Woah. Stavros was ordained? Axios!
Liturgical language is part of, but not coterminous with, the larger questions of ethnicity, identity and ecclesial mission. And like so many pastoral issues, these questions (especially the particular question of liturgical language) are at least as much about perception as they are about the “facts.” Converts, especially after having bad experiences with particular people or parishes whom they perceive to be ethnocentric, also perceive “a lot” of Greek to be bad thing; and yet, after experiencing the same service or parish, other people, including ethnic parishioners who may have grown up in that community, may perceive things very differently.
We have to have some Christian sensitivity for both perspectives. And while I have encountered the occasional hard-line Greek who simply can’t understand why Americans call for English in the Greek Orthodox Church — such people are few and far between — I also have a hard time finding a charitable convert who has taken the time to understand ethnic people’s perspectives.
It’s very easy for us as individuals to reify or universalize our own experience and understanding of what the “facts” of the matter are — not to mention our own expectations of what the Church should be. You see, we, as converts, have a substantial personal investment in the Church as Apostolic and Catholic. We may have sacrificed family, friend and money in order to pursue what we felt was God’s will; and we cannot understand why anyone would try to run a Church — especially its worship services! — on principles other than those derived from Scripture and Tradition.
That’s our story. But what about those people who have been in the Church for years? They too have a substantial personal investment in the Church as part of their broader religious, social and cultural story. The Church, perhaps even the particular parish in question, is where they grew up, where they went to Church every Sunday, where they went to Greek School and GOYA and played basketball as a kid. Even in cases where such a person may also understand the ecclesial nature of their parish, they may not want to jettison the ethnic and linguistic trappings that remind them of the other aspects of their Church-related experience. They may not be hostile to change, but change is difficult and painful nonetheless. It requires a sacrifice. Do we honor that sacrifice? Do we even recognize it as real and meaningful?
Thus, we see that the “language” issue is more complex than definitions and doctrine. Beneath the typical lines of argument, resides a deeper emotional struggle. The convert, or the person who married into the Church, may feel isolated by what he perceives as an un-Christian — or at least unwelcoming — culture of ethnically-based cliques; while the ethnic parishioner may fear that change will alter the character of a place he finds familiar and comforting.
Is it wrong to feel nostalgia for the familiar — to feel confused by change, or even threatened? No. These are natural human feelings.
Consider this true story: A 25-year-old Greek guy came to the US from Greece with no money, worked 12-hour shifts for 38 years, helped build his parish with his own hands, has been getting up early on Sunday mornings to come chant Orthros for 30 years, and now people are telling him that he’s ethnocentric or not really Orthodox or should stop chanting because he doesn’t chant enough in English.
Naturally, he’s feeling a bit confused and threatened.
Is the Christian response to people who have these feelings to condemn them? To declare that they don’t “understand” what Orthodoxy is really about? To ignore their pastoral and spiritual needs?
More real-life case studies: Many old Greeks, who don’t even really speak English, have told me (in Greek) that they’ll come to whatever service the Church offers in whatever language. Still others, including another extremely old Greek chanter I know, have been inspired to try to chant in English. He’s doing quite well. Until very recently, chanting in a proper Byzantine style in English was actually quite difficult, given the lack of proper musical settings, translations and publications. Now that such is beginning to change, so too are people whom others labeled “ethnocentric” or “out of touch” or not really Orthodox.
Of course, most cases are not so black and white. Consider, for example, these things in light of theories of ritual language, e.g. Catherine Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). According to this line of thinking, some parts of liturgical services are intended to educate (e.g. the sermon), but other portions, especially prayers, are more concerned with “expressional forms.” This is most certainly the case in many Greek parishes, so clearly evident when hymns like “O Champion General” are chanted in Greek — one of the few instances when almost everyone will join in. Even though some parishioners may not understand the words, the very act of signing a familiar hymn as a group supports a certain kind of communal identity and provides a sense of historical continuity. Again, the emotional significance of the language, which provides a connection to an imagined past, is paramount.
Don’t understand what I mean? One particular priest in the Greek Archdiocese insists on 100 percent English. A good seminarian friend of mine, who was recently acting as the visiting chanter at this parish, chanted the whole service in English, as the priest adamantly demanded, but, after the dismissal, repeated the well-known apolytikion in Greek. Several older parishioners came up to him in tears and told him how touched they were to hear a hymn they recognized from their childhood after so many years.
I deal with this problem regularly, since I help a certain priest in the area when he goes to local nursing homes. Whenever we celebrate a Divine Liturgy in a nursing home, I have to decide which language to use and in what proportion. On the one hand, there are usually a number of Catholics who decide to attend the Liturgy, as well as some younger family members of the elderly Greek Orthodox people. Thus, for them, I try to use as much English as possible. But the only time *anyone* ever sings along is when I chant in Greek. Thus, I’ll usually chant all of the well-known parts of the Liturgy in Greek, since all of the elderly Greeks respond immediately and joyously. While they would be happy if I did *everything* in English — they are just thrilled to be able to attend a Liturgy — the Greek is familiar to them. It speaks to their heart in a special way. It reminds them of fonder memories from younger days, and it allows them to participate in the Liturgy itself.
Are these people not really Orthodox because they can’t let go of their ethnic heritage for the sake of the universality and accessibility of the Church?
Anyway, without knowing the particular makeup of any given parish — nor the attitudes and actions of the people therein — I would be very hesitant to conclude that a parish that uses 50 percent Greek in its services was somehow falling short of the mark. In fact, 50 percent Greek/English sounds rather progressive to me, given all of the things mentioned above. Some parishes can and should use more English, but, in general, I would consider 50 percent to be a hopeful sign of the parish’s openness to change, flexibility and compromise.
In the end, these attitudes are what matter most. Only as we respond to all people — American or Greek — with love and understanding (not to mention catechetical and mystagogical initiation) will the inner man, with all his sinful preoccupations, be transformed in the eschatological experience of Liturgy. Externals, such as language, will follow thereafter.