The Language Debate

Where is our balance between Danish and English? This has been the key to the larger question of where we belong: are we a Danish-as-in-Denmark church in Canada, a Canadian church with a Danish heritage, a Danish–American church, or something else? What are we doing, being an ethnic church in this day and age?

The beginning was in Danish. Our church was founded by Danes who did not feel at home in any local church but wanted to build their own. They wanted to hear the Gospel in Danish and sing the hymns they knew from Denmark.

Then English crept in through the young people. In 1932 Pastor Jørgen Nielsen suggests using English in the youth group, and when the Sunday School opens in 1938, its language is English. During the Depression outsiders were not welcome; the pressure to assimilate was immense. We experimented with two Sunday Services: in Danish in the morning and in English in the evening (reversed on the last Sunday of each month). The many English services were not a success however, and after a few months we cancelled the English evening services.

We almost let the language question determine where we belong. When Pastor Clemens Sørensen in 1945 returned to Denmark, we considered calling a pastor from the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the hope that a North-American pastor would better be able to handle both languages. In 1950, when Pastor Sørensen’s successor, Pastor Rudolph Arendt, returned to Denmark, we voted 34 to 33 against cutting all ties to Denmark and joining the Canadian Lutheran Church. Indeed, in 1946/47 Pastor Arendt predicted that our church would convert completely to English within a few years and that the Danish mission work in Vancouver thus would be superfluous—unless new immigrants came.

Then, in the 1950’ies, the immigrants came; they came in droves. Pastor Peder Kronborg struggled to help the newcomers settle in, and our church struggled with its identity in the face of the new congregation. The youth group split along language lines and healed again; we could not agree on how many services to have in English, so we let Pastor Kronborg decide. In the end the immigrants, the “new” Danes, won out; in 1958 we firmly (107 to 3) decided to stay Danish with Dansk Kirke i Udlandet, and by 1965 the board has the courage to ask Dansk Kirke i Udlandet to send Pastor Arnold Vang’s successor without first seeking the congregation’s approval.

Continuing a Danish church in English required hymnals. By 1964 we have only 57 copies of Hymnal for Church and Home, a hymnal published by the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Synods in America in the 1920’ies. We appealed to the formerly Danish churches in America, and they donated about 100 copies that they after numerous mergers no longer used. These hymnals lasted till the end of the millennium; then we published our own hymnal, Grant me, God, the Gift of Singing, of English translations of (mostly) Danish hymns.

Language continues to be a difficult issue for us. The large immigration in the 1950’ies is long over and we slowly drift toward using more English in our services and in our daily lives. I disagree, however, with Pastor Arendt’s evaluation that a transition toward English implies an end to the rôle of a Danish church in Vancouver. I disagree at any rate if you transplant Pastor Arendt’s evaluation from the late 1940’ies to the present church. True, the large originally Danish churches down south in the all American melting pot have been almost completely assimilated. Yet, here in the Canadian cultural mosaic a Danish church may very well continue to exist to God’s glory for many generations to come.