The question of language is a vital one for the Church. How do we communicate the Word of God? This is a complex issue, bound up as it is with questions of culture (local, national and institutional, to name but three), personal formation, and individual preferences.
For the longest time in the West, the preferred text of Scripture was in Latin, although, of course originally, none of the text was in that language. Across time, the result of this was that the Scriptures were the preserve of a small elite, and the growing feeling that this was hardly what Jesus meant led to an irrisistible demand for texts in the vernacular. Now, of course, this is taken for granted, and being what we are by fallen nature, we can now argue, instead, over which version of the vernacular we prefer; but at least the words of Scripture are now available to all who wish to have access to them.
There are those who sometimes wonder whether this is such a good thing, as people will interpret the texts for themselves, but then they always did, even when the only people with access to them were priests and bishops; as anyone familiar with the early Church can attest, limited circulation of the text did not mean that there was anything like a uniform interpretation available.
One of the huge benefits of something we now take for granted, that is the ready availability of the Bible in a language, and even in the version of it that suits our taste, is that we can engage with it as individuals. Surely that is part of being a Christian? We develop a relationship with Scripture as we do, through it and the Church, with God. These wise words by the Rev Jessica Martin struck me as I read them this morning:
Like all relationships, it will have appalling, jagged gaps, breakdowns that seem insuperable. I will sometimes argue with it, sometimes be angry, sometimes disagree. That is how conversation is. For scripture, its crucible of meaning is the receiving intelligence, history, body, and affections of the reader. Scripture makes itself vulnerable to my flaws and to my failures of understanding; the trust goes both ways. I am not expected to be “mute and spiritless” before its holy voice.
The whole piece is worth reading reflectively.
Here I want to focus on one part of what she has to say here:
we have a huge communication gap between our worship and our reasoning. In worship, we don’t talk much about how to believe in poetic connections. And we divorce our reasoning from our corporate worshipping life, and so from our communal heart.
There is much wisdom in this, too much for a short essay to unpack, but let me offer a few preliminary reflections and hope that your comments, and further thought, will take me forther.
It is easy for our worship to fall into one of two styles: the one formal, even archaic; the other informal and even anarchic. As someone whose preferences tend to the former, and whose character shies (literally) away from what I would probably (perhaps wrongly) call “over-emotionalism” (confession time, I am actually comfortable with sharing the “peace”), I would rather worship where there is due order and the rubrics are followed. But I try not to mistake my personal preference for any kind of norm, and I am alert to the difficulty that those who drop into Church for the first time might encounter. I suspect those difficulties exist in a similat way in Churches where the worship style is more informal.
That raises a larger topic for another day, which is how Churches interact not only with their regular congregations, but with those who might want to come to Church but not get terribly involved. One of the effects of the pandemic has been to emphasise how important the place of worship is. There are those who say that it does not matter that Churches have been closed, we can worship God anywhere. The latter part of that sentence is correct, the first part of it betrays, I fear, an impoverished view of how individuals react to the numinous. It is not, at least for me, just the absence of the Eucharist, it is something more imtangible and poetic. T.S. Eliot expresses this best in “Little Gidding”:
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
That “kneeling where prayer has been valid” matters to me, because Eliot is right, prayer in more than “an order of words.” That takes me back to another insight from Dr Martin’s article:
When we reason at arm’s length with inert lumps of text, we cannot recognise how they and we communicate. But scripture in worship comes into the unfolding history of Now, binding together those who take part and making it more likely that they will take care with fragile shared meanings. Worship is recognised as a form of encounter. Enacted words are pregnant with change.
Just as in the Incarnation, the Word in becoming flesh, made Himself vulnerable to our frailties in order to heal them in His death and resurrection, so does His written word become vulnerable to our limitations of understanding, but through His Church and our worship, transcend them to help transform us.