Liturgy and Western Rite Orthodoxy

Father Placide, a Catholic convert to Orthodoxy, says:

What therefore prompted me to turn towards the Byzantine tradition had nothing to do with its ‘oriental’ character. I have never felt myself to be an ‘oriental’, nor wanted to become so. But, given the state of things, the practice of the Byzantine liturgy seemed to me to be the most suitable means for entering into the fullness of the patristic tradition in a way that would be neither scholarly nor intellectual, but living and concrete. The Byzantine liturgy has always appeared to me much less as an ‘eastern’ liturgy than as the sole existing liturgical tradition concerning which one could say: ‘It has done nothing more nor less than closely incorporate into liturgical life all the great theology elaborated by the Fathers and Councils before the ninth century. In it the Church, triumphant over heresies, sings her thanksgiving, the great doxology of the Trinitarian and Christological theology of St Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Alexandria, and St Maximus the Confessor. Through it shines the spirituality of the great monastic movements, from the Desert Fathers, from Evagrius, Cassian, and the monks of Sinai, to those of Studion and, later, of Mt Athos . . . In it, in a word, the whole world, transfigured by the presence of divine glory, reveals itself in a truly eschatological dimension.

Andrea has an interesting discussion about Western v. Eastern Rite going here.

I’m afraid that I just don’t understand the attraction of WRO. It reminds me of what I observed, over and over again, from Anglicans: That they were obsessively and nearly exclusively concerned with superficialities, such as language or ritual, and wholly unconcerned with, well, theology. It was all about whether you used the right fork, just in a liturgical context.

I know that sounds a bit gruff. I don’t mean it to. Obviously, they have other concerns than whether the pinkie is held up at the right time, or they wouldn’t have left the Anglican Communion. I don’t begrudge them their rite, and should Metropolitan Jonah and the Holy Synod institute an OCA Western Rite, I would wholeheartedly support it. Having said that, I will say this.

I just don’t get it.

Back in the early 80s, when the 1979 Book of Common Prayer had just come out and was the flash point of Anglican controversy, I noticed this for the first time. There were two “rites” in the 1979 BCP. There was Rite I, which was more or less nothing but the 1928 BCP liturgy with “updated” English, and there was Rite II, which was almost identical to the Roman Catholic Novus Ordo.

Rite I, like the 1928 BCP liturgy, is in places theologically Protestant. Rite II is theologically Catholic. One would, then, assume that Anglo-Catholics would have preferred Rite II.

They did not. They preferred Rite I (although not as much as the 1928 liturgy). Clearly, language was the concern, and theology was not.

If one is old enough to remember the pre-Vatican II liturgy, he will also recall that it was always different from Anglo-Catholic liturgies. Anglo-Catholics have always displayed an emphasis on “getting it exactly right” that was unseen in Roman Catholicism. There was an “organic” element to the Tridentine Mass that was absent in the Anglo-Catholic liturgy because it was too forced, or staged. This contrast can be seen when comparing the Western Rite liturgies to Byzantine liturgies; indeed, the contrast is even more pronounced, as Visibilium notes, both here, and in the comments on Andrea’s blog:

Western Rite defenders tend to focus on whether the words used during their Masses are Orthodox, since activities tend to be harder to pin down. Of course the words are Orthodox — Moscow and Antioch made sure of that. What about the actions?

Ever the experimenter, I went to youtube today, and played a couple Tridentine-style Mass videos. There’s no doubt that such masses are beautiful. Everyone loves the colors, the movements, and the music. I sang along with the Gregorian chants, and enjoyed the Renaissance-era organ preludes.

The only problem is that it isn’t Orthodox. It’s streamlined and impersonal. The statues are cold and lifeless.

I saw a God who is transcendent, but not immanent. Where are God’s energies? Where is God’s personal concern for each believer? Where’s the personality?

There is something very organic about Eastern liturgics. We are certainly liturgical, to say the least, but at the same time, we’re “messy” about it to an extent one just doesn’t see in the liturgical Western churches. We aren’t all doing the same things at the same times. Our worship is physical, and we move around, bow, and even prostrate ourselves. People are coming in at all times, going to the front of the church, venerating icons and lighting candles, and nobody pays them any mind. We are unconcerned with uniformity. Making sure that all of the servers are exactly in line with one another and exactly the right distance apart is wholly alien to Orthodox liturgics. As one commenter at the Musica Sacra Forum said:

My complaint about Latin Rite incense use is the tame style. The Orthodox clergy, at least some of them, seemed to be retired yo-yo champions and perfectly willing to risk clocking the occasional parishioner in their circuits around the church. Nothing so splendid in the West.

If you have ever seen Anglican or Roman Catholic clergy with a censer, they kind of hold the end of the chain in one hand, and hold the chain just above the censer with the other, then let it sort of swing, like they’re afraid it will bite them. Orthodox clergy grab hold of the censer — which has bells on the chains, by the way — and start on their rounds, slinging the censer in powerful, full 90 degree swings. There’s nothing “delicate” or “refined” about it (and yes, it’s a good idea to get out of the deacon’s way when he starts toward you with the censer).

Back in Louisville, there was this very odd Anglo-Catholic breakaway group. Their services were, well, they seemed like performance art, something out of Becket. It utterly lacked the authentic, organic feel that Catholicism has more of, and Orthodoxy has in great abundance. Now, I have never attended a Western Rite service, and I don’t know that this group in Louisville is analogous, but I don’t understand the point.

Ours is a “thee thou” parish. When we get, say, music that has 21st century English, we change it to King James English (if we have the time). Language can’t be the justification, because any parish is free to change translations if they want. And while Western liturgics, at least traditional liturgics, have a distinct Medieval quality, Byzantine liturgics are positively 4th Century. So I just don’t understand what the attraction of a Western Rite is.

More on this later.

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4 Responses to Liturgy and Western Rite Orthodoxy

  1. Mitch_WA says:

    You should be glad to know a friend of mine who is a RC seminarian has a very byzantine approach to Incense, more=better and the other servers best watch out.

    My only question is can you really say that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostem is a 4th century liturgy? It has had minor tinkerings over the course of several hundred years and I would argue is just as much a product of the Eastern Medieval Period as the Roman Mass is a product of the Western Medieval Period. I would however argue that after 1204, and especially after 1453 liturgy in the east became alot more static, organic growth seems to me to have slowed down. Does this affect the validity or goodness of liturgy, absolutly not. The reason the roman Mass has lost alot of its medievalism is that organic growth was stymied and redirected by the council of trent growing in a more unifrom way from there on out. I think the difference in style of liturgy comes a variety of theological differences/attitudes, but most of all pews.
    At the Greek Orthodox and Ruthenian Catholic Chuches in my town there are pews and all the moving about you describe is very minimal, there is some during orthos, but very little during liturgy. When you look at descriptions of catholic churches in medieval periods there is alot of moving about, and praying in different places and ways throughout Mass. But then again these all are just the opinions of a liturgy nerd/college student.

    Also if you want to talk about intense incense then you cannot leave out el botafumeiro http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNGUC8aNcc8&feature=related

  2. rwp says:

    My only question is can you really say that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostem is a 4th century liturgy?

    You’re taking me too literally. I was referring to the overall feel of the liturgy, not to when it was actually created.

  3. Діаконъ says:

    In fairness, there is perhaps a bit more attention to “details” in the Russian Orthodox Church than in other Orthodox traditions (including where the servers stand). The Russian “Old Rite” displays even less “messiness”. But I think your overall point is still well stated.

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