The Orthodox Church and an Organic Western Rite

In my last post I pointed out several things which were problematic about the current Western Rite used in the Orthodox Church, including its artificiality and lack of organic growth within the flow of history. Today I would like to meditate a little more on how liturgical traditions grow organically.

One of the arguments often used in promoting the Western Rite within Orthodoxy is the observation that the Orthodox Church is not simply the eastern branch of the universal Church, but is the universal Church spoken of in the creeds, so that describing it as “the eastern church” tends to obscure Orthodoxy’s universality. Since Orthodoxy is not simply eastern, the argument goes, its liturgy should not be exclusively eastern either, but should include western liturgies also. The Orthodox Church is the true Church in the West as well as the East, and therefore its liturgical tradition should include a western liturgy as well as an eastern one.

This is an interesting argument, and one that contains an important truth—viz. that Orthodoxy is not simply “the eastern church”, but the Church, offering the fullness of salvation and truth to those throughout the world, east, west, north, and south. Nonetheless, the argument glosses over rather a lot of history, including the history of how liturgies actually grew and functioned.

As mentioned in my previous post, the early church included a tremendous liturgical diversity, with each local bishop/ congregation having its own anaphora and liturgical tradition (as well as its own version of the New Testament canon). This period of liturgical diversity and pluralism did not last, and eventually (to make a very long story very short) at length two liturgies came to dominate the field and largely supplant all the other liturgies—the Roman rite and the Constantinopolitan rite. These became the main liturgies of the pre-schism western church and the pre-schism eastern church respectively.

The Eucharist as practiced in the West and the East continued to develop from those early times. Today the liturgy of the West bears scant resemblance to the original Roman liturgy actually used by St. Gregory the Great/ Dialogus, just as the liturgy of the East bears fainter resemblance to the original liturgy as served by St. John Chrysostom. Uninformed Orthodox triumphalism aside, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy did not descend to us unchanged through the centuries, any more than the Roman rite did in the West. Since both traditions were alive, they continued to change, develop, and experience enrichment (and, dare we say, sometimes some decline and decadence too). Things were added, and things were subtracted, not by decrees from ecumenical councils but simply through local imitation. Some bishop added something to a liturgy and his neighbours thought it a good idea and copied it. That was how liturgical variation spread.

Of course liturgy included more than simply the texts of the anaphora (or canon of the Mass) and other parts of the Eucharist. They included things like calendar and feasts, para-liturgical devotions and blessings and—more importantly—their stated significance. For example, the western tradition included the practice of multiplying Masses to aid the souls in Purgatory, as well as the practice of saying certain prayers as indulgences to minimize one’s own time in Purgatory.

Thus, liturgical traditions and praxis cannot be divorced from the dogmas and life of the church which practised them. In the case of the West, the churches there gradually grew apart from churches of the East to the point where they were effectively in schism. This schism brought with it some unfortunate things to the West, at least from the eastern point of view. I mention only a few of them, since this is a blog piece and not a book: the role allowed to personal creativity in iconography, the use of statues as devotional objects, the use of the Eucharistic bread as a focus of devotion and prayer, the focus on gore and suffering in Christ’s crucifixion, the effective commodification of grace, and the preoccupation with justice, guilt, and suffering. One can debate the legitimacy of these post-schism developments. Here I simply note that they are post-schism developments and have no real precedents in the east or west before the schism. They are also intimately tied to a theology that developed in the West that is different from that of the East or the early pre-schism West. In a word, they are western, not patristic.

As mentioned in the last blog post, the Western Rite does not just reflect the catholicity of the ancient church’s liturgy, but also the liturgical mutations that developed in the West after the schism—including the mutations found in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It is true that the early church knew a variety of liturgies, but this pluralism has ceased to exist for many centuries. No one in the West now serves the Mass and does liturgy in general the way they did in the time of St. Gregory the Great, just as no one serves the Divine Liturgy today the way that St. John Chrysostom served Liturgy. Both the churches of the West and the East have moved on and developed their liturgical traditions—and to the Orthodox mind, the West has embraced unfortunate practices since it fell into schism (though of course not all the mutations and practices were equally damaging).

