Return to Tradition – Even in Language – in the Church?

In the 1960s and the early 1970s, a civil war broke out in the Greek Diaspora between those demanding the use of English in our churches and those opposed to its use.

The ‘war’ culminated in the deliberations of the Clergy-Laity Congress that was held in New York in 1970, when Archbishop Iakovos accepted its decision to allow the use of the English language.

The reaction of the Greek-born in the Community reached the point of an open rebellion against Iakovos. The leaders of the opposition were the Community’s main newspapers,The National Herald (before my time there) and The Atlantis – which ceased publication in 1972. More than a few – but not everyone – considered Iakovos…a traitor. 

Society presidents, businessmen, professors – all demanded the expulsion of Iakovos.

The late Archbishop was in a very difficult position. He had even considered resigning, according to a letter he sent to the Greek Foreign Ministry. In the end, he persisted and implemented his decision, which essentially permitted each parish’s leaders to determine the ratio of Greek to English in its services.

Of course, in retrospect we understand that he was right. The time had come for reality to be recognized: there were generations of immigrant children who either did not know Greek or felt more comfortable in English. So, those language needs had to be taken into consideration as well.

But over the years, the use of English over Greek became more and more prevalent.

We had recently reached an extreme point where Archbishop Demetrios was conducting most of the Divine Liturgy in English, even at the Cathedral of St. Demetrios in Astoria.

We had lost the practical balance, as I have repeatedly argued from this column. We had gone to the other extreme. We had completely ‘modernized’ – but not with the expected results.

Now, however, it seems that a return to traditional Christian faith and worship is beginning to take place in wider American society. We even see the restoration of the Latin language, which the Roman Catholic Church abandoned in 1960.

There are young Christians, according to an extensive article in this week’s New York Times, who are even asking for 11th-century Gregorian Chant.

According to its author, Tara Isabella Burton, “the coronavirus has led many people to seek solace from and engage more seriously with religion. But these particular expressions of faith, with their anachronistic language and sense of historical pageantry, are part of a wider trend, one that predates the pandemic, and yet which this crisis makes all the clearer."

"More and more young Christians," adds Burton, “disillusioned by the political binaries, economic uncertainties, and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in an anti-modern vision of faith…old forms of religiosity [that] offer a glimpse into the transcendent beyond the present.”

"Many of us," she continues, "call ourselves 'Weird Christians,' albeit partly in jest. What we have in common is that we see a return to old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping the crisis of modernism and liberal-capitalist faith in individualism."

So, on the one hand, we have the internet liturgies, because of the coronavirus, which may continue to be popular afterwards, and on the other hand, we have a movement of young people to return to the traditional modes of Liturgy and Faith.

Including the use of ‘ancient’ languages.

From this collision of technological supermodernism and the void in their lives that many young people feel, will emerge, I believe, a synthesis with more points of return to the rich monastic tradition of Orthodoxy and its traditional Liturgy than most of us imagine.

Life is cyclical, and that also applies to matters of faith and the language of our liturgies.


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