Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Commemoration of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Equal ot the Apostles and Evangelizers of the Slavs. Also,a note on language

Today, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates Sts. Cyril and Methodius, two Greek monks who were sent to evangelize the Slavic peoples in the ninth century to great success. The Prologue of Ohrid gives this description of them and their work:

Saints Cyril and Methodius were brothers from Thessalonica of distinguished and wealthy parents, Leo and Maria. The older brother Methodius spent ten years as an officer among the Macedonian Slavs and thus learned the Slavic language. After that Methodius withdrew to Mount Olympus and dedicated himself to the monastic life of asceticism. It was here that Cyril (Constantine) later joined him. When the Khazarite king, Kagan, requested preachers of the Faith of Christ from Emperor Michael III then, by command of the emperor, these two brothers were found and sent among the Khazars. Convincing King Kagan of the Faith of Christ, they baptized him along with a great number of his chief assistants and even a greater number of the people. After a period of time, they returned to Constantinople where they compiled the Slavonic alphabet consisting of thirty-eight letters and proceeded to translate ecclesiastical books from Greek into Slavonic. At the request of Prince Rastislav, they traveled to Moravia where they spread and established the devout Faith and multiplied books and distributed them to the priests to teach the youth. At the request of the pope, Cyril traveled to Rome where he became ill and died on February 14, 867 A.D. Then Methodius returned to Moravia and labored to strengthen the Faith of Christ among the Slavs until his death. Following his death - he died in the Lord on April 6, 885 A.D. - his disciples, THE FIVE FOLLOWERS, with St. Clement, the bishop at the head, crossed the Danube River and descended to the south into Macedonia, where from Ohrid they continued their labor among the Slavs begun by Cyril and Methodius in the north.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius are often invoked as the archetypal models for why the church should celebrate its respective services in the language of the place it is located. They did not evangelize the Slavs in Greek nor insist that their practice of the Orthodox faith should be done in Greek. This is in contrast with the Latin West who insisted that Latin would be the only liturgical language regardless of whether you understood it or not.

In orthodox churches today, there is some division on how best to apply this standard of using the language of the people in the liturgical language of the church. Obviously there is no 1:1 parallel between our time with that of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. There is a great deal more of mobility in today's world. You are not expected to die in the same place where you were born and lived. As a result, there are a great number of expatriates living in foreign countries where the language spoken is not the language of the church. Thus, communities of Serbs, Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Greeks will have their services mostly, or entirely in their respective mother tongues regardless of the fact that they are now in a new country. Often, they will insist that to remove the language in favor of the tongue of the new country amounts to nothing less than abandoning the faith itself!

Even further, the language that the Russians, Serbs and Bulgarians use is not Russian, Serbian or Bulgarian but Old Church Slavonic, the ancestor of modern Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian. The Greeks use not modern Greek but the Greek of the New Testament and the Byzantine Empire. Romanians use a more ancient form of Romanian. In other words, it is not the colloquial language. Attempts in Greece to use modern Greek for the Liturgy has been greeted with open hostility by the Holy Synod there.

Now, I have no idea what the solution to this whole problem is. This situation is not totally reserved to the Orthodox. German Lutherans for many years, even up until World War II, continued to celebrate the Mass in German. Hispanic Catholics here in the states continue to use Spanish for their Mass. I don't think however that all parishes in the United States should be forced to use English only or even use a combination of the two by their respective bishops or authorities. But I do think that those people who insist, often forcibly insist that for here in the United States it's English or nothing else, are wrong.

The insistence on using English only here in the United States for the liturgical language of Orthodox Churches betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what Liturgy is and what it is not. The most obvious misunderstanding is this: Liturgy IS NOT Evangelism. The Liturgy is the worship of God in the Church (ekklesia) by those who have been called out (Enkalein) from the world. The language we use in the church should not be the same we use in every day life. If a church wants to use all English for English speakers fine, but that should not come at the expense of a Greek church whose members still want to use Greek because they pray in Greek.

Organic development has been the fundamental principle of Orthodox (small-t) tradition. If a group of Russians set up a church here in America 100 years ago and has used Russian for all of its services, it should continue to do so. But, if over time, more and more English works its way in, then it should continue unabated and organically. There shouldn't be someone with a clipboard and a checklist who stands by the priest and choir saying that since the Anaphora was in Russian last week, it should be in English this week.

I believe that Sts. Cyril and Methodius understood the organic development as well. They invented an alphabet for the Slavs but by no means did they immediately start celebrating the Liturgy in Slavonic. That took time. For those who wrongly insist that all Orthodox services be done in English for their sake (how arrogant can you get?), relax, go to your own English-speaking church and let it take time. Sts. Cyril and Methodius understood this; you should too.

May Sts. Cyril and Methodius continue to intercede on our behalf before the dread judgment seat of Christ.


  1. ...Old Church Slavonic, the ancestor of modern Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian.

    I believe Sts Cyril and Methodius created Old Slavonic as an overlapping form of the various different Slavic languages being used in the region at the time. That is, Old Slavonic has never been anyone's mother tongue, though it did then heavily influence developments in Orthodox nations that used Old Church Slavonic in their churches - much in the way Luther's German translation of the Bible in a particular dialect set a stamp on all later forms of German.

    I'm always a little frustrated with the dialectic of 'old' versus 'modern' in liturgical language debates. As you rightly point out (and as was pointed out to me by the late Abp Peter of New York), the Greek of the services was always a 'high' form of Greek different than that spoken in the streets or at home. That is, it was neither ancient, Attic Greek nor was it the contemporary koine or demotic Greek. Within English, this cuts the Gordion knot in favor of something like KJV lite, something like the NKJV, or for a truly college-level English as found in Fr. Ephrem Lash's translations. 'Modern' English need not be the English of bars and reality TV; 'modern English' is simply the linguistic and grammatical forms and vocabulary that make it distinct from the KJV, BCP, Shakespeare or Chaucer.

    And, as any LCMS or WELS Lutheran knows, use of English doesn't denigrate the need for the Church to retain proficiency in the languages of the Church. All my WELS pastors knew koine Greek (with a German accent, I am told), Hebrew and either German or Latin. These same languages were taught in the prep schools and undergraduate schools. And these were the ecclesiastical forms of the language, not the taverna version used on summer holiday or with yia-yia as in so many "Greek Schools".

    Language is really about culture and the immigrant psyche. It's no different for Greeks and Russians than it's been for any other immigrant wave in America - even previous waves of Greeks and Russians. It takes a couple generations. Each group makes its own arguments for various accommodations and retentions; they all end up speaking English and eating ethnic by the second or third generation - ethnicity becomes integral only when cultural vacations need to be decided upon ("I'm part Italian, let's go there instead of France" or "My opa was from Hamburg, I'd like to go there".)

  2. Thanks for the clarification on Old Church Slavonic and for your other excellent insights. I particularly liked this one: "[U]se of English doesn't denigrate the need for the Church to retain proficiency in the languages of the Church."