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Chief Marie Smith JonesHallo again to all.

Two weeks ago we held off tears at our desks as we read the news of the death of Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of the indigenous Alaskan language called Eyak. We never met her or her sister, the penultimate Eyak speaker, but she was for a long time someone close to our thoughts. During her long and often difficult life, Jones worked against impossible odds to preserve her language. Her earthly course is done now, and we must acknowledge the sad truth that no one who thinks in Eyak still hears her own heart beating.

For some years we have laboured with Charles Wohlers to pound out careful transcriptions of Anglican liturgical texts in languages whose speakers are declining in number—languages like Ainu, Iñupiat, Mohawk, Nlaka'pamuk, Ottawa and Sikaiana we are not likely to hear on the streets of Boston or New York, let alone in Anglican worship. Our reason for so doing is as much connected with the preservation and promotion of these languages as it is the accurate archiving of these significant parts of our Anglican heritage. Some of the inherent value of these translations of the BCP is that they contain at their heart that climax of every Anglican liturgy, the Lord's Prayer, echoing down the centuries from 'beside the Syrian sea' to the shores of Manitoulin Island, Hokkaido, the banks of the Fraser River, or to the shadows of the Adirondacks. In every Prayer Book rite the gathered community of believers address God the Father in bold words, holy words, words that are ancient gifts in whatever language they are spoken.

We suspect that when Pentecost 'was fully come', the roaring sounds of the descent of the Holy Spirit contained the words Marie Smith Jones spoke in Eyak as well as the peculiar gifts of God known to speakers of Cowichan, Cree, Munsee and Oneida Mohawk. We are all of us impoverished when one such way of being, loving and knowing fades into the secondhand memory of transcriptions, recordings, grammar textbooks and journal articles.

Today many Anglican idioms are at risk of the same sort of obsolescence we've seen numerous languages suffer in the last fifty years. Some are hardly lived and known in robust ways, but they and their respective atmospheres are still part of our inherited memory:

'Biretta Belt' Anglo-Catholicism of the Midwestern USA
Bush Brotherhood Anglicanism from the Australian outback
Connecticut Churchmanship
Hobartian Churchmanship*
The London Brighton and South Coast Religion
'North End' Irish Anglicanism
Percy Dearmer's British Museum Religion
Two Bottle Orthodoxy
Virginia Churchmanship

More than being just flavours or churchly emphases, each provides or provided a distinct Anglican way of meeting and holding on to Christ. None are essential to the proclamation of the faith once delivered to the saints, but they have all done remarkably good jobs at it when given the right soil, water and light to let down roots, to grow and to flourish. We've written before about Anglican Christianity as a language with its own grammar and vocabulary—as a way of knowing God and living in the world 'as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord'. Today we're as convinced as ever that our language is worth knowing, speaking and singing, but at the same time we're more concerned than before about encroaching losses in our vocabulary. There is a legitimate traditional diversity in Anglican inflection, just as English is English in Barbados as well as in Berkeley, in Stepney as in Singapore, in Melbourne as in Medicine Hat.

Tonight as we mourn and give thanks for Marie Smith Jones—we would dearly have liked to attend her funeral at St Innocent's Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage—we feel afresh the need for articulate, local, rooted expressions of Anglican faith. In the face of centralisation, homogenisation, pasteurisation and standardisation, these borrowed words well express our hopes for Anglicanism on the cusp of Lent 2008:

'Venerable as it is, let it be no petrifaction, but rather a living thing, manifesting vitality and growth, and bringing forth more fruit in old age.'**

See you next week.

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Last updated: 3 February 2008

* The late Dr Reginald Fuller assured us that he was the last person who truly adhered to the pre-Tractarian American High Churchmanship known as 'Hobartian', and we believe him.

** Journal of the Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Connecticut Held in Christ Church, Hartford Tuesday June 13th 1899, page 51.

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