Understanded of the People

The twenty-fourth of the thirty-nine Articles deals with the question of the language in which the liturgy is celebrated and the Bible read. It is a question of using the language we speak in our everyday lives, usually our mother tongue, instead of Latin. The word understanded is wrong in modern English (we say understood), but we should be aware that standard English is something rather recent in our history. See the etymology of the word understand.

Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth 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 of the people.

The question was hashed out at the Council of Trent back in the sixteenth century. Luther advocated the use of the vernacular, but he did not impose it as an absolute necessity. Bach wrote a number of settings of the Latin Mass. Calvin’s position was more radical, claiming that the Sacraments had no validity unless the people could understand everything. The famous canon ended up saying:

If anyone says (…) that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only (…) let him be anathema.
Concilium Tridentinum VIII, 912, 10-13:
Si quis dixerit, ecclesiæ Romanæ ritum… aut lingua tantum vulgari missam celebrare debere … eo quod sit contra Christi institutionem: anathema sit.

A good book to read on the subject is Angelus De Marco, The Church of Rome and the Problem of the Vernacular versus the Liturgical Language, Washington DC 1960. There are certainly many other works that would be useful in a study of this question. The Roman Catholic Church already allowed Mass in Chinese in the new Jesuit missions of the time, and German was used in many parts of that part of the world. Latin remained the norm until the mid 1960’s, but there were many exceptions for pastoral reasons. Whether the use of Latin is offensive to God, none of us will never know – I doubt whether he is really bothered either way! The question came up in the blog of my confrère Fr Jonathan Munn in his blog article “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” Prayer.

I lost my breviary last night and had to resort to a copy of the breviary in Latin which I don’t like doing since, being an Anglican Catholic, it’s important that I say my prayers in English. Of course it was good for me to practise my Latin which is very rusty. However, frustrated after a day of not quite getting the rhythm of the psalms right, I said a prayer to St Anthony and within 10 minutes I found that pesky breviary which had fallen down the back of a table!

In a way, I sympathise, and I often take out the English version I have of the Sarum Use and put the Dickinson aside. Latin strikes me as unctious and solemn. English in its classical idiom, to me, is intimate and homely. The use of Latin has had many apologists over the years since Latin all but disappeared from the Roman Catholic Church to be replaced by the same kind of English as we had in Series III in the 1970’s. “You who…” brought a snigger to many a choirboy because we have a brand of glue in England called UHU. We in the ACC use the older style of our language. I was in a traditionalist seminary, so our liturgy was in Latin. I still pronounce it the Italian way!

I doubt I would have anything new to add to the arguments. Latin, of course, was the vernacular language of Roman people until they started speaking Italian. Greek was used in the early days in Rome, and there are still fragments – the Κύριε ἐλέησον – and the Τρισάγιον on Good Friday. Liturgical languages tended in history to be archaic forms of human languages, and our own Prayer Book English is no exception. The New Testament was written in Greek and not Aramaic, which suggests that immediate comprehension was not given priority. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic and Greek, perhaps enough Latin to get by with the patrolling Romans. He would have worshipped in Hebrew at the synagogue and in the Temple, as many Jewish people do to this day.

Though I usually say Mass and Office in Latin, I frequently do so in English, even when alone. A friend came to my Holy Week services, so I used English with the exception of sung parts in Latin. I do think that English (or the local language wherever that is) is a good idea. Latin is not going to attract people to the liturgy, unless they are traditionalists who really want Latin – and they are hardly likely to come to us Anglicans! On the other hand, liturgy in any form does little to attract people. Do we need to attract people? Good question.

Language is a cultural notion. Even when we are talking in our own language, we would not preach the same way to ordinary people as to students and professors in an Oxford college chapel. We try to bridge the “disconnection” gap, but there are limits to the extent to which we can simplify language.

