Worship In Silence

By Carolyn Armour

The needs of the deaf in worship

But how are (men) to call upon him in whom they have believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news’”
(Romans 10:14)

If you with your tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world and none is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the languages, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
(I Cor. 14:9)

Although St. Paul was, in this second quotation, referring to people speaking in tongues, his words apply to the experience of the deaf person in church. This experience is reflected in the title of a modern book about deaf people: How You Gonna Get to Heaven if You Can’t Talk with Jesus? Do we as Christians in the twentieth century have some lingering notions about the “spreading of the Word of God” akin to those of St. Augustine? In a recent article in the Resource Handbook, Fr. John Matusiak points out that St. Augustine said that deaf persons cannot be Christians because they cannot “hear the Word.” Fr. Matusiak goes on to say that “it is generally impossible to offer services with sign language interpretations…” and recommends better sound amplification. This would certainly be helpful to those who are experiencing diminished hearing as they grow older. However, are we then saying that the Word of God must be heard to be understood? What of the 1.8 million deaf people in America for whom no amplification in the world would suffice to enable them to hear, much less understand even one sentence of the Word?


Many of us, perhaps most of us, are totally unaware of the magnitude of this problem. There are some 20 million hearing impaired people in this country, some deaf and some partially deaf. Deafness is among the top five physical disabilities in this country. Sign language is the third most used language in the U.S.A. It is not commonly known that many deaf people do not read English well. For them, English is usually a second language with Sign Language their first. Hearing people often assume that deaf people are expert lip-readers. In fact, the reverse is true. Hearing people, with their knowledge of English syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, are often able to guess much more than deaf people.

Even skilled lip-readers under optimal conditions get only about 2596 accuracy.

For the Hearing world the majority of us our ears and our sense of hearing are the main avenues through which we come to know about God. As children, even before we can understand the scriptures, we “overhear” Biblical passages, repeated church readings and music until we can “sing along” almost unconsciously with the choir. Thus, through our ears, we learn the Liturgy by osmosis. Not so with deaf children. No words enter those hearing avenues. They see mouths move, sometimes more rhythmically than other times, but it is impossible to glean any meaning from them.

Listen to the words of Martha: “When I was a child I became deaf. I was 18 months old. My parents were very anxious that I grow up ‘normal’ so I was sent to a school which specialized in teaching speech and lip-reading. It was very difficult for me. Every day my teachers forced me to try to talk over and over again and to watch their mouths. For me, it was impossible to understand the flapping lips and the expressionless faces of the hearing people. I never learned Sign Language until after I graduated from high school. As for church, I understood nothing. Church school was a nightmare of endless boredom and weekend visits with my parents were not much better. We went to church and I sat next to my parents.

They were anxious for me to appear normal, so they never even explained anything. And I, what did I do?...Sleep. Always, I went to sleep. Now that I’m out of school and have learned Sign Language, I understand a lot more about life and the world, and I can communicate with others. I’ve been to church and have seen the Liturgy interpreted into American Sign Language at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Wow! That was wonderful! I walked around the whole rest of the day smiling and smiling just because it was so beautiful. For the first time, I understood what was happening. I was filled with joy!”


Just for a minute, imagine yourself suddenly and completely deafened, and at the same time dropped in the middle of a Chinese speaking society. How would your new family teach you about God, about worship, about sin and forgiveness and salvation and the Kingdom of God, and the Holy Spirit? Or, imagine for a moment that it is your job to teach a deaf child about the Trinity. Just think what the Orthodox Paschal Liturgy might mean to you if you stood in silence, watching while others’ mouths moved, candle-lit shadows flickering across their faces, as they stood for several hours, ate some bread and wine, and went outside the church in the night, holding candles. What might it mean or not mean?

Now imagine that, knowing English, you suddenly lose most of your hearing, but with the help of lip-reading you can usually “catch” what someone is talking about, if not exactly what they say. What happens in Church? Saturday evening Vespers and the lighting effects rule out any attempt to lip read. Readers stand with books held at mid-chest, facing the altar and looking down at the book, effectively obscuring their mouths to all would-be lip readers. The priest stands with his back to the congregation…No hope of lip-reading him. In some churches, during the reading of the Gospel, the choir hums a low tune through-out the reading. Tradition it may be, but hearing aids amplify that low tone too, so the words of the Gospel are lost or obscured. Such experiences in our churches inadvertently contribute to the hearing-impaired person’s sense of isolation.


What is the answer? Should we have separate churches for deaf people where all services are in Sign Language, lights are never turned down, and the choir Signs rather than sings? This is one solution, but it is not really practical. Another solution would be to encourage the use of Sign Language Interpreters. For the past two years at our parish, deaf visitors have been able to participate in the worship when the Liturgy was interpreted into American Sign Language. The enthusiastic reactions of various deaf people have been most encouraging. One said he had been waiting and praying for 35 years, asking God to let him see the Liturgy in Sign Language. Another begged the interpreter to continue studying and never give up working to bring the Gospel to the Deaf because, she said, “Deaf people need the ‘peace that passeth understanding’ even more than the Hearing!”

We all need that “Peace” and we need to encourage our churches to reach out to deaf people by providing skilled Sign Language Interpreters and teachers. Perhaps we could make a video-tape of the Liturgy with both captions and Sign Language interpretation. This could be used to help deaf people learn the Liturgy. We could video-tape lectures with Sign interpretation to teach religious concepts and language. We need to encourage Christian Deaf to develop their own leadership and teaching skills so that they can be integrated into the life of the local parish.

It would be wonderful if all the suggestions in the Resource Handbook were actually put into practice. In our parish we have been trying to encourage the development of Sign Language interpretation of the Liturgy. One of the reasons is that we ourselves have been so thrilled by the feedback we have received from deaf people. We long to hear many more stories like the following:

All my life I went to church, but I had no idea of what was happening. I begged my friend to study Sign Language so she could interpret the Liturgy. Finally it happened. It was Pascha. We went to the church which was very crowded. My interpreter friend and I stood near the front so she could hear everything well. It was really interesting. I learned a lot. My friend explained the meaning of lots of things I had never “heard” before: words like “mercy”, “glory”, “Trinity”, stories about Jonah and the Whale and oh, so many things… And at last, after going to church for 23 years in silence, it all came alive. The priest gave me bread and wine and for the first time in my life I knew that he said to me: “the servant of God, Helen, receives the body and blood of Christ…” Oh, it was so WONDERFUL! And then, a few days later, I met my friend and surprised her. I “signed” to her, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” You see? When I saw the Liturgy signed, I began to understand what Pascha means, what Christianity is really all about.

Carolyn Armour teaches Sign Language at Westchester Community College and at the New York School for the Deaf. She recently spent a week in Czechoslovakia representing the US at an International Festival of Deaf Theatre. Carolyn and her husband, Stewart, attend St. Vladimir’s Chapel, Crestwood, N.Y.