Thoughts on the Abandonment and Recovery of Church Slavonic

Peter Kwasniewski
New Liturgical Movement
Tuesday, September 01, 2015

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I dearly love the Eastern Christian liturgies and have the very fondest memories of the almost 8-year span at the International Theological Institute in Austria when my family and I were able to attend Divine Liturgy in English, Ukrainian, and Romanian (on a rotating basis). One thing that particularly captivated me was learning several of the chants in Church Slavonic. Of course I don't "get" Slavonic from a grammatical point of view, but I knew what the prayers were saying, and the combination of the language and the melodies was captivating.

Hence, when I saw this piece yesterday at Opus Publicum, "Some Thoughts on Church Slavonic in the Liturgy," it caught my attention and I wanted to share it with NLM readers:

Church Slavonic, like all extant liturgical languages, is a dying tongue. The Russian Orthodox Church remains the single largest user of Slavonic, though many of its parishes in the diaspora—including those of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)—have abandoned it in favor of the vernacular. The Orthodox Church in America, with few exceptions, has completely dropped Slavonic and other local churches, such as the Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox, have moved away from it as well. The main argument against using Slavonic in the liturgy is that few understand it anymore, particularly outside of traditional Orthodox homelands. In the Greek Catholic context, those churches which draw their heritage from the Slavic tradition now favor the vernacular. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which was once the largest Catholic communion to use Church Slavonic, now serves most of its liturgies in Ukrainian (with exceptions made for parishes in other parts of the world). This is somewhat ironic given all of the effort the Congregation for Oriental Churches put into producing a master set of “de-Latinized” Slavonic liturgical books for the Ukrainian and Ruthenian churches between the 1940s and 70s. So, is it time to move on from Church Slavonic? Should the liturgical language which sustained the Eastern Slavic churches (Catholic and Orthodox) for a millennium be abandoned once and for all? Or is it still possible to maintain a liturgical link to the past without sacrificing intelligibility to the point where the liturgy becomes either a museum piece or a performance?

Read the rest of the article at Opus Publicum at http://opuspublicum.com/2015/08/31/some-thoughts-on-church-slavonic-in-the-liturgy/
as well as the comments at New Liturgical Movement at http://www.newliturgicalmovement.or...nment-and-recovery-of.html#disqus_thread
Please, let us not fetishize Church Slavonic as Latin has been in the Latin Church. That kind of phenomenon does not exist in any Eastern body I know of, Catholic or Orthodox. The liturgy is still the same so long it is in a vernacular translation approved by the respective bodies' hierarchs.
I attend services which are 99% Slavonic at a ROCOR parish. I learned Russian when I was younger and had exposure to Church Slavonic some years ago. I only really understand well the unchanging parts of the Sunday liturgy. The rest I understand more of if I have a text in front of me and have time to reflect. I think it is a challenge also for native Russian speakers, who understand maybe a bit more, but learn the meaning from context and from being repeatedly exposed to the language and often praying the rather lengthy daily prayers in Slavonic in private. (In fact, some words in Slavonic have been replaced over the years with Russian words to be more intelligible). The great Alexander Pushkin (to take things from the other direction), who in many respects played a similar role in Russian as Shakespeare did for the English language, actually enhanced the Russian language with many Church Slavonicisms, though he was not devout, as much of the upper classes were at the time.
The Russian Church is probably reluctant to alter the language of the liturgy to fit the vernacular because it is close enough to it but not so different that tinkering with liturgical language or any other kind of tinkering is ill-timed after decades of Soviet antagonism.
Yes, ROCOR and other Orthodox bodies in the West are adopting the vernacular, but as far as I know in the case of ROCOR that is mostly in parishes that are majority American-born faithful. A lot of them use mostly Slavonic because the majority
of the congregation are third wave emigrants from the former USSR. I think the intention over the years, however, is to gradually use more English as the younger generation grows up.
Certainly, Orthodox saints like St Dimitri of Rostov adapted Slavonic to the developing language of his church members. This is what made his lives of the saints and his sermons, so very beneficial for the spiritual lives of his people, so attractive to them to the point that his books were kept and read by so many in their homes!

