NOTES AND COMMENTS
ON THE QUESTION OF LITURGICAL
A Letter to My Bishop
by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
[published in St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly, Vol. 17, 3, 1973, pp. 239-243.]
I read with great attention and interest the instruction on liturgical practice which on November 30, 1972 you addressed to the clergy of the New York-New Jersey Diocese. I fully understand and share your concern for a liturgical situation which is no doubt extremely serious and certainly requires correction and guidance on the part of our Episcopate. And it is precisely because of the seriousness, depth, and scope of the problems challenging us today that I dare respectfully to submit to you some of the thoughts the instruction has provoked in my mind. Having devoted much of my life to the study and teaching of Liturgics I can assure you, Your Beatitude, that I have no other goal but to try to clarify questions which the instruction may raise, and that 1 do this in the spirit of full and unconditional obedience to the Bishop's duty "rightly to define the word" of Divine Truth.
The questions raised by the instruction seem to me quite serious. First of all I must confess to you that I find somewhat alarming what seems to constitute the basic presupposition and term of reference of the entire document, i.e., that the self-evident, natural, and seemingly absolute norm for our liturgical life and practices is to be found exclusively in the pre-revolutionary Russian Church, or, to quote the instruction, "in the standard service books which are the typical editions published by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church."
What I find alarming is the contradiction between this statement and the well-documented fact that the Russian Church herself, through the voice of her own Episcopate, found the liturgical situation in pre-revolutionary Russia extremely unsatisfactory and requiring substantial corrections and changes. To realize the scope of that dissatisfaction and the truly pastoral concern of the Russian Bishops, it suffices to read the Reports of the Diocesan Bishops Concerning the Question of Church Reform written in preparation for the Great Council of the Russian Church and published in 1906 by the Russian Holy Synod (Vol. I, 548 pp., Vol. II, 562 pp.). May I stress that these reports were written not by representatives of some academic group or tendency, but by conservative and pastorally oriented Bishops who clearly realized the growing nominalism and confusion stemming precisely from the "standard books" and a Typikon not revised since 1682.
"Worship," writes, for example, Bishop Seraphim of Polotsk, "is performed by clergy, and as to the people-even if they pray during services, their prayer remains private and not corporate for it usually has no link, external or internal, to what is going on in the church" (I, 176). Almost unanimously the Bishops who write on liturgical matters ask for a parish typikon distinct from the monastic one, since the obvious impossibility to comply with the latter results, according to Bishop Michael of Minsk, in "49,000 parishes celebrating irregular worship." They ask for the shortening of services, "which have become incomprehensible and therefore boring," for the revision of rubrics, and for new translations-from Church Slavonic into Russian. They see the need for certain changes in the Divine Liturgy itself. It is indeed the apostle of American Orthodoxy, the future Patriarch Tikhon then Bishop of North America, who suggests "abolishing certain litanies which are repeated much too often" and "the reading aloud of secret prayers" (I, 537), and he is seconded by several others: Evlogy of Warsaw ("one should without any question abolish litanies for catechumens," II, 287), Constantine of Samara (I, 441) etc. "It is imperative," writes Gregory of Astrach, "to revise the Typikon. This book. . not revised since 1682, has acquired in the eyes of the zealots the character of something eternal, dogmatic and unchangeable. . . . And precisely because of this it ceased to regulate worship. . . . It is essential to revise it in the light of the perfectly legitimate needs of the faithful so that it may again become operative and understandable. Such a revision is perfectly in continuity with the past practice of the Church in this area" (I, 324). Clearly the Russian Bishops see in the nominal, incomprehensible, and often defective worship the source of the people's alienation from the Church, of the growing success of the sects, and of the progressive dechristianization of Russian society.
