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The Struggle for English in the Church Services

Father Athanasius Iskander

I came to Canada in 1968 as an immigrant from Egypt. I was 30 years old and the church I came to was Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Toronto. The church was established by Father Marcos Marcos four years earlier in 1964. I graduated as a medical doctor from Ain Shams University in Egypt in 1962. I started working within two months after arriving as a resident in the Toronto Western Hospital.

At that time we were moving from one place of worship to another since we did not yet have a church of our own. The services at the church were totally in Arabic and Coptic. The deacons, afraid to lose the church tradition in a foreign land, made sure that every hymn in the book (and even some not in the book) was sung during the Liturgy. Accordingly the Liturgy ended at 1 pm!

In 1970 I got married to a fellow servant, who was finishing her degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto. A year later, she graduated and I obtained my license to practice medicine in Canada and immediately started practicing. A few months later, on Thanksgiving Day, 1971, we got our first child, Frederick Marc. Two years after that in 1973 (again on thanksgiving weekend) we had our daughter, Michelle Elizabeth.

We attended church regularly, and both of us served with Abouna Marcus who was our father in confession, who performed our wedding and who baptized our children. Our children had no problem with the long Arabic/Coptic Liturgy during their early years. We tried hard to keep Arabic as the language of communication. This was successful with Fred, but as soon as Michelle was able to speak they communicated in English. We would speak to them in Arabic, but they would respond in English. We looked for a remedy to this situation and finally we found the answer: Arabic school! They attended two semesters at the Arabic school and the only thing that changed was that they now had a Lebanese accent to their broken Arabic!

In 1978, ten years after I landed in Canada, now a successful physician married to a successful Engineer, with a boy aged 7 and a girl aged 5, I got my first eye opener. My son came to me and said: “Dad, when are you going to teach me the other Arabic?” I said, “What other Arabic?” He answered, “The Arabic we speak in the Liturgy!” It suddenly hit me, whatever effort I would make to keep my children speaking Arabic, they would never be able to understand the classical Arabic of the Liturgy.

The second eye opener came a month later. I was asking Fred, “why do you answer me in English when I speak to you in Arabic?” The answer was a total surprise to me. He politely but firmly told me: “You have to respect the fact that I am Canadian and that my language is English!”

Then came the third eye opener. It was Great Friday, usually a service that started early in the morning and ended late at night, since the deacons would not miss a beat. It was the middle of the service and the deacons, as usual, were fighting about the tunes and which one was more correct. I looked around me and did not see any teenagers. I asked one of the parents and he told me, “They are in the basement.” I went downstairs and asked them how come the are here missing the most solemn service of the church, and one of them angrily told me: “How would you feel if I took you to a Chinese temple and left you there for 10 hours listening to prayers in Chinese?” I had to be honest, so I answered, “I guess I would not like it”. He answered, “That is exactly what you guys are doing to us”, and then added, “This is your church not our church”. I went upstairs and looked around me, and for the first time I noticed that no youths between 17 and 25 attended the service except for a few who had recently come from Egypt.

We decided to outreach this age group, but then the ugly truth became apparent: in the 10 years since I came to Canada, we had managed to lose one whole generation of youth. I attempted to phone some of them only to be told, “please do not call this number again, I no longer belong to this church”. Some were so hostile and rude that I found that it was futile to continue with this. I started worrying about my kids. It was not difficult to imagine what would happen to them 10 years later if nothing was done to remedy the situation.

I spoke to Father Marcos about the necessity to introduce some English to the service. He called for a public meeting to discuss this. I was the only proponent, and the rest of the congregation was adamant that no such thing be allowed. Leading the attack against my proposal were the deacons. One of the most vocal opponents was married to a Canadian lady. This lady argued that singing the liturgy in English would make it lose its spirituality! A grandfather was vehemently attacking me, and when I reminded him that his grandchildren did not speak a word of Arabic, he told me: “My grandchildren can go to hell as long as I enjoy my Arabic Liturgy!” My proposal was utterly rejected.

