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Tonga's noble solution for worship


Revising the Tongan liturgy of the Eucharist has put the translators into a balancing act between Tonga’s most formal patterns of speech and the language Anglicans might want to use when they relate to Jesus

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The new version of the Tongan Eucharistic liturgy in ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa’ published in 2020 has taken a journey from rewriting to revising to double checking with royalty on its way to finding its current form.

The Tongan liturgy in this year’s new Prayer Book was translated through the efforts of eight translators: the Diocese of Polynesia’s translations coordinator Rev Sione Uluilakepa, along with Viliami Folau, Kensington Fifita and retired priest Rev Epalahame Vea, with help from the late Rev Viliami Tohi, Archdeacon Pau Likiliki, Daniel Koloamatangi and Lionel Tu’inukuafe.

The new Tongan liturgy also drew in support from the Tongan royal family, through Hon Frederica Tuita Felipe who attends All Saints’ Anglican Church in Fasi and shared the translators’ work with The Princess Royal Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita.

The reason why the royal family was asked to consider the new texts was due to the question of what register the language for God should take in the Tongan language. Rev Sione explained that the first translations of the Prayer Book liturgy in Tongan – and those used by Tonga’s Wesleyan Church today – use the highest form of speech to address God, a language form usually reserved for royalty.

The Tongan language for royalty elevates the register of speech, and in doing so, the amount of words that must be used.

“So where in English the liturgy might say, “Come to us, be present Lord.” In Tongan it might say something more figurative or metaphorical, perhaps approaching “May you enter into our company with the majestic presence of your royal highness and radiant divinity,” said Fr Sione.

Rev Sione said that kind of language not only lengthened the liturgy, but also affected the theology of the Tongan version, by always placing God at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy.

“In parts of the Prayer Book, the Tongan priests wanted to use only the highest form of address for Jesus, but that meant the text lost sight of the humanity of Christ as a common person.”

“Jesus’ common humanity was denied by prayers only using the royal form of address – for example in the prayer of consecration.”

It didn’t help the Tongan translators that the most recent Bible Society translations of scripture have consistently stuck with only regal forms of address for the Trinity.

This is not a new conversation for Tongan Anglicans either. Back in the late 1980s under Archbishop Jabez Bryce’s oversight, a group of Tongan translators began the work on a new form of words for the Eucharist, and back then a new edition of the liturgy was authorised by Polynesia’s Diocesan Synod.

However, many priests found the new version didn’t sit well with them or their communities, and by 2017, at least seven different versions of the Page 404 Eucharistic liturgy were in regular use in Tongan.

Meanwhile, quite a few Tongan churches and schools began to skip the Tongan version altogether, instead defaulting to the English liturgy on page 404.

But Rev Sione says that approach failed to recognise the value of worshipping in Tongan – a problem the new translators set out to solve by finding a ‘middle way’.

“In the end we mixed the language between the two poles and ended up with the language for nobility. Through Hon Frederica Tuita Felipe we were able to consult the royal family, who agreed with the forms of address we had chosen in the new texts.”

Rev Sione says that with the new edition in 2020, the revised Prayer Book is a true gift for Polynesia, and it is a blessing they can share, too.

Rev Sione reports that on various occasions leaders from the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (Tonga’s de facto state church) love to use our Prayer Book. One recent example was when the Wesleyan President prayed from the Prayer Book at the 2020 birthday celebrations for the King of Tonga.

Fr Sione says Tongan Anglicans couldn’t be prouder that others recognise the value of the hard work that’s gone into the nuances of language and theology in this new book.

“It shows us what a treasure we have.”

First published on anglican taonga on 7 December 2020.

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