On Language for the Liturgy, I

There has been a certain amount of discussion in various Facebook groups about revisions to the prayer book. I include here the obligatory reminder that the Episcopal Church is not currently in the process of revising the BCP, there is merely discussion over the possibility of revision…

That having been said, one of the issues that has popped up several times is about the issue of language, specifically, the use of the English language in the prayer book and what constitutes “language understood by the people.”

When these discussions break out, it seems to me that several arguments are going on and within some of these arguments some important distinctions are being either conflated or being ignored altogether.

One of the discussions involves levels of literacy. To what degree should the English used in the liturgy be intelligible to people of various degrees of literacy? What happens when a multisyllabic or difficult vocabulary word appears in a liturgical text? A fine example here would be one of my favorite words in the Rite I General Thanksgiving: “inestimable.” This is a long word that some people do not know and that people with limited English literacy (children, non-native speakers) might have trouble with. The framers of Rite II weighed in by altering it to “immeasurable.” It’s still just as long, but has a more common and easily understood root (measure). To clarify, what is at issue in this kind of argument is literal comprehensibility.

A second discussion involves technical terms. There is a distinct science of Christian theology. Like any other science, it uses technical terms in order to apply linguistic precision to its discussions. Words like “consubstantiation,” “perichoretic,” or “eschatological” or a phrase like “prevenient grace” are examples of technical terms. Generally speaking, these words are not largely used outside of Christian or religious discourse.

A third discussion involves “terms of art,” a phrase that can shade into the word “jargon” used in a technical rather than pejorative sense. A term of art is a word that is used within the wider language but that has a specific and more closely circumscribed meaning when used by a particular field, discipline, or community. An example would be the word “cult.” In standard English, a cult is a negative term to speak about a small religious movement characterized by manipulation and a leader who demands total obedience, often for nefarious ends. When used by scholars of religion, though, “cult” simply refers to the worship practices of a group or worship towards a particular deity; it has no negative meaning. Or, to come closer to the topic at hand, people in the church will refer to a wafer as a “host.” While this word has a given meaning in standard English, its church use differs from the standard usage.

Most of the discussions about language are imprecise arguments around whether Christian liturgy ought to use technical terms or terms of art. Often this is couched in the language of hospitality and inclusion: is it exclusive to use language that non-Christians will not understand?

A key problem here is how we define “standard” English and how we identify when a given term become unintelligible. For instance, I have heard arguments that words like “redemption,” “repentance,” “forgiveness,” “sin,” and “salvation” are insider words that the church needs to avoid. I’m constantly confused by this because I hear these words plenty in popular American music. Can you really make the argument that a word is not understood by regular speakers when it shows up frequently in pop music or mainstream rock? The only way this argument makes sense to me is if you posit—and can demonstrate—that the meaning between a “popular” use and “church” use has drifted so far that the one is unintelligible to the other.

Far more frequently, I think something else is at work here especially as it tends to pop up around works like “sin” and “sacrifice.” These words have a meaning, and it is flavored by centuries of use within the church. When church people suggest that they are unintelligible and exclusive to non-church people, I wonder if the meaning is not clear or if they don’t like the meaning that the term currently has. I wonder if a desire for new language is an attempt to make an aspect of the faith more palatable to the church people who take issue with a term.

Bottom line: if you take issue with the use of the word “sin” in the liturgy, your root problem may not be that visitors can’t understand it…

There’s more to be said about this topic, though, especially around what kind of language liturgies can or ought to be written in. I’ll get around to those shortly.


9 thoughts on “On Language for the Liturgy, I

  1. John A. Hau'oli Tomoso+

    Mahalo! I would like to share this post with the Society of Catholic Priests Facebook Page! May I, please?
    John A. Hau’oli Tomoso, SCP

  2. Diane Corlett

    The so-called insider.words are. hardly unique to us and to make the claim they are is, to me, is ridiculous. Perhaps those who object to inclusion of the word therei should take some time to reflect upon it.

  3. Derek Olsen Post author

    Feel free, John.

    Diane, I do regularly roll my eyes at (usually new) preachers who like to show off their book-learning by using “eschatological” in a sermon, but I largely agree!

  4. John-Julian, OJN

    I think the problem, is that that such a simple word as “sin” does NOT “have a meaning…flavored by centuries of use within the church.” Look, for instance, at common definitions: (a) sin is breaking the laws of the church; (b) sin is offending against one’s own conscience; (c) sin is causing harm to others; (d) sin is whatever my pastor says it is; (e) sin is doing something forbidden by the Bible; (f) sin is behaving contrary to reason; (g) sin is breaking the laws of the nation; (g) sin is disrespecting whatever it was we all agreed was good in 1948; etc, etc.

