Liturgy and the Language of the Street

One sometimes comes across mild debates in Orthodox circles about whether or not our Sunday Divine Liturgy should employ the archaic forms (e.g. “Thou hast”) or the contemporary ones (e.g. “You have”). Our own O.C.A. website has perhaps wisely decided not to jump into the debate and take definitive sides, but to offer the liturgical texts in both forms, so that one has a choice of downloading either the “You/ Your Version” or the “Thou/ Thy Version”. What can one say about this debate?

First of all, one can recognize that there is no such thing as an inherently holy language. Muslims declare that Arabic holds such a privileged position, so liturgical prayers must be offered in Arabic regardless of whether or not the Muslim worshipper understands the language. But Christians have never made such claims for their own faith, and accordingly liturgical Christian prayer has been offered in all languages. That of course was part of the point of Pentecost: now all the tongues of men have been sanctified by the indwelling Spirit so that one can pray with complete authenticity in one’s native tongue. This Pentecostal truth finds expression also in our Bible translations: despite the fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic) and the New Testament written in Greek, the Bible may be and has been translated into many languages, and no one suggests that the product is not actually the Bible. Of course some translations are better than others, but we do not follow our Muslim friends. They deny that Scripture can be authentically translated at all and they dub such translations as only “the meaning of the Quran” and not the actual Quran itself. Unlike them, we say that Scripture may indeed be authentically translated. The King James Version or the English Standard Version, for example, whatever their virtues and flaws, are still the Bible. All language is simply a vehicle; it is the meaning that matters.

Secondly, since it is the meaning that matters, the meaning of prayer must be comprehensible and understood by the person doing the praying. That is why liturgical prayer has always been translated from the original to the vernacular of the nation using it. Cyril and Methodius, though doubtless saying their own prayers in Greek, took pains to translate those prayers into the tongue of the Slavs for use in their later missionary endeavours. They did not insist that the Slavs learn Greek in order to commune liturgically with God. Some people in their time opined that the Church’s worship must be conducted in either Latin, Hebrew, or Greek, the three languages atop the cross of Christ announcing to the world that He was the King of the Jews. Cyril and Methodius demurred, and with them the rest of the Orthodox Church. Pentecost means that all vernaculars are acceptable, and moreover “it is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people” (to coin a phrase).

Thirdly, the importance of liturgical comprehensibility means that both the “You/ Your Version” and the “Thou/ Thy Version” are legitimate, since both are equally well understood by speakers of English. The debate over which English forms to use in North American churches pales in comparison with the debate over whether to worship in English or (for example) Slavonic. The former debate is not unimportant, but needs to be put into its proper context. For the debate over whether to use archaic or contemporary English concerns the proper amount of reverence required for worship; it is important but less important than the concern for comprehensibility. Worshipping in a very reverent Slavonic does the English worshipper no good if he or she cannot understand Slavonic. It would be like listening to glossolalia: the Slavonic speaker in tongues may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified (1 Corinthians 14:17)—better in such a case to speak five words that can be understood in the vernacular than ten thousand in a tongue (v. 19).

Fourthly, it is true that divine worship must be not only comprehensible, but also reverent. This debate is muddied by the fact that use of the form “Thou” is sometimes lauded as more formal and reverent than the form “You”, when in historical fact the form “thou” was intended as the familiar, not the formal. In the Anglican classic Book of Common Prayer, God was addressed as “Thou” since Christ taught us to invoke Him with loving familiarity as our abba; it is only the bishop in that book who is addressed with the formal “you”.   But after all language is more than history, and what was familiar in one age may end up being formal in another age. Certainly the present use of the term “thou” does savour of a reverent and specialized usage.

Some people say that the Liturgy must be conducted “in the language of the street” while others insist that it must not be. One must be careful to define exactly what is meant by the term. If one means by this that there should be no difference between the language used when speaking to our buddies at Starbucks or the hockey game (to say nothing of the locker room), and the language used when speaking to God in church, then this is clearly wrong. People like Fr. John Whiteford have pointed out that the Church has always used the best and most elevated form of language available for its divine worship. (See his excellent fatherjohn.blogspot.ca/2016/09/king-james-english-and-orthodox-worship.html .) But if by the term “the language of street” one simply means an actual vernacular, then such a language should be acceptable, for the vernacular can still be sufficiently elevated and poetic. Take love poetry for example: a man may write elevated poems of great tenderness and beauty to his beloved without necessarily addressing her as “thee”. Language need not be archaic to be elevated and beautiful.

