Music & Worship: Some Suggestions from the Russian Bishops of 1905*

by Fr. John Shimchick

   The missionaries who came to Alaska in the 1700's brought not only the Orthodox faith, but also the Russian approach to the way in which this faith was expressed in worship. From that time on, the standard service books published by the pre-revolutionary Russian Church have been generally accepted as the norm for the liturgical life and practice for many Orthodox churches in America.

   While some people look nostalgically back to this period as the "golden age" of Orthodoxy, it is an historic fact that the liturgical situation in pre-revolutionary Russia was not only unsatisfactory, but also chaotic and in need of substantial corrections and changes.[1] This fact is well-established in The Responses of the Diocesan Bishops Concerning the Question of Church Reform,[2] a collection of documents from Russian bishops of the pre-revolutionary era. These "Responses" were prepared in 1905 for the anticipated Great Council (Sobor) of the Russian Church that was eventually held in 1917-1918. While the bishops spoke on many other areas of Church reform, the purpose of this article is to discuss the relationship between their comments on worship and the liturgical situation presently found in America.[3]

        The Orthodox faith is experienced, strengthened,
    and affirmed mainly in worship. Worship is justifiably    
    considered as the best school for the teaching of 
    faith and morality and it bountifully and generously acts
    on all the powers and capacities of the soul. But, in order
    for it to accomplish this, all believers must directly and
    actively be able to participate in it. It must take hold and
    draw them by its contents and celebration and become
    an indispensable yearning. It is terribly unfortunate,
    however, that one cannot say this about the worship of
    the Russian Orthodox Church" (II, p.454).

With these words, Bishop Nazarius of Nizhni-Novgorod not only introduced his own remarks about worship, but summarized what many of his fellow bishops felt and expressed. They understood the important position worship occupied in the life of the Church and realized, as well, how far it was from fulfilling this responsibility.

  Several bishops excellently described what was no doubt the liturgical situation throughout much of pre-revolutionary Russia. Bishop Constantine of Samara wrote that:

          The people have no true prayers. They patiently
        stand for whole hours through the worship in the
        church, but  this is not prayer since the feeling of
        prayer cannot be sustained for whole hours without an
        understanding of  the words of prayer, and the words
        of the service in the church are above the  
        understanding of the people. Divine worship is
        incomprehensible to the people not only because it is
        celebrated in the Church Slavonic language and with
        hurried readings, but also simply because a certain
        measure of theological education is needed to
        understand it.

          Orthodox worship is a great treasure if we compare
        our church's chants with the rather shallow Lutheran
        hymns and someday all the Orthodox will take
        advantage of this. Nevertheless, at present this is still a
        treasure "concealed within the village walls," while the
        people are spiritually starving and impoverished having
        no prayer within reach of their understanding, except
        the litanies and to some extent the akathists, which the
        people love so much just because they are somewhat
        understood. It is necessary to educate the people so
        that they will consider not just the bows and the sign
        of  the cross, not just mechanical readings or the
         hearing of  the incomprehensible words of the psalter,
        troparia and  sticheras as forms of prayer. What can
         be done so  that  the corporate worship, in the
        church, which in Greece was once such a perfect way
        of satisfying the spiritual needs of prayer, should again
        be turned into a truly prayerful attitude of worship? (I,
        p. 440)

Bishop Gury of Simbirsk offers a similar description:

           Orthodox worship is one of the main expressions of
        love for God and the best school for development of
        the community spirit among the members of the parish,
        for here in the church hundreds of souls become one
        in praises, thanksgivings and supplications which
        unite the souls of the shepherd and his flock, the clergy
        and the people. This, at least, must be the ideal.
        Unfortunately,  the present situation of Orthodox
         worship does not fully promote this merging of souls
        of the pastors and their flocks. Without mentioning the
        many defects in our worship, which are related to the
        abuses in the  manner in which it is celebrated    
        (extreme hastiness, unintelligible reading and singing,
        distraction in the celebration of worship and an
        absence of prayerful  feeling in the people themselves) 
        one cannot help but direct his attention to a feature of
        our worship which, through being sanctified by church
        practice, leads to the separation of the clergy and
        people. While the clergy offer their hymns of
        thanksgiving, supplication, and glorification the people
        are reduced to the role of passive listeners. Hence,
        there exits a striking  difference in spirit among the laity
        who, on the one hand, attend services in Orthodox
        churches and those who attend "non-Orthodox"
        sectarian) churches and  the difference is not in our
        favor (II, p. 20).

