Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Language Barrier

I grew up in a church in which the conviction was that theology was best suited to the German language and that worship in the mother tongue (auf Deutsch, of course) was more pleasing to God than any other, especially English.  Then, in one fell swoop, as World War II raged and a German congregation felt pretty conspicuous, they switched to English, planted an American flag in the chancel, and left the mother tongue behind for the stilted English of their new found home.

It seems that the transition from German to English has led us down a garden path of unintended consequences.  For one, we found out that the German was not all that different from the English language liturgies of non-Lutherans and that was a bit disappointing.  It sounded all that loftier in German than it sounds in English.  For another, the liturgy has become a soup of choices in which we borrow from all sorts of traditions and denominations and what happens on Sunday morning is not as consistent as it was prior to English.

Funny thing that our experience is not unique.  My family friends, the Irish Kirby family, was severely disappointed when they went to their first English Mass.  Suddenly the noble words of Latin gave way to the shocking awareness that they were saying and singing the same things Lutherans had been for more than 400 years.  It seems that the transition to English has not been without its losses in the pews (although the blame cannot only be assigned to the vernacular).

Now it seems the Orthodox are wondering if the non-English language of the Divine Liturgy is a burden to attracting and keeping converts.  Hmmmm.... haven't we been down this road before?  This is one Orthodox voice on the issue:

One of the major obstacles to the twenty first century becoming the Orthodox century is the language barrier.  In many American Orthodox parishes the Sunday Liturgy is either in a foreign language or a mixture of English and non-English.  Orthodox parishes with an all-English Liturgy tend to be in the minority.  This blog posting addresses why we need all-English worship services, what can be done about the present problem of people exiting through the backdoor, and how we can help make the twenty first century the Orthodox century.

You can read more here....

The back door is a problem for Rome, for Wittenberg, and for Constantinople.  The language of the liturgy may have some impact on the problem -- more for some folks and less, much less, for others.  But the problem is not about to go away with a language change -- Rome to Latin or Orthodoxy to English.


Anonymous said...

On the Day of Pentecost, the people were amazed to hear the words of God in their own language and not in Hebrew. I don't think the Apostles wondered if it was appropriate to utter the mysteries of God in "the vernacular"


Anonymous said...

All have freely borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer, and have been welcome to it. Many of the difficulties have come with the borrowers intentions to then "customize" it, without really understanding the way it was designed to work in the first place. The result has been that they usually have a continually evolving series of "improvements," with which they are never quite satisfied. Perhaps the answer is to start out with a clean sheet of paper and draft your own service, in a coherent form, without borrowing from anyone at all. Then maybe you would be happy.

I am fortunate to still use the Book of Common Prayer 1928 which serves me very well.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Joanne said...

The Greek Cathedral in Miami had been compromised by three things.

1. Pews
2. an Organ
3. Women in the choir.

The head Psalti was named Timon and he hated the choir, seeing not need for what the psaltis could do just as well, if not better. (If you hear an all male Greek choir singing in the eastern style with a deep ison, the psaltis no can do that.) And, as you might imagine the female choir director hated Timon with a passion. There was no love lost.

The only way to tell you when a Greek Divine Service will begin is to tell you that it will begin the moment that the Orthros ends. For and hour or 2, the priest and the psaltis will perform an interactive litany of chanted Bible verses and hymns, and it will usually end around 10 or 10:30. Occassionaly I saw 3 or 4 widows attend the Orthros, otherwise it was done in a dark and empty church, but at that magic moment, the last of the Orthros and the Beginning of the Liturgy happens when the Choir sings the Doxologia (Thoxsoloyeea).

Now if the choir is not yet in place at that magic moment, and we almost never were, the psalti just continue singing the choir's responses as if there was no choir. As soon as we got up into the choir loft and wound up the organ, we would forcefully take over the choir responses from the psaltis, they didn't stop till we got louder than them.

Now, as we all know, Thoxa (doxa) is Greek for Glory and their thoxologia is just like ours, only in Greek.

So, I've developed a fondness for the teen mass at the local St. MM because they have a wonderful country/western, slow-dance style band. One really wants to grab her cowboy and head for the dance floor.

But, staying on focus, they project the liturgy type order they use on the blanc walls on both sides of the altar. They had a doxology last time I went. It was the word Amen sung over and over again and again, till it stopped. You know, when the Romans are as clueless as the Lutherans, sooner or later somebody's going to hit an iceberg.

As I remember in the Greek church, the only parts spoken/sung by the congregation are the pistefo (creed) and the Pater Ymon (Lord's Prayer. I having trouble remembering anything else. The choir sang all the responses which changed with the type of prayer. There were 3 different prayer responses. The choir director would hold up her hand with one, two, or three fingers to tell us which response to sing. It was the hardest choir work I've ever done. And on Good Friday the choir marches around the outside of the church singing special hymns and my favorite, the Symeron Kremate. I never became Orthodox, but I learned heaps and gobs.
Thoxa in eepseestees, tou Theou!

Anonymous said...

You wrote:

"The back door is a problem for Rome, for Wittenberg, and for Constantinople."

Really? I know about Wittenberg, but what about the others? Most of the Roman Catholics I know stay home except for Christmas and Easter mass.

Unknown said...

For those Orthodox converts who think that English (in AMerica) should be the standard and threaten to leave if the changes are not made to their satisfaction probably converted for the wrong reasons in the first place.

As one Greek Orthodox Hierarch put it once, "It is not important to understand the Liturgy, but to live the Liturgy." Besides, even if the language were one you might know, if you come away saying that you understood it, you're lieing. There is NO way to understand the Liturgy regardless of whether it is spoken/chanted in Greek, Slavonic, Arabic or English. Besides, the langauge of the church has always been Greek. And much of that cannot be rendered into English words unless you put in a lot of footnotes. Ψηχη is often translated as soul, but that leaves out much of what else this word really means.

