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.