The Russian Sobor of 1917-18, in preparation for which these reports were written was interrupted before it could deal with liturgical questions. It is permissible to think, however, that one of the reasons for the massive apostasy of the Russian people from the Church is to be found precisely in the state of worship so lucidly and pastorally diagnosed by the Russian Bishops long before the Revolution, And if today among certain Russians deeply wounded by the revolutionary collapse there exists the tendency to idealize-almost fanatically-the pre-revolutionary state of the Russian Church, including her liturgical life, there is no reason for us to make ours their emotional rejection of historical evidence, their blind pseudo-conservatism, and their plain ignorance. Applicable to them are the words written as early as 1864 by one of the pioneers of Russian liturgical scholarship, Archbishop Philaret of Chernigov:
For such people the order of worship with which they
We should rather remember and meditate upon the stormy history of the Russian Church which, for all her wonderful spiritual achievements and examples of unsurpassed holiness, seems to have been periodically plagued precisely with acute liturgical problems, or rather with the inability to solve them due to the absence of theological knowledge and historical perspective. This resulted only too often in the inability to discern between genuine Tradition and all kinds of customs and even deviations, between the essential and the historically contingent, the important and the accidental. We should remember, for example, the tragic case of St. Maximus the Greek who, invited in the sixteenth century to correct "abuses," spent almost all his life in jail because he dared to question errors and defects in the "standard" texts of that time. Also there is the no less revealing case of the Archimandrite Dionisius who in 1618 was condemned by a council, beaten, tortured, and imprisoned for correcting the most obvious errors in the worship of his time. Finally there is the case of the Raskol itself, in which an amazing ignorance, an almost total lack of criteria on both sides, played such a truly fateful part.
In view of all this it seems to me not only wrong, but simply dangerous to try to solve our liturgical problems by mere references to the recent past, be it Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, etc. These problems did not originate in America, although they certainly acquired here new dimensions and a new degree of urgency. Their existence was acknowledged in Russia and is being acknowledged today in virtually all Orthodox Churches, Therefore what saddened me more than anything else in the instruction is the total absence from it of any such acknowledgment, of any recognition that problems do exist which are not solvable by decrees which have never solved any real problems and are not likely to solve any in the future. Quite frankly I regret the very tone of the instruction which seems to imply that if it were not for some disobedient priests, "apparently regarding their own judgment as superior.., to the traditions of our Church," there would have existed no problems whatsoever. I regret this especially in view of the fact that it is in the outstanding liturgical scholarship which developed in Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the liturgical problem, as well as ways and criteria for its solution, began to be formulated, that a renewed interest in the genuine Orthodox liturgical tradition made its appearance.
It is sadly significant, in my opinion, that the instruction reads as if we did not inherit from the Russian Church and Russian theology the universally known editions of the Typika and Euchologia by Dmitrievsky, the monumental studies on the Typikon and its development by Skaballanovich and Mansvetov, on the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Karabinon, Krasnoseltsev, and Petrovsky, on St. Basil's by Orlov, on liturgical hymnography by Philaret of Chernigov, on the Proskomidia by Muretov, on the secret prayers by Golubtsov, etc. It is as if we did not know today the complexities and, quite often, the deviations of our liturgical development, the unfortunate impact on Orthodox worship, theology, and piety of Western influences, the defects of a predominantly Western sacramental theology, the alienation of the laity from the sacramental life resulting in a purely legalistic approach to it in our parishes, the disastrous consequences especially in America of Uniatism, the plain fact finally that our Church is sick-liturgically and spiritually-and that it is certainly not by mere legal prescriptions that this sickness can be healed.
Your Beatitude: Do I have to prove the fact that our Church finds herself today in a sad situation? That its financial bankruptcy only reveals and reflects its spiritual state-a state of apathy and demoralization, of distrust and petty rivalries, of parochialism and provincialism, of creeping secularism, of abysmal ignorance of the very foundations of our faith? Do I have to inform you, or any other of our Bishops, what formidable obstacles-spiritual, liturgical, pastoral-each priest encounters daily it he tries to be a true pastor of his flock, to please God and not men? It is no accident that so many of them go through a deep crisis of confidence in the hierarchy, that some progressively sink into an almost cynical indifference, that some others begin to be attracted by the spiritual dead-end and doubtful emotionalism of "Pentecostalism.
