In recent decades, both among Roman Catholics and Protestants, there has been much talk about liturgical reform and a great amount of activity resulting from this talk. Some people have even described these developments as a liturgical revolution.
There have been different theological and pastoral rationales given for the changes in worship, and, of course, some changes have been more radical than others. But there is one central assumption that underlies most of the changes-namely, that the traditional, pre-reform modes of worship were too remote from the lives of ordinary people and that the language of worship had become incomprehensible. Much of the liturgical reform of recent decades was consequently a great turn toward the vernacular. To be sure, there have been other motives, notably those that have animated the promoters of so-called “inclusive language,” which is a political project designed to change the content rather than the comprehensibility of liturgical language. In a wider sense, however, this project too is related to the vernacular urge, for that political project is relevant to the lives of ordinary people.
Undoubtedly the most dramatic moment in this recent history came when the Roman Catholic Church, virtually overnight, replaced the Latin mass with a polyphony of vernacular languages. Protestant churches, which had eliminated Latin four hundred years earlier, could not now match this dramatic gesture. But in their own little ways they went through similar motions. Both the language of the Scriptures and that of congregational worship were subjected to translations that were supposed to make the message and the proceedings more understandable to the people in the pews as well as more relevant to their lives. In Protestantism, too, there has been a turn to the vernacular. But closest in drama to the Roman aggiornamento (an apt phrase indeed in this context) has been the radical revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, translating the solemn Elizabethan cadences of that great monument of the English language into the antiseptic prose of, say, the British Broadcasting Corporation.
There has been some overt resistance to these moves. Conservative Catholics travel long distances to a parish where, almost furtively, a Latin mass is still celebrated. Traditionalist Episcopalians gather in a dissident congregation for the old service, carefully leafing through the worn-out pages of ancient prayer books no longer printed by the denominational presses. There have even been some rather feeble schisms, reminiscent of the rebellious Old Believers in Russian Orthodoxy. But very few protests came from the ecclesiastical intellectuals, most of whom endorsed the vernacular revolution with varying degrees of enthusiasm. As to the ordinary people in the pews, when they were asked (which, and then only rarely, was typically by pollsters rather than church officials), they said in large numbers that they disliked the changes. Very few of them organized in any serious way to resist. Many of them voted with their feet, quietly slipping away from the liturgies that had been updated for their benefit.
As a sociologist of religion I was already struck at the time of the Second Vatican Council by the fact that there was little if any empirical evidence to indicate that ordinary Catholics found the Latin mass remote or difficult to understand (especially with English missals in hand). The remoteness and the incomprehensibility were posited a priori by theologians and prelates. The same lack of evidence pertains to all the other programs of vernacularization. I’m not aware of any studies showing that ordinary people in England or in the United States had problems with the language of the old Book of Common Prayer. Conversely, there is at least some empirical evidence to the effect that many faithful Catholics and other Christians have been put off by the liturgical innovations of the recent past, some so seriously as to become alienated from their church. There is some exquisite irony in this. But there is another, massive movement in contemporary Christianity that sheds unexpected light on the rationale of the vernacular movement: the worldwide ascendancy of Pentecostalism.
The rapid growth of Pentecostalism in the United States is a well-known fact. It has also become clear that this phenomenon is international in scope. It is spreading in South Korea, all the Overseas Chinese communities, apparently within China itself, in the Philippines, in the South Pacific, and in sub-Saharan Africa (where it has also entered into syntheses with traditional African religions). Most dramatically, it is spreading like a prairie fire throughout Latin America, where there are now an estimated forty to fifty million Protestants, some 80 percent of them Pentecostals. Most recently, there is some evidence that Pentecostalism is making inroads in Eastern Europe. And Pentecostal forms of worship and piety have been spreading within non-Pentecostal churches, both Protestant and Catholic (as manifested in the so-called Charismatic movement). Given the massiveness of this phenomenon, it is very unlikely that any single factor can explain its remarkable success. But it is noteworthy that there is one universal and indeed defining characteristic of Pentecostal Christianity-its language of worship.
Pentecostals are Christians whose worship is dominated by glossolalia, the “speaking in tongues.” Pentecostals, of course, explain this practice by the presence of the Holy Spirit, who, as at the original Pentecost reported in the Acts of the Apostles, descends upon the faithful and allows them to speak in alien tongues. This is not the place to dispute this explanation theologically. I only want to make here one simple, empirical observation. The fastest-growing Christian community in the contemporary world, and one that consists overwhelmingly of very ordinary people, worships by way of glossolalia- that is, in a language much more remote from the vernacular than Latin, Elizabethan English, or any other archaic language (including church Slavonic).
This observation is hardly conclusive, but it suggests what may well be the underlying mistake of the vernacularist assumption. It is, to be sure, not the only mistake. There is also the patronizing notion that ordinary people are unable to find their way through proceedings in an unfamiliar idiom-a notion, as noted before, that is almost certainly mistaken when it comes to liturgical language. But there is a more fundamental error in the notion that worship must minimize the remoteness of God as much as possible. To be sure, the error is not total. Of course any form of worship will seek to mediate between the remoteness of the supernatural and the reality of everyday human existence. Of course the Bible, if it is to be read by ordinary people, must be translated into a language that they can understand (far be it from me to disapprove of Luther’s great achievement in this matter). And of course it makes no sense for a preacher addressing, say, a German congregation to speak in Greek. Thus there must be a place for the vernacular in Christian worship. But vernacularism, as it has come to be widely established in the churches, may well be described as a subtle and yet very damaging heresy. It is fundamentally misguided to use linguistic means to deny the transcendent remoteness altogether, to pretend that we can speak of God as we speak of politics or commerce, to try to conceal the divine otherness. The Pentecostals, lustily uttering their incomprehensible and untranslatable glossolalia, offer a welcome corrective.
A few months ago I was in London on a Sunday morning. I made my way to the local Anglican church, a rather ornate edifice not far from the financial district. The church was almost empty (not an unusual condition in today’s Church of England). The congregation consisted of some thirty people, mostly old ladies, each one sitting by herself. I was probably the youngest person in the place, except for five teenage boys who constituted the choir and who looked like parolees from a home for juvenile delinquents. An old man waddled toward the organ, to be followed by an even older man who turned out to be the vicar. It was a thoroughly depressing gathering and I wondered whether I would not have been better advised to stay in my hotel room and, in good Protestant fashion, use the thoughtfully provided Gideon Bible for my private devotions. But then the service began, using, I happily noted, the unexpurgated text of the Book of Common Prayer. The mighty language, even as spoken by this rather uninspiring priest, suddenly seemed to fill the building. The empirical reality of what was evidently a moribund congregation fell away, to be replaced by something gloriously other:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men: We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ: for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory . . . .
Peter L. Berger , a member of the Editorial Board of First Things , is author of A Far Glory.