How important is literacy for liturgy?

Crib Service
Photo courtesy of James Atkinson / Diocese of Worcester

Having read this morning’s post, a friend and colleague left this comment on Facebook:

Can’t help but wonder how much of church language is actually intelligible. Readability tests on our liturgy shows it presumes a literacy level well beyond many people.

Obviously readability tests on Cranmer’s liturgy presume even more! But perhaps there’s a clue in that, since that liturgy became loved and used in a society with far lower levels of literacy than today. Then again, the only word most people got to say was “Amen”. They didn’t need a high level of literacy, just a priest and a clerk who could read for them.

I’m not saying that’s a desirable state of affairs we should seek to replicate; I am suggesting that beauty and memorability may count for more than readability.

I recall a family who attended a church where I ministered. They came under protest out of a sense that God wanted them to go to the only church on the estate where they lived, and were deeply upset to find it was Anglican, and middle-to-high Anglican at that. Their youngest child had some learning difficulties, and that also made them think ill of liturgical worship. Then the day came, when said child joined in singing: not a chorus, not a children’s song, but the Gloria. The same words to the same tune every week made it accessible and memorable in a way the changing repertoire of other music was not, whether traditional or contemporary.

Another illustration of the same point comes from one of the more linguistically complex modern prayers: the president’s post-communion prayer written by David Frost that begins, “Father of all, we give you thanks and praise”. Yet the combination of metaphor, assonance, euphony, and almost metrical phrasing led to it being adopted as a congregational prayer by popular demand, and as such it is largely often said from memory.

Both examples suggest that liturgy works when it’s not being read, but when it’s being inhabited. For the translation of scripture (which was written for oral performance) and for the writing of liturgy alike, perhaps we have valued readability too highly, and paid insufficient attention to what is pleasing to the ear, and sinks into the heart.

It is the high literacy culture of the liturgists and translators which creates the problem, and not the low literacy culture of the receiver. It is thinking that liturgy is about the reading of written texts, rather than the performing of them with participation. We have become like a generation of actors who wander round the stage with our noses glued to the scripts. No wonder people find the performance unengaging.

2 Replies to “How important is literacy for liturgy?”

  1. Yes and no.

    In the Orthodox Church English liturgical texts are translated from Greek and/or Slavonic, and there must be fifty or more English translations out there, most of them bad. When every parish uses a different translation, when people gather for diocesan occasions there is no “common prayer”.

    Native English-speaking parishes prefer the better and more euphonious translations, which are not necessarily more readable. But they are more memorable and more singable, and the more you singe them, the more the meaning sinks in. What is important, therefore, is that they be theologically correct, so that when people sing them and eventually memorise them, they don’t get weird ideas.

  2. I recall a small BCP evening prayer I attended, where “Dearly beloved brethren … Wherefore I pray and beseech you …” was read entirely nose-in-book. I was watching the person speaking, because I assumed he was speaking to me, when a well-meaning lady came up to me and showed me which page we were on…

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