In this dark situation there appear here and there some signs of hope, renewal, and new inspiration. One of the most hopeful among them is certainly the return to the liturgical life as the very focus of the parish, as the means of its respiritualization and revitalization. Parish life again begins to be centered on the Eucharist and the sacraments, on liturgical cycles. The Church begins again to be experienced as the Body of Christ. This process inevitably raises new questions, creates new difficulties. Mistakes no doubt are made, wrong or questionable steps taken. Yet at least the motivations, the zeal, the intentions are pastoral, aimed at priceless souls and their communion with God. It is in such parishes that the statutes are not opposed, all financial obligations are gladly met, all Church projects-national, diocesan, charitable, educational, missionary-are gladly and enthusiastically supported, new, confident and truly loving relations with the Bishop established and and nurtured. It would not be difficult to prove that this renewal is rooted in a genuine interest in the true Orthodox Tradition, in the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers, the Liturgy, and above all in a deep concern for the religious and not merely "ethnic or social" orientation of the Church.
Needless to say, it is only such parishes and the priests who at least "try to do something" that are the targets of the instruction, whereas the document will not trouble, but to the contrary, will give comfort and a sense of self-righteousness to the parishes in which curtains are duly drawn and all litanies duly chanted, where Vespers and Matins raise no problems simply because they are either not served or served in empty churches, when, the members threaten to leave, and sometimes actually leave for another "jurisdiction" whenever the Church requests them to fulfill their financial obligations or to accept the statutes adopted by the entire Church. We are still waiting to see any real abuse-moral, canonical, liturgical -to be condemned or even simply denounced! Our practices concerning divorce and remarriage are in open contradiction to canons, some fund-raising techniques in parishes are more immmoral than those of non-religious groups, the inroads of secularism, moral elativism and cynicism are appalling-but here, alas, patience, understanding, and "oikonomia seem to be truly unlimited....
In saying alll this I do not wish to imply in any way that it is enough for a priest to have pastoral zeal, and in general to "mean well" in order to do whatever he wishes: to alter services, to introduce new practices, to restore old ones, etc. There is no room in the Church for anarchy, and certainly it is the sacred duty of the Episcopate to guide, correct, lead, and decide in this area as in any other area of Church life. But what I most emphatically advocate and beg for is that decisions to be made in this most sensitive area, which in many ways determine all other aspects and the very spirit of the parish, be made on the basis of serious study, of the evaluation of all factors and implications. Being personally not "guilty" of any of the "abuses" enumerated in the instruction, I feel free to state that behind nearly each one of them there is a problem which cannot be reduced simply to disobedience or to "abuse" in the true sense of this word. Not everything that has been done for a hundred years and to which people are accustomed is necessarily correct in the light of the true liturgical tradition of Orthodoxy, and something which seems "new" and even "revolutionary' may very well be a much needed return to genuine tradition. Although the final decision is always reserved for the Episcopate, there should be time while searching for that decision, while trying to discern what is right and what is wrong, for study and consultation, for that blessed "sobornost" of which the Orthodox speak so much and which they practice so little.
I would like to add here that in all liturgical discussions the constant and popular reference to uniformity as a decisive argument is both useless and harmful. Perfect liturgical uniformity has never existed in the Church, even as an ideal, for the Church has never considered it to be the condition and expression of her unity. Her liturgical unity was always that of a general structure or ordo, never that of details and applications. Even today the Orthodox Church does not have one single Typikon, and there exits a great variety in practices among Orthodox Churches. Such variety has existed also within the same national Church: thus in Russia, for example, there were differences between Moscow and Kiev, between different monastic traditions, etc. It is simply dangerous- spiritually and pastorally- to make our people believe that uniformity in all practices is the touchstone and essence of Orthodoxy; dangerous because they already seem to have an unhealthy obsession with the externals at the expense of meaning. It is dangerous also because of the great liturgical diversity in America where all traditions are represented in one way or another. If the Orthodox Church in America is to be the sign of Orthodox unity in this country, it will never achieve that unity by imposing on all one tradition- be it Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, or any other. It will achieve it only by searching, on the one hand, for that which is truly universal in the Orthodox Tradition and, on the other hand, for that which will incarnate that Tradition in our own situation. Yet even then, I am sure there wilt remain an inescapable and healthy diversity for, as Church history shows, it disappears only when a Church begins to die and her worship, rather than being life and the source of life, is progressively touched by rigor mortis.
If we now briefly analyze the prescriptions themselves we cannot fail to see that virtually all of them deal not with "abuses," i.e., arbitrary and anarchic innovations or alterations, but precisely with those aspects of worship where real problems do exist- and where mere references to "standard books" or existing practices solve nothing.
