Three Liturgical Questions

I sometimes cannot help asking myself three liturgical questions whenever I visit churches which serve the Liturgy in the “classic” pattern I learned in seminary—all of those questions quite rhetorical. I would like to share them here in a spirit of calm inquiry in the hope of provoking helpful discussion about things liturgical. My approach might be styled as motivated by a spirit of “liturgical reform” by some, or even “renovation” by the less sympathetic, but my aim is not so much reform or renovation as a return to patristic common sense. That is, at Liturgy I cannot help wondering what St. John Chrysostom would think about what we have done with the Liturgy ascribed to him, and concluding that he would be less than thrilled at some of the changes that have evolved over the years. This does not mean that we should take the liturgical scalpel to the texts as Vatican II has done with the Roman Mass. But it does mean that if certain aspects of our praxis would raise the eyebrows of a Chrysostomus redivivus, perhaps we should revisit that praxis.

Question one: why do the people say “Amen” to prayers that they have not heard? Where the practice obtains of saying the prayers silently, the priest will say (for example) the prayer after the Great Litany silently or quietly enough not to be heard by the congregation, and then raise his voice so that the final bit of the prayer can be heard: “for unto You are due all glory, honour, and worship: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages”. The congregation (or perhaps the choir, substituting for the congregation) then answers, “Amen”. The part that can be heard is not a prayer, or even a sentence, but simply a clause. The problem, of course, is that such a practice makes nonsense of the people’s response “Amen”. The word “amen” does not mean “the prayer is over”. As St. Justin Martyr explained long ago, it signifies “so be it” (in his Greek, genoito/ γενοιτο), and represents the people’s participation and assent to what has been said. This congregational assent transforms the utterance from being the private wish and prayer of the celebrant into being the corporate prayer of the gathered church. As Schmemann says (in his book The Eucharist), “With this word the ecclesial assembly concludes and, as it were, seals each prayer uttered by the celebrant, thereby expressing its own organic, responsible and conscious participation in each and every sacred action of the Church”. This presupposes, of course, that the prayer has been uttered and heard. Of course the people know (maybe) what the priest has said silently, but private knowledge is not the point. Liturgical worship is not private knowledge, but public utterance. As it is, the people are sealing not a prayer, but a clause, one with minimal content. The fact that this is not felt as odd reveals how greatly the role of the laity has been devalued and rendered liturgically irrelevant.

And sometimes it is worse than this. In places where the priest serves without a deacon, it is customary for him to intone the Great Litany, and then straightway intone the final clause of the prayer (the so-called exclamation or ekphonesis), and then, after the Amen has been sung, say the prayer quietly during the singing of the First Antiphon. (Presumably this is why that prayer is called in the liturgy books “The Prayer of the First Antiphon”.) This means that the people are saying their Amen not only to a prayer that they have not heard, but to a prayer that has not yet been said. Their “amen” and their role then is not only irrelevant, but nonsensical. I can imagine St. John Chrysostom raising his eyebrows.

The second question is this: why do we sometimes talk to people who aren’t there? I refer of course to catechumens in congregations where catechumens do not exist. Whether or not a congregation has catechumens within it, oftentimes the deacon and priest will assume they are there and talk to them. The deacon begins by addressing them, “Pray to the Lord, you catechumens!” and then goes on to pray for them. He will conclude by talking to them again, bidding them, “Bow your heads unto the Lord, you catechumens!” Then the priest prays a prayer, asking God to look down upon the catechumens “who have bowed their necks before” Him and unite them to His holy Church through baptism. After all this, the deacon again talks to them, ordering them twice to “depart” and again to not remain. But if no catechumens are there, who are priest and deacon talking to and about? Generally speaking, sane people do not talk to people who are not there as if they were.

