This is one of Covenant’s many essays on liturgical revision. See others here.

By Zachary Guiliano

Several weeks ago, someone asked if I would offer some thoughts on liturgical language and revision in the Episcopal Church. After mulling on the topic for several days, I came up with the following 15 principles.

Until now, I have hesitated to write about this publicly, as a priest of the Church of England. On one level, this is because I have no skin in the game: whatever happens in the Episcopal Church will have little daily effect on me, my praying, or that of the congregations I serve. On the other hand, the Anglican Communion, like the whole body of Christ in time and space, is inextricably linked. And, as they say, when America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold. Yet when liturgy is whole and sound, it can promote the health of many.


Similarly, I am inviting no one to draw the conclusion that this essay somehow reflects an editorial stance at The Living Church. In today’s social media age, this is all too often missed. I offer these reflections in a spirit of generosity, in my more private capacity as priest, theologian, and historian, all the while recognizing my principles will not please everyone, like most writing on liturgy.

As a statement of transparency, my approach to this topic is driven by my academic work and daily spiritual wrestling with the writings of the patristic period and the Early Middle Ages. And, as a liturgical historian, I have a particular take on the development of the Church’s worship. If I were fully prepared, I would want to add some reflections on the character of language and story, drawing on my academic research into what I’ve called “the allegorical imagination” and on more recent reading in the psychology of religion. But I’m not quite there yet.

So here are my initial thoughts.

1. All language is inadequate to describe or praise God, whether it is profoundly metaphorical or dry and rational. Our simplest words (God, the Lord) can become idols.

2. The language of Scripture is inspired by God “for our learning” and, within its general parameters, we know God has also given specific divine names that we must use and that have primacy in our speech (pre-eminently: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; “I am”; the Lord; the Almighty; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). God has particular patterns of speech.

3. Some of this biblical language will prove naturally resonant to all of us, when taken as a whole, which is what we would expect from a divine instrument oriented in some mysterious way toward the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, through whom all things were made.

4. Yet even this biblical language is liable to be misunderstood and to be a stumbling block (skandalon) to those who encounter it, within and outside the Church. This is as much a function of our sinfulness, ignorance, and embodiment as it is an innate property of the language. Scripture sifts us (so Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Butler, among others).

5. Therefore, however we understand or explain such language, or are challenged by it, the Bible sets the terms of the discussion, and the rules for our speech. It judges us.

6. Within the Christian tradition, there are licit developments that have been universally accepted, such as fourth- and fifth-century language for the Trinity and Jesus Christ. These must take precedence over our preferences and, again, set the bounds.

7. Many hymn writers, poets, preachers, and mystics have gone further, praising God in “expansive language,” a great profusion of different styles and terms (from Gregory of Nazianzus and Ephrem of Edessa to Julian of Norwich and George Herbert). This has been primarily the language of devotion, song, and proclamation, as Eugene Schlesinger has pointed out here.

8. Some of this expansive language has gradually found its way into our liturgies through hymnals, collections of anthems and antiphons, and other books. The touchstone remains Scripture and tradition, often within a specific symbolic/allegorical framework.

9. Some of this expansive language has been “disruptive” or “transgressive,” obtaining its power and rhetorical force precisely because it subverts norms. If it became the norm, it is unclear whether it would retain its power.

10. Ironically, these great treasuries of devotional language have been preserved in authorized fashion to a greater degree in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Anglican problem of diminished language partly stems from Reformation attempts at paring down and simplifying liturgical language: at first, omitting antiphons and propers, along with most hymns, extra-biblical readings, etc. The Anglo-Catholic tradition has gone furthest in restoring this treasury over the past 150 years.

11. The process of liturgical revision has most often been gradual and decentralized, such that it might come under the heading of reception: over time, various changes have simply taken place and been accepted in a way that is hard to account for and that commends itself better to the agreement of the faithful (consensus fidelium) than simple imposition.

12. Attempts to impose radical liturgical change upon large churches have only proved successful when accompanied by state power (e.g., 16th-century England) or extraordinary moments of consensus and revolution (the Continental Protestant situation more generally, and both the Councils of Trent and Vatican II, one responding to the Reformation and the other to global mission and the modern world). Their effects, however, remain uneven and often generate strong and lasting opposition.

13. The Episcopal Church has neither the power, the consensus, nor the revolutionary context to achieve the aims that the 79th General Convention set for the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision in resolution A068.

14. Wholesale liturgical revision is likely to be unsuccessful, to exacerbate existing divisions, and to sap the church of material, intellectual, and spiritual resources for at least nine years, if not for decades.

15. Given all of the above, the current proposed option of creating supplemental alternative resources is likely the best. Those who want different texts can use them, even as formally authorized texts remain the same.

Some other suggestions. If the Episcopal Church is serious about the issue of liturgical language, it would do better by focusing on four other efforts, rather than moving toward quick revision of its official liturgies.

First, it should deauthorize its hymnal and perhaps some of the rules about readings, opening the door to more flexibility within a still bounded liturgy. There is very little reason for the current level of rubrical inflexibility on congregational music, for instance. It hamstrings those who might make good choices within a wider range of resources, yet feel bound by conscience not to, while it does little to restrain those who pay scant attention to such things. The fact that prayer book rubrics and canons still take little account of contemporary Christian music is breathtaking, to say the least.

Second, the Episcopal Church should offer serious sufficient resources and education to its ministers and music directors on how to include various kinds of new hymns, anthems, antiphons, prayers, and poetry in existing services. Where are examples of good practice, defined broadly? Where are the workshops on crafting good liturgy? What resources currently exist or might be created to enable this work? And what principles do we agree on for guiding it?

Third, if experimentation truly is desired, much of it might better take place outside the main Sunday services. In the parish where I serve, once monthly reflective services in the evenings have served this and other purposes well — delighting the few, without exasperating the many.

Fourth, the Episcopal Church needs to be in the business of training more imaginative preachers, teachers, and writers who can guide the reflection and prayer of God’s people in spiritually fulfilling ways. The liturgies of the Daily Office and the Eucharist often end up bearing far more weight than they can handle, due to the pressure of various groups within the Church. They should be revised cautiously.

But preaching, teaching, and private prayer and devotion are open fields, ripe for cultivation and harvest. One occasionally feels they are too little known. One further principle: If a parish is not teaching about the language of prayer, it should not experiment with liturgy — and this principle extends to the broader Episcopal Church as well.


About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. 

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Wm Bill Paul
4 years ago

Eliminate first sentence in # 1 (cf Juengel, Dalferth esp, maybe even Soskice and Ford who are in your neighborhood) and I am with you all the way. Words cannot capture all that God is, but that’s not what we are doing. See Dalferth on the orientational aspect of language. They are adequate to praise God. Let the New Testament confidence be a little more formative on your proposal. A friendly post. Praise God for the words we have to praise God.