Liturgical language and the liturgical text

Liturgical language and the liturgical textJuliette Day

This article explores some of the ways in which the textuality of liturgy affects the way we worship, first by looking at what language does in worship, then at how the specific context of liturgical worship determines language choices, and finally at the nature of the liturgical text. Juliette Day is a lecturer in the faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki.

What does language do'in worship?
Language is for communication in worship, just as it is in other areas of life: worshippers communicate with each other, with God, and there is an assumption that God also communicates with them. Features such as dialogues between participants, direct address to the people and the 'Word of the Lord' proclaimed in the readings make that clear. Communication is, though, about meaning and not simply words; the words are just a particular way of communicating. To emphasize the meaning over the choice of words indicates their other task enabling the instruction, edification and transformation of worshippers as members of the Body and heirs of the Kingdom. Such a task for the liturgical text does not inevitably presume a simplistic liturgical language, but it does require that the meaning is potentially accessible to worshippers, that obfuscation and obscurantism should be avoided. Often in recent debates confusion exists between the complexity of language and the complexity of meaning which the language conveys. If the language is not immediately accessible then worshippers, of whatever level of education and linguistic skill, will be required to unpack the sentence before unpacking the meaning: that is, they have to translate it just as if it were in a foreign language. This is not just a pastoral issue but also a theological one. Christ conveyed complex ideas, the meaning of which appears to be difficult to unravel as the mountain of New Testament scholarship attests, but did so using the images and language of everyday " keeping pigs, looking for something valuable that has been lost, light- ing a lamp and then blocking out its light, and, of course, leaving to the Church as a memorial of his Passion the ordinary stuff of bread and wine. Thus it should be of no sur- prise to theologians that the everyday can convey the things of the greatest significance and complexity.

Liturgical texts contain theological presuppositions about God, about humanity, about the ordering of creation, about the relation- ship between people, and between people and God. During worship we restate what sort of God it is that we serve. Thus the very common exclamation 'Lord have mercy' is not a hopeful request nor a command, but a pre-fulfilled request made in the knowledge of a merciful God derived from promises in the gospels and validated by the experience of worshippers. Certain language choices serve to establish the distinctions in the relationship, most obviously by traditionally reserving 'Thee/Thou/Thine' for God after it had fallen out of use between people, or by using epithets for God which are not used of humans or even heavenly beings " ineffable, almighty, immortal, etc. These are assertions rather than descriptions; they re-state for the community what sort of God it is who hears and answer our prayers.

Jean Ladrière referred to this as 'presentification': it makes these things present and operative in the community which speaks them.1 So when we announce the mystery of Christ, of his life, death and resurrection, the mystery of salvation, we are not merely quoting authoritative statements but bringing into the present that which was spoken and which happened in the past. And most markedly, when the words of Christ at the Last Supper are repeated, these words receive again the very efficacy which they had when Christ himself used them.

What sort of language does worship need?
If these are some of the functions of language in the liturgy, then what sort of language should we use? The debates have focused around whether the language of the liturgy constitutes a distinctive form that could be called 'liturgical language' or even 'sacred language', but that ignores how the context of worship controls the language long before stylistic choices come into play.

Liturgical worship asks us to do more varied things with our language than almost any other context I can think of by requiring a very broad range of communication activities, each with their own linguistic form and convention. So, ministers or leaders speak alone in addresses to God on behalf of the congregation or on his/her own behalf, or to the congregation, there may be dialogues with the congregation; the congregation as a whole or a single representative may address the minister, or each other or God. The purpose of the communication varies considerably: to praise God, to make requests, to express sorrow or joy, to convey instructions, to tell stories, to state beliefs. Even when the content may change from week to week, texts often follow established patterns (genres) which affect the way the information is presented and the choice of vocabulary; this is most clearly demonstrated by collects or eucharistic prayers or certain forms of intercession. Spoken texts can follow prose pat- terns but texts intended for singing are often in metre where the music's demand for rhythm and rhyme may override even further normal syntactical conventions. In addition to music, the words may be accompanied by rituals which extend the meaning beyond what the words at face-value indicate; an obvious example of this would be baptism, where the meaning of 'I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' can only be completed by a ritual action involving water. This sort of diversity might not be found in an entire day's output of Radio 4, but in churches it is contained within a single worship event.

This sort of diversity might not be found in an entire day's output of Radio 4, but in churches it is contained within a single worship event

What sets liturgical language apart from other speech events in our culture is that it is collective speech; it is not the speech of an individual nor of a collection of individuals, but it is the speech of a group. This has two stylistic effects: that in syntax, rhythm and vocabulary it needs to be easily spoken and that the meaning conveyed has the potential to be assented to by worshippers who use words which they have neither chosen nor composed, thereby suspending the subjective and autonomous speech of other cultural and social activities. The liturgy is shared speech and the responsibility for ensuring that this takes place is not just on the participants, but also on the liturgical composers.

The theologically and ecclesiologically inspired emphasis on the 'full, active and conscious participation' in the liturgy by the people has implications for the comprehensibility and speakability of all liturgical texts, but especially those the congregation speak. Congregational texts are for choral recitation which, in order to avoid cacophany and barriers to participation, requires attention to rhythm, 'speakability' and opportunities to breathe, even before one attends to the accessibility of the meaning.2 'Speakability', here, describes what remains when any barriers to physical speech are removed, that is avoiding words of five or more syllables, or avoiding the awkward sequences of consonants or sibilants. Choral recitation also works much better when sentences are bro- ken up into short phrases with a regular rhythm and this has an impact on the way such texts are presented in print with often a very idiosyncratic punctuation.

