06 September 2003

Liturgy and archaic language

One of my esteemed colleagues, whenever he is responsible for leading faculty in prayer, almost invariably goes to the Book of Common Prayer as his primary resource. This is not at all a bad thing to do, as the BCP is filled with the vast liturgical riches of western Christendom, as well as with a few gems from the east.

But of course the BCP is 450 years old and its language is that of Elizabethan England, much of which is largely incomprehensible today. We are no longer accustomed to addressing each other as thou and thee. We speak of the living rather than the quick. “Who for us men and for our salvation” presupposes a generic usage of men that has not been current for quite some time, even before the latest wave of feminism. But what I personally find most jarring is the use of “Holy Ghost” for the “Holy Spirit,” the word ghost having long come to be associated with Halloween and the occult. However, far from finding this language jarring, my colleague positively glories in the archaic language of the BCP, much more than I, and probably most of the rest of my colleagues, could manage to do.

At the same time, it must be admitted that liturgical language tends almost everywhere to lag behind ordinary usage. In short, my colleague’s affection for the BCP is by no means unusual or extraordinary within the christian tradition. (Judaism and Islam have their own versions of this phenomenon.) Up until the 1960s the vast majority of Roman Catholic churches worshipped in Latin. The reforms of Vatican II brought in vernacular liturgies, but there are many Catholics who continue to regret this and seek out churches where the Latin mass is celebrated. Several years ago Nancy and I visited a church in a Polish neighbourhood on the northwest side of Chicago where a Latin mass was celebrated, complete with breathtakingly beautiful choral settings by Palestrina and other renaissance composers. (My sister, a professional musician, was one of the sopranos in the choir.) The occasion was the Feast of the Assumption, on 15 August. Devout Catholics had come from miles around, including some of the farther suburbs, to attend. Why would they travel so far to worship in a language few understand and none speak?

In the Orthodox churches, which have historically recognized the legitimacy of vernacular worship, the same phenomenon is nevertheless present. In the Greek churches the Divine Liturgy is sung in the koine Greek used in the New Testament. This is true, not only in the old country, but here in North America as well, where the Greeks have been less willing than, say, Russians and Ukrainians, to embrace English in the liturgy. Orthodox liturgies in the Slavic-speaking countries are historically sung in Old Church Slavonic, an archaic tongue once spoken in the Macedonian region around the now Greek city of Thessaloniki. (It is thus much closer to modern Bulgarian than to Russian.)

In the Middle East Christians continue to worship in the languages of their ancestors, even where they themselves grew up with Arabic as their mother tongue. The 8 million Egyptian Christians are a good example of this, as they worship in the Coptic of their pharaonic forebears. Similarly, the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and elsewhere chant the liturgy in the Aramaic dialect that was once the lingua franca of the region.

To be honest, I am of two minds about updating liturgical language. As a general rule I believe it is best for Christians to worship in a language they themselves can easily understand. Even the most conservative protestant congregations have largely abandoned the King James Version of the Bible, substituting instead the New King James Version or possibly the recently published English Standard Version. Most other churches now use the NIV or the NRSV. There is good reason for this, since we should all wish to see God’s word proclaimed in comprehensible form.

At the same time, it would be a pity if English-speakers were to lose their grasp of the Elizabethan forms altogether. Who would the Copts be if they were to lose their ancestral Coptic language? Or the Maronites without Aramaic? Without Church Slavonic would Russians be forced to change, say, the cities of Volgograd and Kaliningrad to Volgogorod and Kaliningorod, just so people could continue to understand their meaning? To be sure, this is not an argument with an explicitly biblical basis. Yet to lose altogether the language of their ancestors could only be interpreted as a loss for the communion of saints understood as extending throughout time. Just as Christians strive to learn other living languages so they can preach the gospel to distant corners of the earth, there is something to be said for maintaining (or, if they have been lost, relearning) the languages of our fathers and mothers in the faith – precisely so we can receive something of the gospel from them.

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