In my Anglican years I watched the introduction of a new prayer book. Among its most notable features was variety. In a certain manner, it brought under one roof that most obvious feature of modern Christianity: options. Our culture has an understanding that ideas, thoughts and sentiments are what matters; how they are embodied is largely a matter of private choice – perhaps a lifestyle preference. Confronted with radical differences in worship practice, a modern American Christian would most likely respond, “Does it really matter?” This stands in stark contrast to an ancient understanding of liturgy. Perhaps the most heated debate between East in West during the time of the Great Schism was over whether the bread of the Eucharist was to be leavened or unleavened. At the time, it was seen as far more important than the filioque. Modern sensibilities recoil at such a debate and again want to shout, “What does it matter?”
Our modern protest assumes that we are the masters of our thoughts. Actions and words are fungible, evidence only of style. We believe that substance is a matter of thought and intent. This philosophy is geared towards allowing us to ignore the words and actions of others. In a world of variety and multicultural complexion, such a strategy is understandable. However, it tends to value the private and the notional at the expense of the public and common experience. We imagine that our inner thoughts are what matter and that those thoughts are the product of our own choices. Such is not the case.
Psychological studies have long shown evidence for what is termed “confirmation bias.” We tend to find proof of what we already think. We might also say that you will tend to think like you live – your actions determine your choices to a great extent, long before anything that we describe as “reason” comes into play. The Church has long known this and enshrined it in a formula: lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of praying is the law of believing.” In simple terms, we believe what we pray – and not just what we pray, but what we pray publicly – the Liturgy.
Historically this referred to the fact that Church doctrine agreed with the Church’s liturgical life and its liturgical life agreed with its doctrine. It can be taken prescriptively, that the one should mirror the other. I take it, however, to be a principle (lex): whatever you do in your praying will eventually determine your believing. I think that because we are wired that way. It is worthwhile to look at a Church service, and, apart from the words, to ask, “What does this action mean?” There is a meta-message that is far deeper and more important than the words you say and the songs you sing.
The modern options in liturgical life (found all through the contemporized denominations), have a hidden, and, perhaps, unintended message. Their constantly changing structures suggest that what matters is what you think/feel/believe. What you do in Church is pretty much “immaterial,” a matter of preference and style. Indeed, many moderns believe that this is the great advantage of denominations – everybody can “do Church” in the manner that they like. But what you do is, eventually, what you will think (no matter what you say).
A simple observation: You cannot say that children matter and exclude them from Baptism and the Cup of Communion, much less isolate them and remove them from the public liturgy of the Church. Their exclusion is a teaching regarding the full humanity of children, regardless of what you mean it to say. There is a connection (whether we want to admit it or not) between the repudiation of infant baptism and the repudiation of the humanity of a child in the womb. Adulthood is not required in the Kingdom of God.
This is a crucial matter. Any time there is some component of worship that “doesn’t matter,” the whole liturgy will begin to not matter. The modern thought, “I don’t need to go to Church to worship God,” simply says that all sense of a Eucharistic life is gone. The notion that some part of life, much less some part of worship, doesn’t matter is already an embracing of secularism. Secularism holds that the world somehow exists apart from God. God only cares what we think or feel; intention and sentiment are what is essential. All that sort of thinking can yield is a bifurcation of our lives, a rupture in the fundamental unity of our being. It is a disintegration of the spiritual life. And, in the end, what you do will win. The modern secularization of Christianity (and then the heart) is an inevitable result.
If there is one saving feature of Orthodox Christianity, it would be its failure to alter its liturgy in a significant manner for the bulk of its history. Anyone who says that what you see in an Orthodox service today is the unchanged liturgy of the early Church is mistaken. Much of what we see is unchanged, but centuries have added things here and there. And those additions were intended. When doctrines have been expressed in a definitive manner, for example, they generally gain a place within the worship life of the Church.
As I study the history of Orthodoxy it is primarily the liturgical life of the Church that remains a constant. Periodic corruption within the hierarchy, cultural captivity and other failures are quite notable in Orthodox history. Indeed, very little in its history can be singled out as an outstanding feature of stability and faithfulness. But corrupt characters and cultural hegemonies come and go. Various religious fads and fashions have passed through. That it is possible to speak of an “Orthodox phronema” (mind), is perhaps solely due to the stability of its liturgical life.
The fact that most of Orthodoxy spent the better part of the 20th century stagnated under various communist regimes may have been far more salutary than not. For many Orthodox, mere survival was the greatest concern of the time. There are some who wring their hands over the controversies and failures of the recent Council in Crete. I am not one of them – primarily because I had very low expectations. St. Gregory the Theologian, who took early leave from the 2nd Ecumenical Council, said: “I have never seen a council produce anything but anger and rancor.”
But the same participants who argue and scheme eventually return to the liturgy that faithfully bathes them in the unchanging truth of the faith. The prayers of the Church produce saints. No decisions, made anywhere at any level, have such effective power.
Ortho-doxa is sometimes translated as “right worship.” This is proper and goes to the point of our lives. It was said by many Jews in Hitler’s camps, “We did not keep the Sabbath; the Sabbath kept us.” The same can be said regarding Orthodox worship in the life of the Church. The Church proper is the Church gathered in Liturgy.
The whole of our life, ideally, becomes a liturgy, and, as such, is rightly lived. We were created to make Eucharist of all things, to give thanks. We are not the masters of our existence. We are its servants.