On how Christians ought not allow their words to be controlled by any Worldly Power, and how every Christian ought to be multilingual—fluent in both the language of the World and the language of the Church.
Whatever crisis we awaken to this morning…war, pandemic, climate change, economic collapse, or whatever the world may bring…if we look about to our neighbors in this modern world for answers then we are looking to people who are in the throes of the same enigma as we are. Ask me how to respond to the pandemic and I will offer you whatever words of direction I can, but understand that I am standing in the same fog as you. Such is always the case when we look to modern writers to find solutions to modern problems.
Modernity is like a current in the river of time that is carrying us along toward a waterfall. If we try to cling to each other or to anything in the river with us we will be swept away together. It is only if we can reach something outside the river–something firmly attached to the shore–that we may be saved. First, I look to shore in search of Christ and his revelation in Holy Scripture hoping to find the truth that can keep us safe. If, for whatever reason, I find that Truth beyond my grasp then I look to shore for one of the Saints trusting that they will lead me closer to Christ. So, in times of crisis I look not only to my neighbor and ask, “What do you think?” I also look to the Ancients and ask, “What did they do?”
To prepare for these times one should always be reading a book that is older than they are. Whether its a theological work, or a novel, or a biography, or poetry, or a play; we benefit from remembering that we are not the first people to traverse this Earth, and our predecessors have much to offer as guides. It is disheartening that we have seminaries that try to communicate our timeless faith exclusively from books that are no more than five years old. With two thousand years of Christian writing, there is much worth reading that was not written by Adam Hamilton or N.T. Wright.
After the Holy Scriptures and the works of the earliest Church, I have a fondness for English language writers of the Renaissance through the Enlightenment. I continually revisit Richard Rolle, John Wycliff, Thomas Cranmer, and John Wesley. They are ironically more difficult to read, yet more easily understood than contemporary authors. They are more difficult to read because they work in a form of English which lacks standardized spelling and punctuation rules (A trait that, given my ineptitude in the field, I find attractive). They are more comprehensible because they had available a vocabulary that communicates the things of God. When Richard Rolle speaks of “love” it is much more clear what he means than when modern authors speak of love. This is not because they use different words for love but because the former does not turn the word loose on its own for the reader to attach any meaning to it that might seem convenient. Instead, he surrounds “love” with such other words as to distinguish holy love from its chief rival–another form of love known as cupidity which is together with pride the root of all mortal sin.
When Cranmer translated the liturgy to English he availed himself of the richness of Christian language. Compare Cranmer’s words that the clergy speak to the assembly immediately following the Prayer of Confession to those used in our contemporary hymnal.
Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer, 1552
ALMIGHTYE God, oure heavenly father, who of his great mercy hathe promised forgevenes of sinnes, to al them, whiche with hartye repentaunce and true faithe turne to hym: have mercye upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sinnes, confirme and strengthen you in all goodnes, and bring you to everlastyng lyfe; through Jesus Christ our Lorde. Amen.
United Methodist Church, Book of Worship, 1989
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
Here we pause for an aside to the more scholarly reader who may take exception. We note that Cranmer’s version was not a unique invention but a translation and adaptation of a more ancient work, and the same can be said of the current UMC version. The point is not which is the more appropriate liturgy for Holy Communion. (Though I would hope to have that discussion and have made some preliminary comments here and here in addressing a preference for ad orientem worship.) The point is that there is a uniquely Christian vocabulary available to Cranmer which is missing in modern preaching, liturgy, and writing. Indeed, some of the concepts easily communicated in this one sentence of the Cranmer liturgy present a plethora of perplexities to the modern speaker who feels constrained to use the language of modernity–a language that does not posses the vocabulary to express the basic tenets of the Christian faith.
The shorter sentence is an easier read but it is less clear. Its brevity leaves a void which the hearers must fill with whatever significance their imagination provides. For this reason many leave the Communion table with the same rhetorical question we have after conversing with some bishops, “What was the point in that?”
Again, for those who are well informed on these things and would argue, “But this is taken directly from the earliest rite of the church,” I respond that it is not. Even if it were, that would be no excuse to avoid clarity in our conversation. It is a mis-adaptation of that rite. First, the modern translation is at variance with the original in several places. Second, and most importantly, the original was designed for a people who had experienced three years of catechism before they were even allowed in the room where the Eucharist was celebrated. It was not deemed appropriate for people walking in off the street and would be inconceivable for use by a church that does not even posses a rudimentary catechism. The original to which you refer was for a community that, though they may be judged illiterate by worldly standards, were thoroughly immersed in the language of the people of God. If the words disappear from this part of the liturgy then they must reappear somewhere else in our conversation if we are to be honorable stewards of the faith entrusted to us.
Beginning in the 1960s and culminating in the 1990s (the time of the above mentioned liturgical change) there was a movement to “clean up” the language of church. A lot of words disappeared. One older pastor notes that the word “surrender” is less prevalent than it once was and that if it had been removed then it must have been replaced with something else. He believes that “surrender” has been replaced by “commitment.” Now, commitment is a good word that belongs in the Christian vocabulary, but it is not a substitute for surrender. The one focuses on the individual and relies on one’s strength to maintain it. The other focuses on an encounter with the Holy and relies on Christ’s faithfulness to maintain us. Words matter.
We do not need to return to Elizabethan English. We do need to reach into the treasury of biblical language and the richness of the vocabulary of the ecclesial community. If that means reaching back a few hundred years to find the right words, then so be it. However, the right words can most often be found by staying in the text of the Bible–without either softening the essence of the words to satisfy secular sensitivities or overexplaining them for the uninitiated until we have forced a meaning on them which the Holy Spirit never intended. If we attempt to convey the Apostolic faith while wearing the bit and bridle of modernity then we will be steered off course into the direction of the world. Where is the world going? Quite plainly, it is going to hell.