In my struggle to articulate my understanding of the Divine, I welcome the opportunity to use language that I understand but is also out of the ordinary for my everyday speech and writing. I only use thee, thy, and thou to talk about God. And I like it that way.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the past few months thinking about the language we use to talk about God, both in personal and corporate settings. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’ve been working through my issues with “inclusive” language and the overall limitations of our language to communicate about the Divine. As part of my own personal piety, though, I’ve also been thinking a lot about very specific words we use in Episcopal liturgy, the words I say every morning at Morning Prayer and several times a week at Mass.
For the past year and a half, I’ve attended an Episcopal parish that has Holy Eucharist, Rite I as its primary Sunday service. For those unfamiliar with the Episcopal tradition, Rite I is the more traditional liturgy found in the Book of Common Prayer. Although the overall structures of Rite I and Rite II (the more modern) liturgy are the same, the language of Rite I is noticeably different. Second-person pronouns in Rite I liturgy are thee, thy, and thou; lessons “endeth,” and we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, whereas, in Rite II, we use “you” and “your;” lessons “end,” and we simply confess that we have sinned against God.
It’s probably unsurprising to hear that Rite I isn’t very popular in the Episcopal Church anymore. There are a number of parishes that stick by Rite I as their primary liturgy, but most people find it dated and unappealing in this age of praise bands and projector screens. Thee, thy, and thou don’t translate well into many people’s understandings of God.
(To be entirely fair, one of the other main arguments against the use of Rite I liturgy is that many people find the gendered language to be offensive. I get it. It offends a lot of people. But I’m one of those people who doesn’t feel alienated when I hear the word “man” instead of “human” or “person.” I just don’t. Thus, I’m not going to delve into the topic of gender-neutral language today.)
Aside from the problem of gendered language, I have heard two other main arguments against using Rite I that I think are worth addressing.
1) In the past few months, I’ve heard a number of people say that they don’t like Rite I language because it doesn’t meet people where they are. I don’t actually know what to say to this other than that it is an absurd statement. Of course, it doesn’t meet everyone where they are but, then again, what does? The traditional language of Rite I liturgy certainly meets many people where they are; to say that it doesn’t is to make a sweeping generalization. If Rite I liturgy didn’t meet people where they are, there wouldn’t be people in the pews (or chairs, as it were) on Sunday mornings in the many parishes that continue to use this liturgy.
2)I’ve also recently had several people tell me that they dislike Rite I because the liturgy of the Church is supposed to be in the language of the people and the traditional language (subtext: “old-fashioned”) isn’t of the people. This critique makes sense to me; I certainly want to know what is going on in the liturgy at church. At the same time, though, is Rite I language really so different that the meaning is lost? If you answer “yes” to this question, I think your English teachers might have failed you. I love the language of Rite I because it is beautiful and poetic (as opposed to the often-inelegant language of parts of Rite II and other liturgical resources [Enriching Our Worship]). Furthermore, I love the fact that it isn’t exactly typical everyday language. In my struggle to articulate my understanding of the Divine, I welcome the opportunity to use language that I understand but is also out of the ordinary for my everyday speech and writing. I only use thee, thy, and thou to talk about God. And I like it that way.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that everyone should necessarily use Rite I; it doesn’t work for everyone but it does work for me. I recognize that we will never all agree about the language we use to talk about God or what are the best liturgical resources. Once again, though, I’m reminded to be conscious of the limitations of our language to communicate about the Divine, of what we are communicating with the limited language we have, and that we all communicate in different ways.