In the language of the people

Daily Reading for August 7 • John Mason Neale, Priest, 1866, and Catherine Winkworth, Poet, 1878

If there be one point of ecclesiastical order which would at first might seem, more than any other, to be commanded by Holy Scripture, fashioned by primitive usage, and required by common sense, it is surely this,—that the public offices of the Church should be offered in the vernacular language of the people. To employ, in addressing God, a tongue which his worshippers cannot comprehend; to wrap up lessons, epistles, and gospels in the obscurity of a dead language,—can this be a reasonable service? Can this be a gospel preached to the poor? Can this be such a worshipping in spirit and in truth as our Saviour’s express command enjoins? Is it not diametrically opposed to the declaration of S. Paul, “Yet in the church I had rather speak ten words to the edifying of the hearers, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue?” No man ever denied that the practice of the primitive Church was in accordance with this teaching, and that, a priori, one should have considered it a standing order, a stereotyped law, of the Church Catholic. The more surprising, therefore, is it to find that all the branches of the Church . . . have agreed in this: that the language of their public services shall be, to a certain extent,—some more, some less,—a language “not understanded of the people.” . . . The apostolic law is, really or apparently, broken; and the “ten thousand words” of liturgies, and hours, and offices, are said in an unknown tongue. . . .

Three hundred years ago, in opposition to the then prevailing practice, a national Church decreed as follows:—“It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the practice of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.” Three centuries passed; and the office then compiled has become so obsolete in its phrases as certainly to fall not very far short of incurring the condemnation there pronounced. The fact is, that we are so thoroughly used to both our spoken language and to that of our Bible and Prayer-book, that we fail to see what foreigners remark at once, the worldwide difference between the two. . . . We have to explain, for instance, that when we pray, “Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings,” we mean, “Assist us”; that when we lament our being let in running the race that is set before us, we mean that we are not let to run it. And so we may fairly ask the question: Is it not almost impossible to find any one Collect which shall be intelligible to an uneducated person? Do not the inversions of the sentences, as well as the difficulty of the words, make it a matter of difficulty to explain these “vernacular” prayers to the poor? Even in one of the Creeds, who is there . . . that could comprehend such a phrase as “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting”? And how differently would it have been expressed had the service been composed in modern times! Nothing can be more clear than that the compilers of the Prayer-book did not use the easiest and readiest words. . . .

We are not blaming this—far from it. We are merely showing that those who thought it their duty to exclaim most loudly against the employment of a foreign tongue in the services of the Church, themselves used a dialect of English different from any which is now, or which was ever, spoken; and “not understanded” entirely by any worshipper of the nineteenth century.

From Essays on Liturgiology and Church History by John Mason Neale (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1867).

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