Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Cyril and Methodius 2011

February 12, 2011
Katharine Jefferts Schori
Last year I heard about a parishioner in West Virginia who kept on complaining about this prayer book we still call new. He was really angry about it, even decades after it had turned up in his church – so much so that he attached a chain to his 1928 prayer book and fixed the other end of the chain to the rack in his favorite pew. When he died not long ago, the congregation cut the chain and put the book in his coffin.

When the first English BCP was published in 1549, and worship began to be celebrated in English rather than Latin, some parishioners chased their clergy around with pitchforks. An army was raised in Exeter to expunge this heresy – God should only be worshiped in Latin!

One of the central themes of the English Reformation was an insistence that worship be conducted in a language “understanded of the people.”[1] Yet in every age, people get comfortable with what they know, and resist change, even a return to the language of their birth. Native American communities that were evangelized in the 19th century often struggle today over whether it’s appropriate to use their native language in worship. Some of these struggles have to do with how people regard their native language – for some of us think that older forms are somehow “holier,” and that the familiar language of our youth can’t possibly be dignified enough to be addressed to God. We might note that in the RC church, bishops in some places are again encouraging Latin masses.

The linguist Noam Chomsky was once asked what the difference is between a language and a patois, and he responded, “an army and a navy.” A language, in other words, is defensible – it is stable enough to have a society around it that can maintain its borders relative to other languages. What does that say about Latin? The Bible was first translated into Latin in the 4th century, and eventually came to be known as the Vulgate – the common version – for that is what vulgar means.

Cyril and Methodius, whose feast we are celebrating today, are remembered for helping a local language gain stability and ecclesiastical dignity. They were brothers, born in the early 9th century in Thessalonika. Cyril was the younger, a child prodigy who gained the chair of philosophy in Constantinople and was put in charge of the library of Hagia Sophia when he was 24. His older brother Methodius was governor of a Slavic colony in the northeastern part of the Greek peninsula. When the King of Moravia asked the Patriarch, Photius, to send some missionaries to work with the southern Slavs, Cyril’s former teacher decided the brothers would be perfect.

They went, and invented a script for written Slavonic, which eventually became what we call the Cyrillic alphabet. They dignified the vernacular by writing it down. They gave the common language solidity, permanence, and stability – and they insisted that God could and should be worshiped in a tongue understanded of the people.

They met significant resistance from nearby German-speaking clergy, and couldn’t get the bishops to ordain any Slavonic-speaking priests. The use of religion for colonial purposes is hardly new! Eventually they went looking for help elsewhere. Pope Adrian II thought their work had merit, consecrated them both bishops, and had the mass celebrated in Slavonic in Rome. Cyril died soon afterward, but Methodius went back to Moravia and more resistance.[2]

By the time he returned, the Moravian king had been replaced by a nephew who had been convinced by the German clergy that worship in Slavonic was heretical. They threw Methodius in jail, where he remained for two years until the pope bailed him out. The struggle continued for much of the rest of his life, but he did have significant success. At his funeral, which was celebrated in Greek, Latin, and Slavonic, thousands of mourners gathered to gave thanks for one who was “all things to all people that he might lead them all to heaven.”

Worship in the vernacular brings the same challenge in every age. If the Incarnation means anything, it insists that humanity, in all its messiness and even vulgarity, is capable of holding the holy. That includes human culture, in all its evolving diversity. If we cannot tell the old, old story in ways that can be understood and appropriated, then the body of Christ is going to the tomb, without much hope for resurrection. Do you know that Martin Luther wrote hymns using tunes that were sung in the bars of his day? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with lounge music or rap or folk music as vehicles for communicating the gospel.

Those vehicles include the interpretations we lay on the bible. I read a fascinating exposition by a retired judge from Florida a couple of days ago, whose thesis is to challenge the interpretation of various problematic parts of scripture. He points to the shifting nuances given to passages that treat relationships between men and their wives in translations since the King James. He notes the unabashed sexism in the worldview of those who did that translation, which sees women primarily as vessels for the use of men – in ways that most of us would find pretty crude. He also points to later translations, and their interpretive attempts to be more politically correct, and how that incorrectness is eventually displaced onto relationships between men.[3] You may not buy his entire argument, but simply seeing the shift in interpretation by translators over several centuries is fascinating and instructive.

How do we tell the old, old story? That is the question and lament that the writer of Ephesians is getting at – “in former generations the mystery of Jesus Christ was not made known” – how could it be, when there’s a language barrier, when the good news can’t be understood? In recent centuries, one of the first things missionaries have done is to translate the Bible, and it’s still a vigorous effort, in spite of the rapid loss of languages across the planet. Yet still we resist hearing the gospel in the vernacular. The 1662 BCP is still the norm in many provinces of the Anglican Communion. Some congregations and dioceses in this Church resist new worship language authorized by General Convention, as too “new-fangled.”

Telling the story extends to the media we use. Do you know how most people under 40 find a church, once they decide that’s what they’re looking for? In conversation over the back fence – the electronic, web-based back fence. Could that be what Jesus meant (if it was Jesus speaking) in the long ending of Mark? “These signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues…” New tongues, and new ways of speaking, if not new languages, are most certainly casting out the demons of silence and ignorance.

That bit of Mark also talks about dealing with snakes and poison: “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” New media certainly come with their share of snakes and poison: scammers who tell you to send money to your friend who’s been robbed while on a trip, or the flaming blog posters who would never have the guts to say such things in person. The heart of the believer can deal with those, with charity, accountability, and healing.

The living Word of God continues to speak to those who will translate it into new vernaculars, and that process continues to meet resistance. Cyril and Methodius were persistent, and they’re examples for us today.

So who’s tweeting about this gathering? Or rapping the good news of Jesus? What new form or language will you use to tell the good news of a God who loves us enough to enter this vulgar world in human flesh?

[1] Article 24: It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.
[2]Much of this is collected in Stars in a Dark World, John-Julian, OJN.
[3]On Pressing the Apostle Paul: Attesting the Pastoral and Prophetic Vision of The Episcopal Church. Robert P. Smith, 2006.


Bishop Jefferts Schori


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