On Liturgy and Literacy

…or: do you have to read to go to church?

I vividly remember the first time I went to church of my own accord. On arrival, I was given a heap of books and papers, with no explanation about what any of them was for. I had never heard of an order of service or a hymn book (we’d had hymns at school, but they were on the overhead projector) so the titles of the books in my hand gave me no clue about how they should be used. Throughout the service, the vicar said things like “we now sing hymn 234 in the green book” and “we say the post-communion prayer at the bottom of page 9” but he might just as well have been speaking gibberish. What do you mean, “hymn number”? Page 9 of what? I had no idea what was going on, and I very nearly never went back.

Now, as someone who is planning and leading worship myself, I often recall this first experience, which was one of complete alienation, and ask myself: am I in danger of doing this to people? Am I using too much church jargon, making too many assumptions about what people know when they walk through the door for the first time? Probably.

One of the things we assume in most churches, even unconsciously, is that those who come in can read. This is not true. It is most obviously not true of children who have not yet learned to read. But it’s also not true of some older children and adults. So how do we make church accessible to those who can’t read, or can’t read fluently?

I think this is an issue which affects all churches, but I do think it’s a particular problem for churches with a strong liturgical tradition, the sort of church where there’s likely to be an order of service, with responses and formal prayers to join in with, as well as words of hymns. There may also be written instructions about sitting down and standing up, etc, which are not always given verbally as well. Imagine trying to engage with that sort of service if you can’t read. I imagine it would be very similar to my first, very off-putting, experience of church.

I freely admit that I love liturgy. In fact, I’m something of a liturgy geek. So I certainly don’t think the answer is to discard the liturgy so as not to “confuse” people. I have no desire to dumb down, nor to imply that those who don’t read, including young children, can’t engage with good liturgy. In fact, quite the reverse. I think there is huge potential to develop creative ways of using and communicating liturgy to include and engage everyone.

To give an example, we had our first ever Ash Wednesday family service at All Saints this year. I decided not to produce an order of service, in fact not to give the congregation anything to read at all. Which is not to say that it was in any sense not “liturgical”. It followed the usual structure of a Common Worship service of the word (albeit with more climbing on furniture and drawing around hands than you might expect!). And it included formal prayers with the traditional response “Holy God, Holy and strong, Holy and immortal one, Have mercy on us”. At the start of the service, I taught the response, with an action to go with each line, and we used it throughout the service without further prompting.

That’s just one example, but it shows that good liturgy is possible without assuming universal literacy. And guess what, without a service sheet in their hands people looked up, made eye contact, really engaged!

This isn’t just about children. It’s also about people with learning difficulties, visual impairments or dyslexia, and those who have just never learned to read. It’s about people like me all those years ago, setting foot in the alien environment that is church for the first time. And it’s about finding new ways to make our liturgy come alive for everyone. Inclusive liturgy matters because it reflects the perfectly inclusive nature of God.

This Holy Week, I’m leading family worship every day, and will be taking this opportunity to experiment further with liturgy which doesn’t require literacy. I’ll let you know how I get on! I would be very interested to hear about anyone else’s experiences of trying to make church inclusive for those who don’t read.

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