A minor debate within Orthodoxy has concerned what has been called “the Western Rite”. By this term is meant an (often doctored) version of the text of the Roman Catholic Mass or the Anglican Communion Service. Is the substitution of this Western Rite in place of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy advisable for Orthodox churches? Is it even legitimate? I would like to examine this question as dispassionately as possible, keenly aware that some Orthodox clergy currently using the Western Rite might take the matter personally. I would ask for understanding since I am here intending no personal insult or condemnation of anyone, but am simply trying to disentangle some threads which often have become very tangled indeed.
The question of the Western Rite and the Eastern Rite cannot be adequately understood apart from a look at their historical development. In the early days of the Church, there was no single rite dominant in either the west or the east. Indeed, originally there was (to our modern mind anyway) an astonishing and bewildering diversity, for each pastor (i.e. each bishop) invented his own anaphora, and each church had their own distinct way of offering the Eucharist. (Scholarly types might want to read all about it in Bouley’s From Freedom to Formula: The Evolution of the Eucharistic Prayer from Oral Improvisation to Written Texts.) As the years progressed, pastors would borrow prayers from each other, so that several anaphoras and sets of prayers came to dominate an area. Rome had their distinct Liturgy, as did Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, as well as the churches of the West such as those in Gaul, North Africa, and Spain. Yet even after certain centres came to exercise a wide influence on the churches around them, a variety of rites still persisted, in both the East and West. Eventually, due to the many and varied exigencies of history, two rites remained standing at the end: the Roman rite and that of the Great Church, Constantinople. But originally there were many eastern rites and many western rites.
Time marches on (as the cliché has it), and in the West time marched on into the sixteenth century cataclysm known as the Reformation. One thing that the Reformation accomplished (apart from the sundering of western church unity) was the creation of radically new forms of liturgy. Some of them (such as Anabaptist and Reformed liturgies) mutated so thoroughly that the original Roman Mass was entirely overthrown; others (such as the Anglican liturgy) retained as much of the old Roman wording as possible. But all of them broke decisively with the Roman (and Orthodox) understanding of the Eucharist, denying emphatically that it was a sacrifice in which the true Body and Blood of Christ were orally received by the communicant.
It is hard to overstate this. For all of the early Protestants the Roman Mass was an abomination, a blasphemous parody of what Christ intended for His Church. There might be occasions where a Reformed cleric from the Continent might substitute for a Church of England cleric if needs be, but having a Roman Catholic priest substitute for the Anglican cleric was out of the question. For all concerned, this issue of the Mass was literally a matter of life and death, as the executions of Ridley and Latimer and of Campion attest. Rome, for its part, reacted to the Protestant revolution by battening down the hatches, both administratively and liturgically. The so-called “Counter Reformation” introduced a number of features aimed at solidifying past liturgical customs and introducing new ones. The war was on.
On the Protestant side, the Anglican liturgy was the closest to that of the Roman rite, and this underwent its own development, with the 1662 Prayerbook eventually becoming the final product authorized by Parliament and used in the Church of England until 1980. The C. of E., being a state church, included a variety of theological types, usually categorized as “high” and “low”, with the High Church Anglicans using their Protestant Prayerbook and reading into it their own catholic theology. (Or at least trying to; people like Henry Newman saw the irony of the whole thing and left for Rome.) But it should be noted that, despite Tractarian revisionism, the Communion Service of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was originally written to oppose and refute the theology of the Roman Mass.
This makes it all the more interesting that the Western Rite in use today in some Orthodox churches consists of a version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or a version of the Roman Mass. The Western Rite of course comprises more than simply the text of the Eucharist, but also includes in some places such western liturgical usages as the use of unleavened wafers, the feast of Corpus Christi, the adoration of the Host in a Monstrance, the service of Benediction, the use of the Rosary, and the use of statuary. (For these terms, see explanatory note at the end of this article.) And of course, western liturgical vestments. We return to the question: is all this legitimate for congregations claiming to be Orthodox? (I of course assume its legitimacy for western churches.)
One must ask what is meant by “legitimacy”. No Orthodox should dispute the fact that Orthodox churches using the Western Rite still perform the Eucharist and that this Eucharist is “valid” (to use unhelpful western categories). I would therefore like to approach the issue by asking three different questions: 1. Is the creation of a self-contained liturgical subset like the Western Rite ecclesiastically wise in terms of unity? 2. Is the creation of this subset helpful in terms of facilitating a conversion of the heart for those who are a part of it? 3. Is the creation of this subset historically genuine in terms of organic growth of church life as a whole? I would answer negatively to all three questions.
