Article XXIV: Of speaking in the congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XXIV: Of speaking in the congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

This Article is pleasantly straightforward. We should celebrate our liturgies so that the people may understand what is happening. Who could argue with that? My little essay could end there, but what fun what that be? Allow me to make four points and a bonus trivia note.

I find it somewhat strange that that the previous Articles primarily have invoked scripture as the sole authority, and now we are citing the tradition of the church. Let me point out (as I often do) that we all like to proof text. While I won’t argue with the assertion that the ancient church used the vernacular in its liturgy, I will point out that the ancient church did plenty of things that would horrify the Reformers. So this invocation of tradition (selectively) is a kind of proof texting, picking and choosing the bits one likes in order to support one’s position.

Let us also note that using the language of the people does not always mean they will understand it all. That is, an English-language liturgy may go right over the heads of English-speaking people. Parishioners may not know the meaning of words such as “incarnate” or “transfigured” without some adult formation. So let us not be content to use a common language and assume our work is done! And if one is going to use Elizabethan English, the task is especially important these days. “Prevent” has a whole different meaning in Cranmer’s prayers, for instance.

To make a bit of a counter-argument to this Article, I note that sometimes it can be quite illuminating to participate in a liturgy not in one’s own language. This should not be a rule, mind you. A few years ago, I was in Dar es Salaam on Ash Wednesday. The whole liturgy was celebrated in Swahili. Still, I could follow the actions quite easily, because it was good, universal Anglican liturgy. The chanted bits used the same ancient melodies we use in the US. To participate this way gets one out of the text and into the realm of some deeper meaning. Again, I do not commend this for regular practice, but on occasion it can be interesting or even inspiring. For the word-minded Reformers, this would be anathema, but this Catholic-leaning priest will point out that the liturgy has its own inherent power, and every gesture and word need not be tediously explained or written out.

Back in the middle years of the 16th century, when the Reformers were requiring the liturgy to be understood by all, they probably could not have imagined the global spread of Christianity and the multicultural church which inhabits the globe. In some congregations on a Sunday morning, there may be several “first languages” among the people. Perhaps it would be impossible to use a single language that would work for everyone, and everyone may not have the choice to find a church using their own first language. In these cases, it will be necessary to craft a carefully worked out liturgy with parts in various languages. While not every person will understand every word, the liturgy can be made accessible to everyone over time.

Lastly, for trivia buffs: the Church of England has, at various times in its history, approved official Latin versions of the Book of Common Prayer. How can this be, when the formularies of the church decree that the liturgy must be celebrated in a tongue understanded of the people? Well, there it is. The letters patent which approved the Latin texts specified that they used in places such as Eton, Winchester, Oxford, and Cambridge, where the congregation would know Latin. Check it out, if you like. Here’s a sample: Liber precum publicarum. (Someone has also done the US 1979 book in Latin, though it’s not authorized.)

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Do we need to understand every word to take part effectively in the liturgy?
  • How might the Reformers have written this article in today’s multicultural, global society?
  • Is it enough for people to comprehend the words, or must the actions also be “understanded of the people”?
  • Given this Article, would the Reformers have supported experiments such as the Hip Hop prayer book? Why or why not?

Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words which we have heard this day with our outward ears, may, through thy grace, be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Previous: Article XXIII: Of ministering in the congregation
Next: Article XXV: Of the sacraments

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5 Responses

  1. Jocelyn Rose says:

    hey there – thank you for these posts… very enlightening! –
    This reminds me of a lay sermon I once heard about peaching to Canada’s Northern communities. They couldn’t comprehend the concept of “Good Shepard” as they weren’t Farmers! it wasn’t until one of the elders took a trip to the farm that she finally understood the meaning behind the metaphor.

    Also we need to be cognizant of the fact that not only will people not know what certain words mean, they could be resentful to some, and that is a whole other issue the church needs to deal with.

  2. Bob Chapman says:

    “Do we need to understand every word to take part effectively in the liturgy?”

    Define “understand.”

    (I just erased what I typed from this point on because it echoed what was written in this blog post. Why repeat?)

  3. Found you on twitter. Great post. To be fair, Latin *was* “understanded of the people”- some people, at least. As far as I know, the Latin editions of the Prayer Book were used in British universities, where not all students spoke English very well (international students), but they were all fluent in Latin.

  4. Scott Gunn says:

    Jacob, yes, that’s exactly what my post says. If you follow the link to the 1560 LPP, you’ll see the Royal Letters Patent — but you have to be able to read Latin, since that bit’s not translated. Anyway, the use of the Latin books was, as you say, restricted to places where the congregation all knew Latin.

    Thanks for the comment, please stop by again some time.


  5. Scott Gunn says:

    Jocelyn, you raise a good point which I only touched on. The cultural context of liturgy is so complex these days that it’s easy to end up with wildly divergent understanding and utility for texts. That’s why we’ll need to keep experimenting and developing new liturgical texts for new situations. Perhaps we’ll need to return to the practice of the early church, in which the presider improvised the Eucharistic prayer according to certain rules and customs.

    Bob, I guess we’re on the same page then.

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