I. In the Divine Liturgy:
A. The two little litanies between the antiphons are not to be omitted. Obviously the omission of these two litanies merely for the sake of shortening the service cannot be justified. If, however, is to allow the celebrant to read the beautiful and deeply corporate prayers of the antiphons, now read secretly, this may be a step in the right direction. It is clear that the original form was: an invitation to pray ("Let) us pray"), the reading of the prayer, and the ekphonesis. Incidentally, it may be surprising to learn how many priests while saying all the litanies, quietly omit the reading of the "secret prayers"-including the Eucharistic Canon. This I consider to be a much greater "abuse" than the attempt to return to the real meaning of the pre-entrance portion of the Liturgy.
B. The litanies between the Gospel and Hymn of the Cherubim, i.e., the augmented litany, the litany of the catechumens, the first and second litanies of the faithful, are not to be omitted.
As long as the "augmented" litany remains de facto a repetition of the great litany, the temptation to drop it will also remain. In the liturgical manuscripts (see the Euchologia published by A. Dmitrievsky [Kiev: 1901]) there are no greater variations than those between "augmented" litanies; the reason is clear- the augmented litany, in contrast to the "great" one, is to reflect the needs and the particular petitions of a given Church or congregation. The problem here then is to rediscover its real meaning and function within the Liturgy.
The omission of the litany for catechumens was advocated, as we have seen, by several Russian Bishops. The Greeks omit it. Personally I would be in favor of omitting it only during certain seasons-Pascha, Nativity, Epiphany-or for great feasts. Once again the problem here is that of communicating its meaning to the people.
The two litanies of the faithful present problems similar to those posed by the little litanies between the antiphons. As long as they simply "cover" the reading of the two prayers of the faithful, they really add nothing to the Liturgy and make this whole part of it, especially in the absence of a deacon, incomprehensible. If, however, the practice of reading aloud the prayers, which in both orders-Chrysostom and Basil-are extremely meaningful and beautiful, were to be reintroduced, the corporate preparation of the Church for the Offertory would acquire its full significance.
C. The litany after the Great Entrance and that before the Lord's Prayer are not to be omitted. The repetition - within some fifteen minutes - of two identical litanies is a problem. Based on the oldest manuscript containing the full orders of St. Basil and of St. John Chrysostom, the famous Codex Barberini, I would suggest that the first one be omitted for it is absent from this early text, while the second one- after the Anaphora- is present (see Sobranie Drevnikh Liturgii, Vol. II [St. Petersburg; 1875]: pp. 64 and 76 for St. Basil; pp. 124 and 129 for St. John Chrysostom). While the first one only obscures the organic transition of the Liturgy from the Offertory to the Anaphora (cf. Codex Barberini: Prayer of the Offertory [proskomidis] is read after the placing of the Holy Gifts on the Holy Table upon completion of the mystical hymn of the Cherubim; People: Amen; Priest: Peace to all; People: And with thy spirit; and after the kiss of peace, the Deacon: The doors, the doors; People: I believe; Deacon: Let us stand aright. ..; and the rest of the Anaphora), the second one is in continuity with the prayers of intercession and leads to the prayer before the Our Father.
D. The First Antiphon (Ps. 102/3) must consist, at least, of verses 1, 2, 3, 9, 1, ending with the words, "Bless the Lord, O my Soul."
E. The Second Antiphon (Ps. 145/6) must consist, at least, of verses 1, 2, 3, 10.
What "standard" book, what Typikon prescribes this? The origin and development of the antiphons - in fact, of the entire pre-entrance portion of the Liturgy - are extremely complex (see, for example, P. N. Trembelas, Three Liturgies, in Greek [Athens: 1935, p. 27f., and especially J. Mateos, "Evolution historique de la liturgie de St. Jean Chrysostome, I. From the initial blessing to the Trisagion," in Proche-Orient Chretien, 15, , pp. 333-351), but even if one takes the contemporary Russian practice, it prescribes psalms and not verses(see Archimnandrite Kiprian, Evkharistija [Paris: 1947], pp. 163-164) as well as different antiphons for Sundays, certain feasts, and weekdays - prescriptions not even mentioned in the instruction. Are these to be explained by the fact that Bakhmetev put to music a few verses and not the entire psalm?
