In 2007, Christianity Today published an article, “Will the Twenty First Century be the Orthodox Century?” In it Bradley Nassif argued that Orthodoxy will indeed grow and expand in this coming century. But in an Again Magazine article, “The Orthodox Christian Opportunity,” Nassif noted although many people are converting to Orthodoxy, significant numbers of these converts are also leaving through the backdoor discouraged and disenchanted. Much of the reasons for their disenchantment lie not with the Orthodox Faith per se, but with the realities of Orthodox parishes. Nassif refers to this problem as Orthodoxy’s backdoor.
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.
The Liturgy as the Front Door
The Liturgy is Orthodoxy’s front door. It is often the first place where people encounter Orthodoxy. There they see Orthodoxy in action: people worshiping the Holy Trinity. The Liturgy is also essential for becoming Orthodox. One cannot become Orthodox just by reading Orthodox books or visiting Orthodox blogs, one becomes Orthodox through participation in the right worship of the Holy Trinity.
However, people sometimes find Orthodoxy’s front door blocked when they attend a worship service where the Liturgy is done in a foreign language. Many visitors walk out after hearing nothing but Greek for the first few minutes of the Liturgy. It can be a painful experience. Many feel excluded, bewildered, and lost.
Linguistic zigzags — where the priest prays in English and the choir responds in non-English — are not uncommon in many ethnic parishes. For the unwary worshiper, it is like driving along on a smooth asphalt road then all of a sudden hitting a pothole. This can lead to a jarring, frustrating, and tiring worship experience. What should be a meaningful worship encounter with God becomes more like a tutorial in Greek, Slavonic, Serbian, Arabic, etc. Even several years after becoming Orthodox, many converts find themselves struggling with the Liturgy in a foreign language. People lose their place in the order of the Liturgy. It is not realistic to expect all converts to adjust to the Liturgy not being completely in English; some can make the adjustment, but many cannot. Continuous exposure to the Liturgy in a foreign language does not necessarily make it easier over time. As a result converts often find the Liturgy more a burden than a delight. And so converts are becoming frustrated and some are dropping out. These are not conditions conducive for spiritual growth.
Worship in the vernacular is the long-standing Tradition of Orthodoxy. This liturgical principle is rooted in the miracle of Pentecost. On that day the Christians spoke in tongues to a international gathering who were astonished to “hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11, NIV; italics added) The Apostle Paul emphasized the importance of worship engaging our understanding. He wrote: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19, NIV)
Orthodox Missionary Practice
The history of Orthodox missions is full of examples of the use of the vernacular. A prominent example is Saints Kyril and Methodios translating the Liturgy into Slavonic. Another example is Saint Nicholas of Japan laboring many years to master the Japanese language before translating the Liturgy into Japanese. A third example is Saint Innocent of Alaska who translated the Gospels into the Aleut language. Non-vernacular worship — so widespread in America — represents a departure from historic Orthodoxy. Thus, it is an innovation inconsistent with Holy Tradition. This innovation arose more from circumstance than deliberate choice. What was the vernacular for the first generation immigrants later became an incomprehensible language for the second and third generations, and for converts from another ethnic background. An innovation that arose from inaction requires deliberate action to bring the church back into conformity with Tradition.
Let Us Be Attentive!
The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” But the people can’t do their job of worshiping God effectively if the language is not their own. We are called to love God with all our mind (Mark 12:30) but worship in a foreign language gets in the way of our being able to worship God intelligently. Rather than assisting in worship, the non-vernacular hinders us.
One reason why the Liturgy should be entirely in English is Orthodoxy expects its members to be fully attentive in their worship. On several occasions during the Liturgy, the priest will call out: “Let us be attentive!” But if peoples’ minds start to drift when the priest switches to Greek (or some other foreign language), they are not really being attentive to the Liturgy. The problem is not with the worshiper, but the fact most people find it difficult to worship in an unfamiliar language.
Another reason for an all-English Liturgy is the Apostle Paul’s insistence that worship be in a language understandable to the listener. He wrote: “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.” (I Corinthians 14:9, NIV) The danger here is that the Liturgy will turn into empty worship — something that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus denounced in no uncertain terms: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9, NIV)
The Liturgy as Catechism
The Liturgy constitutes an ongoing catechism for Orthodox Christians. It continually reminds us of the fundamental doctrines of Orthodoxy. When understood, the Liturgy has a profound impact on our faith and worship. But, is not the Liturgy’s power to shape our thinking weakened by it being sung in an incomprehensible tongue? A danger of non-vernacular worship is parishioners can become so focused on phonetically reproducing the Liturgy they barely pay attention to the great truths being proclaimed in the Liturgy. If it is shrouded in language that is not comprehended, then the Liturgy will become an ethnic rite having little power to challenge us to live holy lives for God.
I visited a number of Orthodox services while I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, but they were mostly in Greek. It was not until I came to Berkeley and attended the all-English Liturgy at Saints Kyril and Methodios Bulgarian Orthodox Church that I was able to connect with the Liturgy and that the Liturgy began to reshape my theology and spirituality. It was the two years of hearing the Liturgy there that laid the foundation for my becoming Orthodox.
