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. 7: "Re-examining" the Lectionary
"In the Divine Liturgy, we receive spiritual nourishment not only through reception of communion but also through the hearing of God's word in the Scripture readings. But given the fact that few people regularly attend more than the Sunday morning Liturgy, the lectionary itself needs to be reexamined. In our present usage, only a very small portion of the New Testament is ever heard by the faithful, and the Old Testament is virtually absent. The faithful hear about the miracles of Jesus with great frequency; but they are not exposed to His ethical and moral teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount)."
Why this is a bad idea:
One might first remark that, from a Slavonic Orthodox standpoint, the last remark seems particularly laughable, given that the high point of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, forms the Third Antiphon, sung at every Divine Liturgy. In the Greek tradition, this might not be the case, at least to the same extent, but given that I am a member of a Slavonic parish with very amiable relations with like-minded Greek Orthodox, I don't want to comment on their liturgy, given my relative lack of familiarity with it (unless one counts the tragically watered down form of the beautiful Arabic liturgy of the Antiochian church which dominates in America, although I don't fault the late Metropolitan Philip of blessed memory for this, but rather a certain culture of liturgical complacency which managed to infect the entire autonomous AOCNA, and which slipped under the evangelically-minded radar of the late, most excellent bishop).
Now, what follows is a highly technical discussion of lectionary systems. For readers of a short attention span, let me summarize my objections to a "re-examination" of the lectionary: any substantial change to the Byzantine lectionary, such as moving to Byzantine-flavored variant of the three year lectionary used in the Roman church, and with variations, as the Revised Common Lectionary in most dying mainline denominations, would violate the Typikon, the Rule of Prayer and Life for Eastern Orthodox parishes, and disrupt our ancient and most excellent spiritual system. The Old Testament is read frequently in a prophetic context at Vespers, as a prelude to the Divine Liturgy to follow on Sunday Morning, and I have argued elsewhere that these readings ought to be repeated during the Third Hour, and printed in parish bulletins, as a means of bringing the parishioners who miss out on Vespers up to speed on the message of the day. What is more, it is fallacious to assume that the laity must hear the entire Bible read in church to be able to benefit from it; the Byzantine liturgy does not read the Apocalypse liturgically, but it has nonetheless had a substantial impact on the spirituality of our faith.
Moving back to this proposal, one can see where the monks' examination would invariably point us: towards a discussion on adopting some form of the Revised Common Lectionary. This nightmarish prospect must first be firmly dispensed with, before we can move on to how to actually address the valid points of this particular issue they raised. The RCL by itself, derived from the three year lectionary of the Roman Catholic Church adopted with the Pauline liturgy, has attracted much criticism. Historically, the Christian church has always used a one year lectionary; some ancient Jewish communities attested to in the Babylonian Talmud and the writings of Maimonides used a three-year lectionary, but this was never the norm, and because the early church did not use a three year lectionary, it is safe to assume that this was a divergent practice, and not original form of the thrice-weekly reading reading of the Torah instituted by the Prophet Ezra, which forms the basis for the entire concept of the Lectionary (before that time, the King read a substantial portion of Deuteronomy to the entire populace assembled at Jerusalem every seven years, and this was the known extent of the public reading of the Torah).
The triennial nature of the RCL aside, one might also lament that compared to other lectionaries, it is highly defective. The editors of it made extensive use of gender neutral language, obviously inappropriate within the Eastern Orthodox faith; it, for maximum inclusiveness, naturally omits or downplays many books that most Protestants regard as apocryphal, that are highly important to the Orthodox faith, and it omits certain vital passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:27-34, as discussed in the prior post in this series. A very balanced discussion of the RCL, in which many of the faults therein are brought to light in comparison with the historic Anglican lectionary, which I consider a very good lectionary, in part for the fact that it manages to ensure the entire New Testament is read in the course of a year, and the Old Testament, sans some books inappropriately deemed "apocrypha", in two years, can be found in this issue of Liturgy Canada.
The Anglican lectionary is much like the Orthodox lectionary in that it really isn't a single "lectionary", but rather a system of separate readings for separate services. To some extent, it has been used within Western Rite Orthodoxy. The lectionary consists of paired Old Testament and New Testament lessons for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer respectively, an annual lectionary of Collects, Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and holy days throughout the year, read during the "Ante Communion" portion of the Eucharistic lectionary, and a monthly scheme for the reading of the Psalter, at Morning and Evening Prayer. This system is obviously simpler than the ornate Byzantine Rite, but a highly functional one, and one which in fact shares a common, Apostolic origin with our lectionary.
