The (Other) King's Speech

Last year Hollywood reached back several decades to offer a compelling picture of one king's efforts to find his voice, and the DVD will be released this week. The church, on the other hand, reaches back four hundred years every Sunday to another king to find its own voice for worship. That's not so compelling and it needs to stop.

I am thinking, of course, about what Episcopalians describe as Rite One—that version of our worship that depends upon the English of James the First, who lived from 1556-1625. The language that revels in "thee's" and "thou's" and turns of phrase like "manifold sins and wickedness."

We Episcopalians are fairly sure that the Bible is simply the Book of Common Prayer taken out of context, so (unlike some other Christians) we won't fight for the King James Version of the Bible. But some of us will fight hard to defend the Prayer Book version of the (other) king's speech. Even fairly progressive parishes will often include Rite One somewhere in their schedule of services, if only for the somnambulant crowd that haunts our shrinking 8 a.m. services.

I won't dispute Rite One's beauty or its rightful place in our history. Like the English choral tradition and Shakespeare, I actually enjoy it. But our preoccupation with old language, old music, and old ways of doing things as a church is killing us. And it isn't helping other churches that rely on similar practices on Sunday morning.

Case in point: The 20-something guy who cuts my hair is a Roman Catholic. I asked him not long ago, "Do you go to church?" When he responded, "no," I followed on by asking, "What would it take to get you to come back?" He responded, "Nothing. It's just so unstimulating."

I have argued elsewhere that we need to avoid pandering to the entertainment culture, and we should. The effort to find a contemporary idiom for worship does not mean that we should throw the theological baby out with the linguistic bathwater. But we also need to avoid getting so stuck in time that the only growth we experience is growth in the depth of our irrelevance. The "new (1979) Prayer Book," as we so often refer to it in this country, is already thirty years old. And the language (particularly in Rite One) is arcane and obscure.

Congregations are too poorly formed in the Christian faith to understand any liturgy, let alone a liturgy in language that is well on its way to a mid-millennial birthday. While we cannot and should not try to eliminate all of the barriers people encounter in visiting us for the first time, the language of dead kings is the last thing that should stand in the way of introducing people to the King of Glory.

The irony, of course, is that in James's day the language that is so closely associated with his name was the language of the street. It is only the life-long experience of an ever-shrinking number of churchgoers that intuitively associates the language of his day with a contemporary experience of the holy.

But the pace of change has made the use of 17th-century language a luxury the church cannot afford. In a world where the very conception of what a book might be has radically changed and in which visual experiences loom so large, there is almost no means of yet accounting for the number of ways in which today's young adults and children will experience the world around them.

Practically speaking, there are three things that we can do:

  1. Use the more contemporary versions of the church's liturgies that are available to us and explore more contemporary approaches to worship that are congruent with our shared lives.
  2. Press for change in the liturgies that achieve a contemporary expression of Christian worship in terms that is both accessible and faithful to the Christian tradition.
  3. Embrace the courage needed to look beyond the aesthetic of our own experience to the needs of new generations.

The trick, of course, is to avoid liturgical and musical pabulum. What has been deeply disconcerting about most efforts to update the church's liturgy and music has been the thin, misleading, and sometimes heretical nonsense that we have offered in exchange for the king's speech. Who can forget liturgical train-wrecks like the countless lyrics adapted to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence"; the attempt to meet the needs of men in the song, "Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goalposts of Life"; or the dance that ended—I kid you not—with one of the dancers birthing the bread for Eucharist?

It is not an easy thing to acknowledge the need for change, and alternatives like these don't make the process any easier. But even for older adults who remain current with the technological changes we are undergoing, the experience is fundamentally different from that of younger generations. For that reason we are obliged to trust their interpretation of the journey. But if we cling to the king's speech, we will never know, because they won't come and if they do, they won't stay.