Is the Word accessible for all?

An interesting article, as always please feel free to post your thoughts in the comment section.

It is 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by delivering his protest against indulgences, that religious scam of flogging salvation to the desperate and the gullible. Against the authority of the Roman church, the Protestants asserted a higher authority: the word of God itself. Through “the word”, the protesters claimed direct access to the divine, access that bypassed the spiritual middle management of the Vatican. Translated into English by William Tyndale, the Bible empowered even a “ploughboy” to connect with the beating heart of all things, unmediated by priest, pope or potentate. This is how written language became so politically devastating, the ultimate in social empowerment for the poor.

The word was the driving force behind the English revolution against absolute monarchy. And the establishment of the Labour party would have been unimaginable without the literacy skills that were taught to working-class children in the Methodist Sunday schools of the 19th century. When it comes to class struggle, in the beginning was the word.

But a recent study by Canon Geoff Bayliss, the rector of Cowley, has demonstrated that the Church of England liturgy requires a much higher literacy rate than that reached by a significant percentage of its flock – that 43% of the population of England are now unable to make sense of half of what is written in the C of E’s service sheets. Apparently, the word is too difficult. Using figures from government studies that demonstrate 15% of the adult population to be functionally illiterate, and another 29% to have literacy limitations that severely restrict their access to a significant amount of written material, Canon Bayliss asks whether the church should adapt its core liturgical texts to take account of these literacy levels.

The argument is compelling. Jesus spoke in parables in order that many could understand what he was saying. So, for instance, analysing the famous parable of the Sower with modern readability formulas, it turns out that it is pitched between entry level and level one of the National Literacy Strategy. By comparison, only 34% of the published liturgies of the Church of England are pitched at that level. Most of them employ longer sentences and unfamiliar words. So, much of what is read in church is beyond the language skills of many in the pews, let alone Tyndale’s famous “ploughboy”.

Accessibility is enshrined in the founding document of the C of E. “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God, and the custom of the primitive church, to have prayer in the church, or to minister the sacraments, in a tongue not understood of the people,” as one of the 39 articles has it, in entry level two language. Though I’m not sure they could have possibly imagined the jumbled grammar of emojis and impenetrable SMS speak used by my own Sunday schoolers who read their prayers in church from their phones.

So it is no surprise that Canon Bayliss’s research has touched a nerve in the C of E. For some it demonstrated that the church’s liturgical texts were written more with the educated in mind, and that they are middle-class documents for a middle-class church. It’s like the argument that Shakespeare creates middle-class theatre audiences. Others have rightly found this patronising, disputing the easy link being made between literacy and class.

But surely the very purpose of church language is to exceed that of the ordinary and the immediate, thus constantly gesturing towards yet unknown and ungrasped possibilities. Indeed, it is precisely because the idea of God necessarily exceeds the limits of our language that the Protestant emphasis on the word is far too constraining. For the theatricality of Catholic worship with all its bells and incense and moody lighting often says more about the otherness of God than words are capable of.

The Reformation got it wrong when it reduced God to the measure of available language. God is not made of words. And church should be more show and tell than a literacy class. Most weeks my Sunday school class acts out the gospel as a mini-play. From processions for the dead to the high drama of the mass, the church’s ideology is performed. And you don’t just read along. You join in.

One thought on “Is the Word accessible for all?

  1. It has taken time for me to think about this one so sorry about belated comment. There have always been people of different degrees of literacy so that is nothing new but from what I see there are choices available for worshippers to choose the old traditional versions of worship with difficult language and more modern versions to suit other tastes. Sometimes it is the feeling that words arouse without deep understanding of meaning.
    In education there is always the question of do teachers and schools cater for the masses or do they make sure they nurture the bright children.
    In the Benefice of Bransgore and HInton Admiral, I feel choices are provided so that parishioners can decide each week if they want the traditional with its old well used wording, or the modern with a different approach. I would be sad to lose the old completely but enjoy the opportunity for something different from time to time.

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