If a congregation does have catechumens, it is reasonable for them to pray for these catechumens even when they are absent—but not to talk to them. In the case of absent catechumens, the church might reasonably pray for them in the third person, omitting the lines in which catechumens are addressed in the second person (e.g. “Pray to the Lord, you catechumens!”). And of course one would not tell people to leave who were not present in the first place. As it is, we are talking to catechumens who aren’t there, and then telling them to leave, when we would in fact want them to remain even if they were there. When Chrysostom had his catechumens dismissed, he expected them to actually leave. That is, his words had existential meaning and a corresponding reality in congregational life. He would wonder why we pretend we have catechumens when we don’t, why we tell them to pray and bow their heads to the Lord when they are not there, and why we tell them to leave when we expect them to stay for coffee hour, or at least until the end of the service.

Question three: why do we pretend things have happened when they haven’t? Here I refer to several things. In some congregations the deacon cries out before the Gospel, “Stand upright!” (or “Let us attend!”; the Greek is orthoi/ ορθοι) and in some places this is taken as the signal to kneel. We tell people to stand up straight, and then don’t bat an eye when they do the opposite. Their piety may be commendable (if a touch uncanonical), but it makes nonsense of the liturgical direction.

It is similar later on when the people are bidden to bow their heads to the Lord (i.e. bow their heads forward so that the priest may extend his hand over them to bless them), and everyone present remains with unbent neck—except, oddly enough, the priest who turns his back on them to bow his head to the Lord. Or, most strangely of all, the diaconal command, “In the fear of God and with faith, draw near!” This is, of course, not a suggestion, but a command to all those listening to come forward to receive Holy Communion. The liturgical text assumes that the people have obeyed and that everyone present drew near, for the next diaconal litany begins, “Stand upright! Having partaken of the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating and awesome mysteries of Christ, let us worthily give thanks unto the Lord”. In some congregations hardly anyone comes forward to receive (I remember being in one packed Greek church of about 500 people, where my wife and I and four other people were the only communicants), but the deacon insists on chanting as if the congregation had partaken of the divine and holy mysteries. In all this we see a gap between what we say and what actually happens. Our liturgical words have been, if not exactly emptied of meaning, then certainly subject to an existential erosion of meaning. We no longer mean exactly what we say. Constantinople’s pastor, I suggest, would not be amused.

What to do? One sometimes hears that no one can do anything to close the gap between words and reality in the Liturgy without the pronouncements of an Ecumenical Council. Such a view of history is defective. As a matter of historical fact, liturgies evolved throughout the centuries through shared local variation, quite apart from the mandates of an Ecumenical Council. Such councils, whether “ecumenical” or “provincial”, only concerned themselves with liturgical details when abuses and problems became widespread enough to merit their attention. Thus the Council of Nicea ruled that deacons should not commune presbyters (canon 18), and that one should not kneel liturgically on Sundays, or during the Paschal season (canon 20). Thus the “Quinisext” Council ruled that the pre-Eucharistic fast should be maintained even on Holy Thursday (canon 29), and that milk and honey should not be offered on the altar (canon 57). In all these rulings the councils were not concerned to police every liturgical development that occurred (which was beyond their power even if they had wanted to), but to simply curb developments they felt were widespread abuses. Liturgy grew and developed because it was alive, and quite apart from conciliar decrees. (For a quick overview see Taft’s The Byzantine Rite: A Short History.) The bishops had the major share of decision-making and control because the bishops then (unlike now) were the local pastors. As such, of course they had liturgical authority over the churches in which they had the weekly burden of pastoral care.

For now, the best we can hope for is to at least start the discussion. It is not an unimportant one. And we should hold the discussion realizing that St. John Chrysostom is watching us with interest. He might not now get a vote in the proceedings, but his approval or disapproval should surely matter to us.

We invoke his name and his authority at the conclusion of every non-Lenten Liturgy, and we will one day have to face him and perhaps explain to him why it is we serve “his Liturgy” the way we do.


  1. “for unto You are due all glory, honour, and worship: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages”

    English teacher here. Lets rewrite this in more recent modern English, keeping all the elements of this alleged clause. ” All glory, honor, and worship are due to you, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever unto ages and ages, amen. ” We, the congregation, did not here the preceding prayer so we can only consider what we here outside of its connection to the preceding prayer. We clearly have a complete sentence. Glory, honor,and worship is clearly a compound subject. Are due is the verb, and the Trinity is the object of the sentence. This is an independent clause. now and ever unto ages of ages is a dependent clause. From the view of the congregation, this is a complete sentence and its a sentence that I can say “so be it” to every single time I hear it. I don’t think this criticism holds water so relax. This was fun. I’m going to read the rest of the piece now.

