Is the Orthodox Church in need of an Esperanto?

el Greco Pentecost


Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that “the limits of my language signify the limits of my world”, summarising thus his own contribution to the problem of the relationship between consciousness and reality.

Language is indeed our very link to the world: the world becomes meaningful through language and language has meaning only in relation to the world. But what happens when one’s “world” is the Church? What are we to assume about the relationship between the Church and the world in general? How does the language of and in the Church relate to this world? If the horizon, the limits of the world I inhabit are drawn by language, let's say Greek or English, how are we then facilitated in or inhibited from relating to our English or Greek world, respectively? Simply put, there is a major problem when my ecclesiastical language is Greek and my everyday world is English, or when my ecclesiastical language is English, and my “world” is Greek. In these cases, it seems that my consciousness – both personal and ecclesial – as well as the reality I relate to are somewhat “schizophrenic”; and imagine what it looks like when even more languages are involved...


To complicate the problem further, I would like to add that the language of the Church is in a very pronounced way historical: it constitutes an embodied historicity, which means that it is the bearer of historical memory or, perhaps more aptly, a privileged space of historical belonging. This entails those liturgical languages such as Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Georgian, Romanian, Albanian, etc., are all part and parcel of the historicity of the different local Orthodox Churches. In other words, these liturgical languages make up substantially the historical horizon of the worldview of the different Orthodox faithful and, if anything, the latter would find it extremely difficult to disassociate themselves from the spatio-temporal connotations and connections that their languages convey – as well as from the emotionality they so potently generate. Consequently, it is not hard for one to imagine not just the “schizophrenic”, but more so the “multiple personality disorder” that the limits upon limits of languages upon languages create for the ecclesial consciousness of the Orthodox. Basically, the different Orthodox faithful tend to stick to themselves, to the limits of their own language-based life-worlds, becoming more and more parochial in an age of global interconnections and multicultural transactions...

But the problems and challenges regarding the language of and in the Church are not limited to the present or the past; they definitely become much more exacerbated in view of the future. In the ethnic diasporas of the Orthodox faithful, English seems to be taking over more and more – and if nothing else comes up as a better alternative – it will shortly reign supreme. Is this bad? No, it’s not. Is it the best option? It depends on one’s perspective. Is it theologically the appropriate way to go? I believe not, and that’s what I am trying to substantiate in this article. Having likened the present situation of the liturgical languages used in the Orthodox Church to a somewhat “schizophrenic” condition, and the lingering on of their past to a “multiple personality disorder”, one wonders what the future could possibly look like. However, I reckon that a possible absorption of liturgical languages by English would have devastating effects on the horizon of the “worlds” that these languages come with. It would virtually disrupt the experiential connection of the faithful with their respective pasts, and it would severely limit the breadth and depth of their presents. And this, to be blunt, looks rather “catatonic” ...

Ok, if that’s a fair description of the sociolinguistic status of the Orthodox liturgical languages especially in the ethnic diasporas, what are we to do? How are the Orthodox supposed to navigate through and beyond this predicament? Is it possible to preserve the linguistic worlds of the past into our present life-worlds and in turn allow the latter to evolve into a unified and integral language/world/horizon for future generations? I think it is and I also think that the best way to do this – first and foremost theologically speaking – is to use them all at once in the liturgical life of the Church, particularly the Divine Liturgy. But how will one manage to speak all those languages at once? Wouldn’t that require a sort of speaking in tongues? Yes and no; yes, because it would indeed be a new outpouring of the Spirit, and no, because it would not involve any kind of synchronic translatability. Prayers, hymns, blessings, the Creed, and other set parts of the Divine Liturgy can be in different languages – and in different versions and/or combinations from place to place – honouring thus the past, respecting the present and paving the way into the future. What this requires is just one thing: a congregation truly educated as to unity in diversity, and willing to follow the commandment of mutual love by taking up the voice of the other...

But let’s be more practical through some examples. What all the above would mean in Greece, for instance, is something not that dramatic but certainly quite significant; for it is the little changes that would make all the difference. So, the Orthodox Church in Greece could retain the liturgical language as it is – making allowances here and there for modern Greek as well – and at the same time have Slavonic, Romanian, Albanian, Arabic, Georgian and even a bit of English – for the youth really communicate through it – interspersed throughout the liturgical life of the faithful. In South America the Orthodox Chruch could in turn utilise basically Spanish or Portuguese and have it embellished, so to speak, with Greek and other “traditional” Orthodox languages, along with a good deal of Native Indian linguistic materials. As for Australia, the Church could mainly create a textual base in English with, again, additions from all the “traditional” liturgical languages – having of course a privileged place for Greek – and allowing for a prominent featuring of Indigenous languages – the latter, needless to say, would take over the place of English once and wherever Indigenous Orthodox congregations would come to be. Evidently, there are heaps of combinations that can take place, but this should always be done according to the logic of multilingual liturgical co-existence.

I believe that from a theological and, for that matter, an ecclesiological point of view, what I am proposing has some extremely important merits. Firstly, it enriches the multi-vocality of the Orthodox tradition, both horizontally and vertically; horizontally, for it broadens the spectrum of liturgical languages – not simply in space but primarily in time – and vertically, for it makes the multilingual liturgical condition an aspect not just of the mega-structures of the global Orthodox Church but also of the local micro-structures and most importantly of the individual itself. Secondly, the merits of my proposal can be further seen in relation to the aspired and so-much needed jurisdictional integration of the diasporas: if the Orthodox faithful are justified in envisioning such an ecclesiological overcoming of the limits imposed by the mostly anti-canonically drafted Orthodox micro-cosmoses, then they certainly would be justified in putting in place the conditions of possibility for such an overcoming, namely, the liturgical co-inherence of traditional and modern Orthodox languages. Finally, this whole aspiration entails and presupposes the development and consolidation of a much more heightened ecclesial consciousness – and not just an ethnic or cultural belonging.

One way or another, all this comes down to the urgent need of a liturgical renewal; one that demands much boldness from Church leadership, patience from the faithful and time from everyone in order to see tangible results. To be sure, some or even perhaps many are going to declare that this proposed liturgical Esperanto is simply impractical, impossible and utopian. To them I believe that one has to reply categorically: Yes, it is! But then the Church is the Utopia, the wild dreaming of God, partly realized here and now and yearning for its future culmination. So, precisely because it is impractical, impossible and utopian, I say, let’s go for it. That’s our part; God’s part is to say, let it be!

318 Fathers gathered in Nicaea in 325 A.D. at First Ecumenical Council at the request of Emperor, Saint Constantine the Great to address the heresy of Arianism together with other issues that concerned the unity of the Church.


"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a weekly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion. He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.