For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Should English Be the New Lingua Sacra?

This is a post in which I am not sure if I am serious or not.

One is often struck by the hodge-podge of international liturgical celebration, and wishes it could be done more seamlessly, without a prayer in this language, a lesson in that. I am going to argue that sixteenth century English, the Elizabethan English of Shakespeare, Spenser and the Authorised ("King James") Version of the Bible is the new sacred tongue, and should be the language of a new universal liturgy of the Latin West and its missionary endeavour.

There are all sorts of objections that I shall high-handedly sweep away. (1) Such as "but there already is an English liturgy". Yes, but it isn't in sixteenth century English and is lacking in beauty. (2) Such as "but the language is out of date". This displays a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of poetic never mind sacred language, for no-one in sixteenth century England ever spoke like Hamlet, or like King David in the Authorised Version. Such language is never in date (that is, never trendy) and therefore never dates, for it is not conformed to an ambiguous standard called "current usage". Poetic and liturgical language ought to draw upon poetic and historic inspiration to create a world in which the story, poem or rite lives and becomes a stable and magnetic force for the human spirit. (3) Such as "what about Spanish and Portuguese as a universal language for the liturgy? Numerically, those speaking both of these languages easily outnumber native English speakers, and they can moreover be understood by one another". But they are not languages with the kind of global literary influence that English has, outside South and Central America (how many Chinese and Indian people are learning Spanish or Portuguese?). (4) Such as "what is wrong with Latin: don't we simply need a revival of the Latin liturgy?" And perhaps 150 years ago, the answer might have been, maybe. But not now, when even the so-called educated do not understand it.

Now, blithely confident that I have dealt with all possible objections, a brief resume of why Elizabethan English fulfills all the criteria to be a suitable sacred language for the universal church.

The first reason is very simple: because it already is. People already have this instinct about it, even people with a rudimentary English. I speak from a very little firsthand experience of a mission in a country where most people's English is very poor. Start a mission in the slums of Outer Extremia where most people can say "hay-lo" as you cycle past, and where they watch American TV, fill your church, and then teach them the Lord's Prayer in English. Give them two versions to choose from, one with modern pronouns and one with "thy" etc., and I will tell you which one they will choose.

I don't mean that missions should insist on the performance of the liturgy in English or any foreign tongue, simply that people will automatically plump for the sixteenth century version of English as the perceived sacred tongue, over the modern. I suspect it has a lot to do with rhythms of speech, and what sensible people with normal traditions perceive to be necessary in sacred speech.

The people of Outer Extremia will take to Elizabethan English as a sacred tongue, but not Latin, because the vast majority of the globe's inhabitants do not have even a slight familiarity with Romance languages. Outside the Mediterranean and South America, the lingua franca is English. Two centuries of British Empire, followed by the cultural imperialism and vast reach of America for the last 80 years have guaranteed this for the foreseeable future. And it just so happens that the language with the greatest acceleration of cultural change and philosophical ferment within its utterances is English, not to speak of its literary wealth.

Of course, if one looks merely at literary history, certainly the German tongue has had greater philosophers and a poetic tradition at least the equal of the English: but then Germany did not have an Empire to spread its influence. And most of the major schools of German philosophy have a counterpart in some English movement - for German Romanticism there is Coleridge to stand in, for example. These cultural and philosophical currents have not washed through Italy, Spain and Portugal in quite the same manner: their literary heritage is not caught up in the current of what has made the modern world the place that it is. France had an Empire, and a strong literary and philosophical tradition that carries a great deal of modern thought, but French nowadays does not have the global reach of English. And so we are left with English.

The reasons for making sixteenth century English the sacred tongue, the universal liturgical language, are therefore: the worldwide knowledge of English, which is increasing rather than waning; its fitness for a sacred role, and the instant recognition of this fitness (even among those with little knowledge of it); and the assumption and absorption into the English language of the cultural and philosophical heritage that has been the making of the modern world in contrast to the more conservative languages of the Mediterranean (rather as Latin absorbed the cultural shifts of late antiquity, but Greek did not).

One needn't throw out Latin, just as there are vestiges of Greek (the Kyrie, for example) in the Western rite. The Gloria, Credo, Benedictus and Agnus Dei could remain in the ancient and hieratic tongue, a living witness to the faith of the Roman martyrs. And there would be no difficulty in having Greek, Latin and English exist alongside one another as equal witnesses to the catholic nature of the church in the same liturgy. But where one has people meeting of with disparate nationalities, in cities across the world, in international events, is there not a case for the common sacred tongue being English, perhaps some kind of translation of the Sarum rite heavily influenced by the language (not the theological revisions) of the Book of Common Prayer?

A benefit, apart from those mentioned above, is that it would give the "advanced" world a jolt. It is accustomed to an increasingly ugly form of universal English, with all the desacralisation of culture and imagination that this form of speech implies. It is becoming a secular language, and there is little in the rhythm and diction of the modern English rite to claim back its words for God consciousness, being too much on a par with current usage, and not deep enough within the tradition and past of the language to awaken the soul of the casual hearer. The casual watcher of television says "Latin, or Italian or Spanish - yes, yes, they are different, we hear and see all those religious rites going on in those languages, but then they are different kind of people, aren't they? Not quite so forward in science and all that. Still a bit in the shadow and not in the broad stream of progress and modernity". But what if they were to hear English, the tongue of not just Shakespeare and Coverdale, but also the tongue of Bacon, Newton, Locke and Hume utter the words of the liturgy, carrying within them a sacramental theology explicit and unashamed, and proclaimed in this way to the world at an international gathering as the tongue of the church catholic (just as they have grown to expect English to be used in international conferences)? Wouldn't there be a disorientating sense that their progressive and shiny steel and glass English-speaking world - with its few museum piece villages with their village greens and spires - was being invaded? Wouldn't they sit up, and listen? And maybe even think?

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