Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Just what changes can be made to the liturgy?

Having addressed the first seven major criticisms levelled at the liturgy by the impious monks at New Skete in our previous posts, and also in our last post, two valid concerns, it seems fitting to look at the question of liturgical reform from another perspective.

Regarding the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, referred to within the Roman church and in general liturgical scholarship rather conveniently as the Byzantine Rite, the short answer is: none.

To be more precise, it would be a great destruction of our sacred heritage to modify the text of the existing service books in any way, to simply or reconstruct the liturgy, particularly to suit modern or ecumenical preferences and the declining personal piety of contemporary clergy.  Celebrating the liturgy in all its mystical splendour attracts congregants; watering it down alienates them.  Offering frequent services throughout the week at convenient times allows for a more full observance of the Typikon; omitting services such as midweek liturgies and Saturday vespers, and All Night Vigils, shoehorns everyone into having to make the one main Sunday Divine Liturgy, and if one cannot, for whatever reason, attend that one service, one is essentially out of luck.

This takes us to my primary point: while we cannot change the Byzantine liturgy in any way without doing damage to a priceless tradition, the grandest and most ornate of liturgies, and the one that is in many respects furthest removed from heresy and Christological controversy, we can improve the way we celebrate the existing services.   If we view the watered down approach of New Skete (aside from their commendable efforts to restore the Cathedral Typikon, the use of the Hagia Sophia before the fall of Constantinople), and the extremely abbreviated and diluted services of the OCA and the Antiochian church as the examples to avoid, and the traditional services in the great monasteries: Mount Athos, St. Catherine's in Sinai, Valaam, as the examples to aspire to, and are prepared to use some imagination in making the monastic level of liturgical service available to ordinary parishes, we can improve the manner in which the Byzantine Rite is celebrated.  Thus, we are not reforming in any way the liturgy, rather, we are reforming ourselves, by seeking to conform more closely to the Typikon, in all its splendor. 

