I had ample opportunity to read scripture this past Holy Week, as close as I get any more to “preaching the good news.” During Holy Week, significant sections of the Psalter are read, and the otherwise too rare opportunity to read texts from the Hebrew scriptures is plentiful. As is my custom, I modify the language a bit. I do my best to use “people” or “person” instead of “man” or “men”. In the vesperal Psalm 103 (LXX; 104) I simply use the first-person plural, blessing the Lord for “wine that gladdens our hearts.” Very few of these change originate with me. I have heard them from other readers who are as concerned as I to use language that communicates in the best English possible the inclusive love of the God whom we are worshiping in word and song. A number of years ago, without much forethought (except perhaps through exposure to the Gospel of John and the Letters of the same name) I replaced “brethren” with “beloved” when introducing an Epistle reading. “Brethren”, or αδελφοι, the word we could accurately translate as “brothers and sisters,” is inserted at the beginning of a pericope as a way to clearly address the reading of the day to the gathered men and women in the congregation. One day, getting up to read, I turned towards the congregation, and aware that switching to “brothers and sisters” would perhaps draw too much attention away from the text itself, I simply said “beloved.” I liked it. My priest liked it. It fits. So I still use it.
But as I said, few of my changes originate with me. That is why I am always so surprised when someone comes up to me and says, “I really don’t appreciate you changing the text, you should just read what is there.” That happened this past Holy Week. As usual, my mind began spinning with responses. Do I say, “well, other people do appreciate it” which is true but likely unsatisfying to my critic. Do I engage in a discussion regarding the vagaries of translation, and that the words anthropos and adelphoi in the Greek text virtually always refer to men and women, and that we should therefore use the best English words we have to indicate this inclusion? This is of course a debate about English, not as is often assumed, the “true” meaning of the “original text.” We know what the original text says, and in the Orthodox church we interpret these texts as clearly addressing and inclusive of all men and women, unless of course, the texts specifically refers to men or women, which it rarely does.
As these little snippets of conversation whirled through my head in a subsequent service, I suddenly noticed the English translation of the prayer currently being voiced in Greek by the deacon: “Further, we prayer for our brothers: the Priests, Hieromonks, Deacons Monks and Sisters, and our whole brotherhood in Christ.”1 I am bothered every time I hear this prayer as it usually reads, “…our brothers: the Priests, Hieromonks, Deacons, Monastics, and our whole brotherhood….” No Sisters, just brothers. In the Orthodox tradition, the term “monastics” includes nuns. I often fume in my head, what, we don’t pray for our female ascetics? And what about female deacons (we have a few you know, in Greece, and we will have more in my lifetime). Yet suddenly here, right in front of me, was evidence that some translator or editor noticed the same problem and attempted a fix. It must have been a last-minute edit, since the punctuation is all wrong. And of course, it is still a prayer for “brothers” (not even “brethren” who some argue already is inclusive. Please.). But it includes “Sisters.” A start.
As I read more closely I realized that this edition is full of incomplete changes towards inclusive language. The final dismissal prayer of each service consistently references the God who is “good and loves humankind.” But in other places, “mankind” is used. Sometimes, “forefathers,” at other times, “forebears.” Not only is the text somewhat inconsistent, but our deacon has recently taken to periodically praying for our “fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters” a change for which I am grateful every time I hear it. Perhaps my critic doesn’t notice the deacon’s changes since she doesn’t have the text in front of her. Or perhaps she doesn’t realize that some of those changes are already in the text because she doesn’t read along in English when Greek is spoken. I am strangely gratified to see that this poorly edited liturgy book seeks to address some of language difficulties. The introduction explicitly notes that this translation intentionally tempers some of the anti-Semitic language of the Passion texts, a sorely needed change. Apparently, someone was at least momentarily aware of the problem of language and gender.
I am not saying that I am innocent of initiating changes, or saying that because I can point to a few changes in an “official” book, I am somehow off the hook for doing something perceived by some as so terribly wrong. I am not off the hook for changing the words in front of me to include all those with and for whom I am praying. I have every intention of continuing to make such changes when I am able. I am glad that I am not alone in my efforts.
- 1. Holy Week and Easter, translated by Archimandrite Leonidas C. Contos, p. 448. The purple version.