Take for a liturgical example the exclamation of the Prayer of the Thrice-holy recited by the priest just prior to the singing of the Trisagion Hymn. At our own St. Herman’s parish the prayer ends with the words, “for holy are You, O our God, and unto You we send up glory: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages”. It is not much different than praying “for holy art Thou, O our God, and unto Thee we send up glory”. The former is not any more an unworthy “language of the street” than the latter. Rendering it in true “street language” would look something like “for You’re holy, God—glory to You forever”. One need only glance at this true street version to see the difference. Poetry, beauty, and an elevated spirit do not depend upon verbal archaism. A poet knows that things as simple as an inversion of words (“holy are You” instead of “You are holy”) and the use of the vocative “O” (“O our God” instead of simply “our God”) can work wonders, bringing the language away from the Starbucks tables and into the divine throne room of God. It is contemporary, but still elevated.   Once again, comparison is instructive: at Starbucks I might say to my buddy, “you’re looking good, my friend”; I would not say, “looking good You are, O my friend”. If I did, he would look at me rather oddly, and perhaps ask me why I was talking like Yoda.

Finally, if both the archaic and the contemporary can be equally reverential and elevated, why choose one over the other? I would suggest that the contemporary possesses the added advantage as being closer to our speech during the time when we are not in church. There is always a terrible temptation for all of us to separate our Sunday morning behaviour from our behaviour after we leave the church. We can hermetically seal off Liturgy from life, and neglect what some have called “the liturgy after the Liturgy” so that we are afflicted by a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, with our worship split off completely from the rest of life. This can be exacerbated if we possess a special language in which we address God (not, I hasten to add, that those who opt for the archaic forms are guilty of this. I speak here only of temptations and of my own heart). As St. James long ago pointed out, out of the same mouth come both blessing and cursing—with the same tongue we bless the Lord and Father and also curse men who are made in His likeness (James 3:9-10). It may be of some help if we forego use of a specialized liturgical tongue and retain the same language for both God and men, for then the inconsistency of which James warns us can be more easily detected and avoided. Using the contemporary vernacular to bless the Lord and Father ought to carry over after the Liturgy has concluded so that we refuse to use that language to curse men made in His likeness. Liturgical language can help unify our lives and our hearts, so that the holiness of the time spent praying to God flows over into the rest of our lives as well.

One last added thought: it is important after we have made our liturgical choices to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). Both choices can be and have been made by people genuinely concerned to honour God and to please Him. As St. James reminds us, honouring Him means holding our brethren in honour as well, regardless of whether or not their own liturgical choices are the same as ours.

24 comments:

  1. I’ve struggled with this all my Orthodox life (23 years). I have both traditional and modern English prayer books and flip and flop. It’s the same with the KJV or modern translations.

    Your article is helpful in addressing the fact that this is common. It certainly is not as difficult to deal with as attending ethnic churches that use half English or none at all. Although I try to get into the worship, I stand frustrated and lost, even though I can detect parts of the liturgy. I wonder how many of the parishioners are unaware as well?

    I realise that the words of the liturgy are addressed to the Lord and we are all called to worship, yes. However, the words MUST be meaningful to us or else how can we truly enter the spirit of worship? How can we say amen to something spoken in another tongue?

    Just my thoughts in response to your sensible article.

    In Christ,
    Fr Gregory Newman, to your south

  2. When I first arrived at my parish as a reader many years ago, I was appalled that the parish used both the You/Your and Thou/Thy constructions in addressing God. I complained about this horrid inconsistency to my friend the protodeacon, and he wisely told me that, if we didn’t use both, we should, to underscore that it doesn’t matter. My concern evaporated. Now that I’m a deacon, I find myself shifting between the two usages almost unconsciously. As you say, Father, it’s not the language, it’s the meaning.

  3. Hello Fr. Lawrence,

    While I disagree with the major point of the article, I appreciate your even handed approach to the topic, and you thoughts are always worthy of reading and consideration.

    I would only point out that the mode of liturgical English that retains forms such as “Thee” and “Thou” cannot be rightly called “archaic,” because they have been in everyday use for as long as modern English has been in use. I use it every day, and have all my life, as have most believing English speakers for the past several centuries.