In the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabenko) tried doing this by serving Ukrainian-language Divine Liturgies, but came under severe criticism from the authorities for doing so.

Personally, I have always been in the middle on this issue. One the one hand, I want to understand the Divine Liturgy, yet, on the other, I'd like to see Old Church Slavonic also continue. If a parish only celebrates one Divine Liturgy on a Sunday, for example, I would prefer it be celebrated in the vernacular. If two, then perhaps have the second one be celebrated in Old Church Slavonic, unless there is another parish already doing so in the same area.

I grew up in the Western Rite and was 4 years old when the Mass began to be celebrated in English. That is the Mass I learned first. Then, when I was 9, the Missal of Pope Paul VI was
introduced, and it was not the same for me. As a result of the changes, my father quit attending Mass after he attended his first "folk" Mass. My mother continued to attend, but I quit attending a few years later, though that was due as much to teenage antipathy as much as the Mass changes.

When I returned to the Catholic Church two decades later, after spending more than a decade in Pentecostal and Holiness Evangelical churches and graduating from a bible school for ministerial training, I preferred the Eastern spirituality and would attend Byzantine and Ukrainian parishes in my area, as well as what was then called the Indult Traditional Latin Mass. I found that I preferred those Liturgies and the Liturgy used by the Maronite Rite over the modern Western Rite, though there is a parish that celebrates the Ordinary Mass so traditionally that I might attend that Mass on occasion. Of course, no one celebrates that interim missal of my childhood anymore. Also, the Divine Liturgy at my local ROCOR Orthodox parish had my favorite musical setting, even if I didn't understand the Old Church Slavonic. Never heard of Saint Panteleimon until I visited that parish. (Smile)

Because my wife insists on the Ordinary Mass of the Western Rite, that is the one I attend most often, but my heart is more for the Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Catholic parishes here (Byzantine Ruthenian and Ukrainian Greek). it doesn't seem to matter to me what language is used to celebrate the Liturgy, but for most parishioners, I suppose the vernacular is best.

This is somewhat ironic given all of the effort the Congregation for Oriental Churches put into producing a master set of “de-Latinized” Slavonic liturgical books for the Ukrainian and Ruthenian churches between the 1940s and 70s.

Do you think that this work is valuable for having a standard from which to do translations? If so, that work is not in vain.

I just read a history of the Church of the East that seemed to say that part of the reason for it to have lost so much of its former missionary work--that took it all the way to China--was because it never translated its liturgical life into native languages. Is this not also the case elsewhere?

Much as we may love a liturgical language with ancient roots, it seems to me that the need for ongoing evangelization suggests that we ought to speak to people--not in a common, street language--in a language that can lift them up to the joy of the Gospel. In The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos writes that before the Russian Revolution that there was a very active missionary school around Kazan and that in that area the Divine Liturgy was being served in upwards of two dozen languages and dialects. Now that's missionary work!!

Dear Bob,

Yes, but the MP is really resisting having the Divine Services translated into Ukrainian in Ukraine.

Its resistance to this in the 19th and 20th centuries, in addition to the imposition of Russian traditions (under the guise of "Byzantinization") is part of the reason behind the autocephalist Orthodox movement in Ukraine and elsewhere.


Christ is Born!!

Sadly the MP hasn't picked up where the Russian Church was pre-1917 in this area. Is it simply a matter of control?

So, is it time to move on from Church Slavonic?
Move on from ... and with ...
Greek Catholics in Slovakia are comfortable with both Slovak and Church Slavonic mainly in Slovak alpabet in the Divine Liturgy which is not the case with the Orthodox. As far as I know there has never been any interest or effort to translate the Divine Liturgy and services into spoken Rusyn for some reason, except for some translations of the Gospels.
Dear Bob,

Let us Glorify Him!

