Liturgy: words for speaking, not for reading

The Christmas issue of the Church Times included an article in favour of applying readability testing to the Church’s liturgy. It’s a summary of the author’s own thesis. The article wasn’t helped by some dodgy subbing. In the text, he explains that he “isolated a small core of 33 words that will be difficult to avoid in worship”. (A rather odd selection in any case – family? forgives?) Unfortunately the boxout captioned them “Complex words that might be avoided”. Perhaps his text wasn’t as readable as the sub-editor needed it to be!

In these brief comments, I’m sticking to the article. But if you want more than the author’s own digest, he has put the whole thesis online here.

He summarises his findings quite starkly:

My research suggests that 43 per cent of adults living in England will find 50 per cent of the Church of England liturgies difficult to read.

My problem isn’t in any of his specific analyses: I’m not greatly in favour of sesquipedalian liturgy. And the Lord alone knows how bad the readability scores of are of the Latin glosses masquerading as English translation which pepper the new Roman Sacramentary. No, my problem is that I think readability is the wrong category for liturgy.

What matters about liturgical text is:

  1. Is it easy to say aloud? Sentences said by all need short phrasing, easy if slightly stylised speech rhythms, and need to bear repetition.
  2. Sentences said by one voice, and that, one hopes, to greater or lesser degree the trained voice of someone who has also understood the text before they speak it, are allowed to be more complex. It is for the speaker / reader to make the meaning accessible. (It seems from a cursory glance at his research that many of Bayliss’ analyses are of texts provided for the president.)
  3. Both sorts of sentence should draw appropriately on assonance and alliteration for euphony, and other devices such as metaphor and extended imagery for memorability and repetition.
  4. Ideally, good liturgical language will become richer through repetition, not more hackneyed. This may demand it is not so transparent on first encounter as to be disposable.
  5. Are people being encouraged to move away from the book to engaging the experience? My ideal is that people need to “read” as little of the liturgy as possible. The book / booklet / pew sheet is a comfort blanket and beginners’ aid.

Those brief questions indicate why I think readability is the wrong category. It may offer some useful insights as a servant into our language, but it would be a very dangerous master. Liturgy is not, in the end, designed to be read, and an obsession with “the book” is a particular frailty of Anglicanism.

I conclude with one anecdote. I know a family whose youngest child has some learning difficulties that seemed particularly to affect her language skills. She struggled to join in with the simplest conversation verbally, even as she also gave other signs of intelligence and understanding what others were saying. In worship, she appeared to like to be there, (for the parts of the service other children were present) but simply couldn’t cope with some of the simpler action songs other children enjoyed, even if she tried to join in.

After a few months had passed, she suddenly started joining in verbally. What she joined in singing was the Gloria in Excelsis (in English!): the same words to the same tune every week had become the means of participation. They are not particularly readable words, and not the first remedy one might have suggested for a child with learning difficulties. But they reveal something about the power of respecting the basics of liturgy.

In short, all reflection on what makes language fit for the purpose it is serving is to be welcomed. In that sense, I give this research a muted welcome. But the language of liturgy does not primarily exist to be read by the congregation. Too much focus on readability will simply mislead us. We need to stop mistaking the exhortation to lift up our hearts to the Lord as a command to lower our eyes to the page.

12 Replies to “Liturgy: words for speaking, not for reading”

  1. I’ve been using readability indicators myself for four years now as I write new liturgy and compare it to existing texts. These indicators are useful up to a point: but all are determined on the basis of intelligibility on a first reading. Familiarisation with a text is another purpose of liturgy, though Collects and Post Communions, especially only get heard once a year, so that’s another issue again.. The article didn’t address the usefulness of language as art: in my own redubbing and rebooting I’ve found this is a big challenge in capturing the artistic, the theological and the intelligible in a way that even comes close to what core texts already achieve.

    1. Fair points and interesting to hear of your use of these tools.

      Despite the once a year use of collects etc, however, I would still want to maintain the criteria are about “hearability” more than readability- and I think that necessitates different judgments, including the artistic one you discuss

  2. Perhaps someone with more time and inclination than me to read the whole thesis will be able to correct me on this. But at a quick skim he appears to give no consideration as to whether readability is the correct set of tools to consider the accessibility of a liturgical text. Surely such a fundamental methodological question should at least be noted?

      1. As someone currently working on a research MA in liturgy, even if my supervisor didn’t pick it up, I would expect to be ripped apart at my viva!

        The named supervisor is not someone who appears to have a background in liturgy, and whilst this was for a different university, he holds a senior post at a Warwick where it might be expected that he had done a bit of supervision – it’s not like it was someone without experience.

        The bibliography looks fairly limited to: there doesn’t seem to any reference to much beyond the classic (but dated) Dix, and the introductory (Senn, Jones et al), other than the ‘how-to’ books. Though perhaps given the date on it, Cally Hammond’s The Sound of the Liturgy might have been published a bit too late to be taken much into consideration.

        1. I’m not sure there is much of a bibliography on what we might call liturgical poetics, although certainly there is a wider liturgical context that is only just present in his bibliography.

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