    1. You missed a word, indicating that it is indeed just a clause: the text reads “for unto You are due…” [Greek oti prepei soi]. My main point throughout was not to change the Liturgy so much as to pay more attention to what it actually says and change our behaviour accordingly. Anyway, glad you enjoyed at least the first part of the post. Thank you for the comments.

  2. Wait, wait, waitjustaminithere! I finished the paragraph and I have to fervently disagree that the previously mentioned alleged clause (a complete sentence from the congregations point of view, as I established above, is of minimal content! It recapitulates and expands on the first two lines of the prayer our Lord Himself taught us to pray and I don’t think they are the first two lines because they are of minimal content.

  3. The Catechumin dismissal. The first time I heard it, I wondered if I was supposed to leave. I haven’t heard it in most of the parishes I have attended, though. The order to bow our heads to the Lord? Really? this true? I have always had my head down and my eyes closed. I don’t know if everyone else kept their head up. That isn’t an issue of needing to change the Liturgy so much as a need to poke some people in the ribs or something so they bow their heads. Likewise, the Eucharistic lines. The problem is not the Liturgy, I think, but allowing the parishioners to believe that it is acceptable to forgo the Eucharist (and being prepared for the Eucharist) without a good reason. Maybe some of these variances are an indication that the praxis of the parishioners should be more closely guided by the Liturgy? Except for kicking out the catechumins. I don’t have a problem when that line is “forgotten”. It was kind of a source of worry when I was a catechumin.

  4. Father Lawrence,
    Sincere thanks for offering discussion on topics such as this ( Divine Liturgy), which impact us all… young/old, new/seasoned, learned/masters, and yes, even clergy/laity. We can only hope that these discussions will enliven our unity.
    I’d like to pose a question as well…in some places where the liturgy book states the priest says silent or quiet prayers, and the prayer is not what you’d call “short”, how is it that, within seconds, if not immediately, the priest then faces the people and says out loud what follows next (after the prayer was supposedly recited)? There is no possible way the prayer could’ve be said. I don’t know what to make of this.
    Another question…is it acceptable to sing out loud (audibly) along with the choir? Not necessarily every single time the choir sings, but like for instance, the Great Doxology? Some of us sing, but not nearly the majority.
    I’m under the impression that we are not so much invited, but expected, to partake in the celebration. So rather than being “part of”, we, all of us, actually “are” the liturgy, the gathering of the people. Are we not to be “active” rather than “passive”? And shouldn’t that be a natural reaction to “celebration”…you don’t have to tell me to be worshipful or joyful…the essence of the celebration brings such reactions automatically!
    So Father, you ask “what to do” in the face of inconsistencies? Some thoughts come to mind as starters….one, find others who share the same, or similar, concerns. With a number of “solid” voices (“in the multitude of counselors there is safety”), the better the clarity, and hope for moving toward solution. Two, at the same time, set up a time to discuss these concerns with your priest and look to him for guidance. What would he do with the question of “can we actually change (?) how we do liturgy”, beginning by actually saying all the prayers, and saying them out loud? Can we have classes, instruction, literature? Do we need permission from the Bishop?
    (Needless to say, all done prayerfully. I too have an icon of St. John and ask for his prayers for us…we need them!)
    I am looking forward to hearing from your readers regarding these matters!

    1. My own experience is that in the absence of a deacon the priest delays saying the prayer itself until the next antiphon when he has time to say it silently. Regarding the anaphora (the long prayer consecrating the bread and wine) the temptation is simply to skip the silent parts–which presumably is why the priestly vows contain a section in which the priest promises not to skip them. In our own congregation, the choir’s function is to lead the congregational singing, not to replace it–though of course the congregational singing presupposes familiarity with the material. Certain parts (such as the “Lord I call” verses in Vespers or the Paschal canon) are intended for choir alone. All of these liturgical practices presuppose the blessing of the priest and the bishop, and require a delicate combination of education, patience, and mutual forbearing. Zealous reformers can, unfortunately, be liturgically correct and yet still spiritually wrong.

