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Liturgical Ebonics

Fr. Steven C. Salaris

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Thee, Thy, Thou, Thum! I smell the blood of an Anglican(?)! As an Orthodox Christian living in 21st century America, I find it difficult to understand the English-speaking Orthodox Church's obsession with what folks like to call "liturgical language." Rampant among nearly all of the Orthodox jurisdictions is an insistence on using archaic English pronouns and using archaic English verb tenses. For example, a line from the anaphora of St. Basil reads, "When Thou hadst created man and hadst fashioned him ... " instead of saying, "When You created man and fashioned him ... ." It's the Orthodox Christian version of ebonics. This has to change! If it does not, then we are at the top of a slippery slide of liturgical linguistic irrelevance that is the sign of truly dead churches.

The problem appears to have begun in the early years of the Church in this country. Back during a time when the Orthodox Churches actually had something of a positive relationship with the Anglican Communion, kind ladies like Isabel Hapgood translated liturgical texts into English - the "King's" English. In doing so, the Protestant usage of pronouns such as Thee and Thine became commonplace in our liturgical language. Now, ask any professor of the English language and he or she will tell you that those pronouns are not pronouns of respect or honor, but are rather the pronouns used by the commoners of a bygone era. In fact, to address royalty as "Thy Majesty" was considered just as disrespectful as my former college students from the Bronx and Yonkers addressing me as, "Hey, Salaris," rather than, "Dr. Salaris." Yet, somehow, this archaic English has become "reverent" and "liturgical." Now, like so many things in the world of Orthodoxy, the Holy Pronouns and Holy Verb Tenses can "not" be changed. Uh-oh! Better yet, are those clergy and laity who, when using this so-called liturgical language, change from a normal speaking voice to a pseudo-High English voice during church services that is often reminiscent of something from Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Quite frankly, all of this makes us sound silly. My favorite example of this comes from John 17 where Jesus states, "I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me ... all mine are thine, and thine are mine ... ." We actually read this liturgically on Great and Holy Thursday! I have trouble keeping a straight face when I read this. Even better, try having one of the teens read this in a Bible study. What about my friend, Pastor D., a 21st century evangelical Protestant who is seeking to bring his contemporary worship congregation into the Orthodox Church and asked me one day, "Do we have to use that weird 'Shakespearean' English in order to be Orthodox?" How do I answer him?

We can at least thank God that those first English translations were not done when St. Herman first set foot up in Alaska in the late 18th century. Have you read the Declaration of Independence from that era in the original English? The first line 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 ... ." Imagine what our worship services would be like in 2007 if the translations had been done in 1776.

Herein lies the problem. This has all happened before. In Greece, the Church refused to adapt the liturgical Greek into modern linguistic forms. Now, liturgical Greek is a dead language that no Greek today can translate. A parishioner told a story about his days as a catechumen in a Greek Orthodox Church when he asked the parish chanter to translate a hymn from Greek. The chanter said, "Oh, it's 'Jesus ... something, something ... Holy Spirit ... something something." How's that for catechesis? In Russia, the refusal to adapt the liturgical language to that of the people has given us Church Slavonic, another dead liturgical language that no one understands. And, of course, the Romans have their Latin rapidly making a comeback among the more "spiritual" Roman Catholics.

In two or three centuries from now, when the English language has evolved into something different than it is today, as it has evolved from what is was two or three centuries ago, how will the Church respond? Will the "King's English" become another "opium of the people" like Byzantine Greek or Church Slavonic that can not be changed because it is a "holy" or "spiritual" language? If that is the case, then we should have just stuck with the Greek. At least there we wouldn't have to argue over "the King's Greek."

If the Orthodox Church in America and Canada (and the rest of the English-speaking world) is a living entity full of the divine grace and operation of the Holy Spirit, then the Church's liturgical language must evolve and continue to seek to be modern and relevant. The only thing that does not change or evolve is a dead body. What does our current liturgical language say about the viability of the Church in North America? We must continually strive to have Holy Scripture and the Liturgical services of the Church in the language of the people as they speak this day lest we "dis our peeps" and make irrelevant and dead the prayer life and worship of our holy Orthodox Christian faith.

Fr. Steven C. Salaris, M.Div., Ph.D. is the pastor of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Christian Mission in Maryland Heights, Missouri.


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