First of all, the question, “Is the creation of a self-contained liturgical subset like the Western Rite ecclesiastically wise in terms of unity?” The Orthodox parishes of the Western Rite (belonging to either the Antiochian jurisdiction or the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) comprise an exceedingly small percentage of all Orthodox parishes world-wide. This is so much so that when one speaks of “the Orthodox Liturgy” everyone understands the speaker to mean the Byzantine Liturgy (as in the book The Orthodox Liturgy by Hugh Wybrew, which details the development of the Byzantine Eucharist). I suggest that the aggressiveness with which proponents of the Western Rite sometimes attempt to make their case for the legitimacy of their project stems from a defensiveness in the face of this common assumption that Orthodox=Byzantine. The Western Rite parishes often feel a bit besieged, and need to constantly defend their Orthodox identity.
The clergy—and especially the laity—of these parishes often do not know how to serve or function liturgically in a Byzantine Liturgy. I am told that in some cases the Western Rite clergy are forbidden to serve with their Byzantine Rite brother priests, though this may not be so now. What remains clearer is the fact that Western Rite laity have difficulty feeling at home outside their Rite. In the old days of the early church when every bishop had his own anaphora and when his laity rarely travelled far from home to visit other churches, this was not an issue. In our day, when people routinely travel far from home and when liturgical standardization has become a part of ecclesiastical identity, this difficulty of fitting in and non-conformity is more problematic.
Part of the strength of Orthodoxy today consists in a unity of liturgical tradition, which mirrors and expresses the unity of our faith: wherever an Orthodox may go in the world, he or she can expect to find a church confessing the same faith and expressing it in the same liturgical tradition. Rightly or wrongly, the strength of our unity depends upon our liturgical unity. It was otherwise in the early church, but it is different now, and there is no sense in denying it or trying to turn back the clock.
This is not just the case with the Orthodox, but with all Christian confessions: a Baptist expects to find every Baptist church believing more or less the same thing, and worshipping in more or less the same way. If a Baptist from England enters a Baptist church in Vancouver, B.C. and finds them saying the Rosary and offering the sacrifice of the Mass, they will feel they are not in a real Baptist church. The modern reality is that liturgical consistency and a certain homogeneity in liturgical tradition have become a part of ecclesiastical identity. This means that one expects to find in an Orthodox church in Vancouver the same kind of worship found in other Orthodox churches throughout the world. An Orthodox parish worshipping in a way radically different from every other Orthodox parish impacts our unity whether one likes it or not. A liturgical subset, however authorized by ecclesiastical authority, makes unity more difficult. If you doubt this, ask the Uniates. It is too easy for a Western Rite Orthodox to identify not so much as Orthodox like the rest of his or her Orthodox compatriots as Western Rite and to feel at home only among other Western Rite Orthodox, or—as in some unfortunate cases I have known—among Western Rite Anglicans.
This observation leads to my second question, namely, “Is the creation of this subset helpful in terms of facilitating a conversion of the heart for those who are a part of it?” The matter of conversion from one faith or church to another is a complex one, and pastors know that genuine conversion is a matter of the heart. If one converts only to please one’s grandmother or to impress one’s girlfriend or because all the cool kids are doing it, that conversion is not entirely genuine, and may not last. So, a good pastor will always ask the potential convert, “Why do you want to convert?” and probe a little into the question of interior motivation. In the question of the Western Rite, I always wonder why a person who chooses the Western Rite over the Eastern Rite does so. What is it in the Eastern Rite that is the deal-breaker for someone born and formed in the West?
Sometimes one receives the answer: “It is the icons on the walls, the absence of pews, the fact that everything is chanted, and the use of incense”. This is very odd, for none of these things are specifically eastern. In fact, they are specifically Christian, and so were once found in the West as well. If one entered a church in England in 1400 one would have found icons on the walls, no pews, and discovered that the entire service was chanted from top to bottom (including the lessons), and that incense was used. Abundant art, chanting, and incense were dumped by Protestants at the Reformation, and by Roman Catholics after Vatican II, so that now such things appear specifically eastern, but that is only due to changes in the West. These things are found in Orthodoxy not because they are eastern, but because Orthodoxy is conservative and never dumped the things that were once found everywhere. There is no reason that Christians in the West cannot appreciate them now, because Christians in the West once appreciated them for centuries.