And as Joanne said, more people are leaving through the backdoor because of such additions as 1) pews 2) organs and 3) the loss of male choirs for western style music. People should come to the Orthodox faith for what it IS not for what they WANT it to be.

Besides, the language issue is not a problem for LCMS since all the services are done in ENglish but people are leaving through the back and front doors because of 1) contemporary worship 2) no Liturgy 3) confusion between priest and laity and a whole host of other problems.

The language issue is a non-issue and is only brought up by people who are not Orthodox who seek to find whatever problems they can, because the Orthodox Church possesses the fullness of the faith.--Chris

Anonymous said...

How did switching over to "English only" work out for the Slovak district of the LCMS?

Anonymous said...

There should be no shame in the Lutheran church celebrating its German roots. WW 1 and now WW2 are now ancient history. Having a (subtle) German identity is better than morphing into a maimed version of (redneck) Evangelicalism.

i would consider joining an Eastern Orthodox church, but I have zero interest in changing my nationality to Greek or Russian. Maybe if such a congregation were to offer multiple types of Sunday services, such as English @ 8 am, and Greek at 10:30.

Joanne said...

My experience is that there is ever only once Divine Liturgy on any Sunday or Holiday. I never saw two liturgies on one day. The Orthodox would sometimes discuss their need to have churches larger than regularly needed, so that they can accommodate the Easter and other holy day crowds.

When the choir sings or almost sings the Doxologia, there are usually about 5 to 10 people in the church. People wander in all during the service and do what they would do if they had been on time. They still light their candles, and walk up to the Iconostasion to reverence certain Icons and to leave especially large candles for the Panagia or the Pantocrator, so for the first 2/3rds of the service people are still filing in. Most will be there in time for the intincted distribution of the Mystery, which most will not go up for, and the church will be full for the last 1/3. Depending on how much of the liturgy the priest will do, if there is a sermon, most often there is not, will there be a memorial service (special music/lyrics for the choir to learn). The service can last a long time. You will not get out of there before noon, if it's a short service. I guess that's why they come late.

And remember the Greeks understand the Greek used in the Liturgy just as well as you understand the English used by Chaucer. The person above is right, they do not understand the Liturgy, like I was told every time I asked a question about what we were doing, the answer was always, just do it.

These are considered bad habits by the clergy, but Greeks are Greeks with a propriety attitude toward the religion. We made it, so we can do it our way. I have attended several services in Greece to see the best that a state church can do and it wasn't much more than show up and turn the crank for the government salaried clergy. (Same in Germany.)

Unknown said...


Only one sacrifice at an altar per day. That is why Orthodox churches do not have multiple services. The only exception to that rule is on the eves of Nativity and Theophany where the Liturgy of St. BAsil the Great is served right after the first part of Vespers. Then, following the Vigil,the Liturgy will present the sacrifice again.

Also, you don't have to change your nationality. I'm still German, though I do speak Greek and love Greek food. That is one of the most ludicrous statements I hear from uneducated people about the Orthodox.--Chris

BrotherBoris said...

There is a LOT of misinformation here and I am going to do my best to try to correct it.
First, in the USA the language used in the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox parish depends largely on the jurisdiction to which the parish belongs. Different jurisdictions vary in how much English they use or even require. The Greek Orthodox tend to use quite a lot of Greek. The Antiochians use almost 100% English except at a few ethnic parishes. The Orthodox Church in America uses almost 100% English, except for some ethnic parishes which will sing some of the repeated portions of the Liturgy in Slavonic (i.e. the Little Litany, the Trisagion, and maybe a Cherubic Hymn). The Russian Church Abroad uses a lot of Slavonic, but they also have English-speaking parishes that worship in English. They also have an English speaking monastery in West Virgina.
Secondly, I think Americans need to be a bit more tolerant of foreign languages. Its OK if you hear an occasional phrase in a foreign language in church. It might just make you question some of your nativist and Anglo-centric assumptions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a bilingual liturgy, if local pastoral need requires it. After a while, American converts to the Orthodox Church can and do learn and even begin to appreciate the catholic nature of the Church, and this includes at the minimum a basic respect for the languages of the people that founded the local parish. As long as the Epistle and Gospel readings and the Sermon are in the vernacular, it does not concern me too much what language the rest of the Divine Liturgy is in. Granted, for mission purposes, it would be best to worship in English (or Spanish) as the local situation might dictate. And that ought to be the long term goal. But Greek, Slavonic and Romanian are not impossible to learn either. I am a convert of 15 years now, and I've learned to know EXACTLY where I am in a Greek or Slavonic liturgy. I've learned to read Greek. It can be done. I have not learned to read Slavonic, but I can recognize liturgical phrases in it. I know the Triagion, the Creed and the Lord's Prayer in both languages. You can learn it if you really want to. And I'm glad my ethic Orthodox brothers and sisters are here to teach me. I really don't like giving the Greeks a hard time about Greek. It is their heritage and the language of the New Testament. The Jews still use Hebrew, the language of the OT. Can we really point the finger at the Greeks and fault them for preserving the language of the Early Church for us?

Unknown said...


Right on. Essentially, a lot of Protestants who convert to Orthodoxy strangely enough are the ones who want to Protestantize the liturgy. Utter a word in another language, they'll give you a (distorted) history lesson on Sts. Cyril and Methodius. It needs to end. Just because a church service takes place in America does not automatically require the language to be in English. I like what you point out as far as the Jews still using Hebrew. How dare they be so "convert unfriendly!"--Chris