This means that the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church is not so much an “eastern” liturgy as it is the last surviving liturgy of the true/ unschismatic Church. To recap: after the collapse of liturgical pluralism, the last two main liturgies standing were those of the Roman rite and of Constantinople. The Roman rite and the western tradition as a whole underwent unfortunate developments throughout the years as the West fell deeper into schism. That means, if we connect the dots, that the rite of Constantinople is the last liturgy standing in the Church in the same way as the Orthodox Church is the last church standing that did not split and fall into schism.

To confess that the Orthodox Church is the one true church therefore brings with it the obligation of confessing that its liturgical tradition is the one untainted liturgical tradition. It is not so much “the eastern rite” any more than the Orthodox Church is the “the eastern church”. Like the Church, the “eastern Liturgy” is simply “the Liturgy”—or, if one prefers, “the unschismatic Liturgy” (though this title seems to me unduly provocative). One sometimes gets the idea from some Western Rite advocates that everything in the West except for the Filioque was unproblematic, so that apart from the presence of the Filioque and the absence of the Eucharistic Epiclesis, the liturgical tradition of the West was genuinely Orthodox throughout. I suggest that this view unduly severs liturgy from doctrine and spirituality.

The Orthodox Church could, I suppose, create a new western Liturgy if it wanted to. But if it did, three cautions would be in order.

First of all, if the Church wanted to create a western rite, it would need to take care to avoid the heterodox developments that arose in the West during the time of schism and after the Reformation, remembering the principle lex orandi lex credendi. The resultant new rite would therefore avoid such things as Stations of the Cross, devotional use of statues, use of the Monstrance and Benediction, Protestant hymns/ use of a Hymnal, western style art, and kneeling on Sunday. The services would all include the use of incense and would be chanted from top to bottom, as things were in the pre-schism West. If one also excludes pews (sadly found in some Eastern Rite churches as well!) the resultant rite would be dramatically different than the rites currently in use in the West. And since this new western rite would be more like the Byzantine Liturgy than it would be like the current western rites of Novus Ordo Roman Catholicism and mainstream Anglicanism, one wonders why undertake the project at all.

Secondly, the creation of a new rite always comes with certain dangers. In all the other centuries liturgies grew incrementally and gradually. Committees did not sit down with pen and paper and write new liturgies; they tinkered here and there with the traditions they already had. When committees were allowed to produce new liturgies more or less de novo (such as in the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church and in Anglicanism) the results were often unfortunate. Part of this stems from the modern unstated presupposition that personal creativity is needed in producing liturgy. But a good liturgy is not so much a product of modern creativity as it is the result of incremental changes which let a past inheritance shine through in the present. That is why liturgical development took place within the flow of history. The Church did not create new liturgies, either by borrowing from other traditions or by creating out of whole cloth. It simply added a bit or subtracted from what it already had.

Thirdly, whether one likes it or not, liturgy is the glue which holds Orthodox identity together. If we returned to a state of liturgical pluralism such as existed in the early church, the result would be a radical theological pluralism as well—i.e. heresy. Orthodox people continue to hold to the same beliefs as one another because they regard themselves as belonging to the same ecclesiastical tribe, and inclusion in this tribe is almost entirely liturgically expressed—the minor differences between jurisdictions and differences of language notwithstanding. It is true that our unity is based upon a common fidelity to the apostolic tradition; it is also true that this fidelity is expressed and preserved liturgically. Creating a variant rite would almost inevitably produce, in time, a variant theology. This does not mean, may I stress, that those currently in the Western Rite have a variant or heretical theology, or that such variance will develop by next month. But I suggest that eventually, given time and the comparative liturgical isolation inherent in using a different rite, a differing theology will eventually develop. A rite dramatically different from the rite used universally elsewhere cannot help but impact upon unity and therefore, eventually, doctrine.

For these reasons, I submit that the dangers of producing a new western Liturgy shorn of its historically heterodox components are not worth the risk.