So, what is the real reason for choosing a Western Rite over the Eastern Rite? Why do some Anglicans say (as I have heard them say), “I could never attend an Eastern Rite church, but only a Western Rite church”? The answer is one of familiarity. Or, to put it differently, because the experience of getting used to a different liturgical tradition can be initially uncomfortable. Or, to put it differently again, because they are unwilling to change.
It is just here that the Western Rite can become problematic. Conversion to Orthodoxy inevitably involves change, and it involves an inner revolution. It is not like switching from Anglicanism to Lutheranism, or from being a Baptist to being a Pentecostal. It involves moving from a schismatic church to the true Church, and therefore rethinking everything. It involves a humility which takes the Church on its own terms. Conversion to Orthodoxy is not so much like choosing a prom-date as it is like surrendering and laying down one’s arms, and this surrender must be unconditional. To say, “I will surrender to the Church, but only if it uses a Rite with which I am already familiar” is to not really surrender at all. I am not saying that all Western Rite Orthodox are like this; I am saying that the temptation to short-circuit the conversion process is built in to the Western Rite. And this is problematic.
Finally, I would ask, “Is the creation of this subset historically genuine in terms of organic growth of church life as a whole?” By “organic growth” I mean that liturgy is rooted in and flows from the life of a living church, and that churches cannot be divorced from the flow of history. As said above, time marches on, and the churches of the West changed their liturgies to the point where they eventually adopted the Roman rite, just as the churches of the East changed theirs to the point where they eventually adopted the Constantinopolitan rite. How the churches worshipped in the East and the West is of historical interest, but a genuine contemporary liturgical praxis will be rooted in the church’s life now.
It would be—well, odd—if a church started using the old eastern rite of Antioch (recovered through scholarly archaeology) and called it the “Antiochene Rite”. The church in Antioch is part of a living church and so now uses the same Constantinopolitan eastern rite as everyone else. To use a long-dead rite and attempt to base one’s liturgical legitimacy on the fact that it was once used in Antioch is somewhat unnatural.
It would be even odder if one resurrected from its historical grave the old fourth-century Antiochene liturgy and added later elements used even now like the Byzantine cherubic hymn, the Byzantine three antiphons and the Little Entrance, modern vestments, and modern church architecture—and billed that hybrid as “the ancient liturgy of Antioch”. It would be no such thing. A more honest approach would be to bill it as “the ancient liturgy of Antioch as revised with many additions from the succeeding centuries”—not as snappy a handle, I admit, but more accurate. Genuine liturgy arises from the accumulated experience of a living church with a continuous life behind it, a church living in the flow of history. It should not be the artificial creation of scholars who tinker with it according to preference. When they do, certain problems arise.
In particular, one will have problems with the heterodox elements artificially grafted on from a later time outside the flow of history. Things such as unleavened bread, statues, the use of the Monstrance and the Feast of Corpus Christi, for example, were part of a living church within the flow of history. That church had errors, since it was in schism, and these liturgical elements were expressions of those errors. They cannot legitimately be now added to an Orthodox church where they are alien to its life and history and are expressions of an erroneous liturgical tradition. These things only find their place in the Western Rite because they were part of the experience of the convert’s life in his former church. The question of doctrinal or liturgical legitimacy seems not to have been raised or it was deemed as less important than that of the convert’s comfort with his old ways. The reproduction of former experience seems to be more important than the issue of organic growth and liturgical legitimacy. This too is problematic.
What then can we conclude? How are we to regard those worshipping in Western Rite Orthodox churches? I suggest that we must regard them as our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as fellow-Orthodox. But this solidarity does not mean that the Western Rite project was a wise one, or that it is not problematic. Brethren dwelling in unity (Psalm 133:1) should take care to speak the truth in love.
(An explanatory historical note: the western Feast of Corpus Christi, which emphasized that the Eucharist was the Body and Blood, the soul and divinity of Christ, was added to the western calendar by the pope in 1264. The Host is the wafer used in the Mass after its consecration. A Monstrance is a liturgical vessel used for containing and exhibiting a consecrated Host. Benediction is the service whereby the faithful sing to Christ as exhibited in the Monstrance and are blessed by the priest holding the Monstrance.)
Next: An Orthodox Organic Western Rite?