Choral recitation also requires a much flatter intonation than one might use when reading aloud or speaking in other contexts, which is evident regardless of the communication activity. Speakers opt for clarity and corporate seemliness over the expressions of strong emotion or role-playing in scripture readings: thankfully congregations do not 'bewail our manifold sins and wickedness' as the general confession from the Book of Common Prayer suggests they ought!

In common with other groups in society, the Church employs 'technical language' either by using certain words or phrases which are not used anywhere else, or by giving a distinctive meaning to ordinary words. Examples include theological terms like 'consubstantial', 'redemption', 'bless', but also ordinary words such as 'bread', 'cup', 'peace'. Additionally there are partially anglicized loan words from languages unfamiliar to the congregation like baptise or eucharist, presbyter, etc, or even phrases in a foreign language like Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. Other 'exclusive' language exists because of the heavy borrowing of imagery and metaphors from biblical texts. These might be used in direct quotations, such as 'Holy, holy, holy', or in a modified form like the institution narrative in the eucharistic prayer, or simply allusions. In addition to vocabulary and imagery, worshippers use greetings which would be unusual outside the liturgy: 'The Lord be with you', rather than 'Good Morning' or 'Hello'. And whereas it would not be considered appropriate to say 'hello' to someone several times during a conversation, this liturgical address may be used three times in one service with- out attracting comment. Liturgical texts, then, employ vocabulary and imagery which is not common in the surrounding culture but which is used without comment by worshippers because it is part of their culture infused by scripture and their own traditions. But is this an indicator of a distintive language, or simply a style of language belonging to a sub-culture?

The liturgical text
What I have discussed so far has taken no account of the way in which the words we use in the liturgy are given to us; before we speak these words we read them from a printed text. So in what way is language contained in a text different from language that is simply spoken?

Like any other text, a liturgical text is a physical object. It consists of symbols inscribed on a page in meaningful units, presented according to the conventions and technologies of writing and accessed using the technology of reading. Conventions of writing include adherence to formal grammar, complete sentences, the organisation of information according to theme and genre, and the way the contents are presented on the page. When the text is before us, the multiple processes by which it was produced are hidden; reading the text is a transaction between the reader and the text alone. The author can exercise no influence on how I interpret the text " neither where I choose to read it, how skilled I am at reading, what other pieces of information I might bring to my interpretation, or how I might connect it to other texts. And we should also note that we normally read texts silently, reading is a non-physical activity; indeed we have so interiorised the symbol system that we do not need to read every letter of every word in order to understand each sentence.

These observations about how we react to texts can be clearly contrasted with the more immediate communication of speech between people. Such communication is momentary " as Walter Ong so memorably puts it, 'When I pronounce the word 'permanence', by the time I get to the '-nence', the 'perma-' is gone and has to be gone'.3 It may be disorganised, it may rely on more than words. The speaker can repeat and reinforce the message in response to ques- tions or puzzled looks. Information may not be presented in a logical way, there will be pauses, digressions. If you hear the speaker telling the same story in another context the story is unlikely to be exactly the same and will differ in presentation and content even though it might be recognisable as the same.

Liturgical worship is an act of communication in which the speech is dictated by a text. Worship per se does not require a text but where present it certainly controls it. The text indicates the start and end of specific acts of prayer through the use of headings or rubrics; it tells us when to stand or kneel, what the priest is to do with his hands at the altar, that we should process to the font; it may recommend that we sing something. Furthermore, even our attitudes and emotional response may be directed by the text " invitations to pray, to confess our sins, to give thanks, to lift up our hearts prepare us to respond appropriately to the textual element which follows. In fact, the liturgical text could be compared to a ready cake mix which contains everything except the participants.

One of the myths which enables us to use liturgical texts is that they contain the words which we would want to use anyway, that worship is essentially an oral experience and that the written text is an afterthought. Myths, though useful, are not usually true " liturgical texts are highly unlikley to have had a pre-textual life, and certainly not translated liturgical texts. They are not words which have been recorded from a speech event, but words provided from a text production process to be spoken aloud. Liturgical worship is very far removed from the speech events of everyday life and from ritual speech in non-literate cultures; it is text-based and text-bound. The authors of liturgical texts use their experience and skills as writers and the technology of text production; readers / worshippers bring to the liturgical text the reading and interpretative strategies they use for all other texts. We do not become different sorts of authors and readers when we enter a church or do things with the liturgical text. Note what happens when the gospel reading is provided for the people on a printed paper " there is a ritual procession to the centre of the church from where we are asked to listen to the holy gospel so that Christ's words may be proclaimed in the midst of the people, to which the congregation respond by engaging in the interiorised, private and non-physical act of reading the Sunday leaflet. A similar retreat from the communal to the private will occur when fol- lowing along with the missal, especially when some editions have helpfully provided the Latin as a parallel text.

The liturgical text is simply a text, just like any other. The letters and numbers and grammar are the same, the basic skills needed to access the information are the same. We may use our language liturgically, choosing to use words, phrases, genres, etc that make sense in the context of communal worship, but the language cannot be sacred in itself. The encounter with the living God is beyond the liturgical text, rather it occurs through the activity of a community gathered in his name, as Christ promised. It is the activity of gathering in the presence of God that is sacred, and this happens after and beyond the text, and even after and beyond language.