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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