The Ukrainian Orthodox had pressed for Ukrainian in their services in the 19th century. Whatever the ROC did with others in terms of cultural/linguistic adaptation was not followed through with their then Ukrainian vassals as the push for their full Russification was intense. What compounded the problem was that the Church Slavonic used by the ROC was itself a "Russified" version of it i.e. pronunciation of the Slavonic was clearly the same as that used in the Russian language (even though Russian liturgists themselves at the time dissuaded such a pronunciation).

Also, Church Slavonic did, in fact, undergo organic changes in Ukraine where words were adapted to the language of the people to make them better understood. St Dimitri (Tuptalo) of Rostov was well-known for this as were other Orthodox Saints/Teachers of the Kyivan Baroque era.

In doing so, these Orthodox Saints brought the Orthodox Catholic faith and praxis all that much closer to the hearts of their people. This is why the "Lives of the Saints" of St Dimitri and liturgical books were widely read throughout Ukraine.

The great national poet of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko, arose in the 19th century precisely because his spirit was nurtured by the Lives of the Saints of St Dimitri of Rostov and those same liturgical publications (he once wrote that as he entered a Church in Kyiv, instead of the familiar Kyivan chants, he heard the "Muscovite music" which sounded not only foreign to him, but aesthetically terrible and so he ran out of that church as quickly as he could . . .).

As a cultural awakening there took hold, the people's hunger for spirituality in their own developing national language became acutely felt - including liturgical practices and iconographic traditions in their own style rather than the imposed Russian/Muscovite style as also occurred in Orthodox Georgia.

Church Slavonic as used by Russians is not pronounced the same as modern Russian. There is not supposed to be (I don't know how to write it in English) the distinctive "a-kanie", in which unstressed "o's" are pronounced either as "a's" or the schwa sound depending how many syllables there are in the word. As in Ukrainian, it is "Boh-", "Hospod-" and "blaho" (in full words or stems). This is not because, in my experience, many ROCOR hierarchs are from Ukrainian territories, it is just more traditional.
One can hear Slavonic pronounced like Russian on recordings form the Soviet era, but this is incorrect.
Moscow is just as unwilling to put the liturgy in Russian as well as in Ukrainian, claiming the untranslatability of certain heavy-laden Slavonic words The Patriachate permits the translation of the liturgy into languages for the smaller nationalities that no one in the West has heard of and the translation of the liturgy into English abroad.
Because I know Polish and some Slavonic, liturgy in Ukrainian sounds "wrong" to me.
(Ukrainian and old Polish share a lot of words in common). But for some reason the Mass sounds splendid to me in Polish -- their initial translation was superior to our ICEL.
Fortunately, thanks to Pushkin, a lot of Russian was "Church Slavonicized"
What goes on in Russia and Ukraine, however, is their business. Issues will remain unresolved there and it is best not to make waves, especially us outsiders.
It would be better in the diaspora to transition as quickly as possible to the vernacular -- this would be lauded by the ancients and would maintain viability. I know that a lot of immigrant Russians/Ukrainians now have a better knowledge of English than of Church Slavonic.
Well, I'm no expert, but I'm going by what Metropolitan Ilarion (Ohienko) wrote and also by what I hear when I'm in my local ROCOR parish. They definitely pronounce Slavonic in the modern Russian style.

Ohienko also showed, in at least a couple of his books that I have read, how Slavonic in Russia is different from that of the Slavonic in Ukraine - which was deliberately "update" and modified through time to keep up with the developing language of the people, as St Dimitri of Rostov was especially sensitive to. I have a couple of reprints of his works in Slavonic and as I read Slavonic (and also use it in prayer), I can see by comparison with the "standard" Slavonic texts where certain words are definitely different. That is all good as it kept the Orthodox Christian faith alive among our people.

The UGCC kept Slavonic in our liturgy here until 1970. Ohienko also showed how Ukrainian Catholic clergy and translators tended to prefer all things Russian in their work (believe it or not). Russophilism was at one time rampant among the UGCC clergy prior to WWII (which is a fact).

But it is only a linguist of his stature who could make the necessary analysis of the different fine points here. I find it fascinating and look forward to the day when the UGCC can have a finalized modern Ukrainian translation of its liturgical services (as opposed to the half-Ukrainian/half-Slavonic translation we now have).