  5. As many readers will know, normal Greek parish usage skips the whole section of prayers for the catechumens. Slavonic usage keeps this part of the service. Neither usage seems to me to be sensible in all circumstances. Why have prayers and instructions to depart if there are no catechumens? Why fail to use the prayers when you here are catechumens? So for practical common sense, I leave out this section if there are no catechumens, but I make a point of using these prayers in full every time one or more catechumens are present. Simple! As for telling them to depart … we all know that they generally stay anyway. So only tell them to depart if you really mean it. I save this for the last few Sundays before their baptism. It gives people a powerful sense of what it means to become a member of the Church. Being told to leave, they long all the more to be allowed to stay. So they will enter into the body of Christ through baptism, longing to leave behind the old man who was told to leave, longing to put on the new man who may now remain in the church and receive the body of Christ. The early Christians understood the powerful effect of dramatic liturgical actions.

    1. Thank you, Father! Like you, I omit the prayers for the catechumens when we do not have any. Even when we have them, I only address them liturgically when they are actually present. I take your point about longing: our own catechumens report that their exclusion from the Chalice during their catechumenate acted ever afterward as a source of appreciation for the inclusion after their reception. And we don’t have them come to the Chalice for “a blessing”, as I have sometimes seen. This has no historical precedent, and I think catechumens are better served by keeping the line between “in” and “out” quite firmly drawn.

      1. Thank you Father for your thought provoking post. I suppose a reasonable argument for including the prayers/petitions for the catechumens is that in a large-largish parish, one might expect that we would always have catechumens and that in a crowded/full nave we might not be able to tell if our catechumens are present or not. Another reason is that since we nearly always have visitors to our parish, including the catechumen prayers makes some sense since we do not know if they are or are not catechumens (they often are ).
        Another rationale I suppose is that when we pray the liturgy we are not only praying for those present, but for all the world, in this case catechumens beyond our parish. We pray for several people who are not there, most obviously the bishop. (Of course, addressing those absent people still does not make sense.) It also makes no sense to dismiss those we would not want to leave so that the catechumen dismissal can be obviously and logically omitted.
        Thank you Father for all your writing. I always find your posts beneficial.

        1. Thank you for your comments, Father Deacon. In our own little mission, we have our catechumens come forward when they are addressed, so that we know whether or not they are there, and they can more easily be in the same place to receive the blessing from my extended hand as they bow their heads for it. But we do need to scan the congregation beforehand to see if they are there (and if the petitions addressing them should be used or not), and that would indeed be more difficult in a large parish.

    2. We will begin the catechumen classes this week and will be received at Pascha in an Antiochian parish. It will be interesting to see if Fr. begins to address us in this section and asks us to leave or not. We have all been worshipping every Divine Liturgy anyway, and most of us are already Christian. Our priest would be of the same mind as you I believe.

  6. Dear father Farley
    Regarding the prayers for the cathecumens … well, it seems odd in a way to pray them when no catechumen is present, but with regards to myself, I cannot say that I am not in a state of cathecumenship, although I am officially a full blown member of the church. I learn more every day – literally – about what it means to be a member of the royal priesthood. So, in a very real sense I consider myself a lifelong catechumen, although I am aware that that is not technically speaking the meaning of the word.

    They same angle one could perhaps apply to some of the other “odd” exclamations made during Liturgy: Arise, attend, the doors … Apart from their concrete historical meaning these utterances also have a spiritual meaning. I know that f. Schmemann of blessed memory (whose work I am very fond of) did not like such spiritualising, but there you go 🙂

    I think, that you bring up a very relevant discussion, and give us all a timely reminder, that liturgical structures were quite flexible in olden times – probably the printing press did a great deal to standardise liturgical texts. But being brought up a protestant in Denmark, which is an ultraliberal country liturgically speaking, I am EXTREMELY sceptical about too much liturgical change. For the same reasons that you are perhaps quite open to liturgical change (I know your body of work rather well, and I see you as a beacon within Orthodoxy – not a haphazard liberal by any means ;-)), namely: praying/saying what we believe, I become alert, when people want to change – because I have seen firsthand the radical ways in which changing liturgical practises have changed the way people believe. Perhaps that would explain some of the general resistance towards liturgical reform within Orthodoxy?

