Reflection on Language use in Church

he following article shares some of the author’s thoughts and concerns about the language of worship in our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. His hope is that the article will not only stimulate discussion, but also result in some change. It is also the hope and prayer that the evil one does not use the issue of language to cause any dissension among our Christian Brothers and Sisters. Editor

In the November 1 /15, 2007 edition of The Herald, Mr. Taras Machula expressed, in a letter to the editor, his concerns about the declining enrollment in our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.

I share his concerns! Declining membership is especially acute ?n our local Ukrainian Orthodox Church. As an active participant in our local church affairs for the past forty years I humbly offer a description of our situation and raise the issue that once again must be addressed if our local church, and indeed, our national church is to survive.

During the recent celebration of our church’s sixtieth anniversary, the Very Rev. Father Bohdan Hladio challenged our congregation to increase its membership. Although anything is possible with God, the potential for new Ukrainian speaking members is extremely limited, if not exhausted in our community. There has always been the potential of English speaking people to be interested in the Orthodox Church, however language has been and continues to be a formidable barrier. The crux of the church language issue in my view is this.

In the last ten years our church membership has declined by approximately thirty people (29 deceased and 1 withdrawal from membership). During this same period, I believe we have acquired four (?) new members. At the present rate of loss of members, the future of our church (present membership approx. 45) in our church community is in jeopardy. As stated earlier the potential for members who understand and appreciate the Ukrainian language is minimal. The only potential for new members is obvious. We must take advantage of situations that may attract interest in the Orthodox Church. Here is a case in point! In a very recent funeral that I attended, approximately one third of the people present understood some Ukrainian; all the people present understood English. The service was about equally divided in both languages, which was fine, however the sermon and gospel were exclusively in Ukrainian and therefore the opportunity to share the beautiful message of the promise of God’s salvation was lost for the majority of those present. This is especially sad when one considers that people are probably more vulnerable and receptive to spiritual matters during such times as funerals, marriages and baptisms than at other times.

About twenty-five years ago I was approached by a significant group of young people (14-18 years of age) who requested that I ask our priest, on their behalf, to include some English during the Divine Liturgy. Although these youths were from Ukrainian background, they were no longer familiar with the Ukrainian language. The priest at the time was vehement about using only the Ukrainian language. Needless to say not one of those young people attends our church today. A few have joined other churches and others are “unchurched”. In the past, a number of people have expressed a desire and an interest in attending our Orthodox church but in each case have withdrawn because of unfamiliarity with the Ukrainian language.

I certainly understand why the Ukrainian language has been exclusively used in the past. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was founded to provide worship in the language best understood by our founding fathers. Because my grandparents, for example, spoke and understood only Ukrainian, they could comfortably worship in their own language. There were at the time sufficient numbers of Ukrainian speaking people to warrant exclusive use of the language. Where there are sufficient numbers of Ukrainian speaking people, language is probably not an issue…yet! In a large multi cultural city, (i.e. Toronto) where many ethnic groups strive to maintain their language, religion and culture, I can understand why Ukrainians would desire to do likewise.

During the past sixty years, only three of the fourteen priests assigned to our parish were bilingual; the remainder were European born and had very little or in most cases no facility with English. I do not fault or blame the priests; there was such a shortage of Orthodox clergy we were just happy to have a priest. The problem was that the Ukrainian language was used exclusively with no opportunity for any dialogue in English with people who don’t speak Ukrainian (people in mixed marriages or people of Ukrainian ancestry who no longer understood Ukrainian). I sometimes wonder how many men who have felt the calling to serve God, but have had to exclude themselves because of their inadequacy with the Ukrainian language.

Prior to 1991 the prevailing notion was that because of the “Russification” of Ukraine, it was necessary to preserve the purity of the Ukrainian language in countries outside of the USSR, such as Canada. There certainly was truth to the concern; however, after Ukraine gained her independence the urgency to preserve the language was less critical.

Currently, the most compelling reason to preserve and use the Ukrainian language in our parish is because nearly all of our church members are senior citizens (age ranging from 65 to 100 with only one member under 60), who are accustomed, comfortable and appreciate the use of the language of their youth, and I include myself! This does not mean that our senior members understand Ukrainian better than the English language. I would venture to say that our members are far more proficient in reading, writing and speaking in English than in Ukrainian. The fact that we have been using the English language in our church meetings and at other formal events, indicates we have a greater facility with the English language.

