Today is Pentecost. And since my blog is labeled Orthodoxy in America, I thought I would just express some personal thoughts on English and Liturgy. First, let me be clear that Orthodoxy Christianity is Eastern in its history. We owe a debt of gratitude to those Christians who preserved the Faith and brought it to our shores. While I can’t empathize, I can certainly understand on a personal level wanting to express one’s self in his or her native tongue. Language, after all, is our ultimate means of expression. Clear articulation is imperative for effectively conveying thoughts and ideas among people and future generations.
I am not an anthropologist, but I do know that languages from one culture have influenced the languages of another. This is certainly true when one culture overtakes another through battle. Most of us in the United States come from Western European backgrounds, although this is currently changing. When we look at the Western, Roman Catholic Church, we see an “organization” that forced the rest of the world to assimilate to its own language. They were so effective, that South America is also referred to as “Latin” America, as Latin was the Western Church’s liturgical language.
One of the more famous stories of evangelism came via the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. They were of Greek origin. Greek was and is also the official language of the Eastern Church. One might wonder if they took the same approach of their Latin brothers and forced Greek upon them, whether they would have been as successful. Instead, they helped the Slavs to develop their own liturgical language, now known as Church Slavonic. The alphabet’s name was attributed to St. Cyril and is known as Cyrillic. One hundred years later, Orthodox Christianity expanded into Ukraine and what is now Russia.
Many of these Eastern Christians began coming to the United States to avoid persecution, to freely practice their religion, and to live a better life. I certainly don’t begrudge people who want to pray in the language they have grown up using. What I do take issue with is the idea that English is somehow a lesser language of expression for Liturgical purposes than those Eastern. We find Orthodox countries around the world celebrating Liturgical services in their native tongues. The United States is indeed a melting pot of various cultural backgrounds: we as a people are richer for that. We might also discover that many European countries are experiencing a large influx of people seeking a better life in their lands. If I were among those, I would not expect local persons to alter their services to English. I would expect to conform to the official language of the local jurisdiction. If one lived in Spain, individual families could speak in a variety of languages. But in a larger context, the Spanish Language would be the natural means of expression and worship.
Latin and Greek were the common spoken languages during New Testament times due to the power of those nations. English is now among the most universally spoken languages in the world. The United States, and United Kingdom before her, is the most powerful country on Earth, as was Rome then. This alone might make a good argument for using English in current times.
But we are Christian, so our discussions should be centered around the teachings of Christ. And as this is Pentecost, let’s quote today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, …”And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” (2:2-11)
The Holy Spirit Himself spoke to people according to the language of their homeland. This seems to be strong enough evidence for how we are to proselytize to others. We cannot keep our Faith to ourselves. We must go about to teach and baptize all nations, as the Lord commanded us.
And while Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Russian are filled with great minds and great works of poetry and literature, so is English. England and America are filled with some of the most gifted authors, speakers, and playwrights of modern times. In England there were Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf, Milton, Pope, Elliot, and Carroll. In the US, Twain, Hemingway, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and more. English has a rich history; it has its own beauty.
I have heard and understand why many churches and monasteries use the more “classical” Orthodox languages of their diocese, but we are in a country where all speak English, not all speak Greek, Latin, Arabic, or Russian. We thank those who brought Orthodoxy to our shores. Now please let us appreciate it fully in the language common to our people.