I had experimented on my own with trying to see if some of the people’s responses could be sung in English, while keeping the Coptic tune exactly. One time after the liturgy I spoke to my fellow deacons, asking them to tell me the meaning of the Coptic Gospel response “O-oonia too khen oo-methmi: ni eth-owab enté pai ého-oo.” Not a single one of them knew the answer. I asked them, how can you sing to God a hymn that you do not understand, while in the Psalms we are told “Sing to the Lord with understanding?” They all looked to the floor. I then started to sing the tune in English “Blessed are they, in truth, the saints of this day.” I had been rehearsing it with my children, who knew how to sing it with a few other hymns that I practiced with them. They finally agreed to sing this one response only!

Over the next two years it was a one-man crusade that earned me the hatred of my fellow deacons and most of the congregation, and the pickings were slim. Shortly after that, the recently ordained Bishop Reweis came to visit Canada, which he did often. I had known Bishop Reweis since he was Abouna Metias El Souriany, when he studied at the university of Toronto. He often visited us in our house in Ancaster, Ontario, where my children would sit on his lap. We had a wonderful friendship. One day during his visit, I stormed into the room where he was sitting alone and in total frustration I told him: “You know Sayedna that myself, Your Grace and Abouna Marcos will all go to hell?” He was startled but as usual very quietly asked, “Why?” I told him, “Because of the children that we are losing on a daily basis!” I then laid my case before him: “Unless we seriously start to adopt English in the service we will lose the new generations!” He told me: “I agree!” He then asked me about the steps needed to do this and I said: “First we need a good translation of the Liturgy.” There was at the time a ridiculous translation that was done by a linguist who did not understand the liturgy, and literally translated from the Arabic with disastrous results. I then offered to do a translation if I were given permission by His Grace. He agreed.

It was 1980 and His Holiness the late Pope Shenouda III appointed a priest for Cambridge [later relocated to Kitchener], a city about one and a half hour drive west of Toronto. Father Marcos, with whom I had a very close relationship, asked me to stop serving in St. Mark’s Church in Toronto, and go to serve in St. Mary’s Church in Cambridge in order to help the new priest. I agreed and actually was in the reception of the new priest at the airport, making sure he had a decent place to stay and and all the necessities of life that a new comer would need. I also started working very hard on producing a reasonable translation of the Liturgy of Saint Basil, complete with the responses and hymns, and printed a few copies. Meanwhile, I had perfected fitting the English responses to the Coptic tunes and rehearsed them with my two children for all occasions: Advent, Lent, Annual and Festive. The new priest was gracious enough to allow me to experiment with the new Liturgy using the small congregation, who reluctantly allowed both the priest and myself to introduce a little English into the Liturgy. The children in that small congregation were ecstatic, and we had training sessions with my children. As soon as we learn a response or a little hymn, we would introduce it during the next liturgy.

In 1981 I received the call to the priesthood, and in March 27, 1981 I was ordained as the first priest of the Church of Virgin Mary and Saint Athanasius in Mississauga. I was determined to introduce a fair amount of English into the service of that church. On the last night of the 40 day seclusion in Anba Bishoy monastery, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III sat with me for a long time, and he started the discussion by saying: “they tell me that you know English well” I answered, “yes your Holiness” He then told me: “In this case I want you to be a priest for the youth!” Nothing could have made me happier! He continued: “I want your Liturgy to be in English, and I want your sermon to be in English” He then explained: “If you do the service in Arabic the kids will not like it and they will leave the church, and out there they will find dozens of churches that have services in English, and we will lose them. While if your service is in English, the grown-ups will be upset. But if they try other churches, they will find the service there in English and they will say, we might as well stay in the church we grew up in.” He also told me to use the Old language in addressing God and gave me an example of Our Father Who art in Heaven, that it is never said in modern English. He asked me to study the fathers of the Church and to teach them to the youth. I showed His Holiness the Liturgy book that I had translated, and he gave me permission to use it.

During the 40 days in the monastery I found my first two priorities for translation: Midnight praise and the Vigil service of Holy Saturday, which I attended for the first time in my life in the monastery, and which I quickly figured out would be a hit with the youth if translated into English.

