The Question of Liturgical Language

by Fr. Bohdan Hladio,
Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor of St. Volodymyr,
Hamilton, Ontario

0ne of the most controversial and potentially divisive questions for any “ethnic” parish, Orthodox or not, is the question of language. Parishes (and families) have split, harsh words have been exchanged, and whole ideologies have arisen over the question of liturgical language.

In our Canadian environment we have been lucky in that it has been much more acceptable to use the Ukrainian language in everyday life, to teach it to our children and to be proud of our heritage, than was possible in the “melting pot” of the United States. But it would not be an overstatement to say that the question of liturgical language is one of the pressing issues of the day in our Church. Specifically, the use of English is increasing and will continue to increase among our faithful.

How should we approach this issue in our parishes and Church to ensure that it will not divide us, but rather work for the Glory of God’

We often hear members of our faithful or the clergy express the idea that our Church must be a “Mission Church’: While this phrase truly describes what any true Christian Church should be, what does this phrase mean for us in practical terms’ As Ukrainian Orthodox in Canada how do we live out this reality! The answer to these questions is intimately tied up with the question of language.

The whole idea of being a “Mission Church” is based on sound Christian doctrine. We are called to “missionize” first of all ourselves, that is, to live out truly Christian personal lives — praying, fasting, helping the poor, visiting the sick, attending the Divine Services, supporting the Church, etc. Without this basic Christian life we dare not speak of teaching, or “missionizing” others.

The second step of our missionary activities consists of living a truly Christian communal life — in other words, having a truly Christian parish, where the faithful help, respect, support and love one another, no matter how good or bad things are materially.

The third level of our missionary work is based entirely on the first two, and consists of our outreach to:

  1. those who have fallen away from the Orthodox Church (our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, grandchildren, etc.); and
  2. those who have not yet heard the good news of Orthodox Christianity.

Inevitably, the time comes when every Christian and every parish must live out Jesus’ injunction to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This year we are celebrating the 80th anniversary of the founding of our Church here in Canada — and, as we all know, we have much work to do in fulfilling this Biblical injunction. The question is not when, but how?

First of all, we have the example of the Apostles. Jesus taught and preached in Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew. The Apostles and Evangelists, however, used the Greek language (the “lingua franca” of the day) to write and preach of the Risen Lord. If any language can claim to be “Holy” we can all certainly agree that the Aramaic language should be first in line — for it is the language Our Lord used to preach the Gospel. Yet, the Apostles used the Greek language. Why! Because they knew the difference between the medium and the message.

Given the fact that the “Iingua franca” of our children is English (or perhaps French in Quebec), and that, statistically, only one of every six children of Ukrainian-speaking parents in Canada will pass the language on to their own children, we all understand very well the necessity of using English or French in addition to Ukrainian in our parishes.

It’s not a question of “accommodating converts” (although this should be an important aspect of our ministry if we truly are a “Mission Church”). Practically speaking, if we don’t use either English or French in our parishes we often drive our own children and grandchildren out of the Church — an extremely grave sin. Even though there still are parishes and individual members of our Church who would like to see a totally Ukrainian-language approach to our ministry, the fact of the matter is that in virtually every parish the necessity of using the English or French languages is absolute. We cannot do our “mission work” without them.

At the same time it must be underlined and understood that the language question is one which is critically central to the history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. If the Russian Orthodox Church had not absolutely refused to permit any use of the Ukrainian language in their parishes in Ukraine at the beginning of this century it is probable that a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church would not have developed as it did. The memory of the very brave and difficult fight to be able to pray in their native language (something we take for granted) is still very real for many of our pioneers. Thus, to see the Ukrainian language give way to English or French in two or three generations is very disheartening for them.

How do we reconcile the fact that our Church is (and for the foreseeable future will continue to be) very Ukrainian, with a strong Ukrainian language and cultural component, with the fact that we need to use non- Ukrainian languages, both during and outside the Services? In the final analysis the answer to this question will be decided in our parishes, by our clergy, bishops and faithful. But perhaps there are a few “guideposts” we can follow.

  1. We must always work together, with great respect for one another. Nothing good will come of belittling bishops, or priests, or elderly parishioners who disagree with our opinions, nor with saying that the “anglicizers” want to destroy our Church. If we approach this difficult question in a truly Christian manner it will become a source of strength for our individual parishes and our Church.
  2. The English language will not save our Church. Were we to begin to serve the Liturgy even 50% in English (or French) throughout Canada, attendance numbers would in all likelihood go down, not up. The Ukrainian Catholics have had English language Services for decades, and their numbers have been steadily falling. We must keep in mind the fact that those who most often say, “I’d come to Church if there was more in English” are simply making an excuse — they don’t come to Church because they don’t want to. After all, if our eternal salvation is dependent on being a dedicated member of the Church, it shouldn’t matter if the Liturgy is in Swahili! The problem of Church attendance is a problem of faith, not of language.
  3. We must not be apologetic for using the Ukrainian language. After all, if we are the Church, if we do offer eternal salvation, the fact that Services are in Ukrainian is only a minor inconvenience on the eternal scale of things.
  4. We must not fear the English or French languages. God kept the Ukrainian language and culture alive in circumstances which were much more difficult than our current Canadian circumstances — if we don’t forget about what’s important to God He won’t forget about what’s important to us.
  5. The “raison d’être” of the Church, Her “reason to be” is Salvation. If the Church, the Holy Mysteries, and the Christian life were not necessary for our eternal salvation Jesus wouldn’t have taught us about them. We must never forget that God gives us everything — our beautiful Ukrainian language and culture, our peaceful and tolerant country of Canada, our children and grandchildren, and even the English and French languages — so that we in turn may glorify God with them. If we put any of God’s gifts — whether they are material wealth, family, or language — ahead of the Gospel, we create an idol — and this is a sin.

We must always remember that God wishes everyone to be saved everyone. We, more than any other Orthodox Church in Canada, have the opportunity to work towards the salvation of all our Canadian brothers and sisters; those who’ve married into our families, the converts in our parishes and all those outside the Church. The day may come when they will approach our Holy Bishops to bless the founding of English or French-language parishes, which they will build with their own hands as our Ukrainian pioneers did. How will we respond? What would God desire?