Pan-Orthodoxy and the Language Debate

by Jacob Sparks

January 2019

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For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.
— 1 Corinthians 14:14

I was twelve years old when I first stepped foot in an Orthodox church with my father, who at the time was beginning to make his transition from Protestantism to Orthodoxy. We were attending the Vesperal Liturgy on Christmas Eve, and I was looking forward to experiencing a form of church and worship that I had never seen before. I left both mesmerized and disappointed: mesmerized because that liturgy was (even to this day) one of the most profound experiences I have ever had, and disappointed because I understood almost none of it. I was fascinated by the icons, the vestments, the censer, and the chanting- all things which were new and exciting to me. However, that liturgy was also about half in Greek- a language I had never heard before and knew nothing of. I was disappointed because I left only understanding at most half of what I had heard.

Nine years removed from that event, and now having been Orthodox for the past four of those years, I can say that it is undeniable that ethnic and linguistic division is the practical reality of Orthodoxy in America. On a historical level, this makes sense: because Orthodoxy never came to America as a missionary movement (1), Orthodox immigrants simply brought the national jurisdiction of their home churches with them. Most of the time, these immigrant churches would do the liturgy in the language of their homeland, a practice which makes sense for new immigrants who speak little English. This has led to the rise of the situation we have today: we have Russian parishes using Slavonic in the liturgy, Greek parishes using patristic Greek, Serbian parishes using Serbian, etc.

In the present day, nearly two centuries away from the wave of eastern European immigration which established Orthodoxy in America, the vast majority of Orthodox Christians in America speak English regardless of jurisdiction. Yet, despite this, many of our Orthodox parishes still use the language associated with their respective jurisdiction within the liturgy, even if the majority of people at the parish do not understand that language. Why is this the case?

Part of the reason why is the desire for the descendants of these immigrants to hold onto their traditional language and culture. This is a laudable goal, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to retain one’s ethnic heritage. However, in the modern day United States, this is being done at the expense of those who are not fluent in these ethnic languages (like me and my father), causing the majority of people in these parishes to have little to no understanding of what is happening in the liturgy. As a result, 47% of children raised as Orthodox Christians in America leave Orthodoxy when they become adults (2). This is a tragedy, and something must be done to stop this mass exodus of our children from the Church.

A simple change can be made to stop (or at least slow down) losing members from the Church in such large numbers: stop doing the liturgy in languages people don’t understand. The Church is simply not the place to retain one’s ethnic heritage; that mission is too small to encapsulate the awe-inspiring truth of Christianity. The Church is the Body of Christ, the universal Kingdom of God on Earth, the place for all peoples and all nations, the locus of redemption, healing, and salvation. It is well and good to keep one’s ethnic identity, but imposing that ethnic identity upon the Church in a way that impedes others’ understanding is not permissible.

It is comforting for me to know that this is not a new issue for the Church. The Apostle Paul dealt with a similar issue nearly two millennia ago with the church in Galatia, where certain people were teaching that in order to become Christian, you must first become Jewish and follow the Mosaic law, including eating kosher and getting circumcised. This posed a significant problem for the Greek-speaking Gentile converts to Christianity, and particularly the male ones who would have to get circumcised as adults. As a result, St. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, where he argued against imposing the ethnic practices of the Jewish law on Gentile converts, saying that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). He goes on to say that those who insist that being Jewish and circumcised is necessary to be a Christian should go castrate themselves, and further reproves people in the community for “biting and devouring one another” by imposing these burdens (Galatians 5:12, 5:15). This was a harsh word for the church in Galatia to hear, but one that needed to be said and heard.

Perhaps we, too, in twenty-first century America, need a harsh word to wake us up to the reality of the unity of the Kingdom of God. May we take St. Paul’s words to heart, realizing that we “are all one in Christ Jesus”, and work to reconcile our ethnic divisions in the Church (3).

1: Alaska is a notable exception to this.

2: “Orthodoxy’s Sad Decline in America”, The National Herald.
3: Some of my ideas in this piece were inspired by the article “Language of the Liturgy”, published by an Orthodox college student in the 1960s. You can view the article here.

Jacob SparksComment