On Liturgical Languages

25th June, 2011: I realise that I have managed to cause offence with this post, and for that I offer sincere apologies. On consideration, I feel it best for the sake of honesty and integrity that it remain as it is, particularly as the opinions expressed herein have not changed since the time of posting. However, I realise that the tone is more ascerbic than is necessary for the point being made or than is characteristic of me. I ask readers' indulgence. This was written shortly after I received an e-mail in which my own parish had come under attack for being "more Russian than Orthodox", and I suppose the defensive spirit in which this was written is apparent.

I am an Orthodox Christian. This says certain things about my faith in God, my worship of God, the manner in which I try to order my life (however abysmally I may fail at times), and my understanding of the world and my place and purpose in and in relation to it.

Within that wider identity, I am Russian Orthodox. This says particular things about my expression of Orthodox Christianity: the hierarchy to which I owe obedience and under whose spiritual direction I fall, the manner in which I worship, the style of music through which I pray, and my adherence to the Church calendar and the traditional forms within the Byzantine Rite for which the Russian church is known. As a person of English birth, whose ancestry is a combination of French, Irish, and Afro-Caribbean, I have no problem whatsoever in identifying myself specifically as a Russian Orthodox Christian. By so doing, I am not claiming to be culturally Russian any more than my friends who identify themselves as Roman Catholic are thereby claimimg to be culturally Italian.

This is the point where I fail to see any logic whatsoever in the arguments of those who claim that the liturgical use of Church Slavonic indicates something exclusively Russian about a parish. Yet one often hears this claim, not only from our non-Orthodox friends, looking in from the outside, but also from Orthodox Christians who really ought to know better. In fact, the non-Orthodox often have a better grasp of the benefits of the use of a liturgical language than do some Orthodox Christians.

To give some indication of how ludicrous it is to suggest that a parish's use of Slavonic makes it more Russian than Orthodox, (as is often the charge), I offer the examples from my own parish of Russian people who have told me that, despite having gone to church in Russia since their childhood, the first time that they actually properly understood the meaning of the Liturgy was when they moved to the UK and heard it served in English for the first time. If anything, this shows that the use of Church Slavonic is not in place for the benefit of the understanding of Russian people to the exclusion of others, and any charge of that can be dismissed for the nonsense that it is. The truth is that Church Slavonic is unlikely to be understood by most Russian people. There are exceptions in the cases of those Russian people who have studied the development of their language, or who may perhaps be trained in classical Russian literature, but I suspect that the majority of Russian people do not understand Church Slavonic very much more than most English people do.

Personally, I think that the exclusive use of Church Slavonic in divine services is a problem, not because it is indicative of any Russian exclusiveness as some might claim - far from it! - indeed, I think that it is as much of a problem in Russia as it is in any other part of the Orthodox world. Rather, I consider it problematic because, as a result of it, the people are giving their "Amen" to prayers that they do not understand, and are missing the wealth of theological beauty and instruction that is to be found in the divine services of the Church. This is not good. Apart from anything else, it is a barrier to mission. Visitors who cannot understand any element of the church services are unlikely to return very often, if at all. In fact, it is perhaps not unfair to say that all but the most determined Orthodox enquirer will never darken the doorway again, and thus we lose another soul who might have come to the saving bosom of the Church had he not been unnecessarily deterred.

Going to the other extreme, however, it is not difficult to find priests and parishes who pride themselves on serving exclusively in English, and who include indications of this prominently on their parish websites and other publicity, as though they consider this to be something beneficial. I have certainly seen this. I have friends at parishes just like this. And do you know some of the sentiments that I have heard from parishioners in some of those places (not all, to be sure)? They want an English Orthodox Church for English people. They tell me that they do not go to diocesan events. They do not go to services at their own cathedral, served by their own bishop, because they feel excluded: they cannot understand the Slavonic, they do not know the responses in Arabic, the Greek seems "alien" to them because they have no exposure to it in their own week-by-week experience of Orthodoxy. So they stay in their own little parishes, or perhaps only visit other parishes just like theirs, that serve exclusively in English. They only rub up along other English-speaking converts who are similarly learning the Orthodox way and miss the benefits of absorbing a natural Orthodoxy from those who have held to it from the cradle. The results are an insularity and congregationalism that simply do not in any way resemble anything approaching an Orthodox ecclesiology or spirituality; not to mention clergy who bumble through the services or who serve idiosyncratically because they are largely self-taught from books and have not learnt from experience of serving regularly alongside the "ethnic" clergy. There is something of a whiff of ethno-phyletism about some of the expressions of this that I do not like.

