“We should stop using Coptic in the Coptic Church,” is what I’ve been hearing these days by many. How did we get to this point? Should we stop using the Coptic language in the Coptic Church in the diaspora? Recently His Holiness Pope Tawadros II and previously the late Pope Shenouda III seemed to express support for adapting to new cultures to include allowing no use of the Coptic language (see videos below). I’m curious to get your thoughts.
Pope Tawadros II:
Our thinking needs to change … We have to show that we are a Church of the times, not a Church of stringency. “Of the times” doesn’t mean that we change just anything, never! It will not happen. But a Church of the times means it fits and adapts to the present time.
We pray [in traditional Coptic Churches] in Coptic, Arabic, and some words in Greek. Okay, when I go to certain countries, the people do not know Coptic, Arabic, or Greek. We have one of two options: either we insist on praying in those languages, and say “the earth speaks Arabic” [seemingly alluding to an old Arabic song of the same name] … Or should we pray in their languages? What about the hymns, you may say, and the Praises are based on … So what do we do?
When I was in America during my last visit, I spent a night in the monastery in one of the monasteries there … and we stood up for [Midnight] Praises. The north side, we would say it in Coptic, and the south side would say it in English, you understand? And both sides responded to one another and everything was going “very smooth” and very beautiful. The talented fathers would take the hymns and figure out how to apply English, French, German, or Italian upon the appropriate tune for the hymn….
We have to evolve. We have to think.
Pope Shenouda III:
I will tell you something in our experience of preaching, how we established a Church in Ethiopia. The Church of Ethiopia was established in the year 329 A.D. during the first year of St. Athanasius of Alexandria and he sent for Ethiopia their first bishop, named Frumentius, [which] means “the man of God.” We gave Ethiopia the Orthodox faith, but we left [for] them their own culture…. They still have their Ethiopian language. We didn’t change the hymns, nor the music, nor the musical instruments.
Teach them the faith not the culture, not the same rites, not the same songs, not the same music. What is important for us is the faith, and we leave them to do what they want. We want the faith, and we leave for every church the freedom to maintain their own culture. That’s what there is today, and in Eritrea we did the same thing also. And in many of the new churches in Africa, we also leave them with their freedom. What’s important is the faith. The essential point is faith, Christian faith, and especially Orthodox faith. And then we leave for them their own culture: music, hymns, …
BRIEF HISTORY ON HOW WE GOT HERE
Egyptians who emigrated needed their homeland church in America
When Egyptian Copts emigrated to various countries, they needed a way to shift the church worship and services they received in Egypt to their new homelands. Having grown up in the U.S., I’ve watched as the Church of Alexandria provided for congregants’ needs, attempting to offer exactly the same as what was offered in Egypt. Arabic-speaking priests who provided mostly Arabic and Coptic worship services, Arabic sermons, Arabic everything. It was mostly a “lift and shift,” from what was in Egypt and bringing it to the lands of immigration.
Congregants began to assimilate to American culture and language
Then the need began to change, because the people attending Coptic churches were changing. Youth who immigrated at a young age were adopting American culture; arguably most notably, the English language. Then there were countless youth born in the land of immigration who felt no ties to their Egyptian homeland or heritage, nor did they feel compelled to seek such ties. Some youth married non-Egyptians and brought them into the church, and here or there a few non-Egyptians converted to Orthodoxy and joined the Coptic Church. Copts growing up in America found themselves in an environment where they felt the call to evangelize and let more people know about Orthodox Christianity, but the church they were going to bring Americans to was so ethnically foreign to them.
Suddenly the Copts found themselves with a dilemma: the former Coptic/Arabic worship service which served the needs of newcomers was failing to appropriately provide for the American cultural makeup of its current generation of congregants, and those to whom Copts sought to evangelize.
English brought into Coptic worship services
Over time, Coptic parishes started introducing more English into worship services. Sermons and Scripture readings were the first to be in English. Then came hymns: taking the Coptic words and tunes and applying them to an English translation.
In the Coptic Diocese of the Southern U.S.A., H.G. Bishop Youssef made a concerted effort to make this the new normal, designating certain individuals to standardize Coptic liturgical hymns in English (and eventually requiring that on Sundays only English and Coptic may be used). But not all hymns were in scope, just the ones that were used most commonly during regular liturgies. Many of the longer hymns, and ones typically reserved for specially occasions, were neglected. So then came another effort by many to record those hymns in English, but efforts were scattered.
Michael Guirguis, a member of the parish in which I grew up, and an excellent servant of the Church, recognized this issue and decided to do something about it. By God’s grace, his efforts at present have led to the place to go for English hymns—coptichymnsinenglish.com—and then in 2015 he spearheaded the effort to establish a formal “English Hymns Committee,” which has received formal support and blessing from all Diocesan and General Bishops in North America and the General Bishop/Papal Exarch in the Archdiocese of North America to standardize English hymns for the entire Coptic Church.