F. The troparia and kontakia are to be sung according to the rule. I would like to find one parish in our Church where the troparia and kontakia are sung "according to the rule." Therefore either this rule should have been spelled out, or its application left to local possibilities. The rules in this matter vary greatly from Church to Church and from one period to another. The Typikon of Stoudion knows nothing of such singing. The present Greek practice is different from the Russian Church (cf. Kiprian, p. 172, Trembelas, pp. 39-40). There is no reason why our Church could not promulgate simple and practical guidelines.
II. In Vespers:
A. No elements from Matins or any other service are to be introduced into Vespers so that the shape of the service is altered or distorted.
B. The complete order of Vespers is to be observed without the omission of any litanies, proper verses, or other elements.
In twenty years of serving in America I have seen such an incredible variety of Vespers that the prescription to follow a "complete order" seems to me almost ironic. For the first question to be raised is - what is their "complete" order? Does, for example, the reference to "other elements" imply the singing or rending of -psalms 141, 142, 130, and 117 in their totality or in their present form - reduced to some verses following "Lord I call upon Thee"? What about the kathismata? What about the different combinations of the Octoechos and the Menaion depending on the "signs" of the Typikon? Is it not clear that here also there is a problem, and that our present parish practice (in the very few parishes where Vespers are served at all) needs more than general references to a "complete order"?
What is meant by "elements from Matins" introduced into Vespers? This is not explained in the instruction, and one simply does not know what is implied here. If, as I saw it done in some parishes, Solemn Vespers on the eve of certain great feasts are followed by the festal elements of Matins (excluding the specifically "matinal" elements" this seems to me to be an intelligent way to salvage at least something of the very essence of the feast, especially in view of the absence in many parishes of trained choir directors and psalmists, making it a necessity - possibly a good thing!-to have congregational singing. It is certainly one possible way to react against the rapid disappearance of the celebration of the eves, the reduction of even the great feasts to the Divine Liturgy alone. This practice ought therefore to be discussed and regulated, but certainly not summarily condemned as a "distortion." What the instruction seems to ignore altogether are the conditions in which at least some of our priests struggle for the restoration of festal cycles, of the very liturgical reality of the feast.
III. In Matins:
A. The Six Psalms (not three) are to be read in their entirety.
It seems to me that, on the contrary, if Matins is to be shortened for any valid reason, the shortening of the Hexapsalmos is, liturgically speaking, the reasonable way to do it. The Hexapsalmos is clearly composed of two triads of Psalms: 3, 37, 52, and 87, 102, 142. The first triad, or at least Psalms 3 and 62, is very ancient and belongs to the early core of the Church's morning services, whatever the complexity of their development. As for the second triad, Psalms 87', 102, and 142 "have no special connection with either midnight or morning. Besides, the fact that the priest recites the matutinal prayers while these Psalms are read shows that they are an addition. These prayers, or at least one of them, recited in this place, formerly had to be said aloud" (I. Mateos, "Some Problems of Byzantine Orthros," in French, in Proche-Orient Chritien, 11 , p. 7; see also M. Skaballanovich, Tolkovyi Typikon, Vol. II [Kiev: 1913], pp. 199-201, and I. M. Hanssens, Nature and Genesis of Matins in French [Rome: 1952]).
B. At least one full Canon (that of the Resurrection) is to be said on Sundays (the Heirmos of the Ode is sung and the other troparia are read). But suppose Sunday falls within the octave of a great feast which, because it was kept on a weekday, was practically "missed" by the overwhelming majority of the parishioners - would it not be more pastoral, more liturgical to sing "at least" the canon of that feast rather than that of the Resurrection? In general, the Canon (which as everybody knows was at first a musical composition and whose present "reading" makes it the most incomprehensible part of Matins), if it is to survive at all in our parish worship (it has virtually disappeared in many other Orthodox Churches), must be the object of much study and rethinking. The present rubrics prescribing two or three canons at each Matins are simply `not applied, and it might be better to decide which canons are to be used (great feasts, Triodion, etc.) in parish practice and which should remain in the usage of monasteries.