I returned to my church on the eve of the feast of Saint Athanasius, 1981. Armed with His Holiness directives, I told my congregation that the service would be half in English and half in Arabic, and that is how we started. The children in the congregation quickly memorized the tunes and became very active in the responses. There was no great resistance from the deacons, who only a few years ago had fought against my earlier attempts to introduce English when we all served together in Saint Mark’s Church in Toronto. I guess their kids had grown, and started arguing with them that they do not understand the Arabic service.

I worked hard at translating the midnight praise and at the same time trying to practice fitting the English to the Coptic tune. My son, now 10 years old, was helping me. I also worked hard at translating the Joyous Saturday service. I found a translation of the deuterocanonical books of the Bible and started photocopying, cutting and pasting the readings. I added the parts from the Midnight Praise, and there were a few other hymns and responses that I had to translate. Finally, just before Pascha week in 1982, a little booklet was ready. The problem was that in those days we used to rent a school gymnasium for our Sunday services and no one would rent us a gym from midnight. So, I decided to hold the service in the basement of my house. I announced that the service would be in English at my house. All the children attended together with the deacons, and we had the service totally in English. The kids were thrilled. They called it “the most fun night of the year!”

I continued refining the Tasbeha and correcting the tune with my son. In translating the Tasbeha, I decided to keep a little of the Coptic flavour in it, so I kept the refrains in Coptic. For example: “O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good. Alleluia: je pef nai shop sha eneh” and “I sought after Thee with all my heart: pa chois isos arivoithin eroi”. As ordered by His Holiness, I kept the use of old English and to my surprise, the kids had no problem with it. By 1983, my son and I could sing midnight praise perfectly in English, and we started teaching the other kids. I thought that we should offer our experience to the 15 or so other churches in North America, so I made a tape of the English Tasbeha, together with my 12 years old son Fred. I sent a copy of the tape together with a copy of the booklet to the other churches. The tape became so popular that it was duplicated and found its way into various parts of the world. I have two anecdotes about the tape that I would like to tell. In 1990, while in the monastery of Anba Bishoy as a member of the Liturgy translation committee set up by His Holiness the late Pope Shenouda III, one of the monks told me: “We have an Australian tape of the Tasbeha in English in our bookstore!” I was curious, so I purchased a copy and played it on my tape recorder. It turned out to be the tape that I made with my son 7 years ago! The second anecdote takes us to 1994. I was then serving in Kitchener and our church hosted the youth convention for Central Canada that year. The speakers were H.G. Bishop Mousa, H.G. Bishop Thomas and the newly ordained H.G. bishop Suriel of Melbourne Australia, whom I had never seen before. Someone told me that Anba Suriel was looking for me. I found him in one of the corridors and introduced myself and he told me: “I just wanted to tell you that I learned the Tasbeha from your tape!” It turned out that one of the 15 priests to whom I sent the tape in 1983 was serving in San Francisco, and was transferred to Australia, and he took the tape with him, copied it and distributed it to the other priests in Australia, who in turn re-copied it and distributed it to the youth, including His Grace before his ordination. Someone later took a copy and gave it to the monk in charge of the bookstore in Anba Bishoy monastery, who re-copied it and offered it for sale as the “Australian English Tasbeha.”

The church in Mississauga started to grow, and many new families were joining the church all the time. Of course the happiest members of the congregation were the children. They were empowered, and felt that this church belongs to them. Gone were the days when a 15 years old boy would tell me, “this is your church not our church”. Incidentally, this boy is now a successful physician who is among the servants of the church in Mississauga. But the work had just started. There was a lot missing yet.

One New Years Eve, we had a meeting at the church and the grown ups were singing Arabic hymns appropriate for the New Year like, “Kallaltal sanata begoudeka” (Thou crownest the year with Thy goodness). Everybody was happy but the children. They felt the joy their parents were having singing the hymns but they were excluded. They neither could read nor understand the hymns. The practice in other churches was to transliterate the Arabic hymns into English letters, and force the kids to sing them. Wherever I went the servants would proudly parade their Arabic singing kids and every one applauded. I used to watch the kids who were singing, and unlike their parents who had joy singing those hymns, those kids looked pathetic and uninterested. To me, this amounted to child abuse! And so, another priority presented itself: a Coptic Hymnal!