    I suppose if I had been raised in a religious context in which a more contemporary style of English was used, I would not have the same reaction to it, but for me, hymns or prayers with phrases like “for holy are You, O our God” will always sound like nails on a chalk board.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Father, thoughtful and irenic as always. It seems that whether or not words sound either like nails on a chalk board (as “You” and “Your” does to you) or artificial (as “Thee” and “Thine” does to me) indeed depends solely upon familiarity. By the term “archaic” I meant that when one listens to conversations in everyday life at school, work, in cyberspace, or around the dinner table, one never addresses anyone as “thee” anymore, but as “you”. One could refer to such archaic usage as “Elizabethan” I suppose, but it comes to same thing, since we no longer address one another as they did in Elizabethan times. That is why the term “Elizabethan English” has meaning; it presupposes such linguistic differences. Using an archaic language every day in a particular liturgical setting (such as private prayer or daily liturgical worship) does not make the language a vernacular. Some Russian people in my parish pray every day in Slavonic, but such a practice does not make Slavonic a Canadian vernacular. A vernacular is what is spoken at school, work, in cyberspace, and around the dinner table. An archaic language (as I use the term) is what used to be spoken around the dinner table years ago, but is spoken there no longer.

      1. Just today I was listening to a podcast that Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory made in 2010, part of his “Speaking the Truth in Love” series. His topic was “English Translations of the Bible,” and he made the observation that for all his time in parishes and at SVOTS he had always used the Thee/Thine construction, but since retiring to Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Ellwood City), he had been using You/Your since that’s what the nuns used and their bishop (Abp NATHANIEL) preferred. And Fr. Tom admitted he liked You/Your better.

        y’all’s servant in Christ,
        Dn Nicholas

  4. Dear Fr.Lawrence
    I thank you once again for the clarity of your thought and presentation.
    I always look forward to your items on all subjects as I understand them.
    As an ex Anglican now Orthodox, your writings have and will continue to be a welcome aid in my journey.

  5. Good morning Father(s).

    I am just coming in from left field (SW USA). The fundamentalist evangelicals with whom I communed for most of my life relied heavily (if not exclusively) on the KJV, often idolatrously. In more recent years I hear them, in attempting to make God more personal, using the vernacular You/Your which comes off hokey when imposed into Elizabethan phrasing.

    When I broke from Churchianity, I wandered through mysticism, most which is so panentheistic that it makes Self the divine center. Until I found myself justified doing violence to my neighbor for my own passions. These actions brought me to my knees and a complete metenoia: knowing I am not ‘right’ about something, I could not be ‘right’ about anything, so I gave up: they hyper-personalized, common, ‘you’ God was ineffectual in taming the wild beast. I had to cast my self at the foot of the Cross and down into hades before I could be resurrected.

    About 9 months ago I went into the local Orthodox church for the first time, just before Holy Week. It was so Other-worldly, heavenly, that I have abandoned all other pursuits to find out about that: within a few weeks I was made catechumen and this just-past Theophany was, most-gloriously, Illumined. One very explicit tradition of Orthodoxy is the awe of God — Creator, Savior, and Sovereign — both awful, in that in Him is life which He could dispense with without loss, and awesome, in that His will that we have life as He means it is portrayed and accomplished by His Incarnation not just in the material world but in my life!

    Thus, it is with supreme gratitude and adulation that I hasten to worship Him as Thee/Thou, that I am conscious of separating from this world and entering His Kingdom. May it be blessed.

    As each of our peculiar paths are different, I have no qualms with those that find the You/Your God more revealing of Him to them. If one chooses, for the sake of accommodation to the conventions of this modern world, to use the vernacular, it seems that that one is not martyred, is not enthroned in heaven.

    Christ is risen!

  6. There is a copy of the Bible that has been in my mother’s family since 1728. (Actually it says A.D. MLXXXXVIII.) So old that it has the Gospel of Jefus Chrift. And the Book of Genesis, being the first book of Mofes. In which Jefus Chrift say “Blefsed are the poor in spirit”, and promises to send the Holy Ghoft to His Apoftles. While the Psalms enjoin one to praife JAH.

    I’d like to know if the defenders of this mock Renaissance English as an Orthodox liturgical language (even though England was never an Orthodox country and The Book of Common Prayer is essentially a Protestant rite), I’d like to know they’ll start doing the Jefus Prayer now. Whether they’ll start doing the Divine Rite of St. John Chryfoftom. Whether the First Antiphon becomes “Praife JAH oh my soul”.

