I frequently hear Anglicans apologize for their liturgical language and customs (even on the minimal end of the scale). They have accepted the premise that “a language understanded of the people” (Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion) should be interpreted as something like “in colloquial use.” Since few of those who walk past my perch at the coffee-shop window use formal diction, much less poetic diction, the church ought not speak formally in worship.
You may be able to guess how this sets my teeth on edge. I fully accept the principle involved; a congregation ought to be conversant with the claims and invocations made on their behalf in the liturgy. Still, Article XXIV legislates against using Latin in liturgy, and we ought to be able to agree that the difference between reading ecclesiastical Latin and formal English is a lot greater than that between reading formal English and colloquial English.
We shouldn’t turn this into a William Bennett castor-oil defense of good ol’ fashion liturgical language. If someone doesn’t catch the reasons for precise verbal formulations in worship, that doesn’t make them base, or dumb, or inferior, or any other opprobrious term. Neither does it set the baseline for theological communication at the threshold of the least acute apprehension in the congregation.
The church struggled, and struggles, to articulate its claims to transcendent truth in terms that command assent as widely as possible, as precisely as possible. That enmeshes us in efforts toward attaining a kind of theological-liturgical lingua franca. When I wrote sadly about the Episcopal Church promoting an array of nine or so authorized eucharistic prayers, my concern pivoted at this point — I’m not [solely] a nostalgic old grouse, but am concerned that we’re modulating from being a loosely-joined communion with a liturgical lingua franca to being an umbrella group for allied enclaves that all speak idiosyncratic versions of a pidgin derived from the Prayerbook tradition, mingled with the vogue terminology of the moment.
That worries me for a variety of reasons. If there’s no clear theologico-liturgical grammar against which we can assess our provisional formulations, we approach a condition of mutual unintelligibility and doctrinal indifference. If every enclave frames its liturgy according to dictates indigenous to that community, wherein lies the catholicity of our communion? And if there are, in fact, some theological sticking points on which these enclaves all must agree, what are they, and (more important, in a certain way) how would we know?
It’s vitally important that the church speak in a comprehensible language, but part of its job involves teaching people that language. We don’t need to stick with an amber-encased archaic language, but neither need we dis-integrate our liturgical expressions to a point where an observer might wonder whether any distinct premises ground all of the assortment, or where a casual observer might easily conclude that any sentiment, any expression acceptably characterizes God, so long as it’s authentic. The more we proliferate “authorized” expressions of the church’s faith, the more carefully we need to coordinate them toward the sound communication of the gospel with which we’ve been entrusted.
Reader Bob writes:
I didn’t quite get what you’re actually proposing. Do you want to eliminate or reduce the number of authorized Eucharistic Prayers? I would simply point to the Roman Sacramentary, which essentially has dozens of Eucharistic Prayers, with lots of cool variations even in the theoretically standard Roman Canon. One may debate the catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church, I suppose, but I think the mere proliferation of Eucharistic prayers is not necessarily indicative of non-catholicity. It seems to me the liturgical Ordo is the true mark of catholicity, a la “Rite III” on page 400. All of our full-text prayers follow the Ordo, even II-C. I think that the different emphasis each has is what lends applicability, and interest, and reflects the diversity of thought that we celebrate within our catholicity. I would not like to go back to a single prayer. Inevitably, the emphasis of any single prayer leaves out other important emphases, (Rite I-A tends far too much toward the breast-beating for a rite that celebrates our salvation, for my taste), and seasonal or theological variation is fine. What’s wrong with a little Gallicanism, anyway?
My quick response would point to the difference between a magisterial Roman Catholicism and the more conciliar-consultative Anglican Communion. A rite is by definition sound, if it’s been vetted and promulgated by the Vatican — but we have no such decisive authority structure. Indeed, the Book of Common prayer itself seems to bear some of that authority as it functions in the ordination rite. So variety in liturgical expression operates differently in a magisterial context than in a context where the liturgical texts themselves constitute a criterion of theological soundness.
I’ve heard some conservative voices espouse a sort of hostile-takeover theory of liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church, where the Prayerbook was changed in ways that laid the groundwork for subsequent changes in the historic theological emphases of the Episcopal Church. I tend to doubt conspiracy theories, but I do think the liturgical authorities have tended to set the Episcopal Church on a risky course by modulating us from the Book of Common Prayer to an anthology of various sources for liturgical prayer; I value having a clear sense of what the church stands for (and what I dissent from!) more than having a compendious miasma of theological slurry, to the whole of which few people could avow allegiance, and to the congenial bits and pieces of which anyone could.