  1. I have always viewed “Orthodox” as meaning maintaining Truth handed down by the Apostles (from Jesus) whether it is in the West East North or South. After that, various cultures, customs and languages come into the way of worship but all the while still maintaining Orthodoxy.

    Some may not understand this, however the West has become very multi-cultural with some people keeping their cultures, customs and languages as much as possible, but for the most part the West has become culture-less. This is from the strong “I” message being put out today along with “my rights” and it has or tries to flow over into the Church as well as many organizations not just staying within one’s self or family/friends circle. It has spread and is spreading faster and faster all the time. So, a decision has to be made by one, to either let it in, or keep it out – compromises being done very carefully so as not to have losses leading to destruction.

    Hopefully this is clear…..God bless and thankyou for your blog!

  2. Thank you for exploring this, Fr Farley. It’s helpful to see how integrated our faith and practice are and to further see where they come from and where they may go. May this perspective continue to keep us sober and humble before both God and man. I appreciate the work and the manner in which you bring this blog. May you continue to grow in the love and grace of God.

  3. “For these reasons, I submit that the dangers of producing a new western Liturgy shorn of its historically heterodox components are not worth the risk.”

    “This means that the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church is not so much an “eastern” liturgy as it is the last surviving liturgy of the true/ unschismatic Church.”

    YES! YES! YES! Fr. Farley’s statements could not be more true. Coming from the Latin background I was born into, “Western” is synonymous with the creeping corruption of modernism. The first time that I attended an “Eastern” Orthodox liturgy, I had no doubt it was the one, true, Christian Liturgy. Nothing in my 43 years had ever resonated so profoundly.

    I am working towards chrismation at a local Antiochian parish, please pray for me as I will pray that the Orthodox Church remains an eternal haven for those seek the Way, the Truth and the Life.

  4. Father,

    How is it that a different rite will invariably create a different theology if the principle “lex orandi, lex credendi” applies? That is, how is it possible for a liturgy created by the Orthodox Church, subject to modification by orthodox bishops and prayed continually by the Orthodox to result in heterodoxy? It seems that this principle would lead one to conclude that only the rite of Constantinople is truly Orthodox, and that all other rites, even from before the schism(s), were inherently inferior, which is a notion I have difficulty accepting.

    1. It would, I suppose, depend upon the degree of modification. If heterodox elements were left intact in the non-Orthodox Liturgy accepted and used in the Orthodox Church, these elements would eventually impede the formation of a truly Orthodox phronema. The rites/ liturgical tradition used in the West in the of (e.g.) St. Gregory the Great had changed by the time of Great Schism, and were subject to the mutations which effected the West. There is more to liturgical tradition than simply the words of the text of the Eucharist.

  5. If you look at the accretions in the Byzantine rite and practice you will see imports from paganism (from aerial toll houses to various superstitions) and from (the horror) Roman Catholicism all over the place. The idea that we have a pure and perfect expression of Christianity in the Eastern rite (itself not monolithic until quite recently: the Syrian Orthodox for example were brought under the Greek tradition late and due to the prevailing problem of ethnocentrism that seems to correlate with liturgical consolidation) is fantastical. I recommend a trip to Eastern Europe to dispel that notion. Moreover we have one set of traditions embedded in the Byzantine rite that were not in any way monolithic around, say, the life of the Virgin, in the pre schism Church. When these become a unitary source of claims of superiority we are on very shakey grounds historically and theologically.

    As an aside, I do think the use of the Anglican rite has issues that warrant concern, but as a pastoral approach- one that would subject that liturgical expression to slow evolution in the context of the Church, the Church has already spoken. That Fr Farley disagrees with the Church is fine, I guess, but also seems to be a pointless exercise in divisiveness that appears to serve no positive purpose.

    1. I quite agree with you that all rites have accretions, but importing a complete liturgical tradition to supplant one’s own is quite a different matter. The Church as a whole has indeed spoken in that it has not accepted the WR rite approach, and the few groups that have accepted it seem not to be subjecting it to much evolution at all beyond deleting the Filioque and inserting a eucharistic epiclesis, but are content to leave it as is. Calling attention to problems is not divisiveness, and arguably the divisiveness is with those practising innovation by accepting a WR.