C. The complete order of Matins is to be observed without the omission of any litanies, proper verses, or other elements. Concerning Matins I would reinforce the remarks I made on Vespers. Do the "other elements" include kathismata, Psalm 50, and the gradual antiphons so often omitted in Russian practice? What about the Praises at the end of Matins? Rubrics or katabasia? Why, for example, should prayer 9 of the matutinal prayers be read if there is no Gospel reading for which it prepares? Either the instruction, if it is to be taken seriously, must lead to the appointment of a special commission, to a study, to a plan - it will only increase the confusion which, according to the Russian Bishops' Reports, had already existed for decades, if not for centuries.
IV. Churches in which there is no curtain behind the holy doors must install one within two weeks. ...
V. The holy doors are to be closed at three points in the Liturgy:
A. during the litany of the catechumens and the first and second litanies of the faithful;
B. after the Great Entrance, during the litany of the Prothesis;
C. during the communion of the clergy;
D. the curtain is likewise to be drawn during (B) and (C).
I think it is a great and even tragic mistake to absolutize that which the Church herself has not absolutized, maintaining that only this or that practice is correct and any other inadmissible. Thus, for example, no rubric in the text of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as printed in the Russian "standard" books (I have before me a beautiful edition by the Moscow Synodal Press, 1904) even mentions the curtain. If the closing of the holy doors during (A) and (B) were truly an organic and essential part of the Eucharistic celebration, they would not remain open when the celebrant is a Bishop or, as it was customary in the Russian practice, a priest of a certain rank. In the curtain appeared long before the iconostasis, and certainly had a meaning very different from the one sometimes ascribed to it today, i.e., that certain acts are not to be seen by the faithful (see Symeon of Thessalonica in Writings of the Holy Fathers and Teachers of the Church Concerning the Explanation of Orthodox Worship, in Russian, Vol. II ,[St. Petersburg: 1856], pp. 186-87). The term `Royal Doors," until a relatively recent date (in the works of the same Symeon, for example) was applied to the doors of the Church itself, and not to the doors in the iconostasis. Whatever the meaning of subsequent developments, it is clear that today the curtain merely duplicates the iconostasis. Personally I am convinced that the contemporary Greek practice of not closing the doors at all during the entire Liturgy is much more faithful to the true spirit of the Eucharist and the Orthodox understanding of the Church than the one adopted in the Russian Church which seems constantly to stress the radical separation between the people of God and the clergy. It is from this latter practice that there developed real abuses: the singing, during the communion of the clergy, of the so-called "concerts," the transfer of preaching from its original time, i.e., after the Gospel, to the time of the koinonikon ("in order to occupy the attention of the faithful," writes with irony a Russian Bishop), and even the alteration of the liturgical order itself ( thus, for example, in the Russian "standard" books the prayer of thanksgiving for receiving the Holy Gifts was simply transferred from its original place, i.e. alter the litany "Having received. . " to the time after the communion of the clergy alone). That there is confusion here is also indicated by the rubrics which state that when "he sees the Priest taking the Holy Bread" at the moment of Elevation, the Deacon, standing outside the sanctuary, is to say, "Let us attend." Exactly how is the Deacon to see this if the Royal Doors are closed and the curtain drawn as is done today in the Russian practice? In Russia, moreover, the Royal Doors were closed throughout the entire Anaphora, while in America - thanks be to God - we at least open them at the Creed. It is to be hoped that when the Orthodox understanding of the Divine Liturgy as corporate prayer, corporate offering, corporate thanksgiving, and corporate communion is restored, i.e., when from our recent and dubious customs we return to the genuine Orthodox Tradition clearly revealed in our liturgical texts and patristic commentaries, the sad state of affairs prevailing today which makes the faithful "attendants" rather than participants of the divine services will be corrected.
Your Beatitude: All these remarks are meant to say only one thing - we urgently need a real concern for worship, a real effort to make it again that which it is meant to he in the Church: the source of her life, the revelation and communication of her faith, the means of her growth and sanctification, the focus and fulfillment of her unity. May this concern, this urgent task-the fulfillment of which we expect from our Bishops-be rooted in these words of our Lord: "The Spirit alone gives life; the flesh is of no avail: the words which I have spoken to you are both spirit and life" (Jn. 6:63).