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Vol. 3 No. 1 - Pascha 2008

Canada's Tower of Babel:
The Language of Exclusion

The Great Divide of language is as old as Canada itself. From the Battle of the Plains of Abraham between French and English speakers, to the Native Schools question, to the advent of Quebec nationalism, to the multiculturalism policy of the 1960s, our country has a history of being a nation of nations - or according to her critics, a contemporary Tower of Babel.

While the solution to such divisions might at first seem simple - a single common language for everyone, presumably English - the realities of the situation are much more complex. Many who have immigrated to Canada, especially older people, often live within an environment where only their native tongue is spoken. Even where local churches provide ESL or FSL classes (which most don't provide, to their detriment), there are those who might live in North America for decades, and simply not have a practical need to speak one of the official languages. One does not need to visit a major urban Chinatown to experience such a cultural bubble among young and old alike: simply try a visit to Quebec City, and try out the tenth grade French you learned decades ago. If practice makes perfect, Canada's linguistic mix will be with us for a long time, for better or for worse.

Yet within the Church, a false dichotomy has emerged on the question of language. On one side, so-called "ethnic" Orthodox individuals sometimes suggest that the use of their ancestral tongue somehow protects the faith against corruption, ecumenism, or loss of faith, while at the same time agonizing over vanishing church schools and declining youth attendance on Sundays. On the other side, there are those who champion the use of English (but ironically, rarely French) as a sort of magic glue which will hold together Orthodox Christians of different cultural backgrounds. Since English is the language of the popular culture, some argue, in stands to reason that it should be the lingua franca of the Church in North America.

The test of time has not proven either of these positions to be true. Immigration continues to fuel a multi-lingual (and often culturally divided) Orthodox Church in Canada and the United States, while at the same time both "ethnic" and English-language parishes have largely failed to hold the generations under forty years of age any better than do our Protestant or Roman Catholic neighbours.

While the current problem is often characterized as one of language, it is much more a problem of a lack of Christian love. Many faithful can no doubt recall cases where a group of clergy who are all able to speak a common language (often English) when they assemble together, who will instead break into language "pockets", speaking primarily the language they do not share in common, playing a kind of game of mutual exclusion, a living witness not to Christ, but to another Biblical figure: the Tower of Babel.

The same can be said of countless situations with laity who, taking the examples of their priests, refuse to cross over cultural or linguistic boundaries out of love for each other, preferring the ease of isolation to the inconvenience of Christian love. The question goes both ways. Ours is not simply a problem of a stubborn immigration sticking up for their local heritage language program; it is also a problem of the Canadian-born, who draw back at the use of any unfamiliar language in Church services, or who won't take the time to pick up a few phrases in the language of other Orthodox Christians, with whom they have to deal on a regular basis.

Language guru Charles Berlitz, in his book Around the World in Eighty Words, makes a compelling argument that most people can survive informally in another culture by learning about eighty key words for daily communication. How many clergy or faithful in Canada could honestly speak even a dozen words in the languages of another of the major Orthodox groups in our country - Greek or Serbian, Russian or Romanian, Ukrainian, or many others?

Such a small step is certainly not a solution to the current divisions, but it is a start, a step in the direction of goodwill, harmony, and love within the Church, where too often those who share our faith but not our language do not even know we exists, even when we live next door.

Too often, the Church in Canada can be accurately compared to a contemporary Tower of Babel, made up of isolated communities, each one full of isolated individuals. Orthodox Christians must remember that the existence of languages came into the world as a punishment from God: a punishment for pride, for thinking we human beings could build heaven on earth - without God. This legacy continues to this day on a large scale, with political powers the world over. We can find one frightening example in the architecture of the European Parliament, a building designed to resemble the Tower of Babel - the symbol of human pride, and the punishment of division it called down. Never having learned the lesson of the first Tower, how often we are tempted to go on to build a second, and a third.

Orthodox Christians in Canada are too often afflicted with the same sin: determined to have things our way for our people. The Orthodox Church in this country often presents a very weak witness to the glorious, universal Good News of Jesus Christ, Who died and rose from death to save all mankind. Judging from many, many parishes, a casual visitor might think one had to graduate from a heritage language course to gain admittance into Heaven. This is an uncomfortable reality for many Orthodox Canadians, but sadly, it is true.

How can we triumph over these divisions? How can we tear down the walls of Canada's ethnic divisions within the Orthodox Church? The answer lies not in stamping out language differences - this is a false solution, tried by Rome in the past, and by certain others (including the United States) in our own time. But the answer doesn't lie with some program. We can only undo the sin of Babel - the sin of pride - through its opposite: through humility and love. The strongest and most numerous Orthodox communities must lead the way in reaching out to those outside the Church, both culturally and linguistically. Would it not make sense for the largest "ethnic" Orthodox jurisdictions - say the Greek and Ukrainian jurisdictions, for example - to make a determined effort to build an organized mission effort to the largest non-Orthodox groups - perhaps French and Chinese Canadians - using their own language, the saints of their lands, and their customs which can be sanctified? Such initiatives certainly make sense, both in terms of relative resources, and in terms of love for others who have not heard about Christ, or who need to be reminded of Him.

We might also train clergy to speak other languages which best fit their local context. We know of one American priest, entering his seventh decade of life, who has begun to study Spanish for the sake of the neighbours in the area in which he lives, and who will soon begin to serve an additional weekly Liturgy in their language, not his own.

We might follow the example of Church in Russia regarding the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints, adding French Orthodox saints and others to the cycle of feast days celebrated in the largest churches in ethnically diverse areas - or even universally marking the saints of North America.

We might also start by working together between parishes - and across language lines - to catechize adult converts to the Faith. Many parishes have done away with prayers for catechumens during the Divine Liturgy, simply because they do not believe that they have many converts, yet many marriages within their own community happen with those outside their faith and culture. What better way to bring someone into the Church than to offer catechism among a diverse group of catechumens who share their own Canadian experience? Would this not also witness to converts at marriage that they are not simply the tolerated minority within the Church, but a fundamental part of Her?

We must also beware of the confusion caused when we use the language of Orthodox "insiders" to those outside the Church. While we must never lose our understanding of terms like Theotokos and Pascha, martyrs and theosis, it is essential that we speak in such a way that those outside the Church and who are catechumens may be edified and strengthened in their faith and love for Christ and His Church, not merely confused by unfamiliar phrases.

Most of all, we must cultivate a love for and interest in other people, people who are different in culture and language. Offers of hospitality, ESL classes, clothing and food to immigrants who are in need - charitable works that begin right here, in our own neighbourhoods. Then, as the apostle says, they will know we are Christians by our love - the language of Christ that cuts across culture.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pascha, 2008)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2008.