I recently attended a wedding in Tennessee. While that, in and of itself, is not unusual (there are weddings every day in Tennessee), this one was perhaps more out of the ordinary for most folks from these parts. For, this wedding took place in a Coptic Orthodox Church.
Immediately, upon entering, my mind returned to days past in Egypt, because it was not my first visit to a Coptic church, nor my first wedding in one. The familiar smell of incense is the first clue you are not in a Baptist church; while the icons on the wall, the ornately-carved wood altar, and dark red curtain across the front are also signs of the rich history carried through the ages.
Yet there was something foreign to this place, and it was not what the other Tennessee Baptists were seeing, as they took in the sights. No, for me it was the addition of multiple television monitors along the walls. Here, in the ancient Orthodox Church, modernity had arrived. That was definitely something I had yet to see in a church at the heart of Orthodoxy.
As the service started, there was yet one more startling revelation to this experience. The Mass was translated into three languages. Not only were there the Coptic and Arabic readings, but English too, had been added. I had known for years that services were given in both Coptic and Arabic, since Arabic was obviously the stronger of the languages in most households. Now the Church was adjusting once more to change in order to reach a new generation of congregants.
The ultimate shock to my system that day, however, was not to be the addition of a new “written” language, but when the priest began chanting in English as well. I smiled to myself as I thought of the significance of what I was witnessing — A Church, established by the Apostle Mark, has endured through the centuries because it maintained a connection to her people. For those who could not read, the icons were their source of teaching and theology. For those who could not understand the Coptic language, which is derived from hieroglyphics, Arabic was added. Now, for those who can understand neither Coptic or Arabic — English bridges the gap to God.
When the Church fails to speak the language of the people — the vernacular — she fails to effectively share the most important message: In the beginning, was the Word. I’m thankful for a “flexible” Orthodox Church. I’m thankful for Martin Luther. I’m thankful for my English Bible. I’m thankful for the Living Word.
Grace and Peace