From my perspective, improvements in the way we celebrate the liturgy could include:
  • Using the Third and Sixth Hours as the basis for a proper preaching service, with congregational singing of the appointed psalms, following a clearly annunciated, and not chanted, review of all of the daily scripture lessons, that have previously been read at Vespers, and will be read in the Divine Liturgy.   This frees up the clergy to chant the Prophecy, Epistle and Gospels in the liturgical languages (Church Slavonic, Koine Greek, Classical Georgian) without fear of comprehension.
  • Any time the parish has a long lunch following a Divine Liturgy on a Sunday, such as on a major feast day, the Ninth Hour should be celebrated.   In fact, every opportunity for parishioners to hear this most sublime office throughout the year should be taken; the monastic practice of beginning the All Night Vigils with it is most commendable, and ought to be adopted in parishes.
  • The use of beautiful green vestments should not be limited to Palm Sunday and Pentecost, but should be used on feasts of Confessors, as is presently the practice in many parishes.  Where this is not the practice, it should be made universal, so as to provide a more diverse array of color within the service.   For that matter, dark red vestments ought to be used more frequently as an alternative to black vestments, which are a late innovation; while I myself find the black vestments we use on Weekdays and in Lent beautiful, they have only been in use since 1821, and the use of dark red in alternation with black as Lent progresses would be most historically appropriate.  One might also dare to suggest that given the frequency with which red vestments are used throughout the year, during the Nativity Fast, it might not be entirely inappropriate to adopt western custom and use our beautiful purple and violet Vestments, otherwise used only in Lent.   In this manner, the variation of color in the parishes might be more evenly distributed, as well as the level of wear on specific vestments. 
  • Given the frequency with which gold vestments are used, every effort should be made to ensure that they are as elegant and beautiful as possible.  Parishes and priests ought to own multiple sets of these, in a diverse array of patterns, and rotate them to reduce wear; I have come to abhorr the dreadful sight of faded and threadbare gold vestments, which have changed to a faded and sickening yellow color, especially among deacons and in the paraments.
  • Some parishes, particularly in the Ruthenian tradition, use orange vestments as the default between the Apostle's Fast and Transfiguration; I find this an interesting custom that might deserve wider application, in parishes that can afford another set of paraments, and for priests that can afford another set of vestments.
  • The mystical character of every part of the Divine Liturgy should be intensified; priests should be encouraged to recite, as appropriate, Patristic homilies, or intone the great metrical homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist, et cetera.
  • Owing to the immense complexity of Orthos, or Matins, and the fact that it is commonly abbreviated in the same place, many people seldom or never hear certain parts of the service.  I propose that the abbreviations in Matins be done on a revolving basis, that over the course of time people may come to appreciate the service in its entirety.  Of course, this increases the demand on the choir and the clergy, but I feel its worth it, rather than the travesty of simply leaving most of the service as a theoretical liturgy that exists on paper but in practice, like the full 10 hour All Night Vigils, is never actually celebrated.
  • Urban parishes should follow the highly successful example of churches in central London and New York by offering convenient midday services to office workers throughout the week; suburban parishes should provide early morning and evening services instead.  In this manner, the neglected midweek portions of the Divine Office, and the Divine Liturgy, can be celebrated.
  • The restoration of the disused Divine Liturgies of St. James, St. Mark and St. Peter, with St. James being available as an alternative to St. Basil on Holy Saturday (given that the most visible difference between the two liturgies, the use of the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, instead of the Cherubic Hymn, already tilts in favor of St. James, and the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem strongly suggest this was the ancient practice), St. Mark being used on the feasts of the Evangelist and other heroes of Alexandria, such as Athanasius and Cyril, and the Sundays following their feasts, and St. Peter being used during midweek services which are by nature pressed for time, owing to its shorter length.   Additionally, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil might be used in fasting seasons other than Lent.  This would have the effect of emphasizing the sublime, triumphant character of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is the finest liturgical composition known to man, and is neglected to a large extent in Orthodox parishes due to overuse; people simply take it for granted, and fail to appreciate its full beauty.   A slight reduction in its use would have the effect of illuminating its brilliant splendour as if with a giant spotlight.
  • The Violakes edition of the Typikon of the Great Church should be phased out, in favor of a return to the Typikon of St. Savas, which remains the norm in monastic settings and most of the Slavonic churches.   The Typikon of the Great Church, while a good idea in theory, was not well executed, and has attracted widespread criticism, from die-hard Old Calendarists to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.   It has many rough edges, such as the rather peculiar reading of the Matins Gospel between the Eigth and Ninth Odes, changes described by Ware as "ill-advised."  In a certain level, it could be seen as prefiguring the disastrous and divisive liturgical changes of the 20th century, such as the adoption of the equally problematic Revised Julian Calendar by a minority of Orthodox churches. 
  • Congregational singing in the Divine Liturgy is best avoided, except in communities that have the discipline and simple hymnody that makes this possible, for example, the Russian Old Ritualists. Congregational singing of the appointed Psalms and other hymns in an expanded service of the Hours, even with the accompaniement of an organ, if one exists (and I anticipate in the years to come, as mainline denominations contract, the Orthodox will acquire many fine churches equipped with majestic pipe organs), would be superb.