I have no axe to grind. The ACC normally celebrates in Prayer Book English or in another vernacular language depending on the country where the Church has become established. I have no problem with that. Eccentric university chaplains sometimes say Prayer Book services in Latin on the basis that Classics students can understand that language. A great deal of choral music is in Latin. Pieces like Allegri’s Miserere have been adapted into English, but it is a little like playing Bach on a piano. The music is composed for the text, and most musicians don’t like meddling around too much with what has been written by a given composer. Fortunately, Anglicanism is very rich in choral music written on English texts.

I make a point of being at home in both Latin and English, and ready to celebrate in other languages if the books are available and the translation is good. I often read epistles in German when I was a student in Switzerland. I understood very little, but the congregation understood everything. They even said that I pronounced German with very little in the way of an English accent. I have never had the motivation or real need to learn German properly, but what I read was not totally unintelligible.

There is another very poignant argument. A little baby in his mother’s arms doesn’t yet understand what his mother is saying, but he does know that she loves him. Do we know all the words of our language? Do we always use our language without errors? As a translator, I learn new words all the time in both French and English. Translation is an art.

There is a balance between raison and faith, classicism and romanticism, understanding and adoring the Mystery. We can’t afford to be too intolerant or “dogmatic” about it. Dickinson and Warren both have pride of place in my chapel.

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4 Responses to Understanded of the People

  1. Stephen K says:

    Well, I think your position, Father, is a thoughtful, sensible one.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Eccentric university chaplains sometimes say Prayer Book services in Latin on the basis that Classics students can understand that language.” I now kick myself that I never attended one of these when I had the opportunity. Some of the Latin Prayer Book translations can be sampled at:


  3. ed pacht says:

    I definitely and strongly prefer to worship in my mother tongue, which happens to be English, but just as definitely and strongly prefer it to be in a more elevated and probably somewhat archaic version of that tongue. For liturgical worship liturgical language is something approaching a necessity, inasmuch as everyday speech is ill-equipped to carry meanings not encompassed by everyday experience. I have, however, attended services in Latin, in German, in French, in Spanish, in Indonesian, In Greek, Church Slavonic, Albanian, and, oh yes, in Lithuanian and Armenian (all languages I do not speak – I think I got them all), but, in all cases with a translation either in my head or in my hand before my eyes, and those translations did indeed turn it into a language understanded of the people, meaning specifically me. I agree, Father, that you have a very sensible take on the matter.

    “You, who” indeed! When that was current in local RC churches, I more than once heard teenagers in the back row yell out, “Yoohoo” to the priest. Hardly edifying, that.

    • Latin is a question of being used to it. It represents a different “culture”. I spent 15 years of my life as a Roman Catholic and joined the traditionalists at age 22. It makes a big impression! I am not “heavily into” Gregorian chant, but it forms the basis of western church music. The chant was perfectly suited to the texts and the natural rhythm of the words. Latin doesn’t only mean Counter-Reformation Roman Catholicism, but harks back to pre-Reformation times in England, France and elsewhere. Like 19th century Italian Catholicism or in France 100 years before, there was corruption and superstition. In other places, there was (according to historical evidence) a healthy integration of religion and popular culture. That is now gone, and we are all like fish out of water, regardless of whether we use Latin or English.

      That is my experience. I relate very closely to Canon Warren’s translation of the Sarum liturgy, based as it is on the Prayer Book (where the Prayer Book kept Sarum prayers) and a continuation in the same literary style. As I said in my article, an English Mass is homely and intimate, and it connects me with my original Anglican background.

      Here is the Warren version of the Sarum Missal – The Sarum missal in English I and The Sarum Missal in English II. You are probably familiar with my Lectionary, which is needed to go with the Warren missal.

      There is a reprint of this missal from 2010, but there is no guarantee that it is not a crappy paperback with the pages glued into the spine (not sewn in sections) – making it unusable at the altar. This is likely, since the price of the book is €35. Unless someone does a proper binding, we still have to go fly fishing in second hand bookshops and paying hefty prices for rare books. Mine was more than £100 about 8 years ago when I bought mine.

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