      1. Fr. Farley,
        I appreciate your viewpoint, and thank you for sharing. However, I have to say, instead of untangling a web of confusion, your criticisms do actually inhibit dialogue and create further divisions in the Church. I am a recent convert, two years, and attend an ER parish. But, my wife and I also just spent a week retreat at a WR monastery; and God met us there in a powerful way. Yes, things were different, but just like all of Orthodoxy, all the practices are intentional and possess great meaning. In fact, there are things we can learn from our Western Orthodox bretheren’s worship and prayer; for example, Lectio Divina. Let’s not forget Benedictine monasticism and it’s great offerings too. In the WR Christ is loved deeply, worshipped in reverence and awe, and people are exposed to, and transformed by the Holy Spirit. What more do you want, and what more do you ask for? This is what Orthodoxy is about. The way I see it, we need WR; it has many devotional treasures, prayers, and disciplines we need as a Church. WR, in my view, completes Orthodoxy. If we are not careful we can sound like the pharisees and knit pick at things that really bear little importance in the big picture.

        Orthodoxy has enough problems with unity due to ethnocentrism and pride in our own way of doing things, that we are blinding ourselves from being able to meet others where they are. If WR helps people transition to Orthodoxy better than trying to be Greek or Russian, outstanding!

        Lastly, you made a good point concerning unity. Another rite, another place of discord. Definitely possible, unless, there exists within the jurisdiction, and Church as a whole East and West, mutual dialogue, understanding, and accountability.

        How about instead of building higher walls and reinforcing with more steel than already is in place, inhibiting Orthodox unity and communication, how about we focus on what we can do to create unity and dialogue.

        Thank you again for your posts, books, and podcasts. I am a big fan;)

        1. Thank you for your kind words. I have never questioned the devotion of WR brethren, and their devotion is, to my mind, irrelevant to the issue of the wisdom of a WR. A question I would ask of our WR brethren is: if the WR is necessary to complete Orthodoxy, was Orthodoxy incomplete for the last thousand years?

          1. I would say, yes; we have been in schism from our Latin bretheren; this creating an open door for the further fragmentation of Christendom. Yes, the Chirch is not complete; it is broken; but still is the Church. Therefore, wouldn’t we do better for the Church as a whole, since in Her wisdom, she has approved of the WR, should we focus more on creating dialogue and encouraging union?

          2. This represents a Protestant ecclesiology. The Church as a whole has not in fact approved of the WR, and the number of such parishes small to the point of irrelevance.

          3. In response to your question, I would say yes, The Orthodox Church is/has been incomplete, we are in Schism with our Latin Brethren. The Church to my knowledge is not a rite, ethnicity, building or ritual, but a body of believers in Christ.

            Furthermore, the Church, in her wisdom, approved of the WR Vicariate; and WR is here to stay. Therefore, I believe it is more advantageous to the ER and the Church in her entirety to focus on dialogue and uniting Orthodoxy; East and West. Then, and only then, will the Church be entirely whole/complete.

          4. I suppose we must agree to disagree. Your view seems to entail an erosion of the teaching that the Church cannot cease to be one and therefore to contain the fullness of Christ. I used to entertain your view when I was a Protestant. I agree that the Church is not a rite. It is the fullness of Christ, and I deny that this fulness can be diminished by schism. Whether or not the approval of a few WR churches represents “wisdom” is precisely what is under debate. It is not true that because something happens in the Church (such as the approval of a WR by two jurisdictions) such a move must be wise.

          5. Yes, I guess we do have to agree to disagree. But to answer your repeated reminder concerning the “wisdom” of WR; forgive me for not making myself more clear. I will say, schism does inhibit fullness, we are missing a body part; as Pope John Paul 2 said, we are missing a lung. On the overall scheme of things, WR is wise. Let’s be honest, the ER on a general level, at least in the Greek Archdiocese which we are members of, is not super welcoming to outsiders coming in… My wife and I are very grateful we came into the parish we did,because if we had tried any of the other parishes in our area, we wouldn’t have become Orthodox; you have to either be Russian or Romanian. In this case, forget pastoral ministry. That is why we have a handful of priests, ours own being one, who are fighting the ethnocentric battles within the Church, and seeking to remove obstacles. In addition, for someone to change cultures takes a lot of time and a lot of work. If the WR helps make this transition for incoming former Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans what is the problem? By accepting WR we are not compromising Biblical truth or Church Big T Tradition.