Christ is Born!

Let us glorify Him!

Oh, yes it is the Russian version of Slavonic, but the pronunciation is not precisely like modern Russian. I suppose every Slavonic nation has it's own recension and pronunciation of Slavonic, just as Latin will sound different in Poland or Finland according to their "received" ways of pronunciation.
Ruthenians should be following the same word stress as the Galicians, but they are all over the place: most notably chanting "Hospodu poMOlimsja" (Great Russian) where it should be "Hospodu pomoLIMsja" (Galician). (One time I was a language nerd.)
Originally Posted by Mark R
Ruthenians should be following the same word stress as the Galicians, but they are all over the place: most notably chanting "Hospodu poMOlimsja" (Great Russian) where it should be "Hospodu pomoLIMsja" (Galician).
The Ruthenian Recension [Ruthenian here meaning Galician (Ukrainian) and sub-Carpathian Rus' (Ruthenian)] has the stress as Hospodu pomoLIMsja.
The stress is there in the text, I know, but not in practice. I used to hear Slavonic liturgy every other day.
Right, I was only affirming what you wrote. I find myself having to make an effort against conditioning to get the Ruthenian stress right.
Please, let us not fetishize Church Slavonic as Latin has been in the Latin Church

Certainly that's a mistaken view of Latin in the Latin Church:

Linguae latinae usus...in Ritibus latinis servetur.

the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.


The use of Church Slavonic is more of an ethnic thing and not to be confused with the use of Latin in the West when Latin was totally unrelated to most Europeans except for Italians. The Apostles to the Slavs realized that Greek would be gibberish to the Slavic tribes just as Latin must have been to the Germans and Scandinavians.
Originally Posted by bergschlawiner
...Latin was totally unrelated to most Europeans except for Italians.
The Romance languages, (sometimes called the Latin languages, and occasionally the Romanic or Neo-Latin languages) are the modern languages that evolved from spoken Latin between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. and that thus form a branch of the Italic languages within the Indo-European language family.

Today, around 800 million people are native speakers worldwide, mainly in Europe and the Americas, but also elsewhere. Additionally, the major Romance languages have many non-native speakers and enjoy widespread use as lingua francas.[2] This is especially the case for French, which is in widespread use throughout Central and West Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Maghreb region.

The five most widely spoken Romance languages by number of native speakers are Spanish (410 million), Portuguese (216 million), French (75 million), Italian (60 million), and Romanian (25 million).
Romance languages [en.wikipedia.org]

The question of the use of Church Slavonic (henceforth CS) vs. English in the Liturgy is a very important one. It reflects far deeper theological and psychological issues than might appear on the surface.

The real problem has to do with social psychology and cultural cycles. The feelings, motivations and aspirations of people living in the early, creative period of a culture are very different from those living at that culture's terminal phase. The former tend to be eager, zealous and hopeful, the latter despondent, cynical and nihilistic. The first Slavonic translations of the Holy Scriptures in AD 862-63 by SS. Cyril (then Constantine) and Methodius were made at the dawn of Christian culture, at a time when faith was much more powerful than it is today. Theological issues were very real and complex and bore a direct and urgent relation to peoples' perception of the world and the detailed structuring of their lived, day-to-day realities. These issues reflected a deep concern with the appropriate formation and training of the soul, and with subtle and complex ascetical and spiritual values which are scarcely comprehensible today, even among devout and practising Orthodox. A concern with such issues is a hallmark of both 'existential' and 'moral' dimensions of general intelligence, dimensions which modern psychology has entirely lost sight of, and yet which once formed the basis of what Fr. John Meyendorff (of blessèd memory) has called "Byzantine Rational Ascetic Theology" ("An Introduction to Patristic Theology - Введение во святоотеческое богословие" (2001)) or what Giambattista Vico (in his New Science (1744)) called "a Rational Civic Theology of Divine Providence'. The schism between the ancient liturgical languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Slavonic) and modern vernaculars are the reflection of a deeper schism or disjunction between genesis and validity, between the transcendent and the mundane, or between the divine and the secular.

