March 13, 2015

Ingredients for Joyful, Inclusive Bilingual Liturgy


Bilingual liturgy can be difficult, especially in our word-driven Anglican tradition. It’s worth doing when there is a clear community-building purpose behind it. Articulate that purpose. Don’t expect everyone to like it. Introducing bilingual liturgy is a little like introducing a new vegetable to toddlers. It sometimes takes ten or twelve tries to get over the rejection reflex.

Over the course of fifteen years, I’ve done bilingual liturgy in four different churches, and multiple public contexts. Here is my opinionated take on ingredients for a holy bilingual celebration (in no particular order):

A bilingual celebrant, or team of celebrants that includes an excellent speaker of each language: Lay-clergy teams can work if the clergy person lets go of needing to be the star of the show. A monolingual celebrant with a translator (or worse yet, a monolingual celebrant who is sounding out words in a language he or she cannot speak) is a poor substitute for a fully empowered and fully bilingual team or individual. People need to hear someone speaking with authority and authenticity in their own language.

Great worship aids: As few separate pieces as environmentally possible. Everyone should have the same things in their hands. I recommend a printed word-for-word, side-by-side, liturgy, well aligned, in large type, with plenty of space. Page numbers! And yes, you should announce them. Avoid separate booklets or books by language, juggling multiple hymnals, as well as any aid that presumes people will know when it is their time to respond.

Liturgical stick removal: Forgive my crudeness, but…wherever you stash them, gotta take' em out and lay them aside. This means slavish adherence to rubrics, your favorite liturgical manual, and everything your seminary professors or favorite rector told you was essential to good and proper liturgy. Were you told never to announce page numbers or give extra instructions? Or, that every Sunday service must use every reading in the lectionary? Throw them out the window. These rules were developed for monolingual and monocultural contexts. Good bilingual liturgy requires a light touch, a sense of humor, and a willingness to experiment with what works in your particular community.

The celebrant (or team of celebrants) needs to host the celebration: The Eucharist is, among other things, a dinner party. Engage with the guests. Do all you can to ensure everyone knows what's happening, knows that they are welcome, and has a good time! God will do God's part for this party at the holy table, but human hosting is required.

Some (but not most) things need to be done in both languages: I'd suggest sermon, gospel lesson, announcements, requests for prayer, instructions, and invitations. Congregational reading/reciting (Nicene Creed, confession, Lord’s Prayer, etc) can be done Tower-of-Babel style, each in her/his own language.

Do something about the sermon: If you’re going with a traditional sermon format, make it really short and have something for the first group to meditate on while you do it in the other language. If the preacher is bilingual and comfortable improvising, try something interactive or participatory. One of the best things we've done has been engaging the kids in leading sermon time. Kids are often the members of the congregation who are most comfortable in both languages. Engaged respectfully, they can help deliver a powerful message that has plenty of theological substance for all generations present.

Be careful with translation: Make sure the sermon is preached in both languages. Think “preached” in the Baptist sense. People need to hear a life-giving message from the mouth of someone who speaks their language. If you use a translator, that translator should be able to deliver a message effectively, not just convey meaning. Translate whole ideas, not phrase by phrase. Be expressive and translate culturally specific examples into something that works for each language group. If at all possible, take turns with the “lead” language, to make sure that everyone gets some fresh language and some translation.

Try everything before you consider headphones. Being the object of translation puts people in an automatic second-class position. If it would seem weird (or people would complain) if you made English the “translated into” language, don’t do it with any of your other languages either.

Privilege the monolingual in your planning: It is harder to be monolingual than bilingual in a bilingual, bicultural setting. If you and the members of your worship planning team are yourselves bilingual, consider seeking out some experiences of worship in a language you don’t understand. Pay attention to what is difficult to follow, and what parts of the service you are inclined to tune out. Think about what might have made it easier for you to follow along. I changed my approach to English-Spanish worship in several ways after attending some services in Korean, which I do not speak or read well.

Limit the total number of words: Episcopalians are a wordy people. Cut some stuff. Consider fewer than the standard four readings. Watch out for endless announcements.

Develop a shared music repertoire: Start tiny. Your music director and choir may hate you, but I'd sing the same five songs for six services before you branch out. Work on some of the same songs when you worship separately.

There are some good English-Spanish musical resources out there, but nothing currently on the Episcopal authorized list. My congregation uses Oramos Cantando—We Pray in Song, a Catholic hymnal published by GIA. It has a good selection of Episcopal hymnal favorites and a lot of songs known to Mexican and Central American immigrant communities. If your musical taste trends in the praise direction, there is a lot of bilingual music in the evangelical world. Taizé chants can be good choices, as well.

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