I wanted hymns that both the grown-ups and their children could sing together. This excluded the Protestant hymns that you hear on the Christian radio stations, and you can buy on tapes from Christian bookstores that were so popular in all our Coptic churches in North America. I figured out that if I could translate some of the most popular Arabic hymns and fit them to the tune, that would be a step in the right direction. Many people attempted this but they missed the point. First they tried as hard as they can to produce a literal word for word translation of the Arabic, which sometimes does not convey the intended meaning of the hymn. Second, the translated hymns did not rhyme and were not metered. The result was an awkward composition that did not fit the tune and the kids had to sing them but never enjoyed them.

I had to produce hymns that are rhymed and metered and which hugged the original tune, and in the same time would mean something to the kids. I needed something that the kids would enjoy singing and I had stiff competition from the Protestant hymns they heard on the radio. One thing that we needed to include in the hymnal was a Veneration for the Virgin Mary so that we can sing a Veneration in English. My son and I cooperated in writing one, and included it in the hymnal. The hymnal was printed for first time in 1984. Now the kids had some orthodox hymns they could sing in their meetings.

The production of the hymnal was truly a work of the grace of God. I would toil fruitlessly for weeks trying to translate a hymn, and then it would come to me within hours. One of the hymns that I really wanted to translate was the Arabic hymn Qama Haqqan Qama Ra-esso ssalam. I tried several times but was unsuccessful. One time, I had a guest priest and his wife spending the night with me. We went to bed late that night. Around 5 am I woke up to find the verses sung in my head. I quietly made it to my office and started writing. With a little editing the whole hymn was finished just before my guests woke up. Here are a few verses of that beautiful hymn:

Truly risen / is the Lord / King of heaven. / Alleluia. Alleluia. / He is risen.

Very early / Sunday morning / Mary went / To the tomb with / spices and sweet ointment.

And behold the / angel rolled the / stone away / For the Lord had / risen early / in the day.

You will notice that it rhymes and is metered, and if you know the tune to the Arabic you will find that the lyrics effortlessly hug the tune. You will also notice that it is not a literal word-for-word translation that would make it awkward to sing. And it came to me effortlessly by the grace of God.

Another time we were driving to Montreal to visit family. Midway while I was driving, another hymn that I was trying to work on started to be sung in my head. I asked my wife if she had a sheet of paper but she didn’t. She told me that there was a paper towel though and I told her, “OK use it”. I started to dictate and she wrote. I then asked my two children, then 11 and 13 years to help me refine it. All four of us were singing the finished hymn before we reached Montreal.

I used to celebrate the three primary Feasts of the Lord by chanting the beautiful Liturgy of Saint Gregory. It hurt me that our children could not enjoy that liturgy since I chanted it in Arabic. That became my next assignment. I translated the Anaphora in 1984 and started chanting it in English. I later translated the rest of the Liturgy and printed it in 1988. That translation is used with very minor changes in the Euchologion published by the diocese of the Southern USA. I later produced a tape of this beautiful liturgy chanted in English that some of my fathers the priests are using even now to learn how to chant it in English.

In September 1989 I left the church of Virgin Mary and Saint Athanasius in Mississauga in order to serve in Saint Mary’s church Cambridge: the church were I served as a deacon, and where I experimented with my translation of the Liturgy of Saint Basil. Soon afterwards, His Holiness the late Pope Shenouda III formed a committee to translate the Liturgy. I spent the month of May 1990 in the monastery of Anba Bishoy working with the committee. I brought my translation that I had already been using since 1980 with me. Working on that project gave me a lot of experience in translating liturgical texts. We had experts in Coptic and Greek and the translation was done from the original Coptic as His holiness directed. We also used the Old English in addressing the deity on account of His holiness orders to do that. Actually the approved translation was first printed using the Old English. Since I was one of the two secretaries of the committee, His Holiness gave me permission to publish the first approved translation of the Liturgy of Saint Basil. The translation was very close to the one I had done earlier except that the committee decided to keep some expressions in their original Greek like Pantocrator and Logos, etc.

Now I had to harmonize the translation of the Midnight praise and the Liturgy of Saint Gregory with the newly translated Liturgy of saint Basil, which I did.