            Also, you make it sound like WR has nothing to offer; as I mentioned before it does. I can mention two things off the top of my head that WR brings to the table that the East is missing; Lectio Divina and the Oblate of Benedictine Monasticism. Both existed pre-schism and both are largely ignored in Orthodoxy. It is not wise, but foolish for us ignore these contributions.

            Also, let’s be honest, The Catholic Church went off the deep end a long time ago. The mass liberalization of Catholicism and Protestantism is not going to stop anytime soon. In fact, as you are aware, it is trying to creep its way into Orthodoxy. As a result, People are looking for a safe place to develop in Christ. As I have pointed out, Orthodoxy provides this. WR enables us to meet people where they are, and helps remove unnecessary obstacles for them to embrace the Church. There is risk, but I believe, the risks are highly exaggerated, and as long as we have proper accountability, thorough leadership, and dialogue; we have nothing to worry about.

            In summation, I believe regarding the re-introduction of Western Orthodoxy, God in His Wisdom, is building a bridge for others. It boils down to this, we have two choices as Orthodox Christians… we can either look at the big picture, accept the reality of our own shortcomings and weaknesses, repent of our sins, realize what we can and cannot change, and in a heart of humility and charity, help display God’s Glory in complete fullness and Godly Wisdom. We do this by removing unnecessary barriers, namely our own misunderstandings and prejudices. Or we can repeat the sins of our fathers, kick against the work of God by refusing to acknowledge God’s handiwork in the Church and the world, and continue to, like the Pharisees did in Christ’s day, straining out a gnats and swallowing camels.

            Again, thank you for your contributions, wisdom, and tenacity in defending our Church. God’s Richest Blessings Fr.

  6. The simple solution to this problem is for the Church to get back to the basics of the liturgy. We need to take what is good, true, and right (pun intended) in both rites and develop one Liturgy for the entire Church. Any liturgical theologian(s) could do this. The basic “skeleton” is there in both “western” and “eastern” liturgies. I would love to have the Little Entrance back as the introit to the “eastern” liturgy. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Divine Liturgy had only one ending and not three, etc., etc.

    1. This basic approach was tried, in the late 1960s, by an academic committee assembled by Pope Paul VI in Rome. Known as the Novus Ordo Mass, it was implemented in North America in 1970 and has radically altered the faith and praxis of the majority of the Roman Catholic faithful. To be charitable, we might refer to it is the ‘Inorganic’ approach to liturgy.

  7. I agree with this post. I went to Western Rite and it turned me off completely.

    When they glorify God, and the Son, (pause), and holy ghost.
    One should never say, “holy ghost.” Ghost means the dead’s man soul. Holy Ghost was never dead. ANd why the long pause?
    Then they precede to say, “and with thy spirit.” What a contradiction.

    So I asked the priest, why say the ghost? His response is “it’s the same thing.”

    No it is not. It is completely different with different meaning. Look it up in the dictionary..

    And lastly, they don’t face east, they face each other. And use the Cross on the wall. I’m sorry but this whole western rite are “Catholics apologists who are larpers that does not want to do liturgy” just as much as Catholics who loves byzantine rites but rather worship papist. It is a fringe group who are larpers. Larpers means Live Action Role Playing that stems off from Dungeon and Dragons role playing game. In the end, It’s Catholics and they are heretics.

    Honestly, western rite should not be supported. If they want to sing Latin, then please do incorporate into Liturgy. But don’t change the church layout such as no dome, no wall between the alter room and prayer room, and bread dipping into the blood, and every other thing that Catholics do.

