Anglicanism and the English Language: “It’s Complicated”

Today is more an expression of my curiosity about something than about an attempt at offering any wisdom or insight.

A couple of days ago, my essay topic expanded on some of the commitments of Anglican Christianity.  One of the first of the post-Reformation commitments involves that the language of the church–especially in public worship–should be the language “understanded of the people”.   Originally, that meant the English of the 16th century.  Not necessarily the English of the marketplace, pubs, and sporting fields, but an elevated form of English.  It was more like the English of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer. The language was the language of the people, but an enriched form–English blossomed during this period in unimaginable ways.  The vocabulary expanded, the heart and mind were lifted.  The specifically religious sources of an official English Bible and prayer book were comprehensible to an increasingly literate public, but used the language in a way that did more than describe or convey a story line:  English brought the reality of God to life.  It was more than mere translation from Latin, it was a way of making the incarnation of Christ and the story of divine action in the world a vivid narrative into which believing Christians could enter by reading (aloud or silently; alone or corporately) the words of the sacred stories.  Even those who dissented from the established Church as often as not carried the King James Bible into their alternative expressions of Christian worship and life.

As English colonies emerged in other parts of the world (most especially North America), the vernacular Bible and Prayer Book were a significant influence in the formation of one of the most literate societies in the world at the time.  (Neil Postman gives a very good summary of this in Amusing Ourselves to Death.)  Christianity is, among other things, a very literate and literary religion–as much as current trends have tried to dumb it down and remove the emphasis on reading and writing.  For the bulk of its two millennia history, there has always been something to read:  spiritual advice, poetry, fiction, drama.  Anglicanism has contributed greatly to this.  A former colleague from my teaching days, an English professor at a small rural liberal arts college, said she could tell who were her Episcopalian students from the way they wrote and spoke:  the turns of phrase of the prayer book influenced their expression for the rest of the week.

But Anglican Christianity is no longer identified with the English language.  Partly this is because of missionary work and colonization, and this is where questions get raised for me.  Was there an attempt to teach people English so they could worship–and the attempt failed?  Was there a definitive intention to develop churches in the existing vernacular? Did something more organic happen, and why?  As countries such as the United States and Canada become more multi-lingual, I know that many congregations and dioceses have done outreach to non-English speakers, and offer services in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and a number of others. There are also translations of the prayer books of several provinces into the languages of the original inhabitants of those lands.

I think the 1988 Lambeth Conference was the first where there were more bishops in attendance whose first language was something other than English–mainly, I believe bishops from Africa and Latin America–and it grows.  I’ve also been following the growth of French-speaking Anglicanism. This is a particular interest, because years ago (as part of my MBA in arts administration) I had to take a class on public policy and the arts/culture. My main paper was on heritage language rights in Canada (I had done my undergrad in music at York University, Toronto, and in the early 1980s, this was a big thing in the news).

So, my main curiosity is about how French Anglicanism came to be in Canada, because it seems a bit of an anomaly. French Christianity came mainly with (I believe) Catholic missionaries who came with explorers and traders.  How the crossover happened into Anglicans whose first (or preferred) language is French is a fascinating topic.  But there isn’t much published on the subject.

I’m hoping that either someone can point me in a direction, or we might be able to talk about developing a research program on the history and development of Francophone Anglicanism.  A Facebook friend has graciously shared a little bit of unpublished material, but there really needs to be quite a bit more. It looks like about 5% of Anglicans are primarily French speakers, and it may be one of the fastest-growing language groups in the Communion. Understanding the phenomenon better could be a very good thing.


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