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.