The church of Saint Mary in Cambridge was much smaller church than the one in Mississauga, and that was a blessing. I now had time to pursue two very important services. The first one was to serve in far away places in Canada where there were a few families but no churches. Those families knew that I could pray the liturgy and give a sermon in English, and that was what they looked for. I used to go to these places once a month. In a short time I found myself travelling every Friday to a different city where I would pray a liturgy on Saturday and then fly back after Liturgy to be in Kitchener for Vespers.

The second thing that I was able to pursue was to write. In March 1990 I started publishing Parousia, an English periodical. There were other periodicals that had an English section, but these were either translations (usually poor) of articles by His Holiness, or cut and paste articles from other Western publications. Parousia had original articles.

Many of the articles published in Parousia were series dealing with a particular topic. Many of these series were later published as books. A series under the title “Understanding the Liturgy”, published between September 1993 and March 1997 was published as a book with the same name in September 2001.

Another series titled “The Abomination of Desolation” published between September 1997 and January 2003 was published as a book with the same name in January 2003.

A third series titled “Practical Spirituality” published between June 2004 and January 2005 was published as a book with the same name in February 2005. This book was translated into Arabic, Portuguese and Amharic and is sold almost all over the world, even in Japan!

The final series titled “Science, Genesis and Creation” was published between March and July 2007 and was published as a book titled Creation in September 2011. Most of these books are available for free download on our website www.smcoc.ca

Many other single topic articles were interspersed in between the series. The most popular ones were recently published in a book titled Parousia in June 2013. It is also available for download from our web site.

I also continued to translate the rest of the liturgical services. Some of these were already published by scholars from the West in obscure periodicals long before. I asked my fathers the priests in North America to help me find them in nearby university libraries, and after comparing them with the Coptic I printed and started using them. Among the services that I printed and used were the services for baptism, weddings, funerals, Anointing of the sick, the Lakkane services, the Kneeling service for Pentecost, and the Liturgy of St. Cyril. All of these services are done in English now. My rationale for doing this was the following: anything we do not translate and use will be forgotten as time passes by. My deacons now are very familiar with all of these services in English and should I depart, I trust that the tradition will be carried on by my children in the Lord.

When I first came to Kitchener I started by praying the Liturgy half in English and half in Arabic, and gradually worked my way up to 75% English. I did the sermon half in English and half in Arabic. It was a day in May 1994 and His Grace Anba Reweis was visiting the families in Kitchener. One of the families we visited had four children, two of whom were teenagers. The mother was telling Anba Reweis how happy every one was with the services in English. But she had one complaint: “As long as you are praying in English the kids are holding their liturgy books and following. As soon as you switch to Arabic they leave the books, and when you go back to English they cannot follow back.” Then she added: “Why don’t you pray the whole liturgy in English so that the kids are not confused?” Anba Reweis then told me: “Do as she says!”

I usually do not take major decisions before praying and asking for God to reveal His will to me. So I kept the matter in my prayer. By the end of 1994 I became comfortable with the idea. So, on New Year’s Eve I told the congregation what this lady had told me, and what His Grace Anba Reweis had told me. I then told them that my new years resolution is to have an all-English service: both the Liturgy and the sermon. It took me 14 years to fulfill His Holiness Pope Shenouda’s direction to me: “I want your Liturgy in English and I want your sermon in English”

In the beginning a lot of people were dismayed, but I persisted in the face of opposition. It took nearly two years for the opposition to subside. One of the most vocal opponents to the all-English service went to Egypt for a visit two years after I started the all-English service. He had two children who were born and raised in Egypt. He came back to tell me that the children went once to the church in which they were raised up and then told their parents: “We will not go to church until we are back in our church in Kitchener.” He became converted. Another deacon who was very enthusiastic about the traditional Arabic/Coptic liturgy came back from Egypt about the same time to tell me: “Something strange happened when I went to my church in Egypt. I didn’t enjoy the Arabic Liturgy!”

But going all-English did not mean to abandon our Coptic heritage. I insisted that long hymns be sung in their original languages. For example, Agios O Theos, Ke Iperto, O Monogenes, etc., are still sung in Greek in perfect tune, and by deacons who are mostly born in Canada. Similarly, the Verses of the Cymbals, the Hiten Ni’s, Khen ef Ran, and Ep Ooro etc., are still sung in Coptic and in perfect tune. Ifrahi ya Mariam and Ayoha rrabu are still sung in broken Arabic.

