The Language Issue in Orthodoxy

George Demacopoulos of Fordham University recently asserted that parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America should consider transitioning from liturgical Greek to English and/or Modern Greek. Demacopulos’s essay briefly surveys Pew data showing the alarming rate at which adults who were raised Orthodox leave the Church. In short, he connects the exodus of adults from the Church with the inability to comprehend the liturgy: liturgical Greek is part of the problem, along with the insistence of retaining other foreign languages such as Church Slavonic.

The use of English for Orthodox liturgy dates to 1906, the date of the first edition of Isabel Hapgood’s liturgical translation. Orthodoxy faces its own challenges with English translations of the liturgy: no two Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States use the same translation, and one can go from one parish to another in the same city and hear divergent translations of the liturgy. This challenge is ripe for renewed energy toward a resolution, with a process accounting for the Orthodox emphasis on texts to be sung and chanted, which is often the entire Divine Liturgy, along with other liturgical offices.

Demacopoulos hints at a more fundamental question concerning the use of liturgical Greek: is it part of the problem? And if it is, what are the other problems contributing to the exodus of adults from the Church?

The relationship between parish vitality and liturgical language deserves a detailed ethnographic study. My hunch is that parishes with solid translations and even good musical programs are also troubled by the problem of attrition. The use of antiquated liturgical languages for the liturgy is part of the problem; the Church needs to devote energy to thinking and praying about the other parts of the problem.

It would be irresponsible to present a list of problems contributing to attrition in haste. As a conversation starter, I would like the Church to begin by studying how the Church’s mission is lived by parishes, and how that mission responds to the macro-level issues of decreasing denominational loyalty, rapid changes in demographics, and the tendency for American adults to establish a set of criteria for “choosing” a Church in their neighborhood.


  1. I’m not sure I would link an Orthodox exodus to language, necessarily. There is no doubt that some Latin-language Catholic parishes thrive by any assessment. (Or by many.)

    Likewise, many progressive communities also bear significant fruit. I suspect this is less a matter of progressive liturgy and more one of intentionality. People who have a reason to make a choice, and to put their life’s energy and activity into such a choice will be part of a vibrant community.

    We see it in our culture in association with schools and their sports programs, and with fandoms connected to professional athletics.

    Adults exit the church because of poor hospitality (especially in our job-mobile culture), poor preaching (for a fairly-well educated populace) and poor music (compared to the admittedly low standards of pop culture).

    I think a lot of study has gone into this problem. I think a number of pastors across Christian denominations have success stories to share. The commonality I see is intentional discipleship. Can this be accomplished with liturgical Greek or medieval Latin? I’m sure it can. In some ways, changing the liturgy is the easy thing to do. The hard thing is overcoming local stasis, a sense of entitlement, and a country club mentality. Good luck with that, and God bless those bucking the trend to apathy.

  2. I think this is a very important but elusive subject. Given the traditional support of ethnic identity to many Orthodox communities in the United States, one question that arises is the relationship of attrition to assimilation. Navigating this challenge can be tricky, because one doesn’t want to jettison the ancestral culture (these identities are rich and can be fraught with history and remembered persecutions), but neither one does want to anchor the practice of religion absolutely in ethnic identification, which tends to wane as new generations assimilate and weave their own stories in the adopted lands that are their home.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      I think Rita is right, that it is a pity to lose the traditions, but I also think that in reality we are seeing a fading of ecclesial/ethnic identities. It happened here with Irish RC’s in the 1960’s, and I suspect it has been going on in Greek communities in the UK for years, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed. Perhaps it is an inevitable process, though would I be right in saying that its incidence in Christian groups seems higher than with Islamic communities ?

      While waiting outside Church a week or two ago, I listened to some Filipino teenagers hanging around outside Church while their parents were inside at Mass. They were asking how long before the Mass would end so they could go off somewhere. Maybe Sherry Waddell is right, and ‘God has no grandchildren’ – at least in the UK !