I recall my trip to Lourdes in 2001. While I would today wish to distance myself from the history and meaning of the place, in my Anglo-Catholic days, it was very special to me. I recall going there as part of a group from my Catholic Sixth Form College, and taking part in the singing, which was largely in Latin. Joining in those services, I was imbued with an awareness of the universality of the church (as I then understood it to be), of Christ's love embracing those who were not just English, but who came from all over the world. There were French people, Spanish people; British, American, and Maltese people; German people, and others. In many cases, I was not able to converse with these people about the mundane things of earthly life: what we had eaten for supper the night before, where we were staying, how comfortable the hotel was, and such like, because we did not speak the same language. Yet, because we shared a common liturgical language, we could come together in prayer. I could stand side by side with people from across the world, and sing the Pater Noster, the Gloria Patri, and the Ave, Maria, as well as other prayers and devotions, in Latin, from the heart. I cannot express in words the beauty of this.

This situation is not limited to Lourdes. Indeed, this is the situation in much of Orthodox Britain. The nature of our Orthodox Church in its manifestation here in Britain, and indeed the nature of the unchurched masses here in Britain to whom we need to take the saving faith, is not one of a church or society made up exclusively of English people, or exclusively of people whose first language is English, or even exclusively of people who speak English at all, and it is this reality that we need to face in ministering to people: not some romantic notion of afternoon-tea-and-cucumber-sandwiches-on-the-lawn religion entertained by some, which bears no resemblance to the reality on the ground. At the cathedral in my own diocese, there are many among the regular parishioners who do not speak the same language as each other. Some of the Russians do not speak English, many of the British and Oriental parishioners do not speak Russian, and I am sure that other nations and regions of the world are represented. Yet, when they come together to pray, they can do so in a common tongue, and this is an incredibly important unifying force in a parish with so much diversity.

Another element that I think may be at play here is Protestant clericalism. Many strains of Protestantism carry ideas which denigrate the role of the laity in liturgical worship, suggesting that the only way for the laity to fully participate is for them to have full comprehension of what the clergy say and do, and many converts to Orthodoxy bring this mindset with them. In some Protestant churches, everything the priest/minister does must be visible to the laity. Everything he says must be audible and immediately comprehensible to them. Anything less than this and the laity are said not to have fully participated. Yet this understanding of the participation of the laity being so intrinsically dependent on seeing and hearing the clergy is foreign to the Orthodox understanding of liturgical worship which, though not exclusively, is primarily a duty of service offered to God, and in which the laity have a full and extensive role that is theirs. Indeed, much of what our clergy say and do is neither heard nor seen by the laity, let alone understood. I recall an anecdote from my Anglican days, in which a new assistant curate at a parish decides to offer the weekday mass in Latin. At the end, the warden approaches him and reprimands him, saying, 'Father, I did not understand a word of those prayers', to which comes the reply, 'Well, I wasn't talking to you!' Therefore, it does not really matter too much if, on first encountering it, a lay person does not understand every single word of the prayers offered by the priest. With repeated participation, this comes to be understood, and the laity come to naturally participate in it. The desire for instantaneous satisfaction and immediate gratification comes not from the Christian heart but from the 21st-century world, and I am not sure that it is something that we should be importing into our church life or encouraging in those who come to us.

Therefore, I am incredibly grateful to have found an Orthodox grounding in my parish. We serve predominantly in English but with perhaps 20% of the Sunday Liturgy in Church Slavonic. This means that our people are able not only to understand the Liturgy, but that they have also been able to learn to participate, in Slavonic, in many parts of the Liturgy that they know. So, not only are they exposed to the teaching of the services in the troparia, the stikhera, and the canons in a language that they can understand, but they can visit our cathedral, or other Russian Orthodox parishes, or our nearest Serbian, Ukrainian, or Belarussian parishes, and take part in Slavonic services with their Orthodox brothers and sisters from various parts of the world, sharing the prayers of the Church with them, learning from them, and so forth. This is the Orthodoxy that I know and love, that is both local and universal, showing something of God's all-embracing love for all people that is, at the same time, extended to each one of us personally.

So for those who want an exclusively English-speaking Church for English people, (there is something of The League of Gentlemen about this), let them have it in their isolated little pockets of tea and crumpets. Personally, I want no part in it.

Lift up thine eyes around thee, O Sion, and see. For behold, like beacons shedding light divine thy children have come to thee, from the West and from the North, and from the Sea and from the East, blessing Christ in thee unto all the ages.
- The Paschal Canon. St John Damascene

8 responses:

Jon Marc said...