   Many of the bishops referred to the church and particularly worship as the main school for Christians. Bishop Ioanniky of Archangel seemed to sense and express the real implication behind this image and its relation to the liturgical language. He wrote:

           Worship is a powerful means of influence which the
        pastor has on his flock, and it has a religious, moral,
        and educational meaning. However, it will fully reach its
        goal only when it will be celebrated in a language which
        is understandable for all, that is, in the native Russian
        language. Holy Scripture says, "Sing to God with
        understanding." The apostles preached and prayed
        with the believers in all languages. We have in Russia
        the translation of the liturgy into Latvian, Zirian,
        Mordovian, but worship is not celebrated in our own
        native language. The sectarians lead some astray
        precisely because their worship is simple,
        comprehensible and served in Russian. The church
        building ought to be a school for the Orthodox layman,
        and the worship celebrated within it ought to be a
        series of individual lessons in Christian life, since here a
        man learns not only what he must do, but also what he
        must think and feel.

           What can be said for a school that conducts its
        classes in an incomprehensible language? Every
        sensible person would say that such a school would be
        of little use, and would have little influence on its pupils.
        The Orthodox Church in Russia is, in this case, in a
        worse situation than all of the other schools for the
        people; everywhere, in all schools, instruction is carried
        out in a generally comprehensible language; only in the
        church is worship celebrated in the partially understood
        and for many even completely unintelligible Slavonic 
        language. Being splendid in content, it remains
        incomprehensible, and as a result, does not have the
        desired influence on the simple people. Therefore, it
        would be useful to substitute Russian in place of the
        Slavonic language. Such a change will give many the
        great joy of participating in worship often, not just by
        standing in church, but by taking part with knowledge
        (I, pp. 335-336).

   Another area mentioned by the bishops concerned the structure of worship as indicated by the Typikon and the way that this was arbitrarily being practiced. Bishop Michael of Minsk wrote that:

            The entire compilation of our present worship did
        not appear at one time. On the contrary, our worship
        has endured many alterations: from simple prayers,
        orders, and rites that existed at the time of the apostles,
        it has undergone constant stratification and additions
        and now appears in a complicated and many-layered
        form, intended for numerous hours. In order to
        celebrate our worship as is meant, without hurrying and
        distinctly, one would need seven hours to complete the
        All-Night Vigil before a feast day, three hours for the
        liturgy, and another two hours for vespers, which adds
        up to twelve hours. This is celebrated at a few 
        monasteries - and only a few at that.

           In some places where it is celebrated according to
        the rules, with all of the proper readings and hymns, the
        natural weakness of the clergy forces them to shorten it
        by hurrying and as a result the readings and hymns are
        irreverently and incomprehensibly rendered. From this
        one can conclude that out of the 50,000 Russian
        churches in the empire, worship is celebrated in 49,000
        of them with extremely arbitrary abbreviations and also
        hastiness and very poor reading and singing (I, pp.

Bishop Nazarius of Nizhni-Novgorod added:

           Obviously, this matter does not simply concern the
        good or bad training of the readers and singers. There 
        was a time when "psalm-reader" positions were
        assumed only by those people who had finished a
        seminary course of study; but even then it was not
        much better. The situation does usually improve in
        those places where the rectors themselves are    
        concerned about the best execution of the reading and
        singing and have the support of the other "clerics"
        ("psalm-readers" and others who help with the
        services) who in return welcome the pious zeal of the
        rectors . . . However, it seems that in most cases the
        liturgical service becomes a profession or formal job
        for the "clerics" and not something in which they direct
        all their energy. This leads to their coldness and
        indifference towards it and also, as a result, to the
        meaningless abbreviations of the services. Many of
        these abbreviations, because they were done so long
        ago and have been spread around to such an extent,
        have become accepted everywhere as normal and
        proper – and almost no one notices that they do not
        make any sense. The soul of one who does notice this
        mourns, grumbles and is filled with indignation. Here
        are some examples of the abbreviations:

    1. At the Vigil:
    2. The Opening Psalm "Bless the Lord, 0
      My Soul" (104)

      First Kathisma (Blessed is the Man)

      Polyeleion Psalms (Praise the Name of the Lord)

      Praises, before "Glory to God in the Highest"

      The First Hour, when it begins directly with "Holy God, Holy Mighty."

