Faith is More Than Just Language
Some of the rhetoric from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s 40th Clergy-Laity Congress was a bit disturbing, both from a theological and linguistic standpoint. During the Congress, Archdiocesan Council VP Michael Jaharis proposed conducting more services in English to “be sensitive to the fact that our services need to be accessible to all of our parishioners.”
The fact that Mr. Jaharis’ argument is logical and seems to makes sense may be what’s most wrong with it. It appears to be governed by a spirit of rationalism that may work great for running Fortune 500 businesses, but does not necessarily echo the historic outlook of the Church.
The language issue has been open for decades. When the late Archbishop Iakovos first sent out guidelines governing the use of English in the divine liturgy back in the 1970’s there was controversy, protests, etc. In fact, Metropolitan Iakovos of Chicago reportedly stated that priests began surpassing the Archbishop’s guidelines for English language use, and lamented this fact at this past Congress while addressing the Greek Education Committee.
Did this switch and increased use of English net more parishioners? It’s hard to tell, but if the answer was yes, I doubt that this would even be an issue at our Congresses.
English language use certainly didn’t seem to do the trick at the Metropolis of Boston, where the absence of the vast majority of metropolis priests and communities was deemed “most disappointing” by the local Metropolitan.
When it comes to issuing a real call to the faithful and drawing them in, history proves that it is a lot harder than today’s ‘plug-and-play’ mentality. The Greek liturgy was arguably incomprehensible to most Greek people (and probably some priests as well) during the 400-plus years that Greeks were subjugated to Ottoman rule, but the services remained intact and played an essential part in safeguarding Romanity (Hellenism and Orthodoxy combined). It might have been easier to conduct the services in colloquial Greek, Vlachic, Turkish, etc. but it was not done. Even recently, the Archdiocese of Athens scrapped a plan to read the Gospel and Epistles in Modern Greek during liturgies, after it was tried out and deemed ineffective. The Slavonic dialect used in Slavic churches is also not similar to the everyday language of the people.
It’s one thing to read Scripture in different languages, but changing and rearranging the rest of the worship services may not be as effective as some would think. After all, how many studies have really been done to support this notion?
Does the average teenager really have the mental, spiritual, and physical discipline to sit through the entire church service, without daydreaming just a little? Most people will admit that they’ve all let their thoughts race from time to time (or more frequently) when in church. Some would argue that the problem is more about spiritual maturity and less about cognition.
Have the advocates of this idea actually bothered to quiz the average native English speaker to ascertain whether they can differentiate (even in their mother tongue) the differences between the terms consubstantial, transubstantial, essence, nature, begotten, made, etc…
But even if the book knowledge is present, we risk promoting the misguided idea that comprehending the liturgy is the same as understanding it. And if that’s the case…we might as well join the televangelists and make up things as we see fit, forgetting about the patristic legacy.
Pick up the Orthodox Study Bible and you’ll read that St. John the Baptist ate honey and the tips of plants (not locusts, as the King James Bible says). Now, if the Greek word ‘akrides’ is capable of causing such a discrepancy, imagine more important words, i.e. amartia (is it missing the mark, or sin?) The first is about recalibrating one’s efforts, while the second comes with loads of guilt.
Aside from the countless semantic issues, trying to rationalize the divine liturgy is dangerous because it’s about more than just words. Should we anglify the music as well? Change the architecture? Shorten the services?
Of course, we’ve experimented with the latter as well…and the results must not be too good, if we’re still trying to figure out ways to bring people to Church.
Here’s a novel thought: Let’s remember that these traditions were handed down by holy men, with a profound spiritual understanding. Perhaps we should stop tinkering with the liturgy like it was an ad campaign and remember its qualifying adjective; Divine.