    1. My guess is that the references to “the Holy Ghost”, along with the phrase “and with thy spirit” were intended to hearken back and to the version of the Liturgy found in such places as the older version of the Anglican Prayer Book, where both these phrases are found. The pause you mentioned is simply a matter of a more solemn and (to my mind ponderous) style. I am a bit surprised that they did not face east; in older Anglican churches the altar table was against the east wall so that the celebrant faced east as he served the Eucharist (unless the table was dislodged and moved forward, which was sometimes the case).

      1. From my reading of Nameless’ post, I understood a reference not to the orientation of the presbyter and altar during the Eucharistic offering, but rather to the custom of those serving in the choir stalls in front of the altar to face each other. This would seem to have a parallel (at least positionally if not musically) in the beautiful Byzantine tradition of having north and south choirs in the transepts responding antiphonally. I may of course be mistaken as to what Nameless observed, but I would be greatly surprised to learn that an Orthodox WR parish failed to serve ad orientem.

        1. I hadn’t thought of that. Nameless’ earlier reference to the priest and his reference to “the Cross on the wall” (i.e. the east wall?) made me think he was referring to the priest facing the people and the people facing him/ the Cross on the east wall. But you may well be right. In many Anglican churches the choir occupies opposing pews in the chancel, between the altar table and the people in the nave.

    2. Re: “Holy Ghost.”

      In older forms of English, “ghost” was a synonym for “spirit”; the “dead man’s soul” idea is much more recent. English very often has two words for something, an original English-Germanic word (ghost) and a Franco-Latin word (spirit). The German cognate of “ghost” is “Geist,” and has been the translation of Latin “spiritus” since Old High German.

  8. The Holy Ghost as in Father Son and Holy Ghost is used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer which can be found on line. I admit that Iike the language and occasionally read the Litany which has many phrases such as From Battle ,Murder and Sudden Death… Good Lord deliver us. and useful admonitions about Pride and Vainglory.

  9. The article purports many inaccuracies about the Western Rite within the Orthodox Church.
    The current Western Rite within the Orthodox Church is indeed the result of organic liturgical growth within the flow of history. When the Western Catholic branch of Christianity was severed from Holy Orthodoxy, it took several centuries for that branch to cease bearing the spiritual fruit of Holy Orthodoxy. Within the Western Catholic Churches, the true Western liturgical expression of Orthodoxy, although that expression was buried in the mire of heresy, was organically preserved until the Holy Spirit returned that expression to the Orthodox Church. The Western Catholic Church was quite liturgically conservative up into the 1950s, and the Tridentine Mass has only minor differences from the Mass of St. Pope Gregory the Great (c. 590-604 AD), which was, in turn, derived from the Divine Liturgy given to the Roman Church by the Apostle Peter. The Divine Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great, as used by the AWRV, is a reasonable development of earlier Western Orthodox practice from the pre-schism Latin Church and is fully in line with the Western Liturgical Tradition of the Early Church.
    By God’s providence, the Church was born into a Graeco-Roman cultural matrix in which both Latin and Greek expressions of the Orthodox Faith flourished. To reject the venerable Latin Liturgical Tradition is to disregard an integral part of the Tradition of the Early Church and is to dishonor the work of the Holy Spirit among the people of the West.

  10. Holy Ghost is a more accurate term in traditional English. Ghost, gust (of wind) maintains the connection between spirit and wind as found in Hebrew and Greek.

  11. My family and I have looked into Orthodoxy and the closest Orthodox church to us in rural Oklahoma is 35 miles away. As Baptists we had no experience with liturgy and we visited a WR Antiochian church. The father is the most loving and patient clergy we’ve ever met. The service includes icons, incense, and I haven’t seen any statues or rosaries and the priest is very clear to explain the difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism . This is a foreign to us and we were lost during the Divine Liturgy the first time because well we come from Baptist land. All I can say is that the priest and laity have welcomed us, loved us and has showed us ancient Christianity. Whether a parish is WR or ER I think we should be thankful to God that we in America can learn about the ancient ways of Christianity because it sure beats the shallows wells of denominations that are only 175 yrs old or less.

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