Worship, language and the ‘family history’

While reading Alana Harris’s exploration of changes in language, and the arguments about maintaining tradition (in Redefining Christian Britain), I was reminded of part of Rowan Williams’s recent Why study the past ?. I reviewed it a while back (for the Christianity and History Forum Bulletin), an extract of which reads:

“Williams sees the task of engaging with the past as one not purely of historical empathy for its own sake, but as a form of understanding and engaging with one’s fellow Christians in a way as necessary and as profound as cross-cultural and ecumenical conversation in the present. [….] Ever mindful of a constant and profound tension between the strangeness of the past and its urgency as our ‘family history’, it is the case that ‘our immersion in the ways in which they responded becomes part of the way we actually hear the call ourselves …’ (p.31) This leads Williams to a brief, yet to this reviewer, profoundly important, consideration of the degree to which the worship and conversation of the churches should embody languages and visible practices that both act as symbols of contemporary unity and enable a continuing ‘conversation’ with Christians of previous generations.”

I’m sure there’s a lot here that might help us understand conservative reactions to liturgical change in the 1960s and 1970s. Although it is rarely expressed in quite these terms, perhaps part of the opposition to the sidelining of the Book of Common Prayer is to do with a sense that some means of cross-generational communication is being lost. It puts the arguments about the Book of Common Prayer being part of a ‘linguistic heritage’ into a new light – it is quite easy to read these appeals to ‘save the language of Shakespeare’ purely as aesthetic arguments, or as more secular appeals to a national cultural inheritance.

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