Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 4th August 2019

1 Corinthians 14:1-19 (see

I was going to say that what St Paul says in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, about ‘speaking in tongues’ and prophesying, isn’t very British. You know, I don’t think you very often do get people ‘speaking in tongues’ in your average parish church.

When we were doing our theological training I once had to ask Christian friends in my own and other churches that I knew of, whether they knew of anybody who spoke in tongues. I was surprised to hear that several did.

But do we know what ‘speaking in tongues’ really is? In the New English Bible they talk about ‘using the language of ecstasy’; and of course in the chapter before our reading tonight, there is that very famous passage that you often hear at weddings, which begins, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels …’ Or the hymn,

‘Angel voices, ever singing,

Round the throne of light’…

How lovely. But ‘.. if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’. (1 Corinthians 14:11).

‘Barbarian’ is an onomatopoeic word. The Greeks thought that somebody who was speaking unintelligibly made a noise like ‘bar, bar, bar’, and maybe it was a sort of animal grunt, a sub-human noise.

In other words it’s a mark of humanity that the language that you talk is an intelligible language. But of course it may still not be understood, because the person to whom you are talking may not understand your language. If somebody spoke Mandarin to me, I regret to say that I would not understand, and I imagine that a Mandarin speaker might have the same difficulty in understanding somebody speaking in Glaswegian English.

From this passage in chapter 14 and what follows it in 1 Corinthians we get an idea what the early church was like, that is, a bit of a glimpse of what happened in the early church services.

26How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

27If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

28But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

29Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

30If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.

31For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.

St Paul is very keen on the idea of prophesying. You’ll recall, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul identifies all the various talents that you find in the ‘body of Christ’, that is, in the church.

27Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

28And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

So the body of Christ is made up of all these different limbs, if you like, each one doing something different to build up the church. That’s another key word in these passages. Building up, edifying, is key. To edify, in Latin, means to make a building, and so it has grown to mean simply to build up something. What goes on in the meeting, in the teaching in church, exchanging spiritual gifts, doesn’t necessarily educate, but rather it edifies, it builds up our faith.

You’d think that this was all pretty much self-evident, and you couldn’t really imagine churches growing up where St Paul’s advice about communicating in a mutually intelligible way was not going to be followed.

Even if you are a Pentecostal church, where people do speak in tongues, nevertheless for the majority of the time people are speaking, among themselves in church and addressing God, in a language which they all understand.

But think of one of the great steps in the Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. It was actually revolutionary for the Bible to be in a language which was ‘understanded of the people’ as Article XXIV of the 39 Articles puts it. It was a big step also for the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book to be used by all the people, to be written in English. You can get another take on what I’m talking about tonight, indeed, by reading Art XXIV of the 39 Articles. It’s on page 621 of your little Blue Prayer Books.

When the services were all in Latin, only the priest, and perhaps one of two well-educated members of the congregation, would be able to understand what was going on, in any detail. At the time of Henry VIII the words of institution in the Mass, in Holy Communion, the words ‘This is my body’, which in Latin is ‘hoc est corpus meum’, became known colloquially as ‘hocus pocus’. Divine service was not something which people took particularly seriously, because it was ‘hocus pocus’; it wasn’t able to be understood.

If they had paid more attention to what St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14, they would perhaps not have made that mistake. At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, when the tongues of fire came down on the heads of the disciples, they all spoke in tongues on that occasion. It wasn’t a question of babbling in animal grunts, but they spoke all the various languages which the people, who were visiting Jerusalem as pilgrims from all over the Roman empire, understood, each in their own native language. That’s properly a miracle, but it points to a less miraculous but still vitally important thing, which is the art of translation.

The Bible was originally written in languages which most people don’t understand any more: Hebrew for the Old Testament (and some Aramaic and some Greek) and Greek for the New Testament; so the Bibles that we use, and the service books, are largely translations. Services are based on services which were originally in Latin, and the Bible, as I said earlier, in Hebrew and Greek.

What is a ‘good translation’? What is good language for worship? There’s one school of thought which says that it’s appropriate that you use a rather special language, a rather special version of English (or whatever it is that you normally speak), when you are engaged in worship. You address God in a special ‘God-language’. So, until recently, for example, we used to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when we addressed God. As recently as the New English Bible you’ll find ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ where there are prayers to God or God is otherwise directly involved. And that’s as recent as 1970. Now, in Common Worship since the millennium, we are more down to earth and we talk to God as ‘you’.

But there are theological challenges associated with giving up ‘God language’. If you talk to God as ‘you’, as though God was the man next-door – the ‘man upstairs’, perhaps – there’s a danger, some people would say, of being excessively familiar, and not recognising the awesome nature of the Divine; and I think its important that people are free to choose the best way, as they see things, to bring themselves to God in worship.

So we use, at Evensong (and at Mattins), the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible, language which, in the Prayer Book’s case, is from 1662, (although it can be traced back to 1549), and so far as the Bible is concerned, the Authorised Version, the King James Bible, dates from 1611. In effect, we use the language of Shakespeare.

Well, does that offend against what St Paul is enjoining on us? I think that we have to be careful. If we are using this beautiful language just simply because the language is beautiful, and we are just simply enjoying it aesthetically, that might not be particularly good for worship.

If on the other hand we are saying, ‘This is the best language we can think of’, the most beautiful, that we are in effect bringing some of ourselves, the best bits, to God in worship – because after all, the language of Shakespeare is at least arguably the best English you can possibly think of – then it doesn’t matter, I think, that this is language which is up to 600 years old. It is the best we have.

There’s some evidence that, when the Prayer Book came out in 1549, it already contained some archaisms, consciously so. The man in the street didn’t speak exactly the language in the Prayer Book.

At the back of the church as you go out, you will find – and please do take one – a little card bookmark which comes from the Prayer Book Society. It’s a glossary of words which you’ll find in the Prayer Book which perhaps have fallen out of use and might not be very clear to you. If, when you say your confession, you ask for God to have mercy on you as a ‘miserable offender’, it doesn’t mean that you’re sad about it. It means that you are to be pitied. ‘Miserable’ at that time meant, ‘to be pitied’. It’s yet another word which has come from Latin. And there are other words where the meaning has changed since the 1500s. It’s not only our Prime Minister who loves Latin and Greek, you know.

There is another side of this. If we use the language of the Prayer Book and the King James Bible from time to time, in order to bring the best of ourselves to God, we should also guard against bringing something substandard before Him at other times.

I confess that I am sometimes a little exercised by the banality of some modern liturgy, by the often rather dull words of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ‘Anglicised edition’, and by some of the liturgy in Common Worship. If I begin to find something banal, then it’s not good enough. What would Jesus think? Just as we say, ‘What would Jesus do?’, we can also ask, ‘What would He think?’

If somebody wants to address Him as ‘Jesus, my mate’, my boon companion, I wonder how Jesus would feel. Perhaps in fact, following the pattern of spontaneity which Paul identified in the early church, he would, actually, be very comfortable with informality, and the only question would be whether He understands the words, or whether they are addressed to Him in tongues, or even in ‘barbarian’.

So I pray that we can continue to talk to each other and to make our worship in a way that can be understood; we must avoid hocus-pocus – and at all costs, let us not be barbarians – except, of course, in Rugby.