    3. At the Liturgy:

        The Antiphons (Bless the Lord, 0 My Soul and
        the others)

        The usual practice in numerous cases is to sing some
        parts of the verses which are selected from the Psalms
        without any connection between the logical meaning
        and the structure. But everyone gets so accustomed to
        these abridgements that no one thinks about it and
        simply accepts them as being necessary and even
        appointed (II, pp. 454-458).

The Deanery Assembly of the Shenkursk Province (Archangel Diocese) wrote:

          The Typikon, according to which the services must be
        celebrated, is only carried out in monasteries; in the
        parishes there is so much which is omitted, depending
        on the arbitrariness of the clergy, that the fair though
        offensive saying has come about that: "Each priest has
        his own Typikon." Therefore it is necessary to develop
        a special Parish Typikon (I, p. 403).

Bishop Eusebius of Vladivostok felt that guidelines were needed to regulate the already existing, though unofficial, "Parish Typikon." He wrote:

          I would like to point out the desirability of introducing
        uniformity into the celebration of worship in view of the
        fairly long existence of a generally practiced and
        deviated form of the Typikon. This form is handed
        down in the village and city churches not according to a
        written, but oral tradition and could be recognized as a
        "Parish Typikon." On the one hand, it must be
        acknowledged that this abridged Typikon
        for parishes obviously is caused by the demands of life
        itself and the absence of a non-monastic Typikon. But
        on the other hand, all of these deviations, while being
        reinforced by long practice, still have not attained
        widespread agreement and uniformity.

           As a result, this leaves a great deal of room for the
        personal and often completely arbitrary discretion of
        the negligent and shrewd pastors who usually justify
        themselves by saying that we do not have a monastery
        here, that abbreviations are done in all parishes and
        that if the services drag on for too long then the
        worshippers will not come. If it is necessary to shorten
        the Typikon, then it would be better to show some
        definite guidelines (IV, p. 202).

   Many of the bishops also pointed out that liturgical music had an important role in making worship accessible to the people and in encouraging congregational participation.

Bishop John of Poltava wrote:

           In regard to worship, both singing and reading have
        the same essential meaning and both should be
        understandable and prayerful. However, this prayerful
        liturgical character now is frequently disturbed by the
        musical rendition of the hymnography which was
        created on a basis alien to the spirit of our Church.
        There are musical arrangements which are completely
        foreign to this humble and reverently prayerful
        character, such as "Our Father" ascribed to Mozart,
        "Open to Me the Doors of Repentance" by Vedel
        and others which are unfit for worship.

           There are such arrangements which, because of their
        artistic execution, draw the attention of listeners more
        to their aesthetical than prayerful side, as seen, for
        example in Grechaninov's recent composition of "The
        Creed" for solo voice and most of the "concert" pieces.
        Such compositions are unsuitable for use in church. 
        They offer truly beautiful harmonizations, but undermine 
        the spirit of man which is turned to God. Instead of the
        spiritual movement toward the One who is everywhere,
        as appears in the intense elevation of our minds and
        hearts toward God, we get musical enjoyment instead.
        The result turns out to be a religious concert, but it is
        not prayer. Probably everyone who examines his own
        prayer life during the singing of this type will find that
        what has been said is correct (II, p. 334).

Bishop George of Astrakhan added:

           It is necessary to turn our attention to liturgical
        singing and to use only those chants which are strictly in
        conformity with the spirit of Orthodox worship. Those
        presently selected now exhibit great arbitrariness and
        disorder. The pieces chosen are highly embellished,
        flowery, and in the spirit of Italian music, which, as a
        result, sometimes turn the church of God into a musical
        hall, and a religiously-prayerful spirit into one that
        is more concerned with artistic and aesthetical matters
        (I, p. 323).

Bishop Antoni (Khrapovitskii) of Volhynia felt that in order to do something about the condition of church music, one must first deal with those whom he felt are really in charge of the services. He wrote that:

           The diocesan councils must discuss how to adorn the
        divine worship to God by its correct performance, how
        to manage the chief "regulators;" of our present   
        worship that is, the choir directors), and generally, how
        to change its present and confused state. The order of
        each festal service is dependent not upon the priest or
        even on the "psalm-reader" but upon a hired "expert"
        from a secular background who is completely ignorant
        and often a disgrace. During the service there is almost
        nothing that remains the same, but everything is
        abandoned in favor of two or three disgusting "concert"
        numbers that are not appointed by the Typikon (I,

Bishop Constantine of Samara wrote about congregational singing:

