Vouchsafe thy preferences

Some of the things that Christians choose to argue is “interesting” to say the least. Here’s Ben Crosby arguing for the use of archaic language in church liturgy.  I say “interesting” because it’s an odd priority and the reasoning is surprising. Go back 30 years and I could imagine making the argument for continuing to include “thees and thous” on the basis that there was still an older generation that had grown up with the 1662 prayerbook and the King James version. Nowadays you’ll find my mum and dad in the 70s and 80s choosing Stuart Townend songs among their favourites and reading from the New International version which has been around since I was ten years old. 

So what is the argument?  Well there seem to be

  1. Scripture doesn’t give specific instruction on this.
  2. There are other things about Christian belief and practice that will offend and alienate
  3. That the language is not incomprehensible anyway.

Let’s deal with these in reverse order (for reasons that will become clear). First of all are archaic forms of liturgy and Scripture translations incomprehensible.  The author argues not.  The basis of that seems, to put it bluntly, that he is satisfied that it is comprehensible.  His view is that we may need to explain a few words but apart from that we are okay.  This misses the point that if something sounds unfamiliar and foreign then it is in fact often harder to get people to tune in and follow. 

Linked to that he insists that the language plays a role because we need to remember that God is “other” as well as “near” -that formal as well as informal language is appropriate.  These things are true but this begs the question “is archaic language the best means for encouraging formality.”  What kind of formality does it suggest and what kind of “otherness.” I would suggest that this risks us confusing God’s otherness and transcendence with oldness, datedness and irrelevance.

Secondly he argues that there are other things that will offend and alienate. He says:

I’m willing to grant that this might be the case; the language is certainly foreign for all of us (though, as we’ll see, I’m not convinced this is a bad thing). But at the risk of sounding pat, I find it hard to believe that the thees and thous are more alienating than the proclamation that the creator of the universe came to earth in human flesh, died and was resurrected for us, that we eat his flesh and drink his blood in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, etc. That is, for the non-Christian, Christianity is plenty alienating itself on its own!

Ben Crosby

Again, he is right that the Gospel message and our symbolic remembrance of it may well seem foreign and alienating.  Paul speaks of the foolishness and offence of the Gospel. However, again, this is to miss the point. If “Christianity is plenty alienating itself on its own” then this does not invite us to add additional stumbling blocks. We cannot avoid the reality that the Gospel will be a stumbling block, an offence to some but we do not need to add other trip hazards. Let’s ensure that the Gospel is the only stumbling block. 

Indeed, there is a risk that if we think that the offence of the Gospel gives us permission to create other forms of alienation and stumbling that we have misunderstood and are likely to cause misunderstanding about why the Gospel offends and alienates.  It becomes about the distance, tradition and quaintness whereas the offence of the cross arises from it’s in your face, close to the bone nearness and directness.

Thirdly, he argues that Scripture doesn’t give specific instructions on the matter. Of course it doesn’t. That’s nothing to do with God lacking an opinion on the matter and everything to do with him not feeling the need to give us instructions on things that are so stark staringly obvious.  Scripture doesn’t tell me that I shouldn’t shoot up heroin or drive cars down pedestrian precincts at 100 miles an hour or attempt to build nuclear reactors in my back garden either.  The obvious answer to “can we opt for some out of date language that no-one speaks now and few understand” is ”but why on earth would you want to?”  Here is something that goes against the whole tenor of the Gospel. It flies in the face of the God who draws near to us.

So, the issue here is not that Scripture treats our decisions to obscure God’s Word in archaic language is a “matter indifferent.” It’s that Scripture makes quite clear what God’s view is on such matters in it’s positive teaching such that a negative command is not required.

If a mum tells her child

“Go straight to school. It will take you 20 minutes. That’s just enoguh time to get you there, Don’t take any de-tours, don’t get distracted.”

Then the school phones the mum to say “your child was 30 minutes late”

The child cannot say

“But I noticed an advert in a shop window to say they were selling pet gerbils. You never said anything about purchasing pets.”

Now here’s the thing.  If the author had said “I still think that there are a few people around who enjoy a bit of 1662 liturgy and the poetry of the Authorised Version” I suspect we would have said “fair enough.” And if there’s a way of creating space for people to enjoy those things, if it is helpful for them in worship or even in fact creates Gospel opportunities then I would say “all power to them.” The problem comes when we cannot admit that we just happen to have personal preferences. So, we end up creating unpersuasive arguments for what we prefer. 

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