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A Response to Fr. Steven Salaris' "Liturgical Ebonics"

Fr. Mark Kerr

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Fr. Mark responds to Fr. Steven Salaris' "Liturgical Ebonics".

English is my native language. For nearly 500 years, my ancestors have not only worshipped God but also have shared some of the most expressive, moving and poetic literature on earth. Proletarian ignorance and crude and insulting disrespect toward that unique linguistic treasure are not things to be appreciated and only reflect negatively upon those that evince them, doctorate degrees in other areas of study notwithstanding.

To use the word 'archaic' to judge, condemn and reject something (in this case, select English words and grammatical constructions) is simply blatant Gramcian revolutionary rhetoric, as is the choice of other 'strong language' words used throughout the article (see: Why There is a Culture War: Gramsci and Tocqueville in America). And therein lies the real and disturbing significance of what has been written. The conclusions proceed from a profoundly revolutionary and, hence, anti-Orthodox, mindset, one that has been corroding Christian culture among the Western European peoples (we Americans included) for centuries and has very nearly completed the job.

Liturgical English is no more archaic than is medical English or architectural English or engineering English or any dialect that serves any specialised area of knowledge outside of the common market place and playground in which most people live most of their lives, especially secular lives, and the bland, dumbed down and artless (often even crude) cant and doggerel that pass for language among the nominally (or less) educated.

The thesis that the pronouns 'thee' and 'thine' (and, I assume, 'thy' and 'thou') are expressions of 'the Protestant usage of pronouns...' (the Douay Bible also uses them) or that any educated person would have held them to be 'pronouns of respect or honor' is questionable. They are second person singular pronouns, plain and simple. We use them because [1] that is what the texts being translated are using, [2] they are, thus, accurate translations of the original texts, [3] they also often are useful in clarifying to whom the speaker is speaking (one person or a group of persons) and, most importantly, [4] when addressing God, by using them, we clearly express our monotheisim and do not open ourselves to the accusation of polytheism, which can be supported by the use of the plural second person pronouns (i.e., 'ye,' 'you,' 'your' and 'yours').

Asserting that the first line of the Declaration of Independence reads, ' When in the courfe of human Events, it becomes neceffary for one People to diffolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to affume among the Powers of the Earth, the feparate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them ...," ignores 18th century calligraphic and orthographic conventions, as well as the clear and discernible differences between the letter 'f' and the 'long s' formerly used, into the 18th century, in an initial or medial position in words both written and printed. Are we to take this assertion seriously? It is like something lifted from a script of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It plays on a presumed ignorance on the readers.

But there is another trait of the Western revolutionary mindset to be found lurking behind the attitude expressed in the article. The revolutionaries would destroy all the old order, firmly convinced that they can build something far superior on the ruins. And they are also firmly convinced that they are the only ones with the correct answers and needed solutions to the ills they perceive and that they are the ones having both the mission of 'serving' the benighted masses by leading them to their higher vision of reality and the right to use any means necessary to accomplish that mission, including genocide and mass destruction of cultures and languages. It is the horrendous pride that fuelled the brutal revolutionary regimes of the 20th century, both communist and fascist, resulting in the death of hundreds of millions of people and the destruction of so much of what was good and beautiful in the world.

This 'pride of the Western rebellion,' as it is described in the service to St. Mark of Ephesus, has thoroughly permeated our Western European culture, especially our American culture. It presents a serious challenge to our assimilation of Orthodox Christianity because it is fundamentally antithetical to it and because we are all steeped in it, especially the 'educated' and the academics. It is a subtle and ubiquitous poison that we must relentlessly struggle against.

It manifested itself in the 'renovationist' movements that emerged in the Orthodox Churches in the 20th century. It is characterised by intellectual arrogance, cynicism, rationalist scepticism towards the sacred and the mystical, condescension towards simple piety and disdain, even verging on hatred at various times and in various places, towards monasticism and monastic virtues. Fortunately, its impact on the Orthodox Church has not been uniform; the dhimmi churches of the Levant seem to have been more susceptible to it, whereas the Slavic churches seem to have been more resistant and appear to be making a more rapid recovery, as we enter the 21st century.

Liturgical English is a living language that continues to develop, change and expand. The flourishing of Orthodox Christianity among the English-speaking people has resulted in a significant expansion and alteration of vocabulary. The grammar and syntax, likewise, reflect the growth of the language throughout the centuries since the first English liturgical texts were produced. To suggest that liturgical English is as removed from modern common English dialects as is 'Byzantine Greek' from demotic Greek or 'Church Slavonic' from modern Slavic languages is either profoundly ignorant or cynically dishonest.

By being kept minimally idiomatic and maximally stable and conservative, liturgical English is best able to serve as a linguistic vehicle (to convey Orthodoxy) to the greatest number of English speaking people, who encircle the globe. It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire. While that is no longer the case, the truth is that the sun still never sets on the Anglophone world community. Traditional liturgical English has been the language of prayer for people of many races and cultures on all the continents of the earth for centuries. It is not beyond the ken of any but the wilfully ignorant or lazy. Its poetic beauty is a fact long acknowledged and appreciated by educated speakers. If a person does not perceive that beauty, it is not the fault of the language.

Language, as with all else that we bring into the service, especially the liturgical service, of God, must be the finest that we can offer. To lower our language to some higher form of dumbed down 'prolespeak' (to borrow a very useful term from George Orwell) is the linguistic equivalent of using a plastic cup and paper plate instead of a gold or at least gilded chalice and diskos, pop music instead of liturgical chant or denim, chintz or Disney-print flannel for sacred vestments.

It is time to put an end to this proletarian ignorance and rude disdain for beauty and refinement that is spawned by the anti-Christian revolutionary spirit that rages throughout the world. They have already done much damage to our cultural and spiritual life. Our God is the God of goodness, beauty, order and truth, not baseness, ugliness, disorder and deception. If we are truly to be Orthodox, we must struggle against our pride, arrogance and rebelliousness to receive the spiritual and cultural treasures that our spiritual ancestors have passed on to us, with reverence, humility and gratitude, and do our best to search out and understand the goodness, the beauty and the inherent and most profound value of what we have received, rather than rudely and disdainfully tossing it aside for the crude and ugly that is simply more familiar to us.

Fr. Mark is the pastor of St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Posted: 17-Jul-07

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