Archaic English


My children and I were received into the Orthodox Church in a Greek Orthodox parish in another state. Much of the Liturgy and almost all of Vespers was in English.

We now attend an OCA mission parish in our new city and while all the services are in English I am dismayed at the archaic Elizabethan style translation of the liturgical services (the “thees” and “thys” and accompanying verb endings, i.e., “prayeth,” etc.).

I am concerned that my children will have to learn archaic English to praise God and will associate the Liturgy and Church as something distinct from real life. Teaching them prayers is made more difficult by also having to teach them all that goes with Elizabethan language. I realize that translation issues are a sensitive subject but why doesn’t the Church update the text of services by a simple changing of “thees” and “thys” to “you” and “your” with corresponding verb endings?


In 1967 the OCA published an official translation of the Divine Liturgy. The style of the text, if I am not mistaken, was based on that of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, from which all direct passages of Scripture are taken.

I believe that a principle followed in this Liturgy translation was to use Thee and Thou in reference to God, while you is employed in every other instance. The translation is not, however, archaic Elizabethan style English. I have used this translation for the nearly 25 years that I have been ordained and never once have I encountered anyone state that they cannot understand the words. My children and their friends, who are all now in their early 20s, grew up on the translation, and I am happy to say that all of them are still active in the Church to this day. [Of course, there are many other elements that are involved in keeping a child active in the life of the Church once they become adults, such as a sense of belonging to the community, a solid Orthodox identity, participation in worship through congregational singing, where possible, positive experiences within the life of the Church, etc.]

Despite the fact that the OCA has an official translation, it has never been imposed or forced on local parishes, and other translations do indeed exist and are used in various places.

For example, His Eminence, Archbishop Dmitri published a translation of the Liturgy in the early 1970s which follows the style of the King James Version. This, I believe, is widely used in the Diocese of the South, of which he is the bishop. In the Diocese of the Midwest there is a translation project underway at present which has produced working translations of the Liturgy, Matins and Vespers in contemporary English. While these translations have been distributed to all clergy of the diocese for review and input, they have not been forced on the parishes. I have seen many other so-called contemporary versions in which the Thees and Thous were replaced with you without adjusting the rest of the texts! [In one instance I saw a translation—actually a paraphrase, I am sure!—which surprisingly read in one place, “You didst descend into the depths of the earth…” which, of course, is simply awful! The person who produced it insists that, since no one uses Thee or Thou, no one can possible understand the English text unless these are replaced with you. Of course, he completely missed the point that one must also evaluate the use of the word didst in the process, being convinced that by simply replacing Thee with you we will solve the Church’s problems!]

In recent years, the transition to a more contemporary English seems to be taking place. New texts issued by the OCA, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and elsewhere seem to abandon the use of Thee and Thou while retaining a certain elegance of style.

So I would say that we are in somewhat of a period of transition right now with the following considerations at hand:

Despite the presence of an official Liturgy translation, parishes and clergy are not forced to employ it, and a wide variety of translations are in use in various places. [Perhaps the parish you attend is not, in fact, using the official translation, since you mention that Elizabethan style is employed there and the offical translation, while based on the RSV translation, is not Elizabethan.]

A few of the many considerations in producing new translations are

avoiding a style that is so simple it seems “dumbed down,” like many of the contemporary Roman Catholic or Episcopalian texts which often approach the “See Jane run” style [for example, rendering “Blessed are the meek” as “Happy are the meek” just might cross the line here!]

retaining a sense of formality while avoiding undue familiarity

providing an accurate translation, not only in terms of the words but in terms of the concepts and thought being expressed

producing a text that “works” when sung

maintaining a consistency in translations of services other than the Divine Liturgy [I have visited parishes where one translation of the Beatitudes is used during the Liturgy while a completely different translation is used during the Funeral Service.]

avoiding the notion that translations must not only be contemporary in terms of style, but also in terms of terminology—i.e., replacing “mankind” with “humankind,” “son” with “child,” etc. [I once saw a translation in which Christ did not healthe “blind” man but, rather, the “man who had lost his sight.” It was explained that the term “blind” can be offensive to the visually challenged!]

It is only my personal opinion, but I think there is a danger in thinking that all one needs to do to ensure that everyone, whether adults or children, will remain active in the life of the Church merely through the use of English or a particular style of English. There are parishes which have used English for decades and yet have reported tremendous losses in membership for various reasons, while there are other parishes which still use a percentage of another language or which use Elizabethan English which are growing at a rapid pace. Clearly, this makes a case for the importance of other elements in the life of a parish community in retaining and attracting members.

I have also seen the argument that the more traditional forms of liturgical English are not beyond the learning ability of the average individual. The logic here is that a child, for example, can readily learn and assimilate new vocabulary in school. This, of course, happens every day in an educational setting. One studies biology or medicine, for example, and has to learn a whole set of new terms and words; no one calls for simplifying biological or medical terms because they are not a part of everyday street language or because one should not have to learn new words in order to study a particular discipline that is more aptly expressed in specific language. In fact, we expect our children to learn such things, and we express dismay when they do not, telling them, “You don’t know that word? Look it up in the dictionary!” When applied to the Church, the argument goes that people are equally capable of assimilating new or different words or terms, such as “Thou didst descend.” [A humorous note: I once encountered a priest who said that it would be unthinkable for the medical world to abandon the term “metastasize” simply because a patient’s family is unfamiliar with the term. It would change “I am very sorry, Mrs. Smith, but your husband’s cancer has metastasized” with “I am sorry, Mrs. Smith, but your husband’s cancer is spreading faster than a California mudslide.”]

The OCA maintains a standing translations committee which is continually evaluating and reevaluating such matters. While the 1967 translation was issued under the “official” label, it is not an end all, and it is generally accepted that a new translation needs to be issued—hopefully one which would be standard throughout all Orthodox jurisdictions. [The pan-Orthodox Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops several years ago, if I recall correctly, produced a Liturgy translation which, if adopted, would be the norm in all jurisdictions. bThe provisional text was sent out to many for review and recommendations, but nothing more has been heard of the project.] Until such time as a standard, official translation of the Liturgy, as well as the many other liturgical texts, appears, it seems that every parish will continue to employ whatever translation it sees fit, at the expense of uniformity.

Sorry to have rambled, but the issue is a complicated one. Not being qualified to produce translations, I cannot give the definitive answer, but I hope the above considerations provide a framework in which to examine the task at hand.