It's a question of cultural evolution. As cultures evolve in response to social and environmental challenges, semantic and linguistic drift over the course of time frequently bring about a dissociation between a concept, feeling or object which is experienced and identified (the signified) and the word which was formerly used to describe it (the signifier). The ancient liturgical and scriptural languages often used allegory, analogy or metaphor to describe spiritual or psychological states that the modern person can no longer identify with since the conceptual signifiers which once pointed to them no longer exist in the modern vernaculars - the patois of what has become the highly mechanised, sensualised and terminal phase of our culture. A typically 'patristic' statement such as 'the fires of apathy (in the original meaning of Greek απάθεια) illumine the eyes of the heart' is incomprehensible to a 'modern', which is tragic, since this deep and powerful statement (from the writings of St. Isaac of Nineveh) would require several rather fat modern 'self-help' manuals to explain it. What do 'poverty' (CS: нестяжáние), 'chastity' (CS: целомýдрие) or 'humility' (CS: смиреномýдрия) mean for 'modern' people? How do the CS terms convey the very essence of those experiential states? What exactly is the difference between целомýдрие ('chastity') and чистотà ('purity')? Yes, there are 'modern' words for these expressions, but the modern equivalents usually convey somewhat pejorative meanings, even if subconsciously.

The aggressive disparagement of CS (especially in the OCA) is also a consequence of a creeping corporatisation and Protestantisation (sorry for these clumsy words) of Orthodox Christian parishes, especially in the US, in which the priest (as has been stated above) has no greater status than that of an employee of the Parish Board of Directors (oops, sorry!) Council. The duty and responsibility of a parish council is to discuss and resolve issues relating to parish finances and general business, true, but certainly not to dictate liturgical practice to the priest, whose authority in these matters derives directly from the bishop or Metropolitan. What has God to do with Mammon (Matt. 6:24)? And In any case, what will be the final fate of a civilisation which allows itself to be governed by 'merchants'?

Yes indeed, we may well take note that the most agressive stance against the ancient liturgical languages is taken by the 'baby boomers' - who, after all, were the dominant age cohort over the last half of the 20th century and who catalysed the breakdown of individual and social morality, the disintegration of the family and the rise of corporate culture (the present writer admits to being a member of this cohort - it's his personal equivalent of 2 Cor.12;7)). This generation's time, however, is finally passing, and when they have gone, the faithful will hopefully be able to rescue at least some of the babies that were thrown out with the bath water.

In no way, let it be understood, would we even consider abandoning use of the vernacular in Church. Understanding of the Word of God in the language of the people is absolutely essential. We would only advise that conservation measures be taken in those parishes where the appropriate resources, both human and material, are readily available. Two things might be done in English-speaking parishes. First, build a higher level of spiritual, historical and linguistic education, including study of the Holy Scriptures and of the Philokalia (in English of course! and of the basics of the ancient liturgical languages etc. using, in the case of CS, accessible and relevant grammars such as that of Fr. Alypy Gamanovich of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville (2001) or others (see a good resource list at puluka.com) - i.e stick to practical, liturgical CS, not the Old CS primers written for linguistics experts. The Orthodox Church in Poland for example has done a really fine job in creating CS materials for young children. Second, serve at least one liturgy per month in CS - which would be preferable (IMHO) to mixing languages in the course of a single liturgy, a strategy which often pleases no one).

As Christians, we should be aware that we are now living in a culture that has come full circle and returned to its point of origin - the culture to which it is affiliated, i.e. the Roman Empire. The historical parallels are striking, and the final tragic act will be similar. This historical awareness should be part of our Christian education. Such awareness would help us cope with the society we are living in and neither be seduced by its distractions nor corrupted by its false teachings.

It is to be hoped that the termination of this historical cycle will be succeeded either by the Final Judgement or by an affiliated culture in which the ancient spiritual and moral values will once again come to form the basis of a new Christian anthropology.
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