This article on the WCC website, though more than a decade old, remains an accurate statement of the intentions of modernists regarding the Orthodox liturgy. The notoriously liberal monks at New Skete Monastery, formerly Catholic, but received into the notoriously liberal Orthodox Church in America (a jurisdiction whose autocephaly has never been universally recognized), corrupted by the modernist heresy so prevelant in the Roman church, manifested in the liturgical reforms in the wake of Vatican II (which, I should state, were a dreadful perversion of what Vatican II actually authorized; in terms of seeking reconciliation with the Orthodox, and in terms of the change of theological emphasis that Vatican II produced, it was, by itself, a movement in the direction of Orthodoxy), naturally want to do the same thing to the Orthodox church.
In this series of articles, I shall proceed to enumerate their desired reforms, and then explain why these reforms are deadly, from the perspective of Confessional Orthodoxy.
Suggestion no. 3: Eliminating the Iconostasis
"11. Our churches should examine critically the ways in which full participation of the laos tou Theou (people of God) in worship is hindered. The corporate nature of liturgical worship demands that we consider how we utilize the power of sacred space. We must be aware of legitimate alternatives for church architecture and furnishings. For example, would not the iconostasis in a more open form serve to keep the people connected to the priestly function that is performed in their name? Where is the appropriate place to proclaim the reading of the Scriptures, and how may this be adapted in particular circumstances?"
Why this is a bad idea:
If one reads the numerous beautiful stories of conversion to the Orthodox faith available on the Internet, one fact stands out in particular, and that is that many people were aided greatly in their conversion, when, on entering the church, they found themselves astonished by the magnificent wall of glorious icons that confronted them. Already, a minimal or non-existent iconostasis is common in Byzantine Rite Catholic churches; in fact, it is becoming so common that I expect within fifty years time, the absence of a full iconostasis will be the most obvious clue that one is in a Byzantine Catholic, rather than an Eastern Orthodox, parish. However, even within Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, for the past century the harbringer of modernism, ecumenism, schism, heresy and general misery, has exhibited a disturbing trend towards minimal iconostases in newly built churches. This is particularly evident in Greek Orthodox parishes under their jurisdiction, and in Carpatho-Russyn parishes. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a brilliant writer who is a moderate liberal when it comes to Orthodox theology, has himself called for the reduction of the iconstasis, in spite of citing the beauty of the iconostasis in a now-demolished Russian Orthodox church he wandered into during All Night Vigils on a late Saturday afternoon, at the age of 17, as the start of his journey to Orthodoxy. Does he not realize that, even in trimming the iconostasis, he might well deprive the faith of that which led him to it?
Beyond that, there is a profound quesiton of liturgical theology at stake. Among liturgical traditionalits, an oft heard maxim is that, like John the Baptist, the Priest must disappear so that Christ can appear. At those most holy moments in the Divine Liturgy when the Royal Doors are closed and the curtain is drawn, the attention of the congregation shifts from the actions of the Priest at the Holy Table, to the icon of Christ, our Lord and Savior. Thus, the traditional iconostasis in all its grandeur provides a mechanical means by which a theological objective can be realized, in a dignified and subtle manner, without resorting to special effects or other contrivances that one sometimes sees in contemporary megachurches (the Glory of Christmas Pageant, at the now-defunct Crystal Cathedral comes to mind, with angels suspended from wires flying above the audience). In all of its discrete elegance, the iconostasis as a means of allowing the priest to fade from view, by degrees, first with the closing of the Royal Doors, and secondly, with the drawing of the curtain, suggests the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The other Eastern churches also feature curtains, which are used to a similiar liturgical effect, albeit without the use of doors or gates (although interestingly enough, the Coptic iconostasis traditionally features windows adjacent to the central entrance, where the Royal Doors would be in a Byzantine church; I would be very interested to learn why that custom exists).
The opening and closing of the doors and the curtain also has other substantial aspects of great theological signifigance. The doors are called Royal because Christ Himself does pass through them (and in some cases, pious Orthodox have reported witnessing this; I recall reading of such an episode involving a great Russian priest-saint, perhaps John of Kronstadt); they symbolize the gates of Jerusalem through which Christ passed on Palm Sunday, and the gates of the Heavenly New Jerusalem. Their closing symbolizes penitence; their opening symbolizes divine joy and the promise of salvation in the World to Come.
In most of the pared-back iconostases of some newer Orthodox churches, the curtain has been eliminated, and the Royal doors themselves are often entirely absent. Thus, all of this liturgical grandeur, rich as it is with theological meaning, becomes impossible to enact, and the faithful are deprived of the possibility of a profound liturgical encounter with Christ our Lord.
Now, in defense of their proposal, the monks of New Skete resort to a known fact; historically, the Hagia Sophia did not have an iconostasis, but rather a Templon, a three-sided altar rail with an upper beam, that could be enclosed with a wrap around curtain. This is true, but a few points should be stressed: firstly, the unusual architecture of the Hagia Sophia, which lacks a clearly defined apse, and the need to accomodate large crowds and not waste space, would force an unusual shape for the altar screen; secondly, unlike the minimalist iconostases or open altars of recent Byzantine Rite churches, the curtain provided a mechanism for concealing the entire altar from the view of parishioners, except possibly those viewing the liturgy from the galleries above, such as members of the Imperial family (although one might speculate that a canopy may have covered the templon); thirdly, had Constantinople not been conquered by the Ottomans, it seems not altogether unreasonable to expect that in the centuries to follow, the Great Church would have been renovated on the same scale as the Islamic renovations, but in an Orthodox manner, and its templon would have been in due course replaced by the most majestic of icon screens. In all fairness, on this point, the brothers of New Skete practice what they preach; their church features a templon and not the emaciated iconostases of newer Byzantine churches, and using the work of scholars such as the eminent Alexander Lingus, have dedicated much effort to reconstructing the majestic Cathedral Typikon, disused since the Fall of Constantinople.
However, the liturgy of the Orthodox church did develop in positive directions after the loss of New Rome; one would cite the construction of magnificent Russian cathedrals such as St. Basil's, and the development of tonal polyphonic music in the Slavonic churches, as two superlative refinements; along with that, one might also cite the exquisite five-tiered Baroque iconostases that grace Eastern Europe, such as the one depicted as the background of this blog. For us to abandon the iconstasis would be a regression, a tragedy on no less a scale than the sad destruction of most of the rood screens (the great Western equivalent of the Iconostasis) across Europe in the wake of Calvinist iconoclasm and the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent, which, much like the monks at New Skete, sought to make the liturgy more visible to the people. Indeed, it would most likely be worse; for at least in the place of the rood screen, Roman Catholics benefitted from majestic Baroque altarpieces, whereas in the case of the more recent "wreckovations" performed at numerous Catholic churches since Vatican II, the apse has been essentially gutted, with antique altars, altarpieces and altar rails removed, in favor of empty space. Icons represent the goodness of material creation, anda rejection of Gnosticism and crypto-Gnostic iconoclasm; the iconostasis is the ultimate physical and liturgical manifestation of that doctrine. Let us not discard it for some vague philosophical desire to "keep the people connected to the priestly function."
As far as the remarks concerning the placement of reading stands for the scripture lessons; these suggestions are of such a trivial nature, given the established function of the ambo or bema, and the lecterns, in Eastern churches, as to be unworthy of response, unless the brethren at New Skete pine for the lofty, towering pulpits of the Catholic and Protestant churches of their youth, which serve to make the preacher seem a god among men, rather than the first among sinners.