Thoughts on the Episcopal Assembly
Dr. Clark Carlton · October 31, 2010
Clark Carlton explains that Orthodoxy is a culture, and if it is to be handed down to future generations intact, it must be incarnated in the best cultural materials available.
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is “Thoughts on the Episcopal Assembly.” The last time we spoke, and I apologize for my tardiness in getting a new podcast up, I said that I would have a few things to say about the recent Episcopal Assembly in North America. Actually, I just want to focus on one particular element of that assembly and use that as a starting point for a discussion of the future of Orthodoxy in America.
The official statement of the assembly begins thus: “We glorify the name of the Triune God for gathering us at this first episcopal assembly of this region.” I’m going to stop right there because frankly, we do not glorify, or worship or believe in a “triune god.” If taken literally, that statement would be heresy. Of course, none of the good bishops meant it that way. The problem here is not one of theological illiteracy, at least I hope not, but of English illiteracy. I have no doubt that the message, had it been written in Greek, would have said no such thing.
This brings me to what I really want to talk about today. The E.A. has been set up to deal with questions of overlapping jurisdictions and the relations between those jurisdictions with their mother churches and in particular with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I submit that these questions are of relatively minor importance in regard to the long-term future of Orthodoxy in North America. What is being overlooked in all of this is the fact that absolutely no one has the foggiest idea what American Orthodoxy should look like. This stems directly from the fact that, Alaska excepted, Orthodoxy on this continent is an immigrant, not a missionary, phenomenon. Even the most vocal advocates of an American Orthodoxy are usually themselves immigrants or second generation Americans, whose understanding of America has been shaped by Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and their own imaginations. I’ve heard it said, for example, that Americans won’t stand for long services, but I know plenty of Americans that stand throughout vigils and liturgies. Usually it is immigrants who want pews because they think it will make them look more American.
Protestantism, as I have said many times, is an ideology derived from a text. It is a set of beliefs, put forth in propositional form. Protestant theology, whether liberal or conservative, consists in moving these propositions around and manipulating them. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is a way of life. It is a set of practices as much as a set of beliefs, which is another way of saying that it is a culture. In every traditional Orthodox land, where Orthodoxy has been there for over a millennium, the culture of Orthodoxy and the native culture have grown together as one. Orthodoxy is part and parcel of the culture of Greece and Romania and Serbia and Russia, no matter how much secularists want to pretend otherwise. Witness the fact that in Russia, both the Soviets of yesterday and the Evangelicals of today deliberately ape many of the cultural manifestations of Orthodoxy, church architecture, for example, in an effort to win adherents of Russians to their cause.
With the exception of Alaska, however, no such convergence and union of cultures has taken place in North America. Again, this is not so much the result of Orthodoxy being a tiny minority here but of the fact that the Church has been primarily an immigrant church and immigrants have always come to this country with their bags full of preconceived notions and expectations, few of which have ever matched the rather plain Anglo-Celtic reality.
No where is this lack of convergence more clearly seen than in our truly Babel-like approach to the English language. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not an English-only zealot. In fact, I would much rather hear a service in good Greek than bad English. But unfortunately, bad English is the norm, even or especially among those who pride themselves on their use of English and their American-ness.
There is an old joke that when Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory first commissioned English translations for the Greek Archdiocese, he wanted them to be so bad no one wanted to use them. I told that joke to several Greek priest friends of mine and they’ve all shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “Maybe.”
Well, planned or not, most of the English translations out there have one thing in common: they are awful. There are exceptions, of course, like Bishop Basil’s Liturgikon but these are but tiny lights trying to shine through the murk of a thick fog of functional illiteracy.
One of the most egregious linguistic atrocities, and the OCA specializes in this one, is to use “thee” and “thou” for God and “you” for everyone else. No, no, no! “Thee” and “thou” are not honorifics. They are not used of God as some sort of sign of respect. “Thee” and “thou” are singular. “You” is plural. It’s that simple. There’s absolutely nothing more to it than that. Now some of you are saying “thee” and “thou” is archaic. No one speaks like that anymore and we have to use contemporary language. No, we have to use language that one, accurately conveys the meaning of the original text and two, is of sufficient literary standard that it can, quite literally, shape our way of thinking.
Read the story of the Hospitality of Abraham in the King James Version and then in one of the modern versions. Compare them carefully and you will see exactly why the distinction between singular and plural is important. Moreover, High English—that of Coverdale, Shakespeare and the King James Version—is the equal of any literary language the world has ever known. Orthodoxy is a culture, and if it is to be handed down to future generations intact, it must be incarnate in the best cultural materials available. That is what happened in the so-called Byzantine Empire and that is what happened in tsarist Russia. That is also what must happen here if Orthodoxy is to thrive on this continent and become something other than an insignificant religious sect in a sea of secularism.
I would also remind you that our services were never designed to be evangelistic. That is a modern Protestant notion. You say, “What about the emissaries of Prince Vladimir? Were they not converted by the services in the Great Church?” Indeed they were. But read the story carefully. They were converted by the beauty of the service, not by the intelligibility of the text. Liturgy is primarily an in-house, family affair. It is designed to form us gradually over time. Good language facilitates that formation. Poorly constructed language just makes us dumber, and we have our school systems as proof enough of that.
If I were advising the good bishops—and not surprisingly, none of them has asked me for my advice—I would suggest this: disband all liturgical translation committees. The last time a decent translation came out of a committee was 1611 and the chances of a repeat today are approximately zero.
I do have some good news, however. Early next year look for a publication of a new English Psalter based on the classic Coverdale text. It has been edited by David James and is being published with the blessing of the Russian Church Outside of Russia. I believe the title will be The Slavic Orthodox Psalter. Frankly, I think the title is a bit unfortunate since a good number of our Greek and Antiochian friends won’t buy anything with “Slavic” in the title. But the Psalter is in English, the very best English the world has ever heard. The “Slavic” part comes from the fact that it contains all the extra prayers and canticles found in Slavonic editions. I hope you will buy a copy when it comes out. Use it at home. Allow this most felicitous marriage of the genius of King David and the genius of Miles Coverdale to saturate your mind and your heart. When you do, I think you will begin to see the possibilities for a truly American Orthodoxy. And you will also understand why ecclesiastical politics, in the long run, are of little lasting significance.
I will leave you with Psalm 23, Dominius Terra, a Psalm of David, on the first Friday of the week:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
The compass of the world and all that dwell therein.
He hath founded it upon the seas and prepared it upon the floods.
Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord or who shall stand in his holy place?
Even he that hath clean hands and a pure heart,
Who does not take his soul in vain nor swear falsely to his neighbor.
He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and mercy from God his savior.
This is the generation of them that seek the Lord,
Even of them that seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Lift up your gates all ye princes and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors
And the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? Is is the Lord, strong and mighty,
Even the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your gates O ye princes and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors
And the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is this King of Glory? Even the Lord of Hosts.
He is the King of Glory.
And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom.