I was co-officiating at Evening Prayer this past weekend at a spiritual retreat – a retreat where all the attendees were long time lay and ordained ministers of God’s church. I hadn’t done Morning or Evening Prayer in community regularly since graduating from seminary two years ago and I was a bit anxious about officiating with this experienced community.
My colleague and I were pleased to find we liked to do EP the same way – we liked the same canticles, prayers, rubrics. Since it was a Friday – a penitential day – we agreed the service should begin with Confession. We sort of sailed through the planning when we reached the choice of the prayer at the close of the office – either The General Thanksgiving or A Prayer of St. Chyrsostum. We both pointed to the latter.
And then he kindly looked up and said, “I know I should know but after all this time, how do you pronounce CHRYSOSTUM? I have never figured it out exactly!”
“Me too!” I responded. “I pronounce this way, but frankly I am not at all certain.”
When he asked, I recalled in an instant how I had never mastered pronunciations – not just of Chrysostom’s but many biblical and historical names. Not that I hadn’t tried. I believed it important that when reading or praying or officiating at a liturgy it was my responsibility to ensure fluidity so that the hearer would not be distracted by a mispronunciation. And as a listener when someone is reading a scriptural passage and stumbles over a pronunciation or makes common errors in pronunciation, I can easily lose the train of thought and begin to wonder why the reader pronounced such and such ‘that’ way.
The final verses of the Old Testament reading from Judges reminded me of how tricky – dangerous even, ignorance of pronunciation could be:
‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
I wasn’t worried for my life when my colleague asked me to pronounce Chrysostom, but I was anxious. I said it one way, he said it another. We went with his pronunciation – it flowed more easily and sounded right and familiar (it was right – here is the phonetic pronunciation: chris sos tum).
I thought today of all the folks that come into a literary-based liturgy, one written centuries ago first in Olde English and since adapted to a variety of languages, including American English. But still. It is packed with long words here and there and the scriptural readings during the service are filled with names and places that don’t roll easily off an English-speaking tongue.
Not only is our liturgy literary, but it is also dense. We pack in a lot of words in our prayers and statements of faith and our hymns. For those worshiping week in and week out the liturgy rolls around in their heads like a familiar comforting melody. Folks who, like the gentlemen depicted in Dan Piraro’s strip, might order eggs the grammatically correct way – over easily.
But for those new to our pews, I am certain the density and literary style can be off-putting and inaccessible. So much so that someone might choose to ‘just listen’ and not audibly participate. Thing is, the beauty of our worship is the corporate participation – it is not intended to be a recitation or proclamation from just the leadership, but from all the people and throughout the entire service.
I think it might be helpful to ask as my colleague did, and explain some things before worship. That gesture on his part allowed me to humbly confess my ignorance and then fully participate comfortably as an officiant with this room full of theology degrees and accomplishments far beyond mine. He didn’t set me up like the men of Gilead did to the fugitives, to fail.
We should practice the same with our parishioners each worship service. We should be sure the readers of the day have their pronunciations figured out. A simple text or email to ask if they have any questions about pronunciation will do. And then, at the welcome at the start of the service, perhaps we walk through the liturgy to point out page numbers, or rubrics (kneel, stand, respond silently or aloud, etc).
And we should also be aware that we have illiterate, hard of hearing, non-English speaking folks in our pews who we might encourage to listen for this or that. And we might simply slow it all down – the cadence – giving all a chance to chime in, find the place in the book or bulletin, and participate.
Let’s just anticipate better – ask, explain – so that all will get just what they came for in the worship – an encounter with the holy in God’s church. Eggs over easy or easily – both work.