This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 24 states:
XXIV. Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.
This may be one of those points of faith that may seem like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you have a worship service in your own language? Having a language barrier would bar most of the congregation from understanding much of the liturgy (music, Scripture readings, prayers, etc.). How would they be edified without understanding? Why would anybody inflict that upon anyone? Since even the Roman Church no longer enforces a Latin-only liturgy, which was the very problem this Article addressed, this write-up will focus on how that situation arose, rather than defend a practice that we all now agree upon.
In the Early Church, virtually every Christian spoke Latin, Greek, or Aramaic. The language of worship was determined according to local region (or diocese) – Greek Christians worshiped in Greek, Jewish-descendant (especially Syrian) Christians worshiped in Aramaic, and Western (Roman) Christians worshiped in Latin. There were other languages spoken, but those were the main three at the beginning; even Aramaic soon became a tiny percentage. Eventually the faith spread beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. This resulted in the Bible and the liturgy being translated into some new languages, particularly in the East (Persia and India) and the South (Ethiopia). But some peoples who received the Gospel didn’t have their own written language; this was especially the case in Europe (like the Franks and the Slavs). As they received the Christian Gospel, many of them also took on aspects of the lifestyle and education of the Greco-Roman world. Converts learned the new languages (Latin or Greek), and thus worshiped in those languages. Especially in fractured Europe through the medieval age, the Latin-speaking Church was a unifying force like none other.
Eventually, after a few centuries, the spoken languages had evolved to a point where the preserved Church Latin was no longer the same language spoken in the street – Spanish, Italian, French, and Romanian had emerged, not to mention the non-Latin-based Germanic languages such as English and German and Norse. But for the sake of unity, and because everyone who was educated still learned Latin, the liturgy continued in Latin. The Bible (or parts of it) was occasionally translated into local languages. We have, for example, the Gospels and Psalms in Old English from the 900’s. But the desire for unity outweighed the desire for local idiom.
Finally, in the course of the Protestant Reformation, the need for local language worship was brought to the foreground. It is often over-exaggerated how little Latin people understood – everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer in Latin back then, and many other stock phrases were commonly known. And preaching was almost exclusively in the local language already. Thus, a Christian could have traveled all over Europe and still be able to experience the same liturgy everywhere! Nevertheless it became both a tool and a rule among the Reformers to utilize the local language for the entirety of the liturgy.
The Roman Church followed suit 500 years later. Some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches still utilize hundreds-of-years-old liturgies that are not readily understandable in the modern day.
This Article thus also speaks to our present day. The need to update liturgy and Bible translation periodically in order to keep it understandable to the common folk is a Reformation principle. Those who insist on the King James Bible only are very nearly violating this Article, for example. Some Anglicans, who insist on only traditional language liturgy, are also in danger of violating this Article. While traditional English is only a few centuries old, there are a number of grammatical and vocabulary changes since 1611 (KJV Bible) or 1662 (standard Prayer Book) that exclusive use of them begins to present an unnecessary burden to the modern hearer.
Thus we are experiencing afresh the challenge of the Reformers: how do we honor the beautiful and unifying tradition of the past while keeping the Gospel freshly spoken in our own day? It is a difficult line to walk, and is one that contemporary Anglicanism has yet to solve entirely.