           We must restore singing to the state it should and
        formerly did have. It is necessary to renew in the minds
        of the people the notion that congregational singing is
        the norm, and that choral singing is only a substitution
        for this, just as the work of cantors only replaces the
        choir in those situations where a community is unable to
        have a choir. The idea of the choir as only a
        replacement for congregational singing, whenever it is
        impractical for the whole church to sing something
        (depending on the existing conditions of time and
        place), must be taught to the people through worship in
        cathedrals and in the churches of the ecclesiastical
        schools where the worshippers would mostly consist of

           Congregational singing can begin most easily with the
        singing of psalms, using melodies that are not very 
        complicated and fairly well known. The text could be 
        published with divisions into musical phrases (as
        when the stichera are published) so that all churches
        would be able to utilize it in worship. After the psalms,
        one could use some of the various hymns that make up
        daily worship and whose melodies are known 
        throughout the whole church. For example: "0 
        Gladsome Light," "St. Simeon's Prayer," "Only
        Begotten Son," "Glory to God in the Highest," "Holy
        God," and "Come, Let us Worship" (I, pp. 440-441).

The Deanery Report of the Onezh Province (Archangel Diocese) concluded:

           It is desirable to introduce the practice of singing
        some of the psalms such as "I will bless the Lord at all
        times," Ps 34) and "Have mercy on me, 0 God, 
        according to Thy great mercy," (Ps 51) so that those
        parishioners who would like could sing them during
        Holy Communion . . . In addition, it would be good to
        teach all parishioners the following hymns: "The
        Creed," "The Anaphora - It is meet and right; 
        Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth!; We praise Thee,"
        "It is Truly Meet," and "Our Father." These hymns
        should especially be taught to school children, who will
        be able to continually sing them as they grow older (I,
         p. 339).

Bishop Gury of Simbirsk, while encouraging the introduction of congregational singing, realized that "it will not be very organized (especially at the beginning); but what a change for the better can come about in the spirit of the faithful!" (II, p. 20)

   As we have seen, the Russian bishops touched upon many aspects of worship. Their "Responses" reflected the desire that worship should be intelligible, that the congregation must be able to participate in it, and finally that it must return to its role as the "school" for the teaching of the Christian faith. Andrew Kuharsky, an Orthodox layman, once listed some of the problems that he has experienced in contemporary Orthodox worship.[4] These included such things as: lack of uniformity in the celebration, careless and hurried reading and singing, the need for a parish typikon, the problems of liturgical language, and the need for congregational singing. Not much has changed since the Russian bishops submitted their "Responses" almost 90 years ago! The problems are the same, and they concern not only the topic of worship, but the typical approach of Orthodox people toward their faith. How does a church which prides itself in tradition recognize creativity and change? Is the Church the preservation of customs and identity or is it the living continuity of the faith of the apostles of Jesus Christ? Are the unchangeable essentials of this faith accessible to every age?

    These are the questions which we as Orthodox Christians (and not just liturgical musicians) must face. These are the questions which we, unlike the bishops of 1905, (who were prevented by the Russian Revolution from even further discussing), have the possibility of answering.


[1] Fr. Alexander Schmemann, "On the Question of Liturgical Practices - A Letter to My Bishop," St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, l7:3/1973, pp. 227-38.

[2] 0tzyvy eparkhial'nykh arkhireey po voprosam o tserkovnoi reforme, 3 vols. St. Petersburg, 1906, and supplement (contains a total of 79 reports from 64 bishops).

[3] Various aspects of these documents have been studied:

  •  Fr. John Meyendorff briefly presented the background and outlined some areas of their discussion in "Russian Bishops and Church Reform in 1905," Catholicity and the Church, (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1983), pp. 143-156.
  • James W. Cunningham studied in great detail the documents and the movement for Church renewal in Russia (1905-1906) in A Vanquished Hope, (St.  Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981).
  • Liturgical reform has been discussed by Nicholas Zernov, "The Reform of the Church and the Pre-revolutionary Russian Episcopate," St Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, 6:1962, pp. 128-138, and in The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century, (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1963), pp. 53-85.

[4] "Lipservice to the Lord," The Orthodox Church, May, 1984.


*This article was originally featured in Orthodox Church Music, Number 2, 1985, pp. 3-8 (published by The Department of Liturgical, Orthodox Church in America.)

   Most of the material was taken from the author’s unpublished master's thesis prepared for St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary (1980) entitled, The Responses of the Russian Episcopate Concerning Worship, 1905, and the Liturgical Situation in America.  [This is available from the Theological Research Exchange Network - TREN.]


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