    1. As I understand it, the issue of the evolution of spoken language is different from the issue of the evolution of typesetting. No recordings exist from 1728 of course, but I suspect that they pronounced the word “Jesus” (for example) more or less as we do now. The whole question is complicated by our own subjectivisms: some people genuinely find the use of the archaic forms more conducive to reverence and piety than the use of a vernacular, while others (like myself) find the archaic simply artificial and something of a barrier to genuine communion with God. I think that any discussion of the issue which does not take account of these subjective responses in a sympathetic manner is bound to produce dead-ends. Like you, I also prefer a vernacular translation of the Scriptures, since I was raised on the RSV and not the King James.

      1. I think the point stands, seeing that these people are never going to go back to archaic spellings. Or start using Psalms where JAH is used instead of The Lord. That they are not actually using Renaissance English at all.

    2. “England was never an Orthodox country…”???? So prior to the Norman Conquest (or, if you wish, prior to 1054) it was……Klingon???

      1. So prior to Norman Conquest there is no evidence whatsoever that British Christianity bears any resemblance to what can be called Orthodoxy. You’re not going to find translations of the Bible or the liturgy into either Brythonic or Cymric or Gaelic or Anglo-Saxon.

        And pretty much settles it.

        1. No evidence of Orthodoxy? What are you talking about? No evidence of Byzantine Orthodoxy, yes, but Byzantine theology, custom, and liturgy is not an exclusive synonym of Orthodoxy.

          Also, early dynamic translations of the Bible were being produced in Old English (the Anglo-Saxon dialects) as early as the mid-seventh century. Then there’s the Heliand, the epic retelling of the Gospel in Old Saxon from the ninth century. There’s the Wessex Gospel from 990 (written in the West Saxon dialect).

          Finally, I think it must be realized that “thee” and “thou,” for instance, are examples of second person SINGULAR pronouns, as Fr John rightly points out in his article. The archaic/traditional/formal/whatever-you-call-it distinction is an artifact of our language. “Thee/Thou” prayers address God, technically speaking, with linguistically informal language that, for historical reasons, we now think of as formal.

          And I’m okay with that. Glory be to Thee, O Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

    3. I have a photo reproduction of the 1611 KJV, and know what you are talking about, but this is a difference in how we make and print the letter “S”. It is not a substantive matter of the actual language. You see this same issue in the original printed texts of the Constitution of the United States, which is not written in Elizabethan English: http://www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/exhibits/we-people-first-official-printing-of-us-constitution

  7. Although I must confess that I share Fr. John’s preference, it is ONLY a preference. There is nothing inherently disrespectful, overly familiar, or ‘common’ about using “You” in the Liturgy when speaking to God.

    But when I am READING (especially Scriptures) the “thee’s and thou’s” or “you’s and ye’s” are far clearer in their singularity or plurality regardless of whether they are used in reference to God or men.

  8. Those interested in the Orthodox church in England should go to the podcast ,A Voice from the Isles on Ancient Faith Radio. . The link will take you to St Aidans Church in Manchester. The podcast can also be read in script form. Fr Gregory Hallam is the priest who usually preaches. He has information about the Church from early times in Britain . There were churches in Roman times. A well known site is in Colchester and is preserved as a monument there.
    Just look on line.

  9. “Language need not be archaic to be elevated and beautiful.”

    Yes. That said, is the “language of the street”, or any language a kind of empty vessel – a signifier only that is in-of-itself neutral? In other words, how does the vernacular color the meaning? We admit that the “archaic” does (or at least can) lend it’s particular properties when signifying “the beautiful”, so how does the language of the dinner table do this?

    The older I get, the more I am coming to the conclusion that the vernacular works against the beautiful (which is to say it works against God) because in our time and place the vernacular is the language of the primary/dominate religion – which is to say it is the language of “secularism” or “modernism”.

    In admitting this, am I led by logical necessity to a kind of sacred language viewpoint such as the Muslims have or as RCism used to have about Latin (or certain Orthodox seem to have about Greek or Slavonic)? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. In recognizing the deficiencies of straight up “street talk” I do not believe I am inexorably led to down this particular dialectic.

