Friday, May 11, 2012

Article 24: "Not Understanded by the People"


Today's article was indeed revolutionary at the time: actually saying the church service in a language people understood and not Latin.

XXIV. Of speaking in the Congregation in suck 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.

I would quibble with whether such a notion is truly repugnant to the Word of God. I cannot think of any verse of scripture that clearly says, "Thou shalt say clearly say a church service in the vernacular." Paul does speak to the issue of the speaking in tongues, but whether he was referring to the gift of linguistics or the modern Pentecostal glossolalia is somewhat debatable. But regardless, he does say "in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue (1 Corinthians 14: 19). "

Likewise, the fact that the New Testament is written in Greek and not Aramaic suggests that, at the very least, the notion of speaking only in the clear cut vernacular is not absolutely crucial to the Bible. Certainly Jesus would have read some Hebrew, which was the liturgical Latin to the synagogues of the 1st Century. So, at least to this point in the Article, I think that is a misstatement to assume that worshiping in a tongue the people do not necessarily understand as a first language is "repugnant to the Word of God."

I do, largely, however agree with the rest of the argument. I think it is best to have the Mass in the language people can understand. Speaking in a language that no one really reads or understands, while mystical sounding, is certainly not going to win you too many converts. Some arguments are even made that the terminology of the Church needs to change entirely because "unchurched" people do not even have a notion of what we are referring to if we say stuff like "atonement" and "sanctification" and "forgiveness of sins" anymore, even if we put such theology in modern English.

I don't know about that, frankly. I think we still need to stick to theology and not water down our message simply because people are too ignorant to understand anything. Theology can be explained and made relevant in ways that makes sense outside the white walls of seminary academia. This is one of things I am trying to do in the series on the Articles of Religion. Theologians are notorious for making things as complicated to the layman as they possibly can. Paul Tillich for example is a great example of this. (I mean, read his stuff on the "ambiguities of self integration and the Kingdom of God's historical self integration" and tell me any of that makes sense if you are sober.) The brilliance of people like CS Lewis on the other hand was the fact that he could connect academic theology to the common man, though sometimes he went too far and oversimplified  matters.

Certainly, you have to preach to the context of your parish. Sermons preached to blue collar crowds are going to be different in substance than to stuff preached to a faculty of college professors. (Having done both, I can tell you its challenging, particularly if you have both in a congregation at the same time.) I think this is one of the ways the Episcopal church completely fails in terms of priestly formation of seminarians.

Virtually all seminarians for many years came from privileged, affluent backgrounds, went to privileged, affluent seminaries, were taught by priests and faculty that were themselves affluent and priviledged, with the ultimate goal of hoping to end up in suburban parishes (or better yet bishops' offices) with a parish of, you guessed it, privileged and affluent congregants. This was largely fine in the era of strictly adhered to denominational identities. We're not good at evangelizing and we don't have a lot of children. In the 21st century, however, is it any wonder the Episcopal church is aging faster than virtually any other mainline denomination and are closing parishes at an alarming rate?

Some of this entrenched 3 year residential seminary orthodoxy is starting to change. Many of our seminaries are strapped for cash and students, and are trying other learning avenues. Some dioceses are training ordinands locally, though I am not sure if that's the solution either because then the priestly formation runs the risk of producing theologically and liturgically inbred priests.

Some refer to this as an "emerging church," where the church must either "change or die." I don't really agree with either of those positions either. I think the "Emergent Church" thing is, frankly, just another example of the Generation X "I've completely checked out of civic society" rebellion mentality in spirituality form. Nothing that is "emerging" seems to be coherent on a large scale. Each emergent church group is really just an extension of their own denomination's baggage but simply repackaged to the "Me" generation that wants their church to cater to their own theological consumerism. They'd just as soon lampoon the Church and go off and do their own thing instead of actually engaging the Church community that they find in a normal church body or denomination.

I realize I have gone a bit far a field in terms of this Article of Religion, but this article does speak a bit to the fact that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The Church in each generation has to minister to the culture as it finds it. Sometimes that is easier; sometimes it is harder. It depends on the "Spirit of the Age," as it says in Scripture.

But regardless, the Church does have to find a way to minister in the tongue "understanded by the people."

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