  3. In 2010, we the Roman Church in the Anglophonic world experienced a reversal of this process. A vernacular liturgy which had worked for over 25 years was replaced overnight by a language overburdened with archaisms, In fact, we regressed even deeper into problematic language which had been mandated to be ‘latinized’, so as to be in accordance with the (more recent) editio typica of a revamped Roman Missal (dare we use the word ‘sacramentary’ any more?). This clearly violates the authority of Vatican II. The initial response of many of our composers was to eschew the 2010 texts as promulgated in 2011. This is clearly not in the language or even thought patterns of the people. A tradition which had worked well for the assembly for over 25 years was deemed worthless, and once again the Roman mindset imposed itself throughout the entire English-speaking world. The effectiveness of Liturgy in the lives of the people had been compromised. There is clearly room for dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Churches in this country which, while not resolving the basic issues, will develop a more empathetic understanding among the assemblies of both traditions.

  4. I think that the issue of language is important as a factor in intra-ecclesial relationship, but it is not why people choose to stay or go. As a person who chose, after twenty years of resistance, to join the Orthodox Church after over four decades as a very engaged Roman Catholic, it came down to a very simple question given to me as a gift by a priest: “It the Orthodox Church the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, or is it the RC church?” That’s what made the difference for me, but it wouldn’t for many today.

    That’s because the problem is that people don’t have a sense of the church being anything, really, that matters in an objective sense. See, if the church is something I “choose” based on some set of criteria addressing my comfort level, my sense of being “spiritually fed,” or anything like that, I’m really not doing anything but responding to my own mood, and am allowing myself to be ruled by passions. If the church really is the actual Body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit and by that Spirit led, something objective that can stand apart from me and place demands upon my living, then I don’t have a “right” in the absolute sense, to choose a different denomination, and I should seriously doubt that I can drive past several parishes and pick one that feels more comfortable to me. The only selection criteria would be whether the priest or parish in general are practicing heresy (the root meaning of which is, by the way, “choice”). Even then, I may have an obligation to do something about it, rather than simply leave.

    I think that, at base, part of the issue is the same cultural deformation that accepts divorce as a real option for marital discord in our society. Except for extreme cases, where there is actual violence or serious deception involved, we are to stay put in our marriages and “work it out” as best we can, viewing the matter against an eternal, rather than a temporary horizon. The problem is much, much deeper than language style, although, just like a couple…

    1. @Fr. John Liggio:
      Actually, Tony Barr, you’re not. We had a deliberate mis-translation of the (Pauline) liturgy that at last was corrected. Is the new translation perfect? No, but it’s far preferable to the old one, and part of its value is that it highlights the awkwardness of the Pauline texts.

      But let’s get back to the Orthodox. Notice that no one’s suggesting that the historic liturgy should be chucked in the bin, as we saw done to the traditional Roman Missal, with disastrous results (including wholesale defection of huge segments of the faithful). No, we’re merely talking about a hieratic versus a vernacular liturgy. The truth is, there’s a strong case to be made for both. Use of a hieratic language is so widespread: we see it in non-RC/Orthodox churches (Ge’ez), other Abrahamic religions (Hebrew, Quranic Arabic), and beyond (Vedic/Sanskrit, Avestan), so clearly attachment to a sacred tongue is deeply ingrained in human nature. Even when Cranmer produced the BCP, it wasn’t in colloquial English, but in an archaic pastiche of a sacred speech. So this is not something to be trifled with.

      On the other hand, a there’s also a hunger for a tongue ‘understanded by the people.’ Let’s hope the Orthodox take a lesson from the failures of the RC liturgical experience and strike a more careful, sensitive balance between these 2 very real and very human needs. Let’s hope they don’t make the same disastrous mistakes the RC hierarchy made when they imposed unwanted changes, top-down, on an unwilling faithful.

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