Cathedral Celebrates Sign Language Week With Bilingual Service

A special bilingual service of Holy Communion was celebrated in both English and British Sign Language simultaneously last week for Sign Language Week.

The Diocese of Oxford’s Chaplain Amongst the Deaf Community, the Revd Dr Hannah Lewis, presided at the service on Wednesday, with the Cathedral Precentor, Revd Philippa White, concelebrating the rite in English alongside her. The service was also broadcast live through the Cathedral’s YouTube channel, where Revd Dr Lewis’ translation of the evocative language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer will be available for years to come as a spiritual resource for the Deaf community.

British Sign Language is the first language of around 145,000 people in the UK, but only gained full legal recognition on 28th April 2022. The campaign for the change in law was led by the British Deaf Association, who also inaugurated Sign Language Week in 2004 to commemorate the anniversary of BSL's recognition by the UK government as a language in its own right on 18th March 2003. The week celebrates BSL and Irish Sign Language as distinct indigenous languages of the UK, seeking both to educate Britain about its relationship with Deaf culture, identity, community and history, and encourage more people to learn the languages.

'The grammar and syntax of BSL are very different to English,' said Revd Dr Lewis.

'Even for those of us in the Deaf community who are bilingual, worshipping in our first language is an emotional and spiritual experience that hits in a more powerful way.”

The Diocese of Oxford’s work with the Deaf community goes back over 125 years, when the Oxford Diocesan Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was formed to meet the spiritual, social and pastoral needs of church members in the diocese. As well as offering services around the region in British Sign Language (including at Christ Church Cathedral on a quarterly basis) the Deaf Church also offer weddings, baptisms and funerals in BSL and advise churches on making their services more inclusive to Deaf members of the congregation. They also maintain a dedicated chapel in Reading Deaf Centre.

'As a point of intersection between a city, a university, and a wider diocese, Christ Church Cathedral is inherently a place where different communities meet,' said Revd White.

'I hope that today’s service and the recording we have created can continue to bring together the Deaf community and other worshippers in the unity of faith.'

In addition to hosting our quarterly BSL services, we are excited to expand our support for the Deaf community soon with new training in basic BSL for our volunteer guides, facilitated by Revd Dr Lewis.

You can watch the service again over on our YouTube channel.

Revd Philippa White and Reverend Hannah Lewis celebrate the eucharist together. Revd Philippa is holding the book of the liturgy, while Revd Hannah is reciting the liturgy in British Sign Language, her hands in mid air. They are both wearing red chasubles, appropriate to the final weeks of Lent, and standing in front of the Remembrance Chapel altar.

Revd Philippa White (left), Cathedral Precentor, and Revd Dr Hannah Lewis (right), concelebrate a bilingual service of Holy Communion, with Revd Philippa using English and Revd Hannah using British Sign Language.