Language of the Church

I happened to be in attendance at the presentation recently reported on by ROCOR United and here present a few impressions. One thought which Dr. Sedakova expressed which I had never heard before was the idea that the language of the Slavic Church has never been simply understandable to every Peter, Paul, and Mary that comes into contact with it. That is, when Sts. Kirill and Methody did their translating, they were, on the one hand, translating into the language of the people, using what concepts there already were in the language, but, on the other hand, they had to create new words for new concepts that were absent in the Slavic language of the time.

This thought reinforced my personal opinion that what is needed is not necessarily translations of services into the most up-to-date language but education and a desire of the people to take an active part in Church life and the services.

In relation to that I happened across the following article from last year:

Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev): The Translation of Church Services into Russian Won’t Solve the Problem of Their Comprehension

The problem of the comprehension of Church services by the parishioners should not be decided by simply the translation of liturgical texts into modern Russian, according to the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, Bishop of Vienna and Austria, Hilarion.

“Some consider that it is necessary to translate Church services into Russian and that then everyone will immediately begin to understand everything. But I think that not everything will be understood and, by far, not by all,” stated Bishop Hilarion in an interview published in the magazine United Assembly (Soyuznoe veche) of the Belarus-Russia Community Parliamentary Assembly.

His Grace urged to take into mind as well that the texts of the Church services were written in the 8th-9th centuries by Byzantine poets living “with completely different notions than modern people.”

Bishop Hilarion recalled how one time as an experiment he read the Canon of Andrew of Crete in Russian after which he himself considered and compared his feelings with the parishioners and that “it was no more understandable to anyone with the change of language.”

“It is such lofty language in which allusions are made to various biblical personages, whose names we don’t even know… In a translation into Russian it doesn’t become more understandable,” remarked His Grace.

Understanding of the liturgical culture of the Orthodox Church, according to him, “demands considerable energy.”

At the same time, Bishop Hilarion underlined that “the Church must build bridges between itself and un-Churched society.”

“Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church, by virtue of its historical and cultural features, is separated from un-Churched society by a wide cultural gap. To overcome this gap, for modern man-not just youth, but also those, as they say, getting on in years-is truly not easy,” remarked the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate. (Source)

Another thought sparked by the idea that Sts. Kirill and Methody didn’t exactly translate into the language of the people is the irony in the fact that so many people use their example as a reason for wanting to translate and modernize the services…

And Patriarch Alexey’s take on the matter:

The liturgical language of the Church becomes completely understandable and easily accessible to all who decide to seriously treat the matter of their churching*. But if there is no such seriousness then no translation will increase the number of people in churches.

Textbooks for active learning of the foundations of Slavic grammar have been published. Regular and conscious participation in Church services allows one to use such a textbook almost without problem. And it is supposed that an Orthodox person is introduced to Church Slavonic since childhood. The fact that several generations were estranged in their childhood from normal liturgical life and now have difficulties with language is a tragedy and not a correct practice. Church Slavonic is a deep language, capacious and lofty. Any natural change in a language happens organically and slowly. All of the people take part in and contribute to that process. And it is simply not possible to immediately translate everything into a new language. The losses and distortions from such a forced action will be incredible and catastrophic not only for the Church but also for the whole of national culture.

His Holiness Patriarch Alexey II

(*воцерковление – refers to the process of entering into the life of the Church)


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