Of tongues and translations

17C BCP Title PageI did wonder whether to simply pass over the twenty-fourth of the Anglican articles, not only because it is so brief, but because the principle it enshrines is, at least in the Western Church, more-or-less universally accepted: public worship should be in a language understood by those worshiping. Ideally this will be one’s mother tongue or a lingua franca. As you will have gathered, I resisted this temptation not only in favour of thoroughness in this series, but because there are some things worth reflecting on in the 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 publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

There is a certain irony that just as this Reformation principle was winning acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II, the charismatic movement in all the mainstream churches was beginning to promote the use of tongues not “understanded of the people” within the worshipping life of the Church.

First, of course, the common interpretation of “tongues” in Paul as the arational phenomenon of glossolalia, and not as other languages, means that prayer in other languages is not quite so “plainly repugnant to the Word of God”. The Word of God, it seems, was talking about something else, even if there are relatively straightforward hermeneutical moves to get from the Scriptures to the Reformation position.

The encouragement of a means of prayer and praise which relies not on reasoned speech and understanding, but affective (and almost phatic) communication, was bound up with the initial (and long-standing) evangelical opposition to the charismatic movement. Much of it the emotional and arational praise and prayer conveyed by tongues could also be paralleled by the practice of prayer at Taizé, whose popularity was growing in the same period. The use of Latin, especially, but many other languages in repetitive chants (also not dissimilar from some uses of choruses) had a similar purpose in focusing the heart while calming the mind.

Nor can these phenomena be divorced entirely from the wider cultural shift in the West which moves away from a simple emphasis on reason and the life of the mind, to embrace attitudes that give greater attention to the body and the feelings, and no longer accords reason its dominance in either church or culture. Understanding is often underplayed, while affective participation is played up. It is, perhaps, ironic that it is amongst those who would most often stress their Reformation inheritance that the charismatic movement and affective religion has become most influential. Nor can one neglect the popularity of certain á-la-carte selections from the earlier tradition, whether of incense of Gregorian chant, amongst the most contemporary forms of “alternative” worship.

I generally want to welcome this valuing of the affective and non-rational aspect of worship as an important recalling of the relational nature of our faith, and its treating us as whole persons, not disembodied minds. Though I note we are confused about it: a great many churches which use Taizé chants in Latin seem baffled by singing in tongues, and vice versa. Liberal and Catholic Anglicans appear to have arthritic shoulders and can never left up holy hands in praise, while Evangelicals have arthritic legs, and can never bow the knee. (There are as always exceptions to prove this rule!)

But this rather odd confusion should not make us ignore the danger of devaluing understanding. It is right and good to stress the bodily and the affective as part of the worship of the whole person, but the whole person must continue to include the mind, the reason, the understanding, that in the end lies behind this article. Despite the long hegemony of Latin (or Tudor English), we must not forget that the initial use of Latin (or Tudor English) was precisely so that people could worship and hear in their own language, with understanding.

One of the most distinctive points about the early Christian movement was their easy abandonment of the reading of Scripture in Hebrew (which appears to have been shared with at least some Diaspora Jews). There is no one holy language in the Church, (and this remains a significant difference between Christianity on the one hand, and Islam and Judaism on the other) but just as God is God of all peoples so he is God to be praised in all languages, and the God who speaks to us in our own tongue.

While this point is not, in itself, simply about understanding, it certainly includes the love of God with the mind. We should not forget, even if we exegete the text differently, that there is a significant tradition of it being our reason which makes us to be in the image of God. Understanding, and the exercise of the rational faculty, properly belongs at the heart of our worship, reasonable human beings relating to the one whose reason became flesh for our sake.