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Speaking more of the language of the people

22 December 2016

The words used in worship could be much more accessible, argues Geoff Bayliss, who has tested their readability

Fig. 1: How easy to read are the liturgies of the C of E?

Fig. 1: How easy to read are the liturgies of the C of E?

LITURGY is about more than just the text, but choosing words that people understand is important. Research that I have carried out suggests that “Readability Form­ulas” can be useful tools as we decide which pieces of liturgy to use in church. Such formulas can help us isolate difficult text, and focus on content which generates the biggest challenges.

For years, the worlds of educa­tion, health, and government have attempted to find simple ways of measuring how easy it is for people to read leaflets, books, and forms. Some of these tools look at the familiarity of the vocabulary, the number of polysyllabic words (those with more than three syllables), and the length of sentences. Such cal­cula­tions are called readability formulas.

In the primary schools of one parish that I have surveyed in Ox­­ford, more than 40 per cent of the children have English as a second language. Across the country, our latest school-based National Tests tell us that 47 per cent of 11-year-olds failed to reach the expected levels of literacy and maths. In such environments, finding the best words to use can be hard.

This is not just a problem for children. Government research in 2003, and again in 2011, suggested that 15 per cent of the population was functionally illiterate. A further 29 per cent had literacy skills that limited their access to a significant amount of written material.

My research suggests that 43 per cent of adults living in England will find 50 per cent of the Church of England liturgies difficult to read. Readability formulas cast a light on where this challenge is located.


THE National Literacy Strategy de­­scribes three levels. Entry Level material consists of passages with familiar, simple vocabulary, which is presented in short sentences. Level 1 material contains slightly more unfamiliar words, longer sen­tences, and some more chal­lenging words with more than three syllables. The highest level, Level 2, describes material appropriate for pupils obtaining grades A to C in GCSE examinations.

When readability formulas are used to analyse St Matthew’s record of the parable of the sower in the NIV translation, we find language on the border of Entry Level and Level 1. It is made up of passages with familiar, simple vocabulary, presented in short sentences.

If we use these tests to analyse the parable, we discover that there is an average sentence length of 13.8 words, two polysyllabic words (0.01 per cent), and eight unfamiliar words (five per cent). One formula indicates that it has a reading age of 11 to 12.

Three readability formulas that can be used to compare texts are: the SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook) index; the Dale-Chall reading age; and the Flesch Reading Ease score. Each is a tried-and-tested formula that can be accessed at no cost: this can be done online, or within some word-processor packages.


IF THESE tools are used to analyse the published liturgies of the Church of England, we find some startling results. Only 34 per cent of the texts fall into the Entry Level or Level 1 groupings (see graph). The remaining 64 per cent have less comfortable statistics. This comes from longer sentences, unfamiliar vocabulary, and a high occurrence of polysyllabic words.

It might be assumed that most of this challenge comes from the older Book of Common Prayer texts. This is not so. Analysis with the readabil­ity formula shows that there has been a significant change to­­wards lowering challenge (see graph), but, even among the modern texts, few examples can be found at Entry Level.

Even when the collects generated to have more accessible language (Common Worship: Alternative modern language version, 2004) are considered, we find that only 44 per cent of them generate readability statistics that are at Entry Level or Level 1 (see graph).

The texts for the collects for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity are a good example (blue box). The Common Worship collect, produced for the year 2000, has a reading age of 21, and contains a single sentence of 59 words, divided into eight clauses. There are three polysyllabic words, and seven that might be classed as unfamiliar or difficult.

The alternative version, intended to be more accessible and produced for 2004, contains 37 words in a single sentence, and five clauses. It has an improved reading age of 18. This remains very challenging, and outstrips the reading age of a large percentage of our population.

If the wording and syntax are adjusted, a restructured sentence can be produced for the collect. The suggestion below has a reading age of eight, a three-sentence structure, and contains a single polysyllabic word. In this form, it falls into the Entry Level on the National Literacy Scale.

If the intention of the 2004 set of collects was to make such prayers more accessible, and to pitch them in the language of those outside the Church, we discover a journey yet uncompleted. A further set of col­­lects is required, aimed at those who have limited vocabulary and ex­­perience of the Church, or who have English as a second language.

If we turn to more recently pro­duced liturgy, there are two euchar­istic prayers (Common Worship: Additional Eucharistic Prayers: With guidance on cele­brating the eucharist with children, CHP, 2012, available at www.churchofengland.org).

Both have short average sentence lengths of 11 and 12 words per sen­tence.

The Dale-Chall formula indicates low reading ages of seven and
eight. The SMOG index shows both prayers to be Level-1 pieces. It becomes clear that we can be successful producers of liturgy that is more accessible. The encouraging readability scores linked with these pieces provide some clear indicators of this.


THE research that I was involved in isolated a small core of 33 words (see below) that will be difficult to avoid in worship. It further revealed that the majority of complex words used in liturgy are not key words linked with the Christian faith: such difficult words can therefore be avoided. This study further suggests that liturgies that avoid both complex words and longer sen­tences (of more than 20 words) can be developed successfully.

The Church of England serves the nation. Our liturgical commit­tees, clergy, and other ministers strive, day by day, to develop mater­ial that will nourish every soul in our parishes.

My research leads me to believe that readability formulas have a place in the toolbox of the liturgist, and should be used in the process of liturgical development. They should not constrain the artistic and spiritual flair of our best liturgists, but act as a lens to focus our minds on aspects of readability.

With this in mind, and with the support of tools such as readability formulas, it should be possible to continue the journey towards lit­urgies that are accessible to those who find reading a challenge.


Complex words that it could be difficult to avoid using

Almighty, faithful, merciful, ascended, family, mercy, baptism, fellowship, mourn, communion, forgives, reign, confess, grace, resurrection, confirm, heavenly, risen, confirmation, holiness, saviour, covenant, honour, sinned, crucified, incarnation, spiritual, disciples, kingdom, worship, eternal, marriage, worthy.


Three versions of the collect for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity


Common Worship (2000): Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


Alternative Modern Language Version (2004): Lord of heaven and earth, as Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer, give us patience and courage never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


A version with more encouraging readability statistics: Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus taught his followers to keep praying. Teach us never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Canon Geoff Bayliss is Rector of Cowley, in Oxford. His doctoral thesis, Assessing the Accessibility of the Liturgical Texts of the Church of England, is at www.plainenglishliturgy.org.uk.

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