    Blesses feast day of saints Peter & Paul
    Robert Johannes Ulrich

    1. Thank you for writing. I quite agree about hasty and extreme liturgical change. The scalpel that the post-Vatican II RC church applied to the old Roman Mass seems to have opened a Pandora’s Box of liturgical chaos for them. I think that real change (as opposed to simply taking seriously the words we currently have and adjusting our praxis accordingly) should be incrementally done. I also think that enforced standardization of any kind is unwise. Our congregations are very different in their make-up, even within our own OCA. Things done in my own little mostly-convert mission could not sensibly be done in the big Slavic OCA church downtown.

  7. Re: prayers for the catechumens – present or not – and speaking to them. Since we gather as the Church, which is ALL those on earth and in heaven, and not merely as ‘parish’ our praxis has never seemed odd to me. It is akin to the Apostle’s command to the Corinthians, “For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

    What HAS always struck me as odd (although it has never really disturbed me) about the words, “Stand upright! Having partaken of the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating and awesome mysteries of Christ, let us worthily give thanks unto the Lord” has less to do with who has and or has not communed than with our response. Rather than giving thanks (which I fully realize could become disordered chaos if it was actually done verbally), the IMMEDIATE response, without even a momentary pause for silent thanksgiving, is “Lord have mercy.”

    But though I acknowledge that there are some seeming oddities of practice that have come about over time, I would be loathe to see our liturgy ‘reinterpreted’ or even perhaps even ‘restored’ through any modern lens, including my own. I am content to try to understand it better and simply pray and give thanks in and for the beauty and fullness given to us.

  8. Fr Lawrence,
    Excellent questions with no easy answers. The question concerning silent prayers is troublesome. They are not said audibly in my current parish and consequently, I always feel that the Divine Liturgy is not complete for whatever reason. Yes, it may cut down the time of the Divine Liturgy, but that may be a superficial excuse. By the way, there is an extensive discussion on this by Archimandrite Robert F. Taft, S.J. in an article entitled: “Was it traditional in the ancient Church for liturgical prayers to be recited aloud?” Here is the link:
    Dr. Paul Meyendorff, Professor of Church History at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, had this rather interesting observation on Liturgical Prayers: (Taken from article “The Silent Prayers Of The Divine Liturgy” By Father Andrew Harrison.)
    “In ancient culture all reading was done aloud, even by individuals in their private homes. It was the practice in the early church to read the anaphora prayers aloud. In the 5th century, Emperor Justinian issued a law mandating reading prayers aloud and blaming silent reading on the laziness of the priests. The law had little effect, and by the 8th century the practice of silent reading was widespread. The issue did not come up again until the 19th century and the liturgical movement in both East and West that called for a return to ancient practice of reading prayers aloud and involving the laity more in the liturgy. Archbishop Tikhon of North America and several other Russian bishops called for prayers to be read aloud in their 1905 responses to Pobedonostsev. In this country, Fr Schmemann was the big promoter, and by 1990 about 70% of OCA priests were reading all or part of the Anaphora aloud. The practice also has been catching on elsewhere, including Greece and Russia. Even Patriarch Alexy reads them aloud. I saw this myself.”
    As a lay person, I personally would love to see a return to the early practice of reading the liturgical prayers out loud! Whenever, I attended the churches that had them all read out loud, I felt I soared spiritually in the completeness and beauty of the Divine Liturgy. Why cast it away or neglect it?

    1. Thank you for all this! I especially appreciate the link to Fr. Taft’s much-needed scholarship.

  9. I thought that what you say makes good sense. I have often been puzzled when a chanter sings “Receive me today, O Lord, as a communicant” when he has no intention of partaking in Holy Communion.

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