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Liturgy ‘needs poetry and formality’

26 July 2013


Ordered: bread and wine stand on the altar before the conference's eucharist, on Wednesday of last week 

Ordered: bread and wine stand on the altar before the conference's eucharist, on Wednesday of last week 

THE increasing moves towards the inclusion of "accessible language" in authorised liturgy sparked real debate during the "Worship 2013" conference in Birmingham last week.

The issue was first raised during a speech by the Whitbread-award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts, Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University. Commenting on the new translation of the Roman Catholic Novus Ordo mass, he said: "In translation of the creed, the new line 'We look forward to the resurrection of the dead' makes the next world sound like a summer holiday, or the end of term, compared to the infinitely richer and more poetic 'we look to the resurrection of the dead', with all its resonances of a life directed and oriented by hope and faith."

Liturgy, he said, "must be poetic and formal enough to be part of a profound ritual, but it must also bear repetition week after week, year after year, so that people will know it by heart, and find it robust and expressive enough to still carry their hopes and fears".

Accessible language, he emphas-ised, should not mean vernacular language. "There is nothing more cringeworthy and patronising than a liturgy aspiring to be the voice on the streets, complete with the latest slang and idioms." Youth liturgies, he said, were "well-intentioned, but embarrassing . . . and sound about as authentic as your granddad doing a rap".

But he did appreciate the problems caused by falling levels of religious literacy, he said. The Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, more than 60 years ago, had said that a poet could no longer use the word "wood" within a poem, and assume that readers would pick up any intended reference to the Cross; likewise with "water" and baptism or the Flood.

Many university English courses now began with primer courses to teach the biblical and historical literacy that was necessary to allow students to make sense of writers such as Milton, Donne, Herbert, and Eliot, he said.

Quoting the poet Geoffrey Hill, he said: "The word 'accessible' is fine in its place, that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics is entirely out of place in a wider discussion of the arts. There is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible, certainly not in the terms that lie behind most people's use of the word."

But the Revd Dr Jessica Martin said that the structure of church services was itself inaccessible. She described Cranmer's introduction of responsive prayers in his 1549 Prayer Book as "a major interactive innovation".

"Cranmer did it the way he did because there were not very many books, and there wasn't all that much literacy. He wanted something that was always the same, day in and day out, which the people, literate and illiterate, could say together," she said. Common Worship had retained the responsive prayers, but seasonal variations meant that "we haven't much chance of committing our liturgies to memory."

She went on: "Congregational spoken response is really weird. There is almost no other social context in which human beings will say the same words together in answer to a prompt from the front."

She had experimented in primary schools with children saying the same words over and over again, deciding when to vary the volume and speed. "Children are really quite adaptable, and are used to people getting them to do things in assembly. You would never get a baptism party to do that, even if they had been in a pub all day!

"People who have never been to church before will be surprised, and possibly stressed, by congregational response," she said. It could make people "quite anxious, particularly if they have difficulty reading".

Common Worship created an "image pot-pourri" that was "too much stuff at once" for a novice worshipper, Dr Martin said. "The current baptism service has a strongly anxious educational smell to it; a sort of one-stop-shop aspect to it; but it is definitely too much, too young. By the time you get to Christ's pilgrim people, you are gasping. . . What's actually happening at that moment is that the parents are thinking 'My baby has just been baptised; how soon can I take a photo?'"

There was a mixed response from the conference delegates. One expressed "disappointment" that Mr Symmons Roberts "had equated accessible language with the language of the public WC".

"Low levels of literacy in Britain are a reality; that's not patronising: it's the truth," he said; and he asked what "long-term experience" Mr Symmons Roberts had of "areas of severe multiple deprivation".

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