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A Defense of the Sacral Vernacular

Introduction

Many Protestants shiver at the very thought of a "sacral language." The idea that we ought to worship, pray, and encounter God through something that seems "distant" is anathema to the practice of worship in the vernacular. Formality and intimacy, reverence and love, seemingly have an inconquerable gap that swallows up the souls of liturgical traditionalists.

The name of the liturgical game today is familiarity, we ought to encounter God as we would our spouse, or our friend, or as our earthly Father, in a casual and informal manner. Is this correct? Do we commit some cardinal sin by preserving the language of our fathers? Can we even truly worship in such constraining language and forms? Yes. Why? That is what this article seeks to prove.


Transcendence

First, because a sacral language is transcendent. The paradox of the Christian life is the transcendence and immanence of God. It is through the contemplation of the transcendence of God that we attain unto immanence. Sacral language reveals this to us, that God is still veiled in mystery, that we have not yet attained the beatific vision. We do not yet "know him as we are known." The already/not yet paradigm of the Christian life breaks through in our very speech when we use a sacral tongue. It is something familiar to us, yet foreign.

An overly familiar language does not spark this "reverence and awe" which the Apostle Paul commands but facilitates an unbalanced view of God. There is no paradox of transcendence with God, but it tempts our hearts to make an idol out of the God we wish to speak to. It tempts us to "humanize" the Divinity, not holding the differing realities in tension, but abandoning one side of the horn.

For, the very words we speak form us. Man is a creature of habit. The various words and motions which we carry out in our worship will form our relationship with God. A Sacral tongue forms the habit in us of recognizing and responding to the transcendence of God rightly.

We do it Anyways

The plain fact is that a sacral tongue slips into every part of our lives. We speak to different people in differing levels of sacral speech. If you were to meet the President of the United States you would speak to him differently than you would your buddy. When you are at court speaking to the Judge you use formal parlance and titles which reflect the respect you have for their office. This type of speech is natural to us.

In fact, to use overly familiar language in worship should feel uncomfortable and unnatural in worship. In lower church circles I often hear in the ex tempore prayers of the pastor sacral language bleeding through. Certain titles and phrases, certain formalities breakthrough and show themselves in this supposedly "familiar" act. The inconsistency that is shown on this point makes sense. One should "slip up" and away from their normal style of familiarity because it is so unnatural for us to constantly partake in.

It is a Universal Teaching of the Church

(At least up until the liturgical movement of the mid-20th century) this is universally practiced in branches of the church catholic separated by up to 1,500 years. If you go to the Latin church they have their Tridentine Mass. Go to the various eastern churches, you have various liturgies in an ancient, sacral language. Go to the oriental churches, they too have liturgies in an ancient, sacral language. Go to even the Nestorian church of the east (which broke off in the early 5th century from the rest of the church) they have the same trend.

What is going on here? Have they all, simultaneously fell from the standard of familiarity into a dry formalism? God forbid! Has Christ not preserved His church? Has the Holy Spirit not inspired the hearts of His faithful people? God forbid! We must say that such formalism has always existed in the church at all places and all times.


It Binds us to our Fathers in the Faith

Further, it is what binds us to our fathers in the faith. When I say the Lord's Prayer, I say it the same way that Anglicans have been saying it for 5 centuries. The same words are formed on my lips that were spoken by Cranmer, Andrewes, Jewel, Perkins, Laud, Pusey, Newman, and millions of faithful Anglicans who I stand on the shoulders of. If I chant the Pater I am speaking the same words as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Fulgentius, Bonaventure, and Aquinas. This reminds us that we are One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We are not two churches, one on earth and one in heaven, but we believe in the Communio Sanctorum, the communion of saints. We are one living church separated by space and time, yet one in the mystical body of Christ.

This is a healing balm to the rampant infection that is "chronological snobbery." In using a sacral tongue we see ourselves not as the only Christians who ever lived, but one small slice of a long line of saints who contemplated God and strived for holiness.

The Example of Temple Worship

Further, this follows the example of Temple worship. When the language of the people changed into a different vernacular, teaching was done in the common language of the people (see: Neh. 8:8) yet the liturgical and devotional language of the people retained the elevated, ancient, and sacral tongue of the composition of the liturgy. This is a pattern which we ought to follow in our liturgy.


The Protestant Example

The example of the English Reformers shows this principle in our liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer isn't set to a strict "common language" (although it is in the vernacular) but has an elevation of language to it by 16th century standards. The KJV too is translated by the early 17th-century fathers into a formal language and "high" style. What we see in our liturgical forebearers is a "sacral vernacular" a language that is understood, yet uncommon. This is the same trend which is seen in other early liturgies, Latin, Greek, Old Armenian, Old Georgian, Coptic, Old Ethiopian (Ge’ez), Church Slavonic all have these trends, each of which has high stylistic features, yet are (were at least) understood.

Objections

The first objection follows thus: (Major) A sacral language cannot be understood by the laity, (minor) worship must be understood in order to be effective, ERGO A sacral language must not be implemented.

This can be attacked on multiple points. First, a sacral language can be understood. A sacral language was used in Anglican worship up until the 70's where there was a revision of the Prayer Book into a common tongue. Surely, those worshipping with it understood it. Further, in most other circles hymns are still sung in a sacral tongue. Further, the dominance of the King James Version of the Bible disproves this, in fact, the majority of Bible readers still use it. This is not done merely in well-educated circles but has the opposite trend, poorly educated demographics tend to use it more often than better-educated demographics (the ones who apparently cannot understand it). Further, the minor premise reveals an intellectualism on the part of the objector. Sacral languages, even when less understood than a common tongue, express other aspects of spirituality than a mere contemplation on the sense of the words being spoken. There is a majesty and beauty which strike the reader, forming his worship to express the very beauty and majesty of God.

The second objection follows thus: (M) A sacral language distances one from intimacy with God, (m) the goal of redemption is that "we will be His people, and I will be their God," ERGO A sacral language must not be implemented.

The major premise may be attacked: For, it is false that sacral language (and by extension) formal worship reduces intimacy. Rather, it frames our seeking of God in a certain way. It trains us to have this type of relationship with God in due proportion. Shakespearean sonnets do not quell love due to their complex and formal language, rather it expresses it in an even greater way, not only through the words spoken but also through the mode of speaking. Sacral language expresses things beyond the sense of the words themselves.


How is this to be Implemented?

How, then, is this to be implemented liturgically? As an Anglican this is easy, we have been gifted with a liturgy that is both vernacular and sacral, that is, the Elizabethan English of the KJV and the pre-1979 Books of Common Prayer. We must retain that elevation of language in our worship. A new tool within the ACNA for this is the 2019 Book of Common Prayer TLE. Follow the historical trend of keeping the teaching and preaching in the common language of the people, but the sacral vernacular of the liturgy must be retained.


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