Orthodox America


  Betrayal?


(Language in the Church) 

     With the article on Archbishop Innocent we are initiating a series of biographical portraits of those Russian missionary hierarchs who sowed the seed of Orthodoxy on this continent. It seems appropriate, therefore, to say a few words here about a recent publication which analyzes the response to the apostolic legacy of the Russian-American Mission, as it is reflected by the situation of Orthodoxy in this country to, lay. The outcome of this thought-provoking study is a strong indictment, as its title, "The Betrayal of Orthodoxy in America," would suggest.

     The author of this pamphlet, Ninian Marsh, has obviously encountered many of the often painful frustrations experienced by converts seeking full participation as members in the Body of Christ. He takes the emigre community to task for its lack of missionary awareness, for thinking to "preserve" Orthodoxy beneath veil of ethnicity which is lifted to admit converts to the inner sanctum only when they have adopted the ethnic idiom themselves, thereby relegating a majority to the rank of a second class citizenry.

     While Mr. Marsh's basic thesis is by no means unfounded and would find sympathetic echoes among many fellow-converts, his fiercely negative tone will certainly repel the very people who most need to understand his message. Embittered no doubt by his own experience, the author lashes out against the "spiritual niggardliness" of ethnic Orthodox who feel "that Americans are a lower form of life not worth being saved" and wage a "psychological war on converts."

     The pent-up frustration implicit in such remarks clouds the author's perspective on a number of points. He attacks the use of the word "emigre" (instead of immigrant), for example, and the term "Church in Exile" or "Church Abroad," without acknowledging the peculiar historical context which brought about the use of these terms and that the great majority of older Russians did not so much will to immigrate to America as they were forced to emigrate from their native land. Similarly, Mr. Marsh gives examples which he interprets as deliberately disparaging of America or Americans (as he might well view this issue's editorial) where no such meaning is intended. His criticism of the advertisement for two books by Dr. Jurjevich--War on Christ in America and The Contemporary Faces of Satan (OA, July 1986)--is a case in point.

     But aside from various misperceptions and beneath the often caustic tone, it must be admitted that the author has issued a valid reproach. And it is clear that he was motivated not by any frustrated desire for ecclesiastical office, not by any disdain for tradition, but by a genuine love for Christ and the true Faith, a love which naturally translates into a desire to see it proclaimed to the ends of the earth, a desire which was zealously shared by the Russian Mission to America. but which has faded into the background as an insular "preservationist" attitude has assumed precedence.

     Many of the criticisms in "The Betrayal" echo views expressed in a commentary which appeared in OA some months ago (Nov.-Dec. 1986). Although these bear repeating, we shall focus here on what is central to Mr. Marsh's thesis: the problem of language.

     "We have heard the opinion," he writes, "that the English language is ill-suited to, or worse, incapable of expressing the truths and mysteries of the Orthodox  Faith.    Have these persons not heard St, Paul, who says: 

There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without signification (I Cor. 14:10)

A reluctance to implement the wider use of English and to authorize the English translation of liturgical texts stems in part from the opinion that European languages developed outside the Truth and are wrapped up in spiritual error. This overlooks the fact that the pre-Schism language of Orthodoxy in the West was Latin; the writings of its Holy Fathers and liturgists were fully Orthodox, and are available today to anyone willing to do a little research. And since Latin is generally the "mother tongue" of most Western languages, it is, with prayer, absolutely "translatable" into modern languages without necessarily losing the original Orthodox "flavor." Latin, once sanctified by Orthodoxy just as were Greek and other Eastern languages, injected much of its spiritual worth into other European languages, if only we will take the trouble to see it. And if this be true, European languages are not quite as bereft of liturgical value as some would say. In fact, it may be that translators of services today should turn more readily to their Latin roots for the more precise liturgical terminology that is otherwise missing from modern languages.

    Even if one were to disregard this linguistic link, can there by any justification in depriving non-ethnic Orthodox of that great Pentecostal gift that would enable them to ask, with those first converts, How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (Acts 2:8). Can it be that, in these latter times, the Lord would approve of such objections regarding language being placed in the way of bringing souls to the fullness of the Truth?

    We need to be reminded of the untiring apostolic labors of Blessed Innocent of Alaska who did not hesitate to translate holy things into the primitive languages of Eskimos and Aleut tribes. And of his later successor as Bishop of the Aleutians and North America, the future Patriarch of all Russia and New Martyr, Tikhon, who requested the English translation of a service book which he endorsed with the following preface:

    "With prayerful and whole-souled sincerity, We invoke God's all-effectual blessing upon this pious undertaking, which has for its object the spreading abroad upon earth of the faith of Christ..." This book reprinted in 1922 under the supervision of Isabel Hapgood, is still in use today.

    In more recent years, Blessed Archbishop John (Maximovitch) manifest his apostolic gift in attracting converts not only by his extraordinary ascetic life and gifts of wonderworking, but by communicating --sometimes even liturgizing--in the language of the people--whether French, German, Chinese or English. This year, at the Divine Liturgy in his sepulchre on the anniversary of his repose (July 2 n.s.), Archbishop Antony of San Francisco and Western America commented warmly that Vladlka John drew people of all nationalities, embracing them with his heart. He thoroughly understood that before God there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him. (Rom. 10:12)

    No. The real concern here is not simply the "problem of translations, but the fact that in many Russian parishes the older immigrant population is declining dramatically, and among their American-born children and grandchildren many are being lost to the Church because the precious uniqueness of Holy Orthodoxy has failed to be communicated to them in a language they could understand. Is it reasonable, then, to expect converts to master a venerable liturgical language--Slavonic--which even most Russian lay people are having great difficulty preserving on their own? The problem may not be obvious in a cathedral situation where the resources and numbers are large, but it is becoming increasingly critical in smaller, more isolated parishes. And it is a problem which affects not only the external mission of the Church, but her internal mission as well. Language should be a tool, not an obstacle, to this missionary activity.

    Clearly. this is an area which requires considerable pastoral attention. On the one hand, the fear that ethnic Orthodox have of losing their identity--by allowing a share of English in the services--should be allayed. They have more to lose than their identity if Christ finds them having preserved their talent by hiding it in the ground out of fear like the slothful servant in the Gospel (Matt. 25:14-30). Converts, on the other hand, must be steered away from bitterness or negative feelings over the language issue, as these can sour spiritual life altogether. After all, as desirable as it is, an understanding of the services is not a requisite for salvation, but rather "a humble and contrite heart," which can be attained through the concentrated use of the Jesus Prayer. On both sides there is a need for greater sensitivity and an increase of faith and love, that together we might arise and be about the Lord's business, building up His Holy Church and teaching all nations.


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society