This is part ONE of the series, which will serve as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand.
In addition to all the above, there was the little matter of revising our Book of Common Prayer.
The waning days of the 78th General Convention back in 2015 saw the first steps taken toward a new Prayer Book with resolutions passed that would begin that work. A major motivator for this was the change to the marriage canons of our church, since marriage is one of the seven sacraments of Western Christianity and its definition is enshrined within the BCP* itself.
The truth of the matter, however, is that work on a new Prayer Book was begun almost as soon as the ink dried on the current one (which was true of the BCPs of 1928, 1892, 1789, 1786… and these are just the ones of The Episcopal Church!**). We Episcopalians are never satisfied.
In addition to the sacramental shift, the 1979 BCP also reflected the language of the times. It is often referred to as a “contemporary” language book. We retained the “traditional” language (rooted in the English of the Elizabethan age) for some services (referred to as Rite I throughout the book), but by and large the BCP sounded more conversational than formal. At least this was the intent (it further reflects the language of the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible, moving us away from adherence to the King James Bible or the Revised Standard Version).
And this brings us to today. Considering the development of the 1979 BCP is crucial because it opened an important avenue heretofore not really discussed: language.
Thomas Cranmer, the famous Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry VIII, working with the king, was responsible for ensuring that both the Bible and the liturgy of the Church in England were in the “vernacular of the people.”
One of the main sticking points of the Protestant Reformation, going back to at least John Wycliffe in the 1300s, was the translation of sacred texts into the vernacular language of the people. We’ll discuss this more elsewhere, so right now it’s important to note that, at the time, Latin was considered a superior language. Partly, this was due to the fact that all the “important” books were written in Latin and the task of translation was costly and time-consuming, but this was also due, largely, to the fact that other languages were seen as too basic and ordinary. A close approximation might be the way some people in America view English in comparison to dialects like Jamaican patois or “Spanglish” or “ebonics.” There’s often a sense that these dialects are a “corruption” or “dumbing down” of “proper” English.
So, the Western Church spent centuries refusing to translate its liturgies or the Bible into the vernacular languages because they felt that this would somehow corrupt the words of the texts****. But Wycliffe led the charge to change that, with other Reformers picking up his torch until we get to Martin Luther in Germany, who gets the full Bible translated into German—as well as the liturgy—and sparks the full-on Protestant Reformation. During this time, and due to political maneuvering between the English crown and the papacy, Archbishop Cranmer encounters Lutheran thought and helps motivate Henry VIII to permit vernacular translations under his reign.
In the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (which is the very first BCP), Cranmer writes: “St. Paul would have such language spoken to the people of the Church, as they might understand, and have profit by hearing the same.” He goes on to say that in the Church in England the prayers, hymns, and most importantly the scriptures be read “in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for understanding, both of the readers and hearers” (from BCP 866-867).
This highlights the historical linguistic argument, which was rooted in a desire for the edifying of the whole Church through the use of words that were familiar to the faithful and not the Latin that they could not (fully) understand.
Once we got vernacular liturgies, the language argument (at least in The Episcopal Church) largely remained dormant until the mid-to-late twentieth century.
Prior to the 1979 BCP, the revisions were more interested in clarity, content, and theological preference. But once we get to the seventies, the desire for “contemporary” language becomes a crucial issue for The Church, reflecting (as with the Reformation) the publication of Bibles in similar language (the first being the New International Version published in full in 1978—but which has a history stretching back to the late 1950s). And this impulse is largely rooted in the historic Protestant ethos of ensuring that the language about God is in the people of God.
In the seventies, this was about syntax and prose. But now we find ourselves dealing with much more deep and ideological issues surrounding our thinking in regards to “the language of the people.”
The main questions before us have to do with gender—the gender of God as well as the gender of the prayers.
For the latter, we need only look at our birthday prayer, said most Sundays here at The Chapel:
“O God, our times are in your hand: Look with favor, we pray, on your servant N. as he begins another year. Grant that he may grow in wisdom and grace, and strengthen his trust in your goodness all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP 830)
Those italicized masculine pronouns? They are italicized to indicate that they can be switched to reflect different genders or numbers. But, in the current BCP, every time we have personal pronouns they default to the masculine. This raises important questions about gender equality in The Church and the treatment of women in an age of sexual discrimination. As I’ve heard it said more than once, if we default to masculine language doesn’t that underscore an attitude of “otherness” toward women in The Church, especially when it comes to the ordained life?
