I am no one’s slave, but I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them to the way of Christ. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law, so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. – 1 Cor 9:19-22
In these chapters of the first letter to the church in Corinth, the early Christian leader and church planter Paul is defending himself against questions regarding his authority and motives as an apostle as Christ. And in the course of this rather cranky passage, he offers this clear and powerful statement of what Anglicans, many, many centuries later, will name as the vernacular principal.
Vernacular is a good fifty-cent word. It means the language spoken by ordinary people, in the course of their ordinary lives. The language in which you function normally and comfortably, not a second language or an unfamiliar jargon that leaves you floundering, uncertain of meanings, how to understand or make yourself understood.
The Vernacular Principal is one of the great pillars of the Protestant Reformation: That worship should be in the language of the people. This principal is stated very plainly in the 39 Articles, the historic statement of the doctrines of the newly-formed Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican way of Christianity, to which we belong as Episcopalian Christians. The 39 Articles define a space for Anglicanism between the extremes of continental Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Article Twenty-Four is titled, “Of speaking in the Congregation in such a Tongue as the people understandeth.” And the Article states, in wonderfully emphatic 16th-century English: “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!”
The theological warrant for this core principal goes back much earlier than the English Reformation, to the Incarnation, to Jesus himself: God become human, not as some universal everyman, but as a human living in a particular setting, speaking the language and wearing the clothing of his time and place and people. Jesus himself was an act of translation, a vernacular moment within the life of God. And Paul takes up that theological theme in his deep commitment to meeting people where they are, speaking to them in terms they can understand, framing the good news of love and transformation that he carried with such conviction in terms of their language, their concerns, their convictions.
Now, the central issue in the 39 Articles was the use of Latin as the language of worship, in a country where the common people spoke English. But the vernacular principal is about much more than simply translating our prayers or theological terms into local languages, Maori or Kikonde or Korean. There are many, many linguistic communities within a language like American English. We all know this: we have different ways of speaking depending on who we’re with and where we’re from, our jobs and professional vocabularies, the formality or informality of the setting, and more. And then there are all the non-linguistic languages we use: Musical and symbolic and ritual vocabularies. Social patterns, norms, and beliefs about the world.
This kind of translation has happened throughout Christian history. It’s not unique to Anglicanism, but our tradition names it clearly as part of our way of being. We Anglicans are a people who expect, when we gather to worship God together, to be able to understand, respond and participate. And so over five hundred years and in countries and cultures all over the world, Anglicans and Episcopalians have adapted our core practices and teachings into local customs and idioms, opening the door into new ways of being Anglican. That work of adaptation to local contexts is so central for us that a recent book on the Episcopal Church states, “If it’s not translated, it’s not yet Anglican.”
If it’s not translated, it’s not yet fully Anglican.
Now, I’ve just preached for three pages on the centrality of translation for the Anglican Christian way, our living-out, as a global and local church, of Paul’s commitment to being all things to all people. And some of you are undoubtedly thinking, Okay, but. So why do we worship in this odd and distinctive building, instead of just meeting in the coffeeshop up the road? Why are you wearing that white robe and the thing around your neck, which you call a stole, though you did not steal it, and a funny piece of white plastic around your neck under that, instead of the normal uniform of an educated forty-something mom in Madison, Wisconsin? Why do we use funny words like “Eucharist,” instead of, I don’t know, “holy snack of Jesus”?
The vernacular principal doesn’t stand alone. It exists in dynamic tension with our identity as a church grounded in Scripture, sacrament, and tradition. As a church entrusted with ancient, holy, and powerful treasure to carry into new cultures and futures. The proud forty or so of you who made it here last week in the snowstorm will remember the catchy definition of Anglicanism that I shared: the embrace of apostolic catholicity within vernacular moments. Let me try to capture the sense of that statement in a language understanded of the people: Anglicanism is the embrace of ancient traditions, practices and symbols, carried forward into the present and adapted to local and current contexts.
We’re not a church that just throws out the old stuff in favor of the new. We don’t have a worship leader in jeans, giving friendly faith chat followed by praise songs that sound like pop music. That works for some people, some churches. It’s not our gig. We are most fully Anglican when we hold what is modern, ordinary, daily, familiar, concrete, and what is ancient, lovely, mysterious, otherwordly, and odd, and bring them into conversation. Allow them to speak to each other. The ancient in the present, and vice versa. The holy in the ordinary, and vice versa.
For Paul, being all things to all people didn’t mean that his preaching sounded like every other voice in the culture around him. He had a core message that he carried wherever he travelled, and wove into all his letters. Things like his conviction that what matters most is not who or what you are when God comes to you, but what you become afterwards. Like his conviction that how people treat each other within a Christian community is one of the most important ways we can witness to God’s love. Paul has core messages that he’s always proclaiming. But he’s also always looking for the best, most effective way to speak those truths to the people among whom he finds himself. Translating the good news into the local language and worldview, so it can be “understanded of the people.” Paul was a good Anglican in so many ways!…
As I talk about these two core elements of the Anglican way, tradition and translation, the word “balance” keeps wanting to come out of my mouth, and I keep resisting it. Balance implies something settled, equal, resolved. But we are talking instead about a living, productive tension between receiving from the past and renewing for the present. That tension IS the life of our churches, the heart of our Way.