There are church members, I am sure, who share a background or history similar to mine. My grandparents who emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1900’s were uneducated people who could neither read nor write in Ukrainian. Their speaking vocabulary was undoubtedly the “Ukrainian kitchen variety”—not very sophisticated. Their simple working language was taught to my parents who in turn passed it on to my siblings and me. As each generation acquired and improved their efficiency in English, the Ukrainian language became weaker and less fluent and especially in smaller communities such as ours, where there was no opportunity for further education in Ukrainian. It is little wonder that as I listen to Ukrainian spoken on radio or television or read articles written in Ukrainian that my understanding is very limited. I do not possess the vocabulary to understand and effectively communicate in what once was my first language. Except for the most basic and often repeated words of the Divine Liturgy, too many of the beautiful worship words are not understood. It was not until English versions of our prayers and worship were made available that I understood the richness and meaning of our worship. To suggest that English speaking people can follow the Divine Liturgy in the English section of our service book is naive. Knowing when to turn the page is a problem!

If our Liturgy is the “work of the people of God”, it strongly suggests that active participation is necessary. In Father Andrew Jarmus’ book ‘On Behalf of All and For All, A Guide Into the Divine Liturgy for Laity’, he clearly states, “As we read the prayers and hymns of the service, we will find two words repeatedly appearing: “WE” and “US”—”Let us pray to the Lord. We praise Thee. We bless Thee.” The prayers of the Divine Liturgy are our prayers.” Again language becomes a barrier to non Ukrainian people who desire to participate fully in the worship services.

I realize that it is not the English language that stirs a person’s heart to be receptive to the Lord, it is in the power of God, Himself, Who draws people to His Light. I have observed such inclinations in people, including members of my own family, who later wane and become discouraged because there is no common means of communication to sustain their spiritual needs. The mission of the church is to proclaim Christ to the world. At Pentecost, the words spoken by the Apostles were in the actual languages of the people from all over the empire who came to Jerusalem for the feast. The conclusion that one reaches is that we are to proclaim God’s word in the language that people understand. Would Rev. Fr. Peter E. Gillquist and a multitude of American Protestants have converted to Orthodoxy if they were unable to learn and worship in English? I doubt it!

Two years ago I was privileged to attend an Orthodox workshop at St. Andrew’s College in Winnipeg. The workshop was led by Father John Reeves, an American English speaking Orthodox priest, who informed us that the Orthodox Church was the second fastest growing faith in the United States. Only the Moslems were growing more rapidly. Certainly the missionary zeal of the American Orthodox Christians has to be acknowledged; however, being able to communicate in the language of the country is critical. I thank God for the proliferation of Orthodox literature written in English allowing me to better understand and appreciate my Orthodox faith.

Approximately seventy years ago the Lutheran Church experienced a similar dilemma. Their language of worship was German, however because the main antagonist of the Second World War was Germany, the use of the German language became contentious. Many Lutherans at the time were convinced that changing to the English language would bring about the demise of their church. In retrospect their church has grown and prospered. A similar situation existed in the Roman Catholic Church when they changed from the use of Latin in their worship to English. In both cases the change was most difficult for the older people who are naturally more resistant to change. Now, some might say that it is the “changelessness” of our Orthodox Christian religion that gives it richness and fullness of worship. The concept of changelessness, I believe, applies to doctrine and worship and not to language.

In this day of secular humanism, self-actualization, personal gratification, and lack of interest in spiritual awareness, it is necessary for God’s people to communicate in the most effective way possible. I do add a word of caution—from a personal experience! Several years ago I accompanied our priest to another community where we conducted a funeral for an elderly Ukrainian man. We were requested to do the service in English because the deceased’s family was no longer familiar with the Ukrainian language. We complied with the request, except that as the cantor I sang several “hospody pomyluy’s”. At the funeral luncheon someone thanked us for conducting the funeral in English so they could understand the service, however they said when they heard the “hospody pomyluy” it brought back fond childhood memories and pierced their hearts. On the other hand, at our present worship service, even though our priest willingly reads the Gospel and delivers the sermon in English as well as a few litanies, non-Ukrainian people in attendance have yet to hear the response, “Lord have mercy”, or for that matter any other response in English. Some thoughtful compromise is therefore necessary.

Whether the situation I described is unique to our local church or whether we are a microcosm of the reality facing the entire Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada, I do not know. Your “readership” will be able better to discern that for their own congregations. Meanwhile I believe the survival of my local church, the potential of spreading God’s word (our first priority) and attracting new members is dependent on introducing a great deal more English as our main language of worship. As a former educator I am aware that it takes more than just acceptance and agreement to an idea, unless there is a plan to implement the change nothing happens. With God’s help and an open mind perhaps we can make the changes necessary to be able to meet Rev. Fr. Hladio’s challenge of attracting new members.

Respectfully submitted by,
—Nelson E. Rogoza,
Fort Frances, ON