The counter to this is, of course, that in English the masculine gender pulls double duty as the neutral gender and the BCP is simply reflecting this. At the same time, language is fluid (hence the reason for a contemporary language Prayer Book to begin with—if Victorian/Edwardian English was sufficient then we wouldn’t have a need for a Rite II). The “rules” of language are, in many ways, quite democratic. One need only recall The Bard’s famous line about roses going by any other name. A rose is only a rose because we all agree that that particular flower is called a rose. Consider also the shift that occurred surrounding terms like “Kleenex” and “Xerox.” I’ve only ever known “tissues” and “copies,” but there was a time where those branded terms were also general verbs and nouns.
However, the former issue above, that of God’s gender, is the one that has more at stake, and will take much prayer and discussion and work. And that discussion is far more complex than what I am going to cover in this introductory essay. We’ll dedicate at least one whole part of this series to that discussion. I will say, however, that the discussion is rooted in God’s own self-disclosure of Himself‡ to the world and, given this, we have to consider the fact that that self-disclosure is gendered in the man Jesus.
Is our language for God rooted in our experience of God or is it shaped by what God reveals to us? This is at the very heart of this discussion.
And, finally, a thought that I want us to keep in mind as we have these discussions:
We’ve long become accustomed to believing that the first sin—the original sin!—was simply disobedience. God said not to do something, but we went and did that thing anyway.
I’m not sure where we came up with this interpretation of the third chapter of Genesis, but this is a bit of an innovation. Yes, disobedience was a factor. But disobedience was the mechanism, the outward expression of something far more insidious. It was not disobedience for its own sake.
Eastern Christianity, following Jewish thought, holds that the sin of The Garden was, in fact, idolatry. Think about it. To use the language of Saint Paul, Eve and Adam “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” They chose to listen to the serpent, valuing his insight over that of God’s, preferring the snake’s truth to God’s truth.
Without getting into debates about the historicity of this story, I believe it is sufficient to say that the purpose of this story is to reveal where it is we went wrong as a species. For Christians and Jews, we believe that we went wrong when we chose our own god.
How does one craft an idol?
In the Bible we read condemnations of false gods made from wood and stone. But this is not the only way to craft an idol. No, we can do so by means of pens and typewriters and word processors; we can do so by the work of our minds alone. “The idolatrous heart,” writes AW Tozer, the Evangelical mystic, “assumes that God is other than He is—in itself a monstrous sin—and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him.”
To conceive of God in terms other than those revealed by God is the very heart of idolatry. And idolatry is the great sin, the sin that led us to declare our Creator, our Lover, our Father as good as dead to us. And that idolatrous impulse is part of the sin that continues to plague us as a species.
And so, going forward, I want us to keep in mind this truth, to keep on guard and regularly testing ourselves, intentionally discerning who we want to serve: the God who Is, or the lesser god of our making?
I look forward to this journey with you.
Click HERE for part TWO.
* If you’re new to this, I hope you’ll get used to the interchangeable names. In The Episcopal Church we refer to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer by the monikers “BCP” and “Prayer Book.”
** Again, if you’re new, The Book of Common Prayer is the title of the liturgical manual used by all churches of the Anglican Communion—each of which are autonomous national churches in communion with The Church of England because they used to be The Church of England. The 1667 Book of Common Prayer is the BCP for England, which was exported to the colonies and was our book until a little revolution in 1776 changed some things.
*** Prior to 1979, baptisms were frequently private family affairs. The Episcopal Church moved to align with more ancient Christian practice and make baptisms public and reserved for special days of commemoration.
**** Forgetting, of course, that the Bible was itself written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, being later translated into Latin for much the same reasons that The Western Church was now opposing vernacular translations. Also note that I say “Western Church” here and not “The Church” or even “the Roman Catholic Church.” This is because vernacular translations weren’t an issue for the Eastern Church. And the Western Church only became “the Roman Catholic Church” as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
‡ Before you point and say “ha! He uses masculine pronouns for God and this is all just a way for him to maintain a misogynistic status quo!” let me say that I will explain my preference for using “He/Him/His” for God—and that it might not be for the reasons you think.