Wonderful write-up! I don't think a Slav's [mis]understanding of Slavonic is as extreme as you say though. I only speak a little Russian, but that little has vastly changed the approachability of Slavonic-language services - even just catching 25% of the words in a hymn can make an incredible difference in understanding.

Agreed on the sadness of insularity. Greek style services aren't always to my taste, but if we never meet, talk, et cetera, how will we love one another, preach the Gospel comprehensively, build Local Orthodox Churches in our countries, and so on?

Anonymous said...

I attend and chant in Greek, Romanian and English and Russian. If you know where you are in the Liturgy in English it helps in ones understanding of the Liturgy in other languages. Which is what I think you are saying.

I do know of English congregational situations but they exist only because they came to Orthodoxy on their own terms and prosecute their ministries on their own terms. When they concelebrate with their Orthodox brothers they invariably look quite lost and ill at ease and cannot wait to get back to being Patriarchs in their own parishes.

John Konstantin

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Christ is Risen !

I thoroughly enjoyed this; thank you, Michael !

Anonymous said...

Christ is risen!

I think that this also points out a certain lack in humility. It is not beyond most people to learn a little of ( to them ) a foregin language. All it requires is the desire to do so and a little application. Surely language should not put us off seeking "The pearl of great price" ?

Charlie Patseas said...

If the Greeks were such nationalists, why do they allow Southern Italy to call itself Magna Grece (http://magnagrece.blogspot.com/)? Because the Greeks know the Slavs are all coming from being Yuvrey with all their crazy bubble studies and fasting and stuff. We all want to be diverse, parochial, feudal and belong to the land and no Tsarvrey universalist globalizations. That is why we all marry Catholic Italian and stay away from Slav churches.

Michael said...

Thank you, all, for your comments.

Charlie, welcome! I'm not sure that I understand your post or know to whom it was a response. Perhaps you could elucidate a little for us. Many thanks.

Anonymous, it is possible that you may perhaps be right on the point of humility in some cases. However, I think we do need to make some allowances. There are those who, for various reasons - learning difficulties, visual/hearing impairments, &c. - may struggle to learn a new language. In addition, there are those without any identifiable challenges who seem unable to perform what most of us would consider the most basic of learning routines, which is to listen then repeat what was just heard. I have seen it numerous times with music and occasionally when trying to teach people how to say short phrases in other languages. I don't really understand it but can only imagine that it's down to different people's brains being wired differently.

Jon-Marc, thank you for the tip on understanding of Slavonic. My information comes from a number of Russians but who, nonetheless, may not necessarily be representative.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Michael, what you have written regarding your church and its use of Church Slavonic in almost every detail matches how I feel about my church (Greek Orthodox) and its use (here in America) of Byzantine Greek (I don't know what else to call it).

I am a 2nd generation American of 100% Polish heritage, a convert (if you can call it that) to Orthodoxy via the Greek church, altho to me moving from Episcopal (my family was Old Catholic, I became an Episcopalian in young adulthood) to Greek Orthodox had nothing to do with a break with my religious heritage, but rather was a logical fulfillment of it.

I prefer the Greek church when it comes to liturgical language because I am an 'original languages' bible man, and study and pray the scriptures privately in Hebrew and Greek, and it is from that source that I derive strength in my testimony and life in Christ.
I prefer the Russian church (here I speak broadly, my experience with it being mainly thru OCA convert parishes, not those directly linked to Russian diaspora communities) when it comes to simple and childlike worship. Very little Slavonic is used here.

By the way, I came upon your blog thru reading your excellent comments on Fr Milovan's blog, regarding the new Russian dress code recently promulgated by the Moscow Patriarchate. I entirely agree with what you wrote there. Myself, I sympathize and agree with what the Russian church is saying, but not in the way it hopes to achieve its ends. Only love, not law, brings about conversion of hearts, and only conversion of hearts allows the work of salvation to happen in us. Without this love, every other attempt to 'save' humanity from itself seems to me like blasphemy.

Anyway, brother, now that I have found your blog, I will go exploring over the next few days.

Christos voskrese!

Jon Marc said...

Michael, I think Charlie's a spammer - I got the same comment on a post having nothing to do with Greek or the Greeks recently as well.

Your comments on the inability of some to learn languages is spot on. I can't understand it either, but then again I grew up in 5 different countries and that tends to require some flexibility vis-a-vis language learning :-) (lol).

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