All-English “Mission Churches” to save the day?
Yet Coptic, and often Arabic, persists to be used in many parishes today. In an attempt to provide English-only services to those who are best served in such a manner, “mission churches” have been popping up all over the place. That title, “mission church,” is often regarded as a misnomer since many of those churches simply provide an “all-English” Coptic service, yet evangelistic efforts may be wanting.
THE GREAT DIVIDE: To keep [Coptic], or not to keep … that is the question
At the present time, there still remains an often divisive and passionate line drawn between mainly two viewpoints within the Coptic Church:
- One group considers the Coptic language as fundamental to worship, almost to the extent of regarding it as being imbued with some sense of holiness without which worship is lacking;
- The other group regards the Coptic language as almost entirely useless in worship services and desire that it be eradicated from use in the Coptic Church, considering it to be an unnecessary impediment for both cradle Copts who do not care for it, and for those who are interested in joining Orthodoxy through the Coptic Church.
MY TAKE: HAPPY MEDIUM?
I completely understand the criticisms lodged against the Coptic language, or any foreign language that is used during Church services. Those criticisms hinge on one pivotal aspect: prayer with understanding.
My very first blog post was about that topic: “When Men Should Be Silent in Church, According to the Apostle Paul.” St. Paul centers his focus on “edification”: “Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26).
But he does not say, “Do not use foreign languages.” In fact, he says they can be used so long as there is an “interpreter” (1 Cor. 14:28).
“If anyone speaks in a tongue [Coptic], let there be two or at the most three [languages, like Arabic, Coptic, and English], each in turn, and let one interpret” (1 Cor. 14:27).
The purpose for this workaround is to ensure that we “sing with the spirit” and “also sing with the understanding” (1 Cor. 14:15). But eradicating languages does not seem to be a requirement, so long as interpretation is offered at minimum. Today Coptic Churches have several means by which interpretation is offered (projected on screens, through books, etc.)
But is this optimal? In my opinion, and in the minds of many: no.
However, instead of seeking eradicate or diminish the Coptic language from the Coptic Church, I say there is a better approach:
For those who are edified by the Coptic language, who care to retain their cultural heritage from the time of the ancient Egyptians, they should be accommodated.
And also for those who are edified by an all-English service and are impeded by the Coptic language, they should likewise be accommodated.
Optimally, there should be a distinct service or church dedicated for each. Traditional Coptic churches work for many, but there also needs to be churches (or at least services) offered in English only (or at least, mostly English).
The way things seem to be headed are to establish two churches, both under the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which people can choose between:
- The Coptic Orthodox Church
- The American Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (which I believe so-called “mission churches” should eventually be named and be subsumed into)
The Coptic Orthodox Church should retain the Coptic language and cater to its congregants with English and/or Arabic (or whatever language is spoken).
The American Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria should provide an all-English service, but should go even further and begin to adapt to even more cultural aspects of the community it serves which go far beyond just language. As H.H. Pope Shenouda III indicated, culture in his mind included not just language, but also “music,” “instruments” and “hymns [by which I think he meant musical melodies].”
The next step in my mind after language is to change the tunes of the hymns. They currently utilize notes that are not familiar to most American ears, which notes are not even present on a piano (in fact, the Arabic tone system has about 24 notes, as opposed to the European scale which consists of half—just 12 notes). This is cultural. Why not take the words of the hymns and allow Americans to establish new melodies to them that sound more amenable to their ears? I pray for that day to happen. As H.H. Pope Shenouda III reminded us, when the Copts delivered the faith to the Ethiopians we did not also force upon them hymn melodies, music, instruments, or language, among many other cultural freedoms afforded them. That is why today when you walk into an Ethiopian Orthodox Church you will see much difference between the Copts and Ethiopians with regard to culture, although the faith is the same.
H.G. Bishop Youssef continues to embark on the effort of establishing several parishes under the name of the “American Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria” throughout his diocese (see this blog post for more).
Until those efforts have become more prevalent, traditional Coptic Orthodox Churches must be more accommodating to ensure the edification of all of its congregants, and if that means to minimize Coptic, Arabic, and/or English (or any other language), then so be it.
But to entirely neglect those who love their Coptic heritage and the Coptic language, who feel edified by its use, would be as much a travesty as praying the entire liturgy in Coptic to the impediment of all others.
Neither path is an option, but some middle ground can be chosen to accommodate all within the church, as much as possible. “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Lk 11:42). The Church is working to adapt to new realities in order to nourish all. Be patient, and in the meantime help in make the Church better rather than merely criticizing it as inadequate.