WHAT LANGUAGE DOES GOD SPEAK?
Some time back, an Orthodox priest from
was here on holiday and got permission from our
bishop to conduct a Holy Liturgy in English. Since there are quite a few
English nationals in the village who are members of the Orthodox Church, this
was a wonderful opportunity. We all love the Orthodox services and the lack of
understanding of the exact words is, on the whole, not a major barrier. I find,
in fact, that the beauty of the Greek plainchant helps to augment that sense of
being outside normal everyday life that is such a feature of Orthodox worship.
I also spend quite a lot of time looking at the icons near where I sit and
having occasional chats with St. Nektarios about my rheumatism. Pope St.
Gregory once said that “the illiterate must read on the walls of the church
that which they cannot read in books” and, as an illiterate when it comes to
Greek, I can only agree with him. England
Things have improved a little since then and I can now follow roughly what is going on in Evensong and am content to concentrate on my own prayers during the longer psalms and hymns which I don’t understand. As for the Holy Liturgy, I have a copy in Greek and English parallel text so I am able to follow the devotions throughout. Our lovely local priest, has even taken to reading some of the prayers or the Creed in English when any of his British parishioners are present. Some of the more conservative villagers criticised him for this but his response was to ask them, “What language do you think God speaks? Do you think He only understands Greek?”
In spite of all this, although I am very good at looking intelligent and attentive during the sermon, I find that not understanding what my priest or bishop is telling me is frustrating. (A friend once told me that, watching the video of our Orthodox wedding, he was struck by our ability, shared with the Queen, of looking interested in something we hadn’t a clue about!) I also miss following the Bible readings, especially the Gospel. However, when I contemplate my ignorance of Greek and my lack of understanding of the services, I am comforted by the fact that, according to Greek friends, most ordinary Greeks don’t understand much of the Byzantine Greek either. Indeed, I am told by an Orthodox friend from the North West of England that Greek students come to her Orthodox Church in
from as far away as Chester because they can understand the English better
than the Byzantine Greek! Manchester
There have been, and still are, arguments from time to time that modern Greek should be used to make the services more comprehensible, especially for the young people but I think this might be a mistake. I suppose it’s nothing to do with me really and I certainly have no personal interest in the discussion since services in modern Greek would be no more understandable to me than the existing ones. However, I do feel that the Greek Church would lose something if it stopped using the language of St. Basil the Great or St. John Chrysostom. In largely giving up Latin, the Roman Catholics have surely lost some of the universalism of their services, whereby a Catholic could attend mass in any country in the world and follow exactly the same service. Meanwhile, the Church of England, in changing to modern English, may have created more problems than it solved. Nothing gets out of date quicker than contemporary language and the Anglican Church seems to have got itself into a vicious circle by trying to keep the language of its services ‘up to date and relevant.’ Revisions and new rites seem to be following each other with bewildering frequency. Can it be long before the Lord’s Prayer begins ‘Hi, Dad’ or there is a rap version of the Creed? I have already read of a new translation of Psalm 23 which, instead of “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” reads “Even if a full-scale violent confrontation breaks out, I will not be afraid, Lord.” I cannot be alone in feeling that something has been lost.