Some Thoughts on the Usage of the Archaic Language in Liturgical Texts

One sometimes comes across mild debates in Orthodox circles about whether or not our Sunday Divine Liturgy should employ the archaic forms (e.g. “Thou hast”) or the contemporary ones (e.g. “You have”). Our own O.C.A. website has perhaps wisely decided not to jump into the debate and take definitive sides, but to offer the liturgical texts in both forms, so that one has a choice of downloading either the “You/ Your Version” or the “Thou/ Thy Version”. What can one say about this debate?
First of all, one can recognize that there is no such thing as an inherently holy language. Muslims declare that Arabic holds such a privileged position, so liturgical prayers must be offered in Arabic regardless of whether or not the Muslim worshipper understands the language. But Christians have never made such claims for their own faith, and accordingly liturgical Christian prayer has been offered in all languages. That of course was part of the point of Pentecost: now all the tongues of men have been sanctified by the indwelling Spirit so that one can pray with complete authenticity in one’s native tongue. This Pentecostal truth finds expression also in our Bible translations: despite the fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic) and the New Testament written in Greek, the Bible may be and has been translated into many languages, and no one suggests that the product is not actually the Bible. Of course some translations are better than others, but we do not follow our Muslim friends. They deny that Scripture can be authentically translated at all and they dub such translations as only “the meaning of the Quran” and not the actual Quran itself. Unlike them, we say that Scripture may indeed be authentically translated. The King James Version or the English Standard Version, for example, whatever their virtues and flaws, are still the Bible. All language is simply a vehicle; it is the meaning that matters.
Secondly, since it is the meaning that matters, the meaning of prayer must be comprehensible and understood by the person doing the praying. That is why liturgical prayer has always been translated from the original to the vernacular of the nation using it. Cyril and Methodius, though doubtless saying their own prayers in Greek, took pains to translate those prayers into the tongue of the Slavs for use in their later missionary endeavours. They did not insist that the Slavs learn Greek in order to commune liturgically with God. Some people in their time opined that the Church’s worship must be conducted in either Latin, Hebrew, or Greek, the three languages atop the cross of Christ announcing to the world that He was the King of the Jews. Cyril and Methodius demurred, and with them the rest of the Orthodox Church. Pentecost means that all vernaculars are acceptable, and moreover “it is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people” (to coin a phrase).
Thirdly, the importance of liturgical comprehensibility means that both the “You/ Your Version” and the “Thou/ Thy Version” are legitimate, since both are equally well understood by speakers of English. The debate over which English forms to use in North American churches pales in comparison with the debate over whether to worship in English or (for example) Slavonic. The former debate is not unimportant, but needs to be put into its proper context. For the debate over whether to use archaic or contemporary English concerns the proper amount of reverence required for worship; it is important but less important than the concern for comprehensibility. Worshipping in a very reverent Slavonic does the English worshipper no good if he or she cannot understand Slavonic. It would be like listening to glossolalia: the Slavonic speaker in tongues may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified (1 Corinthians 14:17)—better in such a case to speak five words that can be understood in the vernacular than ten thousand in a tongue (v. 19).
Fourthly, it is true that divine worship must be not only comprehensible, but also reverent. This debate is muddied by the fact that use of the form “Thou” is sometimes lauded as more formal and reverent than the form “You”, when in historical fact the form “thou” was intended as the familiar, not the formal. In the Anglican classic Book of Common Prayer, God was addressed as “Thou” since Christ taught us to invoke Him with loving familiarity as our abba; it is only the bishop in that book who is addressed with the formal “you”.   But after all language is more than history, and what was familiar in one age may end up being formal in another age. Certainly the present use of the term “thou” does savour of a reverent and specialized usage.
Some people say that the Liturgy must be conducted “in the language of the street” while others insist that it must not be. One must be careful to define exactly what is meant by the term. If one means by this that there should be no difference between the language used when speaking to our buddies at Starbucks or the hockey game (to say nothing of the locker room), and the language used when speaking to God in church, then this is clearly wrong. People like Fr. John Whiteford have pointed out that the Church has always used the best and most elevated form of language available for its divine worship. (See his excellent .) But if by the term “the language of street” one simply means an actual vernacular, then such a language should be acceptable, for the vernacular can still be sufficiently elevated and poetic. Take love poetry for example: a man may write elevated poems of great tenderness and beauty to his beloved without necessarily addressing her as “thee”. Language need not be archaic to be elevated and beautiful.
Take for a liturgical example the exclamation of the Prayer of the Thrice-holy recited by the priest just prior to the singing of the Trisagion Hymn. At our own St. Herman’s parish the prayer ends with the words, “for holy are You, O our God, and unto You we send up glory: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages”. It is not much different than praying “for holy art Thou, O our God, and unto Thee we send up glory”. The former is not any more an unworthy “language of the street” than the latter. Rendering it in true “street language” would look something like “for You’re holy, God—glory to You forever”. One need only glance at this true street version to see the difference. Poetry, beauty, and an elevated spirit do not depend upon verbal archaism. A poet knows that things as simple as an inversion of words (“holy are You” instead of “You are holy”) and the use of the vocative “O” (“O our God” instead of simply “our God”) can work wonders, bringing the language away from the Starbucks tables and into the divine throne room of God. It is contemporary, but still elevated.  
Once again, comparison is instructive: at Starbucks I might say to my buddy, “you’re looking good, my friend”; I would not say, “looking good You are, O my friend”. If I did, he would look at me rather oddly, and perhaps ask me why I was talking like Yoda.
Finally, if both the archaic and the contemporary can be equally reverential and elevated, why choose one over the other? I would suggest that the contemporary possesses the added advantage as being closer to our speech during the time when we are not in church. There is always a terrible temptation for all of us to separate our Sunday morning behaviour from our behaviour after we leave the church. We can hermetically seal off Liturgy from life, and neglect what some have called “the liturgy after the Liturgy” so that we are afflicted by a kind of spiritual schizophrenia, with our worship split off completely from the rest of life. This can be exacerbated if we possess a special language in which we address God (not, I hasten to add, that those who opt for the archaic forms are guilty of this. I speak here only of temptations and of my own heart). As St. James long ago pointed out, out of the same mouth come both blessing and cursing—with the same tongue we bless the Lord and Father and also curse men who are made in His likeness (James 3:9-10). It may be of some help if we forego use of a specialized liturgical tongue and retain the same language for both God and men, for then the inconsistency of which James warns us can be more easily detected and avoided. Using the contemporary vernacular to bless the Lord and Father ought to carry over after the Liturgy has concluded so that we refuse to use that language to curse men made in His likeness. Liturgical language can help unify our lives and our hearts, so that the holiness of the time spent praying to God flows over into the rest of our lives as well.
One last added thought: it is important after we have made our liturgical choices to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). Both choices can be and have been made by people genuinely concerned to honour God and to please Him. As St. James reminds us, honouring Him means holding our brethren in honour as well, regardless of whether or not their own liturgical choices are the same as ours.
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