In addition to teaching us what the Church believes, the Liturgy also protects us from heresy. However, if the Liturgy is sung in a language poorly understood, its catechetical function is compromised. A priest once discovered a parishioner did not really believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. He pointed to one of the antiphons which is sung every Sunday, “Only Begotten” (Monogenes), which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity. However, the parishioner never got the point because in that parish the antiphon was normally sung in Greek, not in English. In the long run, a non-comprehended Liturgy makes Orthodoxy vulnerable to heterodoxy and nominalism among the laity, not to mention people dropping out of the Church altogether. Orthodox laity whose grasp of Orthodox doctrine is weak or hazy will not be able to defend their Orthodox beliefs, nor will they be able to effectively live out their Orthodox convictions.
Many Orthodox parishes in America today are what can be considered ethnic parishes. They were founded by immigrants and continue to be under the care of hierarchs in the old country. The ethnic parish preserves the old country’s culture through the following means: (1) the language used in the Sunday Liturgy, (2) the food served on special occasions, (3) ethnic festivals and holidays, and (4) language classes. Ethnic parishes tend to diligently celebrate the lives of their ethnic saints while hardly making mention of American Orthodox saints.
Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese observed:
We consider ourselves Americans, and we are proud of it —except when we go to church, we suddenly become Greeks, Russians, Arabs, and Albanians.
(Again Magazine vol. 28 no. 2, p. 5)
Ethnic parishes are an important part of Orthodoxy in America. It is in large part because of Orthodox immigrants who founded Orthodox parishes that Orthodoxy has such a widespread presence in American society today. Yet it is not realistic to expect that ethnic parishes are capable of evangelizing America. Orthodoxy is growing in America, but much of this growth is due to the planting of Orthodox parishes with all-English Liturgies. Ethnic parishes are not built that way; they are primarily suited to preserving the language, customs, and holidays of the old country. As such, they are designed for the first generation immigrants and their descendants, but not for American converts.
The term “old country” is not a pejorative term (as some might think) but a term accepted and used by social scientists, especially in the emergent field of postcolonial studies. Robin Cohen in Global Diasporas: An Introduction described “diasporic communities” as a community who live in one country while acknowledging that the “old country” has some claim on their loyalty and emotions (p. ix) and exerts a powerful influence on their social identity. Ties between the diasporic community and the “old country” can be especially intense in cases like the Greek-American community. In the Report to His Eminence ARCHBISHOP IAKOVOS (1990) it was noted that Greek-Americans are understood to be viewed either as an extension of the Greek homeland (homogenia) or as entrants and then participants in American history (p. 22; emphasis added).
Ethnic identity becomes even more complicated and fraught when a diasporic community shares the same social space, e.g., a local church, with Americans for whom the US is the only homeland they know of. This is what happens when an ethnic parish finds a growing presence of mainstream Americans joining them. They are confused that people would want to join the parish just because they want to be Orthodox. Many Americans want to become Orthodox, but very few want to assimilate into an ethnic parish and learn a foreign language and abide by foreign customs of the old country. To compel others to assimilate into a culture is contrary to the Orthodox tradition of missions and can even lead to cultural imperialism.
Jesus’ parable of the need to pour new wine into new wineskins and the foolishness of pouring new wine into old wineskins (Mark 2:22) applies to the present situation. Ethnic parishes are not well suited to meet the needs of converts from the outside. They can handle small numbers of converts, but if the numbers of converts become more than a trickle then the ethnic core can start to feel threatened resulting in a backlash. They will fear that the new members will undermine the ethnic identity of their parish, especially if the newcomers want more English in the Sunday worship.
There is no question that people have come to Orthodoxy via ethnic parishes, but their numbers are such that the long term impact will be minimal. If America is to embrace Orthodoxy, this trickle of converts will need to become a broad stream of converts. Ethnic parishes throw an unnecessary hurdle for non-ethnic for the above reasons. When it comes to evangelism ethnic parishes are like the eagle which is well suited for soaring in the sky, but unlike the duck is not well suited for life along the lake. In short, ethnic parishes are not set up for effective evangelism.
If Orthodoxy is to effectively evangelize America, an all-English Liturgy is essential. Orthodoxy’s future in America depends on the availability of an all-English Liturgy to ordinary Americans. The vast majority of Americans are monolingual English speakers. They are not comfortable with worshiping in a foreign language; nor will they be interested in shedding their American identity at the church entrance on Sunday morning. See my article on the three waves of Orthodoxy in America.
Changing Ethnic Parishes?
Can ethnic parishes be moved towards all-English liturgies? For the most part, I don’t think so. I’ve heard priests tell me they are gradually moving towards more English in the Liturgy, but what I have seen has been more of a back and forth movement in which very little change is made in the long run. Many parish priests are caught in a difficult situation of holding together a diverse parish community. While they personally may favor an all-English Liturgy, they also need to accommodate the needs and concerns of the longtime members (many of whom contribute substantially to the priest’s salary). It is a good idea to tell your parish priest you want an all-English Liturgy, but my advice is not to expect much to happen. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that ultimately it is the bishop who has the final say over the language used in the parish’s Sunday worship.
There are Orthodox hierarchs who have called for the “preservation and promotion of our Hellenic ethos and tradition.” Thus, ethnic Orthodox parishes are more than the result of circumstances, rather they have their roots in the priorities and policies of both local parishes and the hierarchy. Those of us who desire all-English Liturgies need to respect their understanding of Orthodox missions and work actively with Orthodox jurisdictions that support all-English Liturgies and the evangelization of America.