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
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
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
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
"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
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