Article 24 — Speaking in the congregation in a language that people understand

Rident stolidi verba Latina. But Andrea Ruddick looks at why we don’t speak the language of the Romans in church.

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded by the people.

The use of vernacular language in our church services is something that we take for granted when attending church in our home country. In the medieval period, however, Latin was the language of the Church across Europe. This is not to say that English was never heard in church services. Most preaching to a lay audience was probably delivered in the vernacular. It was a requirement of canon law that a parish priest should be able to speak the language of his flock in order to minister to them. Moreover, by the fifteenth century, numerous devotional texts were available in English, at least to the wealthier and more educated sections of society.

However, public prayers and the liturgy – notably surrounding the celebration of the Mass – remained in Latin. This did not mean that lay people were completely unable to participate in the service. They were encouraged to pray simple Latin prayers, such as the Pater noster or Ave Maria, during the Mass and to follow the service, changing posture at appropriate moments by kneeling, raising arms in adoration, and gazing up at the elevation of the Host, when the bread was believed to become the Body of Christ. However, the use of Latin meant that the doctrinal content of the Eucharist was shrouded in mystery and remained the preserve of a clerical elite. As one medieval historian has put it, ‘participation was an act of faith, not comprehension.’ (M. Aston)

Indeed, the incomprehensibility of the liturgy, particularly during the Mass, was seen as an integral part of its value as a sacred mystery, mediated through the priest. As the Roman Catholic medieval historian, Eamon Duffy, has explained, ‘It was part of the power of the words of consecration that they were hidden, too sacred to be communicated to the “lewed” [unlearned], and this very element of mystery gave legitimacy to the sacred character of Latin itself, as higher and holier than the vernacular.’

Sacramental theology was not intended to be understood or even discussed by lay people; the terminology used to discuss it by theologians had no vernacular equivalent until Wycliffe’s translation work in the late 14th century. As one fifteenth-century commentator, probably a Dominican friar, wrote, ‘Many things are to be hidden and not shown to the people, lest being known and familiar they should be cheapened… The mysteries of the faith are not to be communicated to the simple.’

The church did make some attempts to provide religious education for the laity. The Lay Folks Mass Book was a late fourteenth-century rhyming manual, written in English, designed to take lay people step-by-step through the Mass. It did not offer a translation of the liturgy, however, but provided a series of allegorical meditations for each stage of the service. In fact, its author presented lack of comprehension as a benefit; it was, he claimed, similar to the effect of a charm upon snakes, having a positive effect on the hearer even though they did not understand it: ‘Though ye vnderstonde hit nought, / Ye may wel wite that god hit wrought.’ [Although you do not understand it, know well that it does you good.]

By contrast, the insistence of the reformers that the words of salvation should be accessible to all, in their own tongue, extended not just to the Bible but also to church services, a point enshrined in Article 24. The writer of the Second Book of Homilies elaborated on this in Homily 9, drawing an analogy with the apostle Paul’s insistence in 1 Corinthians 14 that the gift of tongues should not be exercised in public worship without interpretation. As Paul wrote, ‘Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?… Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified’ (1 Corinthians 14:9, 16-17). The writer applied the same principle to the use of Latin; what is said in a church service should be edifying to all, ‘which cannot be, unless common prayers and administration of sacraments be in a tongue known to the people.’

It is not the use of Latin which represents a barrier to a congregation’s understanding in many churches today. Yet the biblical principles of intelligibility and edification as the hallmarks of fruitful corporate worship remain relevant. Article 24 should prompt us to ask challenging questions about our church services. Are our services accessible to believers of all levels of literacy, education, and learning ability? How many of our prayers and set forms of worship are comprehensible to the enquirer visiting church for the first time? Even when we move away from the liturgy to a more informal style of prayer, there is a danger that our language is jargon-filled and says more about our ecclesiastical tribe than it tells the outsider about the God we worship.

Article 24 also focuses our attention on the Lord’s Supper. Do the liturgy, gestures, and actions chosen by the minister during the communion service illuminate the gospel truths to which the sacrament points? Or do they encourage ambiguity and misunderstanding about the nature of the sacraments? And is our theological training adequate to equip ordinands to know the difference, in contrast to the poorly educated medieval priests who may not have had much more understanding of the Latin liturgy than their parishioners?

Intelligibility is a great asset in a church service, but it is only a means to a greater end: edification. As the writer of the Homilies put it, ‘when prayers or the administration of Sacraments shall be in a tongue unknown to the hearers, which of them shall be thereby stirred up to lift his mind to God?’ There is little benefit to the body of Christ in any form of worship that – deliberately or accidentally – makes a virtue of obscurity.


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