    I myself no longer use “you” or other vernacular constructions in my personal prayer, though I am now in a mission that uses it at times. It is a distraction (though relatively minor one). As much as I would like to agree with this sentence by Deacon Nicholas:

    “…he wisely told me that, if we didn’t use both, we should, to underscore that it doesn’t matter. ”

    I can’t, because I know that it in fact does matter. This is revealed by the fact that the “Our Father” is prayed in the archaic form even in otherwise fully vernacular parishes…

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. FWIW in our parish we do use the archaic form for the Our Father, but that is only because that form is shared by other Christian confessions and we are trying to offer a pastoral ecumenical nod to visitors. My problem with the idea that a vernacular is necessarily unsuitable for liturgical language is that it contradicts the practice of the early church, which seems to have worshipped in the vernacular, and of the koine of the New Testament, which was not a literary form of Greek. If the Church’s task is to baptize things which before were pagan and thus render them acceptable for Christian use, surely it can baptize secular language also?

      1. Perhaps I am out on a speculative limb here, but I don’t think we can so easily equate “the early” Church and her circumstances and conditions with our own time and place. Is koine Greek (the vernacular) the equivalent of today’s vernacular in a way that leads us to assert a strong equivalency? If not, what is it about our time and place that “loads” our vernacular with meanings that our so antithetical to the Faith. For example, take the word “love” – do Christians and secular/modernists mean the same thing by it? Or take take the word “unity” (as when we pray for “the unity of the Faith”). You might reply I am talking meaning/definitions and not strictly the form of words such as Thou vs. You and this is true, but language seems to be an organic thing in the life of the wider culture and in the Church itself. I am not convinced you can neatly seperate these issues.

        I also don’t really buy the idea (the usual explanation) that the archaic Our Father is a mere ecumenical gesture – I think rather there is more too it than that, but again I speak “organically”.

        As far as baptizing secular language, well of course it is possible and we have the historical record. But that is not at all what is happening IMO – quite the opposite, secularism is thoroughly “baptizing” Christianity (or rather the majority of it) in what can only be described as a rout. So in this one important sense the equivalency with the early Church is not applicable. Whereas the early Church was unambiguously successful in baptizing language, people, culture – everything, we in our own time and place are seeing (and living) the exact opposite.

        Perhaps I am off base and we can readily adopt “the vernacular” with no harm or foul, but I find myself examining such assumptions because one aspect that has led to the success of the secular/modern worldview is its parasitical nature. As a philosophy and a religion, it is quite good at adapting language, culture, etc. as its own and then (subtly at first) twisting the meaning. IMO, we would be wise to be a wee bit weary of (the now thoroughly secularized) vernacular and how it really operates in the minds and hearts of our people. Just an opinion…

        1. Thank you again for your comments; thoughtful and worthwhile as always. Regarding the archaic Our Father: I can only speak for myself, but in our parish the use of the archaic form is strictly pastoral/ ecumenical, and I would cheerfully render it in a less archaic form apart from these considerations. As it is we pray to be delivered “from the Evil One”, and not from generic “evil”. I also feel that the rendering “lead us not into temptation” needs some fixing, since I think the peirasmos we want to avoid is more like a trial than a temptation. But especially in something as basic as the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, one would like the bishop’s blessing before taking such steps.

        2. I definitely understand where you are coming from, and I personally feel the same way.

          However, I think it helps to bear in mind that “thee, thou, ye, “etc. were the vernacular (in English) of a certain era – the language of the common street people of the time. And it wasn’t only when they were speaking of God or to God. “Thee” and “thou” were used with reference to anyone (as I’m certain you already know).

          As much as I personally prefer it in my own prayer, as well as in the Liturgy, it is just that- a preference. When I visit the parish in which my son serves as a priest, they use “You, etc.” To my ear it is less beautiful, even awkward sounding. The same is true of some who are accustomed to Greek (for example), many of whom doubtless find English translations of any kind awkward to prayer. But to the ears of the parishioners at my son’s parish who have prayed in that way for many years before my son ever arrived I’m sure it seems very natural and no less beautiful, perhaps even more so.

          I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is a vast difference between vulgar, disrespectful, or completely casual vernacular and the vernacular in general.

          I will never forget what a onetime priest of mine once said:

          “It is rarely a good idea to mess with a person’s godly piety because they wind up feeling as though you are forcing them to worship a strange god.”

          I think there is wisdom in those words.

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