  • Speaking of the organ, its use in the Divine Liturgy should in general be discouraged, except for the purpose of providing a prelude and postlude; here, we might well avail ourselves of the music of Bach and other fine Western composers. Indeed, for the purpose of masking the sound of confessions, this would be vastly superior to the present use of the Third and Sixth Hours; a postlude might provide an amiable atmosphere in the nave as the congregants slowly disperse following the liturgy, creating a pleasing environment in which the Holy Icons might be venerated, and friends met, before proceeding to the Social Hall for luncheon.
  • I do not consider the Revised Julian Calendar to be a heresy; I consider the manner in which opponents of it in Greece and elsewhere to be persecuted a heresy.  Nonetheless, it is most definitely broken, resulting in an unnatural swelling of the period of time before Pascha, and an unnatural reduction of the time after; causing feasts normally celebrated in Lent to be celebrated outside of it, preventing the occurence of a Kyriopascha, and in general, causing havoc, confusion and schism.   The Finnish Orthodox Church frankly does better than any of the churches using the Revised Julian Calendar, by using the Gregorian Calendar; thus at least the liturgy flows according to its natural order, and events such as a Kyriopascha are possible.  Better yet is the retention of the Julian Calendar, as the problem of calendar drift is rather overstated, and over many many centuries, will correct itself owing to the slowing rotation of the Earth.  A number of elegant and non-disruptive mathematical schemes for preventing the celebration of Pascha in Gregorian September several hundred years in the future exist, but one is reminded of the saying by John Milton Keynes "In the long run, we are all dead."   From an Orthodox standpoint, one might reinterpret that, as considering it is best to leave this minor problem in the hands of God.   The beauty of the Julian calendar is that it separates the solemn observance of the Christian feasts from the madness of the secular holidays that have grown up around them; the crass commercialization of Christmas and Easter is thus bypassed, and a wall of separation erected between the Orthodox and the heterodox, preserving the Orthodox faith in its fullness, and providing a fine inducement for heterodox to convert, to escape the perverted madness of the "Holiday Season," and the sickening secular exploitation of the birth of our Lord.
That summarizes what I feel might be acceptable improvements to the way we celebrate the existing liturgy in the Byzantine Rite.   A few other points however should be made, in interpreting the above suggestions:
  • The implementation of such changes in praxis should only occur with the consent of the Bishop and the parishioners.   Such practices might be implemented first in newly created, mission parishes, and then be adopted by other parishes as they see fit.  Older practices should be preserved alongside.  If so much as one pious Orthodox parishioner is alienated as a result of these efforts to improve the celebration of the Byzantine Rite, the entire enterprise would be in vain.   This is my criticism of Nikon, and my criticism of the Revised Julian Calendar; in both cases, sweeping liturgical changes were forced on parishioners, using violence.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, USA, without violence, managed to suffer schisms as a result of the overly aggressive implementation of entirely novel liturgies.   Here, it must be stressed that no change is being made to the liturgy, and no changes in praxis at existing parishes will be made unless the parishioners enthusiastically agree to them.
  • Within the Orthodox Church, there exists a diversity of liturgical rites.  In addition to the Byzantine Rite, we have the reformed Western Rite, which in spite of some efforts to suppress it, continues, and must continue.   Within the Byzantine Rite, there exist at least five active variants: the Greek use, the Slavonic use, the Russian Old Rite, the Georgian use, and the Ruthenian use.   The difference in praxis between an Antiochian parish and a parish of Russian Old Ritualists might lead one to believe that a different liturgy is being celebrated; in fact, it is the same liturgy, celebrated differently.   This unity in diversity is beautiful, and adds greatly to the richness of the Byzantine liturgy.   Additionally, we have the disused Cathedral Typikon; while our prayers that this may someday be heard again at the Hagia Sophia might not be answered in our lifetime given the Islamic fundamentalism of the Erdogan regime, the use of this in at least one or two major Greek Cathedrals, as scholarship converges on an accurate reconstruction of it, would be splendid.   However, it would require many enthusiastic clergy to accomplish; the magnificence of services at the Great Church in its heydey, in some respects, exceeds that of even the grandest liturgical celebrations in the Orthodox church at present.
  • We may pray that the Oriental Orthodox and the Assyrians be persuaded to, for the sake of unity in the middle East, accept the faith of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, which they appear close to doing; a union between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Coptic Church nearly happened in the early 19th century, only to be vetoed by the Khedive, following the strategy of divide and conquer.  If such a union, on the faith of the seven councils, was possible then, then it surely remains possible now.   This would entail the addition of five great liturgical rites to the Orthodox faith (the Coptic, Ethiopian, West Syriac, East Syriac and Armenian), and would be a joyous moment, more joyful perhaps than even the definitive defeat of Arianism following the Second Ecumenical Council.
In conclusion, just as I have eviscerated the most impious proposals of the monks of New Skete, I accept that some of the suggestions I have made may cause controversy.  I pray that not one of these ideas will be implemented in a manner that would cause discord, confusion or schism.  Lastly, if a truly competent authority, such as a qualified Priest or Bishop, concludes that anything that I have suggested is itself heretical, I beg to be informed of it, in all humility, that I may correct my error.

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