One problem remained; the congregation was still not welcoming to people from other cultures. An example for this is a Coptic priest-monk who has a mission in India, who was a Muslim convert but joined our church and was baptized and ordained a reader by His Grace Bishop Reweis, and later was ordained a hegumen by H.E. Metropolitan Seraphim. He used to visit our church during Lent and the Holy week. Since he received the rites of the Liturgy during a 40-day seclusion in a Coptic monastery, he was able to participate with me in performing the Eucharist. People accepted his service, took communion from him and kissed his hands and yet there was nill social interaction with him. No one invited him to his house to have a cup of tea simply because he was Indian! I had to address this.

I called for a meeting one evening and in order to bolster the attendance I promised an Ice cream desert after the meeting! The church hall was packed. I started by telling them: “If an unknown priest from a village in Upper Egypt would come to visit us for two weeks, each one of you would ask him to have dinner at his house or spend a night with his family. Meanwhile, we have a Coptic priest who stays with us for two months every year, and yet no one invites him to have a meal in his house during Lent, and you leave him to live on pita bread and hummus, or open a can of fool, simply because he is not Egyptian.” I then added; “Well, I have news for you: in a few years your daughter will bring in an Italian guy and tell you she wants to marry him, and your son will bring you a Chinese girl and tell you I want to marry her, and if we do not start welcoming people from other cultures then we are in big trouble.” It actually worked! The people started inviting the Indian priest, driving him to the supermarket to buy some necessities and even insisting on paying for them!

This opened the door for the several conversions that followed. Young people who befriended our Coptic university students noticed them talking about their church, and they showed interest in attending one of the services. I always advised our young people to invite them to the S&G fellowship, a bi-weekly meeting for university students and graduates. Many of them became regulars, and later asked me if they can join the church. Catechism usually lasted between 6 months and one year depending on their previous knowledge of Christianity, or lack thereof! Within a few years we had converts from among Protestants, Catholics and even Muslims! Many of these became servants later on, after attending our rigorous service training program, which is very rich in Patristics. H.H.Pope Shenouda III commanded me to study the Fathers and teach them to the youth, and by the grace of God, I succeeded in raising a generation of servants who are familiar with the Fathers of the church as well as the Fathers of the desert, and can quote them in their Sunday School lessons!

There are many Eritrean families in our area, and even though they have a church in the area, their children, raised in Canada, started to rebel against the all Eritrean service they did not understand. They started to trickle into our English speaking church. As the years went by, the trickle became a flood, so much so that in some Sunday school classes half the kids are Eritreans. Some of the kids and a few grown-ups were ordained singers and started to serve with our own kids and sing in English, Coptic, Greek and Arabic. Two of these singers are very consistent in attendance and sometimes in a liturgy on a weekday they would be the only ones who serve with me since our own are either attending university or are at work, or simply not as committed. The Church now is a microcosm of the Canadian society, with people from different ethnic background worshipping together, sitting together in the Agape Hall having a sandwich and a cup of coffee, while their children are attending Sunday School.

The amount of acceptance that those “foreigners” received from our people is phenomenal. We have a family of converts who are all Canadian. Both husband and wife and all 5 children are ethnically Canadian. Both husband and wife serve as youth counselors, and the husband is ordained as a singer and serves with us. Sometimes he is among the first to come to church. During the Church Board elections a few years ago, the husband’s name was nominated as a member of the Board and when counting the ballots he got one of the highest votes. He served as secretary of the Board for 4 years.

So finally, we have achieved the goal that I set out to achieve: to have a multicultural, English-speaking, traditionally Coptic church. It was a long and hard struggle that started three years before my ordination and continued throughout the 33 years of my service in the priesthood.

The frightening alternative to this balanced approach is the new trend of “Evangelical Coptic churches”. These started to pop up in major cities in Canada as a reaction to our refusal to adopt English aggressively. These churches usually take an extreme position, excluding any Coptic or Arabic. They are multicultural, English-speaking, but unfortunately neither traditional nor Coptic.