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Worship in a foreign tongue

Two congregations share the worship space at the Uniting Church I attend: one is Cantonese, the other, which is very multi-cultural, is held in English. Mostly we worship at different times, but every so often we come together in a joint service that is held in both languages. Prayers are offered in both, the sermon is translated, one reading is delivered in English while the Cantonese version is up on the screen, and vice versa.

It can make for a long service, although the leaders do try to be concise. I’ve noticed, too, that regulars tend not to show up for these, as they do require a bit of effort. Oddly enough, I love these duo-lingual occasions.

It’s really good for me to be lifted out of my comfort zone. My Chinese fellow-pilgrims outnumber the English-speaking congregation by about four to one and it is a salutary reminder of what life is like for countless immigrants around the globe, surrounded by signs and sounds that make no sense to them. I grew up in this situation, but have been part of the dominant cultural group for a long time, and it’s easy to take for granted our automatic understanding of instructions and systems.

When I worship entirely in my mother tongue, there’s a feeling or urgency – of having to attend to every single word in case I miss something. When half is in another language of which I know nothing, not one word, I switch off and float into a peaceful space where I pay more attention to non-verbal things  – the beauty of the stained-glass windows, the deep pulsing chords of the organ, the mad variety of human beings around me. I connect with the Divine in a different way.

It takes me back to a happy childhood spent in a country where I was the foreigner and it didn’t matter and I felt entirely at home. It transports me to many hours spent sitting in Gujarati church services (and they were inevitably long, and hot) where the language was familiar but I couldn’t really understand much, so that it washed over me like a soothing wave, like a lullaby familiar from babyhood, making me feel like a pre-verbal infant who doesn’t understand the words but feels secure and surrounded by community.

The clergy select hymns that can be sung to the same tune in the two languages, and there is something profoundly moving about singing my heart out alongside others singing the same meaning with different sounds. Ditto when we all say the Lord’s Prayer ‘in our heart language’. I am reminded of the communion of Saints around the world, that I have fellow-believers throughout space and not simply time, that there is this great chorus of Christians in every corner of the globe, praising and longing and wanting to grow in grace and yearning to be closer to our Creator and to be channels of God’s love.

This was published in The Melbourne Anglican, May edition

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Clare. I worship with a Mizo Chin congregation every Sunday afternoon, where I don't understand anything at all. I sing along, as I have learned to pronounce most words, but that's it. Half an hour of singing, and an hour or more of the service proper. I love it because I love the people and their earnestness and their evident faith. They challenge me, and they love me back. I can easily relate to your feelings as a child in the Gujarati services.

May 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Slater

It is hard for people like me, for whom the words are so important even in the singing, to appreciate the value of multilingual worship. Your article is very encouraging as to why I should persevere and with some ideas on how to enter that rare atmosphere.

May 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRod

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