This is all wrong. Just all wrong. Not just in the sense that Kate points out (as in what’s a Bishops’ Conference sponsored website doing hosting such open opposition?), but in the substance of its argument.
“Liturgy no place for dead language”?
It is very hard to get past that pejorative term “dead language”. Of course, the usual language to which the term “dead” was applied was Latin and Greek.
Latin is a dead language,
As dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me!
Well, you can sympathise with the school boy who wrote that, but watch this and ask yourself if Latin is a dead language:
And so, of course, we know that Latin isn’t dead. Ancient hieroglyphic Egyptian is, as far as I know. So is ancient Hittite. Aramaic isn’t. Hebrew and Greek isn’t. Latin certainly isn’t.
Still, this isn’t about Latin. This is an argument about English! The Queen’s English! The language you and I speak! How can a style of English language – which uses words easily found in the Oxford English Dictionary – be called “dead”?
Okay, the language of the new translation of the missal isn’t street or pub language, but is that an argument for saying its “dead”. I don’t think so.
Reader: “But David, but David, there are words in the new missal I don’t understand.”
That doesn’t mean the language is “dead”. I read words in books and novels every day that are new to me, and I find I have to look them up. Just the other day, I came across the word “prurience”. That’s a real word with a real meaning. Not used often, granted, but not “dead”. And the meaning of the word is quite specific. It hasn’t been replaced by any other form of the word. It’s in the dictionaries. I know what it means now, and could use it in conversation if the opportunity arises. And if you google it, so will you. See? You’ve learned something. (Just as an aside, have I mentioned that I heard Stephen Fry use the term “consubstantial” in a casual, non-religious conversation recently on TV?).
You all know that joke in those B grade comedies when the smart sassy girl calls some big tough gangster a “troglodyte”, and he says “What’s a troglodyte?” and she says “a big tough ganster like you”, and he says (puffing out his chest) “Yeah, I’m a troglodyte and proud of it!” and we all laugh. We laugh because he is also an ignoramus. Knowing what words mean is a “smart sassy” thing. People who say we should only use words whose meaning is utterly plain to even the uneducated are…well, troglodytes.
So, what about the style of the language? Should Liturgical language not only be allowed to use “big words”, but also be free to be a distinctive style from other language?
Well, duh. Have you ever seen the play “Cyrano de Bergerac”? If you have, you know the importance of style. Whether you saw it in the original French (which is delightful even for someone who doesn’t understand a word of French, such as me – I recommend the Gerard Depardieu version) or in English (I saw a live performance by our Aussie star, David Wenham in the lead role) or even the spoof “Roxanne” (with Steve Martin), you will soon get the idea of how important style is when you are wooing a girl. Okay, the language would sound flowery and silly in any other context, but when uttered between two lovers…
“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.'”
– Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Act 3
Ah, poetry. Ah, the Liturgy. The liturgy isn’t a newspaper. It isn’t a text book even. It isn’t something designed purely to convey information to the people gathered to celebrate it. In fact, it isn’t designed “to communicate” to people at all. It is designed as the communication of lovers to the One whom they adore. It is the language of love, of poetry, of adoration, of desire, of passion.
A brief example.
When I was on the Liturgical Commission of the Lutheran Church of Australia, we were preparing a Lutheran version of the order of Compline. There is that great response after the Little Chapter, which begins (traditionally in English):
“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit…”
We had a very good linguist on our committee. I loved him dearly and was deeply sorrowed by his passing a few years back. But he had a knack for taking a beautiful line of English prose and boiling it down to the level of pure information. It still said the same thing, but not in the same way. The response became:
“I put myself in your hands, Lord.”
Compared to the previous version, this line fell like a lead sinker to the mud on the bottom of river of the soul. Plop.
But the author of the Cathnews blog piece objects:
Under the at-times gleeful dismissal of ‘banal’ is the turn to an esotericism indicative of all mystery religions, and especially hostile to the universality of a revealed religion as is Christianity.
The Good News is not about secrecy. The Good news is not about special languages by which only initiates will nod in exclusive and excluding assent. The Good News is not about a restless and never-ending search for the perfect liturgical language – as if the current push for the arcane will be the last.
Let’s see: “gleeful”, “esotericism”, “indicative”, “universality”, “initiates”, “arcane”, … I wonder if those are the kind of words that he means are “dead” language? Surely they are not any more common in English than “consubstantial” and “dewfall”? Oh, but they are, you say. Yes, in the realm of the academy, but not down at the pub. He does you the honour of not treating you like a troglodyte. He uses exalted language in his writing to honour you, his reader, with the compliment that you can understand such words.
Ah, but no such exalted language is to be used in the liturgy. NO! The Liturgy is for the simple people! It is to communicate information at the lowest common denominator! Nothing above the Daily Mail and the Herald Sun should be allowed to appear in the black bits between the red bits. How utterly patronising.
Reader: “David, David, calm down. Take a Bex or get to your point.”
Sorry, my point is that there IS mystery at the heart of what is going on in the Liturgy. Okay, Christianity isn’t just a mystery cult, but there is a good reason why it was mistaken for one in both the ancient and modern world. There really is a real dinky-di, ozzie-cobber-wombie mystery at the base of our religion: the mystery of the dying and rising God-Man, officially referred to as “the Paschal Mystery”.
The Cathnews Blog author seems to be under the modern Protestant “Church Growth Movement” (have I mentioned that phenomena recently?) impression that the whole purpose of the Liturgy is communication of “the Good News” to the “Great Unchurched”.
NEWSFLASH! NEWSFLASH! The Liturgy is “Divine Service”, worship paid to the Creator of the Universe, who is a Triune God, an Undivided Unity and yet Three Persons, the Second Person of Whom was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary and Became Man (“for us men”) and suffered death and rose and now lives exalted at the Right Hand of the Father and who comes to us in the mystery of the Transubstantiated Bread and Wine with his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
And you want to use street-speak to talk to this Guy?
Reader: “David, calm down.”
It’s okay. I’ve had a cup of tea. I’m better now.
Really, though. The whole thrust of this article is wrong. Just wrong.