Saturday, 31 December 2016

Simplifying Liturgical Language

What better way to prepare for New Year celebrations than to cogitate on liturgical language? The latest edition of the Church Times includes a page-long article entitled ‘Speaking in the language of the people’ (Church Times, 23/30 December 2016, p. 16), which summarises research conducted by Canon Geoff Bayliss on the readability of liturgy within the Church of England. Bayliss has used various ‘readability formulas’ to test how easily read are current liturgies and has concluded that many of them could be improved: ‘43 per cent of adults living in England will find 50 per cent of the Church of England liturgies difficult to read.’ Here is the printed example, the collect for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity:

Common Worship (2000): Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions make them to ask such things as shall please you; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. [This collect has a reading age of 21, says Bayliss.]

Bayliss also supplies two simpler versions for comparison, the second of which I presume has been developed by Bayliss himself:

Alternative Modern Language Version (2004): Lord of heaven and earth, as Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer, give us patience and courage never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Reading age: 18.]

A version with more encouraging readability statistics: Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus taught his followers to keep praying. Teach us never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Reading age: 8.]

The final version of the collect listed is an improvement on the previous two—certainly if part of the purpose of liturgy is to enable worshipper participation in the drama of a church service. Bayliss, drawing from other studies, argues that the use of unfamiliar and/or polysyllabic words (words with more than three syllables, he clarifies) and long sentences prevents worshippers from truly engaging with the liturgy. ‘Liturgies that avoid both complex words and longer sentences (of more than 20 words) can be developed successfully,’ Bayliss concludes. I have no reason to doubt him.

It’s important here to recognise that Bayliss isn’t suggesting that liturgy be dumbed down; the absence of polysyllabic words or overly long sentences in liturgy doesn’t entail an unsophisticated theology. There will always be a need for theological explanation for those who aren’t content merely to say the words. Consider Bayliss’s version, which contains the phrase: ‘We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ This is a simply expressed statement pregnant with theological meaning: What does it mean to ask God something through Jesus Christ? Why do we ask God through Jesus Christ? What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is our Lord and our Lord? Good theological insight can still work its way through simpler liturgy. There’s no need to employ multiclaused sentences, as though these are somehow more ‘spiritual’ than simple sentences. Is it really more spiritual to say, ‘We give you thanks, O Lord’ than to say, ‘Thank you, Lord’?

Bayliss’s recommendations might be helpful for ministers, too. Sometimes I think some worshippers lose interest in what’s going on, especially during the Eucharistic Prayers, because the liturgy isn’t performed appropriately. While a Eucharistic Prayer isn’t the same thing as a Shakespearean soliloquy, imagine how flat the latter would likely sound if it were delivered by someone with limited theatrical training or with little sense of metre. Simpler liturgy might help ministers pray a Eucharistic Prayer in a way that conveys the importance of the sacrament without it coming across as gibberish, a formula, or an incantation.

Preachers and other speakers might benefit from Bayliss’s advice as well. When I practise a draft sermon, I suppose that if I have difficulty in saying something—and I do mean saying something—then I need to simplify that sentence, either by leaving out words, changing words, or breaking a sentence into shorter ones. My underlying assumption here is that if I have problems speaking what I’ve written, then the congregation will likely have problems listening to me or understanding what I’ve written. Thus I believe Bayliss’s recommendations for liturgists are also relevant for speakers more generally.


  1. Interesting. My husband and I were discussing a similar idea the other day. I asked why so many read the liturgy, prayers or bible passages in such a dreary way. They often sound as if they're reading the most boring text they've ever come across. No wonder people find church off-putting. Frank said he thought it was to maintain the middle class status quo.
    In a slightly different direction, and closer to your post, as the parents of a young man with learning disabilities we have often discussed how to communicate the character of God, how to share the Good News, with people who may not be able to understand what generally occurs. Even the Good News bible is beyond our dear boy. This is where actions speak louder than words. We are called to live the gospel, to be the gospel, before we're called to preach the gospel. That's my opinion, anyway.

    1. I'm not sure the Christian's call is a before/after thing, and the body of Christ is diverse enough to allow both things ('being' the gospel and 'preaching' the gospel) to happen, anyway. But I take your point. I think this is where liturgy done 'properly' can be very helpful. There is so much scope for the senses - not just for hearing and seeing, but in touching (e.g., receiving the bread, drinking the wine, holding a hymn book), tasting (the bread and wine), and smelling (e.g., the wine, incense). These things happen week in, week out in many churches, but I'd be surprised if a large number of people actually noticed them. I wonder if a simplified liturgy should draw attention to, for example, the smell and taste of the wine.

      I don't know if this is the sort of angle that would be helpful to your son. I only know one person - a pre-teen girl - in my church who probably has learning difficulties, but she seems to get a real kick out of showing everyone what she's done in Sunday school each week. But I don't know how she responds to liturgy precisely because in our church the children are sent out to Sunday school!

      In the Church of England, there are Eucharistic Prayers that have been written for use when a significant number of children are present at Holy Communion. ( I don't know if your son would resonate with these at all, but Bayliss mentions them as good examples of simplified liturgy.

      Maybe those responsible for devising official liturgy need to ask parents of people with learning difficulties for input!

  2. Also, in the new year I am going to go to the local Anglican church to take communion during the week. I enjoy the liturgy and whatnot. So I may have a more informed opinion in the future!