Language and Worship
On the First Sunday in Advent this year, November 27, many Roman Catholics experienced the new English language version of their liturgy. There was a lot of press coverage about this change, so briefly: under the leadership of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church has worked to revise the English language service that emerged after Vatican II in the 1960s. That earlier English service, like our own Rite II in the Book of Common Prayer, was based on a return to early church liturgical texts. It was not a revision of the Latin Mass in use at the time. It was a new version of something old.
The current Roman Catholic hierarchy has been quite public in its desire to roll back some of the changes (we would call them reforms) ushered in by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI in the 1960s and 1970s. The “new” version of the English Mass unveiled last week is actually a translation of the Counter Reformation Latin Mass used before Vatican II, and as such it’s an attempt to restore the theology of that era. An analogue for Episcopalians would be to imagine a new English language liturgy that would be a mere modernization of the 1928 Prayer Book’s language—the “thees” and “thous” would be changed to “yous”, but the underlying theology would be the same. The churches revised their liturgies in the 1960s and 70s as a way of giving expression to an experience of church very different from the one that preceded it. The “new” English Mass for the Roman Catholic Church thus represents a return, however subtle, to a pre-Vatican II way of thinking. It may sound more stately than its predecessor did , but it also tends to validate an antiquated and hierarchical vision of the church and world.
Surprise at changes to liturgical language on Advent 1 was not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Some Christ Church Cranbrook parishioners seemed caught off guard by the revised version of the Nicene Creed we began using at the 10:00 a.m. service that day. This text, approved by the General Convention in 1994 and widely in use throughout the Episcopal Church since then, makes three changes to the Creed’s language. It refers to God becoming “truly human” (not “man”) in Jesus. It refers to the Holy Spirit in more neutral (“who” instead of “he”) language, and it omits the phrase “and the Son” when it talks about the procession of the Spirit from the Father.
The two changes to gender language are an attempt to translate the Creed in a more expansive manner, consonant with the inclusive language used in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Many Greek, Hebrew, and Latin words that are inclusive in the original have been rendered in English in male language (e.g. “humanity” becomes “mankind”). These new translations attempt to render the Latin text o the Nicene Creed in a more accessible way that is also faithful to the original.
The third change—the removal of the clause “and the Son” (in Latin, filioque) is actually a theologically important attempt to right an old wrong. The original text of the Nicene Creed (dating from the fourth century Council of Ephesus) read, simply “I believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” The original text, adopted by the whole church, did not have the word filioque (“and the Son”). It was added by the Western Church two hundred years later in an attempt to respond to local heresies. The Eastern (now Orthodox) Church never agreed to add the phrase, and the Anglican reformers of the 16th century mistakenly thought that filioque had been there from the beginning and edited out by the Orthodox later on. One longstanding principle of Anglican theology is that only scripture and the teachings of the undivided (East and West) church can be truly normative. In restoring the original text to the Nicene Creed, the Episcopal Church is attempting to be faithful to the spirit of its origins.
All of us who go to church regularly become habituated to familiar ways of speaking in worship. Language is important, and our task as Christians is always to balance what we mean with the comfortable (or disquieting) associations of how we say it. I am skeptical of the “new” English Roman Catholic Mass. I believe that the new translation of the Nicene Creed in our church will be a great aid to each of us seeking to understand not only who God is but how God acts in the world. As we settle into it this Advent and beyond, my hope is that this language will open up the Creed, and the liturgy itself, as windows into the mysteries we investigate as we gather together around God’s table.