The Anglican lectionary was, for its part, based on the pre-Tridentine Roman lectionary, which was mostly left intact at Trent, which, as one can tell by comparing it with the Orthodox lectionary via the tables presented at the Bombaxo website, is very similiar to its Eastern counterpart, differing primarily in the lack of the Lukan jump, the occasional use of the Old Testament as the "Epistle", and the shorter nature of the lessons (possibly a result of their being chanted in Latin and thus being unintelligible to the parishioners). The Anglican reformers expanded the length of the lessons and read them in English, resulting in a system moving closer to Orthodoxy.
The Roman lectionary, owing to its short, stylistic lessons and inconsistency regarding the use of the Old Testament, was a prime candidate for reform in the wake of Vatican II, but unfortunately, rather than returning to Apostolic tradition, the reformers pursued a radically new direction. Adding a separate Old Testament lesson to the readings at Mass was by no means objectionable, but the triennial cycle was, as was the somewhat liberal bias in the selection of lessons, which became further exacerbated with the Ecumenical derivatives of the new Roman lectionary.
Now, let us take a look at the Byzantine lectionary in greater detail. The lectionary forms part of the Typikon, an elaborate system of rules, or if you prefer, a meta-lectionary, that governs all aspects of our liturgical services. If followed in precise detail and without alteration, the Typikon repeats itself around every 535 years (I believe the precise number to be 537), factoring in the revolving octoechal cycle of hymnody, the weekly psalmody, and the ornate interaction between fixed and movable feasts. The Typikon is more than a liturgical system however; it is also a rule of life; the Typika of Eastern Monasteries corresponds directly to the Rule of St. Benedict, and in like manner, the Typikon can also be seen as a rule governing the life of parish churches. Of course, secular pressures make it difficult or impossible for most parishes to observe the Typikon in its entirety, but that fact is regrettable, and should be lamented, and not used as a justification for replacing it; the Typikon sets the standard we should seek to attain, and if a parish or monastery succeeds in following it precisely, great spiritual blessings will follow.
Naturally, implementing a triennial lectionary, derived from the RCL, but with a nod to Byzantine custom on popular feast days, which is doubtless what the monks at New Skete would have in mind, would violate the Typikon, and result in a profoundly watered down liturgy. Within the present Byzantine Rite, there are in fact multiple discrete lectionary systems being observed: the weekly Psalter, the cyclical Matins Gospel, the Prophecy readings appointed for Saturday Night Vespers, and finally the Epistle and Gospel lessons of the Divine Liturgy itself, which unmistakbly follow the Hatarah and weekly Torah portion read since antiquity in Judaism. A future article will examine this fact in light of the East Syriac lectionary, which preserves in some places distinctly Jewish Torah and Haftarah pairings, and follows them in due course with Epistle and Gospel readings.
In the Byzantine lectionary, access to the Old Testament is provided primarily by the Vespers prophecy read on Saturday night, as mentioned above. This service is of extreme importance in our faith; its present neglect in some jurisdictions is egregious. To the extent however that people do not understand it, and thus experience the ecstasy resulting from seeing the prophecy read therein fulfilled in the Epistle and Gospel read during the Divine Liturgy the next morning, I have argued for the repetition of this reading at the Third Hour. However, attending both Vespers and the Liturgy is a far more spiritually healthy alternative, and this practice would most likely be substantially diminished were an Old Testament lesson to be included in every Divine Liturgy.
The main problem seems to be that, while the Byzantine lectionary does read over the course of the year the entire New Testament, many of the lessons are heard in services frequently celebrated only in monasteries, for example, most of the reading of Mark. The Old Testament is used sparingly, where the Christological prophecy is at its most acute. However, in both cases, the pious faithful can correct this problem by following the lectionary in their own private readings, or a Reading Plan such as this one hosted on Bombaxo. There is also a lectionary contained within the Orthodox Study Bible, which is a most valuable resource for the laity and costs a mere $50 or so.
Thus, the real answer to the dilemma posed by the monks presents itself: while, outside of the monasteries, in the average parish, the parishioners will not actually hear that much of Sacred Scripture read aloud, this problem can be overcome by the very healthy practice of regular, systematic and disciplined reading of the scriptures in private. This activity should ideally be done together with one's family, combined with the saying of Morning and Evening Prayer (also conveniently featured in the Orthodox Study Bible, along with other liturgical resources). The last word is that where the resources of the parish limit public celebration, private devotion must take its place.
Our next article in this series will address the monks' not entirely invalid complaint that the Sermon in the Divine Liturgy is neglected, while commenting on the risks of allowing the Liturgy to devolve into a preaching-oriented service.