    And an attendant issue is that no matter how one defines “sin,” the question remains: what does one do with that definition liturgically? How does one treat “sin” in liturgy? Does one spend most of one’s spiritual energy begging mercy and forgiveness from God? What percentage of one’s worship activity is given up to concerns about sin? [In Advent, I attended a Eucharist which included the Exhortation and the Ten Commandments—and liturgically we begged God to have mercy THIRTY-ONE TIMES in 35 minutes—and that of a God whose very nature is Mercy itself—who cannot ever be anything except merciful and who only waits for us to desire forgiveness!]

    There has been generally a broad imbalance in the Church’s approach to sin—for centuries, sin was the Church’s money cow, and the seething center of its teaching and preaching. And eventually thinking people got tired of it—and rejected most of the above definitions and said (with Julian of Norwich) “Sin has no substance” and it is a mystical conundrum, not so smoothly defined. AND there has always been a good solution—sin has no power of its own and utterly shrivels and disappears in the presence of a breath of repentance and awareness of the presence of Christ—no begging from a hard, judgmental, narrow-minded Deity needed.

    If we are going to use the word “sin” liturgically (as we must) we have to be far more judicious and prudent in its use lest it once again subsume the majority of liturgy into itself and make all of it repugnant to any seriously reflective mind.

  5. David Allen

    I can see that sacrifice often has a secular meaning and a sacred meaning. In liturgy and scripture, it usually means offering or gift. Whereas in contemporary thought, it usually carries the aspect of deprivation with the gift.

    “The mother sacrificed her own needs so that her children had enough to eat.”

    It’s funny, over at Episcopal Café most of the argument about a new BCP has centered around two published stories by a priest in Hawaii, a former US Navy chaplain. He is advocating that a new prayer book be only be published in electronic format. That has really riled folks up.

  6. AnouMawi

    I’m curious as to who thinks that “forgiveness” is an insider term. “Redemption,” “repentance,” and “salvation” are secularly used in a sort of parody of their Christian meaning, but do people think that forgiveness is such a foreign concept outside of church?

    On a lighter note, regarding the term “eschatological,” a professor of mine in college, who studies Christian eschatology, was interviewed by a local news station regarding one of the doomsday predictions from Harold Camping that had been gaining notice from the press. The transcription of the audio had her down as saying “scatalogical predictions.”

  7. Barbara

    Here’s what an AA member had to say about sin and guilt; it was written up in one of my favorite AA pamphlets:


    “Here, it would appear, is an organization that on the one hand claims there is no moral culpability involved in the disease of alcoholism, and on the other suggests to its members that recovery entails a searching and fearless accounting of this culpability to God and to another human being. I personally feel that this apparent paradox results from the empirical knowledge gained by the founders of A.A. I believe they found, as we all have since, that no matter what you tell the newcomer about the disease of alcoholism, he still feels guilty. He cannot blind himself to the moral consequences of his drinking: the blight he has visited upon those around him and the shame and degradation he has inflicted on himself. This load of conventional guilt — and I use the word “conventional” advisedly — as well as the alcoholic’s stubborn and perverse wish to cling to it, is the oldest of his “old ideas.” It is the oldest because it started first, and in most cases it will be the last to go. But go it must if the alcoholic’s attitude toward himself and hence the world around him is to undergo any basic change. That’s why I believe the founders of A.A. learned in their own experimentation that the alcoholic must be given a conventional means of unloading this burden of conventional guilt. Hence the Fourth and Fifth Steps.”


    While the content here is a bit different than what you’re talking about specificially, I believe the same thing happens in re: redemption and sin in the liturgy. It’s why I’m not opposed to saying “Lord Have Mercy” 35 times on occasion. There’s something to be said for empiricism and pragmatism, and for simply doing what works.

    “Lord Have Mercy” is, in fact, a perfectly liturgical way of talking about sin without using the word at all….

  8. Ori

    One aspect of traditional liturgical language that is underplayed is that it is courtly. Both as in a King’s court and in a law court (which in England were the same thing, originally).

  9. George

    Icelandic children are able to read sögur of the 11th century in the same language; Flemish and Dutch teenagers are totally incapable of reading in their language a 1950 novel. Where is, on the spectrum, the average English-speaking American?

    High literacy is expected from everyone: by the terms and conditions (that everyone should read before taking the train or buying) for almost every product; by the laws that rule the countries; by the labour contracts; even by the newspapers. So why the liturgy be an exception?

    When I translate bible or/and liturgical texts into Walloon, I always try to use, for the theological concepts (sacrifice, redemption…), secular words that have the same meaning, rather than mimic the French words. When the concepts do not exist in the secular language (e.g., Walloon has no concept of “forgive” and “forgiveness”, and therefore no words for it), I have to create new words by artificial derivation from the existing roots.

    The languages have to become sanctified by the theology, and not the theology to be unhallowed by the language. The principle of a language that is «understanded» by the people did not stop Miles Coverdale and Lancelot Andrewes from saving the verb «to wit» from oblivion, and creating «scapegoat».

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