And it’s never resolved, never finished. It’s never been finished in two thousand years of Christian history, in five hundred years of Anglican history. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the foundation of our worship, was a pretty radical work of translation and adaptation when it was new; today, many things about it feel dated. Even when we work out a way of being, a way of worshipping or gathering or structuring our life together, that works really well for us, it’s not the way things will be for always and everyone. Because we are Anglicans, and that’s just not how we roll.
So if the word “balance” comes into it at all, let your mental image be not a set of scales settling out to equilibrium, but a tightrope walker with a pole – Tradition, Translation – making minute adjustments with every step, every breath, in order to stay on her feet and keep moving forward.
Dwight Zscheile, a priest and professor at Luther Seminary, and the leader of the Missional Leadership Cohort program that I’m doing right now, states in his book “People of the Way,” “The Church must ask itself, ‘Are we worshipping in the language of the people, or are we asking them to worship in a foreign tongue?’ This doesn’t apply only to [those] whose first language is not English. It also applies to younger generations, and newcomers to church, who need expressions of Episcopal worship and life that resonate with their native ways of speaking and being together.”
As Anglican Christians we are fundamentally committed to the ongoing, puzzling, paradoxical work of discerning, with the power of reason and the wisdom of tradition and the guidance of the Spirit, the sweet spot between translation and tradition for us, in our time and place. For the people who are coming to our doors now and for the people beyond our doors to whom we wish to speak good news.
Last Saturday I attended an event here in town featuring Nadia Bolz-Weber, the famously-sarcastic Lutheran pastor, writer, and speaker. She shared about her theology and ministry, and the liturgy and public presence of her parish in Denver, the House for All Sinners & Saints. I had been back in Wisconsin for exactly 36 hours after my trip to Texas for my Missional Leadership Cohort retreat, where we were grappling deeply with these questions of translation and renewal, so I noticed immediately how much Nadia was talking about the same issues, the same work. Though she uses a different metaphor: instead of translation, over and over again, she spoke about sewing things together. She said, “To be a church today is to take scripture and tradition and people’s lives, and sew them together, and make things jive.” Being church is about faithfully stitching together Scripture and world and self; faith, practice, current events and daily life. And she shared with us many wonderful examples of how the House of All Sinners and Saints, over their years together, have lived this out, through many mistakes and failures and things tried once, revised, and tried again. Until they have developed some robust and lively, holy and powerful and delightful ways of quilting together tradition, word, symbol, and world.
On Good Friday, their liturgy includes laying flowers at the foot of a cross. The first year they wondered afterwards, What do we do with the flowers? So they took them to the scene of a recent street shooting, said a prayer together, and left them there. Now they do that every year; there’s always a recent act of violence to remind us that every day is Good Friday.
Shrove Tuesday is coming up in a couple of weeks. Episcopal churches generally celebrate with pancakes, a custom based in the old practice of getting rid of all the fat and sugar and meat in your kitchen before entering the great fasting season of Lent, which begins the following day. Nadia’s church, the House of All Sinners and Saints, celebrates Shrove Tuesday by going to a bar and giving out donuts, for free. All evening. Box after box of donuts, with a sheet of simple suggestions for practicing Lent. That’s how they’ve translated the customs of Shrove Tuesday, into the language of twenty-first century indulgence.
There were lots of other examples in Nadia’s talk. One or two that we might try adapting here; and many more that simply stand as examples of bold experimentation with translating tradition into the language of a fresh context; with stitching together Scripture, faith, and life, into an eclectic patchwork that is creative, intentional, and sacred.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is not subtle. The vernacular principal has been coming at me from a lot of directions, the past couple of weeks: conferences and talks and books I’m reading and even today’s Epistle. I think the Holy Spirit has something she wants me, and us, to hear. And I think that word is a word of encouragement.
I hear all of this as an endorsement of a path that we are already on. St Dunstan’s is a church that is already pretty thoughtful, and pretty engaged, and pretty creative about seeking new intersections of faith and life. We have tried quite a few experiments in translation, and many of them have even worked pretty well, and are worth repeating or improving upon. (And we learn from the ones that don’t work, too!…)
Just last week, we celebrated the feast of Candlemas. In medieval churches, candles would be blessed and taken home to burn in times of sickness, storm, or crisis. I invited the congregation to come up with some ideas for how to translate that custom into our modern world. And one of our members suggested that, next year, we invite folks to bring in their emergency flashlights, to be blessed alongside the candles, connecting the spirit of this traditional rite with something real and meaningful in our lives.
So when I hear some of the best and brightest voices in our churches talking with urgency and hope about this kind of work – the work of honoring tradition by helping it speak into the present – I hear it as an encouraging and joyful reminder of how necessary and holy this work is. I hear it as grounding this work in Scripture and theology and the Anglican way, and in the very nature of God incarnate.
I hear it as encouragement for us to continue on the path boldly, being willing to try things, to be playful, to risk a little, to make mistakes, to fail; to reflect, listen, learn, wonder, and explore. And I hope you hear it in that spirit too, as I pass all this on to you. I am proud that St Dunstan’s is a vibrantly Anglican congregation, actively engaged with the work of translation, of sewing together past and present, church and world, holy story and daily news, into the brightly-colored, strong, and beautiful quilt that is our life of faith together at St. Dunstan’s.