Some Thoughts on Church Slavonic in the Liturgy

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?

In the Slavic Orthodox world, which for all intents and purposes means the Russian Orthodox world, there is a growing, but limited, push to shift away from Slavonic once and for all. The main objection to leaving Slavonic behind, besides the patrimonial one, is that vernacular Russian (or any other language) is somehow incapable of capturing the full meaning of the original liturgical texts—a somewhat problematic claim given that the primary service books of the Slavic churches were first written in Greek. A secondary objection is that a rich body of the liturgical music may be lost if the vernacular comes into play—a better, though imperfect, argument given how much Slavic church chant relies on “form melodies” that are readily adaptable to almost any tongue. A tertiary objection, which may or may not amount to much, is that Slavonic, in being the patrimonial tongue of the Slavic churches, can serve roughly the same purpose as Latin in the Roman Church: a common language that binds Christians across borders. To channel G.K. Chesterton, why shouldn’t a Russian from Saint Petersburg not be afforded the right to go to church in Kiev, Belgrade, or Sofia and remain perfectly ignorant of what is going on?

Over in the land of the UGCC, it seems there is no strong desire to “turn back the clock,” though it is still possible to hear Slavonic used in some larger parishes and monasteries. ROCOR remains the largest body outside of a traditional Slavic territory to still use Church Slavonic. Part of the reason is that ROCOR has a naturally conservative liturgical spirit, one which has helped it resist some questionable innovations that have been picked up by the various local Eastern churches over the decades. Another reason is that ROCOR now ministers to a noticeable population of “New Russians” in the West. Perhaps these “New Russians” are just as ignorant of Slavonic as the next guy, but it’s no doubt more comforting to hear it chanted during the Vigil or Divine Liturgy than the King James Bible-style English ROCOR has adapted for vernacular liturgical use. On the other hand, the UGCC, even when ministering to “New Ukrainians” in the West, finds itself ministering to Catholics brought up liturgically on their native Ukrainian. Slavonic rarely, if ever, enters the picture.

And that’s a shame, not just for Ukrainian Catholics, but all Christians—Orthodox or Catholic—living in the West. Although Slavonic is unlikely to ever gain much of a foothold in the West the way Latin has regained one via its retention by traditional Catholics committed to the Tridentine liturgy, there is much to be said for not losing sight of liturgical history. Both Ukrainian Catholics and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox made efforts to produce English/Slavonic texts for the laity relying on the Latin alphabet. It stands to reason that such texts could be reproduced again, even if only for the limited purpose of allowing parishes to perform some fixed parts of their services in Church Slavonic. At the same time, a movement back toward some modest use of Slavonic could—and arguably should—go hand-in-hand with a larger project of restoring lost (or abandoned) elements of the Byzantine liturgy, including traditional chant styles that have fallen to the wayside over the past two centuries. Both the Ruthenians and the UGCC, at least in the West, could use a liturgical shot in the arm, especially after being surrounded (and unfortunately influenced) by Roman parishes with a “race to the bottom” mentality when it comes to liturgy.

8 comments

  1. Let’s not forget the ancient (and indisputable) tradition of vernacular language use in the East. If not for St. Cyril those lands he and St. Methodios evangelized would have been serving in a foreign language, Greek.

    The whole purpose of the “Cyrillic” alphabet was so that the people could better understand the Gospel and the Liturgy.

    The article states

    “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?”

    The use of Slavonic in the of the Russian Patriarchate depends many times on “performance” pieces. Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff all wrote for a Slavonic Liturgy but in the process brought a “romanticism” and definite Western influence to church music.

    A major reason for the use of Latin in the West was to keep liturgical (and other forms of) unity throughout the Church.

    In the East the use of the vernacular was to better evangelize and unity was kept through the use of the same or very similar Liturgies.

    Slavonic was never the universal liturgical language in the Eastern Churches which used the Liturgy of the Great Church.

    Maybe we need to stop trying to draw parallels between East and West where there are none.

    Latin was the universal language of the Latin Church. Slavonic was never the universal language of the Eastern Churches

    1. You are making a false assumption here, which is that whatever the intents and purposes of using Church Slavonic were 1,000 years ago, those intents and purposes held static over the course of time. They didn’t. There is a fairly longstanding argument for retaining Slavonic based on the fact it “de-nationalizes” churches. In fact, there are those among the Ukrainian Greek Catholic population who lament the loss of Slavonic both because it serves (perhaps inadvertently) the interest of equating the church with the nation and because it undercuts missionary efforts to non-Ukrainian Slavic peoples (e.g., Russians). Although that argument hasn’t won the day, it has been around for a very long time and demonstrates that your static worldview is, to say the least, ahistorical, if not a bit immature.

  2. I’ve long been on the record as saying that using Slavonic in America is largely dumb. It’s only place is as a stop-gap for immigrants as they transition from Russians into Americans who celebrate a second christmas in January. I suppose anyone who has spent some time in the Latin church would be wary of seeing the Russian Orthodox abandon Slavonic, but the impetus is really coming from a different place.

    Life is full of ironies of course, and I attend a slavonic-language parish. Good thing I don’t pay attention during the services anyway.

    1. I think the idea of pushing for full-Slavonic liturgies in the West is a bit silly, and it wouldn’t work in practice anyways. My suggestion, or at least my thought, was that some elements of the Slavic Church’s liturgical language patrimony ought to be retained. As someone noted on Facebook in reply to this post, there are any number of Russian liturgical pieces which were composed purely for the Slavonic language; it would be pointless to try and adapt them to either modern Russian or English.

      This has nothing to do with your comment, but based on the two remarks here and some of the stuff I read over at New Liturgical Movement in response to this post, it seems that people are desperate to nitpick anything which somehow smells of comparing Latin Christianity with, say, any Eastern tradition. Silly, silly…

  3. I get the feeling that the author is another RC missing Latin. Slavonic is not Latin and its use in areas where parishioners don’t speak any slavic language or aren’t even of slavic heritage, just serves to keep people away. So much for evangelization. His assessment of the liturgical life of Byzantine Churches and dismussal of Roman Churches would indicate he has an axe to grind. While Slavoin does have its place in the hustory of the Church and some limited use can be made of it according to pastoral need (in the US for example), we must put evangelization as the primary scope of parish life…not social or ethnic clubs, not preservation of museums.

    1. I could perhaps take this comment more seriously if it was riddled with assumptions which are both patently false and uncharitable. Let me suggest that in the future you attempt to take the actual claims and arguments being presented for what they are and leave your armchair psychoanalysis at home. It might help you score more points for accuracy.

  4. The loss of Church Slavonic is unfortunate, and I feel that it is linked to a lack of education. I know of only one textbook on Church Slavonic in English (Bp. Jerome’s) and there is a workbook published by Jordanville (which I used at the Seminary) in Russian. Other than that, there is not much out there. I was working on a CS/English dictionary for a little while, but that project has fallen by the wayside.

Comments are closed.