptable whereas previously in England French and Latin had dominance as the respectable languages. Some have credited Shakespeare with introducing 10,000 new words into the language. This is most probably an exaggeration – but it is still likely that he introduced at least a sixth of this sum into English literature.

The “rules” of grammar and the explanation of the meaning of words are hence descriptive – they describe the way that native speakers use the language. If you are not a native speaker, or struggle with the language, then the rules of grammar and dictionary can also be prescriptiveprescribing, stipulating, how to use the language.

A living language is only ever one generation away from vanishing. Once a language has been lost it is possible to revive it. Dictionaries and rules of grammar will then, of course, no longer be descriptive – as there is no living language that one is describing. If the language is being recovered, the attitude to dictionaries and grammar rules will be primarily a regarding of them as prescriptive.

Applying the model of language to liturgy

This series began as a response to an assertion that NZ Anglicanism was not using liturgical prayer fruitfully – and that this struggling to use liturgical prayer has been happening for the last twenty, to twenty-five years – a full generation. I then summarised how this generation lost the liturgical facility (in this post followed by this post).

I want to use the model of language I have developed above to reflect on this. There is a danger in my using language as a model for liturgy. The danger is that people will think I am primarily focusing on the words used in liturgy. In fact I think of gesture and vesture, worship environment, music, and so on, as all part of the “language of liturgy” as well as the words used in liturgy.

Liturgy is picked up naturally during our formative years by participating in a community that uses liturgy fluently and creatively. As we grow we also normally complement this formation by receiving some instruction in how to use liturgy from those who have studied the way liturgy functions well. Historically there may be moments when liturgy makes a significant change. From the 1960s was such a change within liturgy.

The “rules” of liturgy are hence descriptive – they describe the way that well-formed communities use liturgy. If you are not part of a well-formed community, or struggle with liturgy, then the rules of liturgy can also be prescriptiveprescribing, stipulating, how to use liturgy.

If living liturgy vanishes it is possible to revive it. Rubrics and responses will then, of course, no longer be descriptive – as there is no living liturgical life that one is describing. If liturgy is being recovered, the attitude to rubrics, responses, and so on will be primarily a regarding of them as prescriptive.

When a presider at worship stands in front of the gathered community, opens arms wide and says “The Lord be with you” (from memory/by heart), and the community responds enthusiastically from memory/by heart – then this is a sign that this community is using liturgy as a “living language”.

When, on the other hand, a presider at worship stands in front of the gathered community gripping a book, reading the statement from the book, and even addressing the book – and the community responds by reading from the book or from a screen or sheet – then this is a sign that the “language of liturgy” has died. In this second scenario, in which liturgical life has been lost, when a community still follows a prayer book, there will be a much greater emphasis on doing the liturgy in the way the book says only because “that is what is required”. The book, for them, becomes more prescriptive than descriptive. The greeting from the liturgical book is no longer a real greeting – but used mostly (or even solely) because it is prescribed. In such a community the liturgy from the prayer book becomes increasingly “unreal”, disconnected from the real life of the community, even false. It is understandable that such a community increasingly abandons liturgical life in a spiralling circle. In such a service when the presider shifts from using liturgical responses to addressing the gathering “normally” s/he appears to peek out from behind the fixed liturgical pieces and then withdraw again to the prescribed material. The greetings of the liturgy are not experienced as real greetings. Inevitably the prayers are not experienced as real prayers. And the promises are not experienced as real promises.

This is not to suggest, of course, that in a well-formed liturgical community there is no place for following texts. Quite the opposite. In a well-formed liturgical community hymns will still be sung from books just as readings will be read from books and prayers and other texts will be read from books. But such a community will be agile in when we address each other (from memory/by heart), when God, and so on.

Languages have been revived from nearly having died – but it takes significant passion and commitment. The same, let us hope, may also be true for liturgy.

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9 Responses to Liturgy as language (part 4)

  1. You say that liturgy is learned as language during our formative years, but later we come together with those who have learned *their* liturgy as language elsewhere, and with different assumptions about the “meaning” of movements and gestures.

  2. This string is well suited to use as a discussion document by someone like me – in my (Chinese student) English corners. Thanks.
    I also would like to share that during my morning devotions I have begun saying ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ with meditative gaps between each epithet. As a non-liturgical background believer I would also (if I were back in NZ) prefer at times to take time to move through the prayer-book statements. It is difficult to make them immediately meaningful when people seem to speak as fast as the can so-as-to-get home-for-the-Sunday-roast.

  3. Bosco, this is insightful and interesting. I wonder if this idea can be expanded to give some insight into the conflict within TEC and the Anglican Communion. Some have been formed in descriptive language and others in prescriptive language. At some level we are saying the same words but speaking a different language. Seems that whether its in liturgy or the wider church relations we need to learn both – that there are times when one language might be more appropriate or helpful than the other. Also, the two languages take together offer some accountability or checks and balances to each other.

  4. I appreciate what you’re saying here about liturgy as language and how congregations can connect with it.

    With regard to the linguistic history, you wrote: “In the sixteenth century the English language became acceptable whereas previously in England French and Latin had dominance as the respectable languages.”

    The 16th c. did see a patriotic interest in promoting English literature, but actually, English had become acceptable & respectable as the primary language of England over a century earlier: In the mid-14th c. the Statute of Pleading made English the language of the courts, and using English also became common in Parliament. Throughout the 15th century, English was the national language, even if French and Latin remained languages of international learning, theology, and diplomacy.

  5. We learn language not only from daily conversational and instructive use, though, but also from hearing stories and singing songs. Stories and songs often have phrases that are repeated, and use phrases that we wouldn’t use in ordinary language–these phrases add to the beauty and memorability of the stories and songs, and may, over time, add visual images to our store of memories. As our education progresses, our language is potentially enriched by exposure to poetry, drama and literature from other times and cultures. I believe all these sources are important resources language that will add vitality to the development of our liturgical language, and counteract the often impoverished language of daily life.

    While I certainly agree that liturgical language needs to be directed into the midst of those who gather to worship, and not slavishly be read from books, it also must be recognized that some officiants have better memories than others. For some officiants, this may mean developing better reading skills, so they’re not so tied to the page; for others, this may mean periodically having someone film them during a service, so they can see themselves as others see them in worship. If the liturgy is sung, many of us need to have the musical line at least readily available, if not constantly in front of our faces. Few of us are equipped to extemporize, either in said or sung liturgies. In any case, it seems to me that a main concern for all who officiate or read for gathered worship should be to have due concern for preparation, presentation, and above all, for spiritual intention and humility.

  6. Thanks Bosco for your writings. Actually I had developed the same analogy of use of language for liturgy in reflection on my life in Korea. As a person who struggles with speaking and understanding Korean and is far from fluent I have reflected on a lot of what I have seen liturgically in the Anglican Church of Korea (ANCK) based on my experience of what it is to be “linguistically challenged”. There hasn’t been the same abandoning of common forms of liturgy as in NZ (although there is a vociferous movement wanting to do so, so that we can have worship the same as the Presbyterians and will therefore have their numbers as well) but we see the results of liturgics not being taught well (or at all) in seminaries, coupled with a intensely conservative society ordered by seniority in which a junior person (e.g. a curate) can do nothing other than keep quiet and obey commands.

    Linking this to linguistics the parallel is that of a beginner in a language who has learnt only fixed expressions and who is thrown by something outside the rote. The rules are prescriptive and also very limited and the practicer of language or liturgy lacks the confidence to move outside those rules, because from their perspective the rule will have been broken, the language won’t communicate meaning or the liturgy will be invalid.

    With fluency in language there comes the ability to move beyond the rules, to be creative with the language, knowing if there is effective communication or not. This is the level of poetry and humour and language as natural as breathing. The parallel with liturgy is that the forms are so well understood and so deeply internalised that they become the material of a creativity which is both true to the forms and also responds to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

    But language at a beginner’s level is like liturgy read with heads in books, frightened to engage with others, and more significantly, unable to reflect critically. For example (as in ANCK) to reflect on the dismissal rite and to see isn’t it odd that the dismissal “Go out and proclaim the gospel” is actually regarded as a rubric with the effect “Sit down and listen to the notices”. Or that sometimes because of confusion in understanding the lectionary the gospel of the entombment is read in the Easter vigil. It takes a basic level of fluency to see that these practices are, in terms of the whole picture, rather odd. Without this fluency the result is heads in books and the impression that the priest is following a particularly difficult recipe.

    This is where the problems of liturgical education are acute in the Korean context. It’s easy to educate seminarians or curates, but as one said to me, “It would be suicide if I talked about any of this with my priest”, because that would be a challenge to the priest’s seniority. And just as it’s hard to break out of a level of barely functional linguistic ability because the very tools needed for that are lacking, so it’s very hard to break out of the liturgical equivalent.

    Thanks Bosco for sparking off this discussion. (And I am sure ANCK is not as bad as I might be suggesting – there are many excellent things here – as well as the “opportunities for reflection>”

  7. Thanks for the contributions enriching this important thread.

    Joel – you may not be aware that this way of praying the Lord’s Prayer has a long tradition. One solution to your point about rushing through the words in the liturgy is to use less words. I personally am wearied by the verbosity of so much “liturgical worship.” Said slowly I’m sure the “required” parts of a Sunday Eucharistic liturgy take little more than 5 minutes to recite – yet people appear to love to turn them into pious poetry recitals. Less is more – in my opinion.

    Mark I love your suggestion that liturgy also needs to move through “read” to “mark, learn and inwardly digest.” Is there any parallel that the NZ Anglican Church has omitted this classic collect from our Prayer Book?

    Peggy, if you have followed this thread it is arguing that the moments of addressing the congregation (eg. at the start, sign of peace, start of the Eucharistic Prayer, dismissal) ought to be addressed to the congregation and not to books. If a presider cannot memorise these few I suggest they are in the wrong ministry. I highlighted in previous posts that NZ has done a disservice in increasing the variety and confusing responses at these very points. Certainly eg. praying the Eucharistic Prayer including singing it one might discretely have a text.

    Christopher, you enlarge my point exactly: once one is fluent in a language one can use it creatively and flexibly – that is what I hope for similarly in liturgy.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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