Why Do Deacons Speak at Liturgy?

Every once in a while I am asked why I say the prayers aloud when serving Divine Liturgy, and do not serve in the more “classic” manner of silently reciting the prayers (such as the Anaphora, or prayer of the consecration of Bread and Wine). Before answering the question, perhaps I might explain what I mean by “silent prayer” in the Liturgy, since when I use the phrase to non-Orthodox people unfamiliar with our Liturgy it sometimes conjures up images of the silence of a Quaker meeting.

In the “classic” manner of serving the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, after the opening exclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom”, the deacon prays the Great Litany. That is, he offers a series of biddings to the congregation, and at each bidding they respond, “Lord have mercy”. Thus the deacon begins, “In peace let us pray to the Lord”, and the people respond, “Lord have mercy”. He then goes on to offer a series of ten or so other biddings, each one stating what the congregation is invited to pray for and ending with the cue, “Let us pray to the Lord”. For example, the deacons chants, “ For seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord” and the people respond to the final cue of “Let us pray to the Lord” by saying, “Lord have mercy”.

While the deacon is chanting the litany and the people are responding, the priest says a prayer silently—or at least inaudibly enough to be silent as far as the congregation is concerned. The theory is that he times the saying of his prayer so that he is finishing saying it at the altar at about the same moment as deacon is finished leading the people’s responses in the nave. The priest then says the final clause of the prayer aloud, providing the cue for the people to respond by saying “Amen”. In the prayer after the Great Litany, what the people hear aloud are the words, “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 and unto ages of ages.” (Note that this is a clause, not an actual sentence.)

In many Orthodox churches there is no deacon. In these cases, the priest chants the Great Litany, finishing with the final clause, “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 and unto ages of ages” to which the people respond “Amen”. He then says the prayer inaudibly immediately after this, during the singing of the first antiphon. Note please that this means that the people have said “Amen” to a prayer which has not yet been uttered. He does the same with most all of the other prayers, chanting the diaconal litanies, and then saying aloud the final clause of the prayer as the cue for the congregation’s “amen”, and then inaudibly reciting the prayer afterward while the congregation or choir are singing the next bit.

In the case of the anaphora, the priest says the majority of the prayer inaudibly, only raising his voice occasionally as the cue for the choir to sing interspersed bits. It is during these interspersed choral bits that the priest silently recites the next part of the anaphora.

This means that during the anaphora, the audible parts of the prayer, alternating between priest and choir, are as follows: “Singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of Your glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Take! Eat! This is My Body which is broken for you, for remission of sins. Drink of it, all of you! This is My Blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. Your own of Your own we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all. We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, O Lord. And we pray to you, O our God. Especially for our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary. It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God. More honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim: without defilement you gave birth to God the Word: true Theotokos we magnify you. Among the first, remember, O Lord, His Beatitude and His Grace our bishop. Grant them for Your holy churches in peace, safety, honour, health and length of days, rightly to define the word of Your truth. And all mankind. And grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Your all-honourable and majestic name: of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

I have quoted the audible parts of the anaphora at length to illustrate the fact that in this form, what is heard by the congregation is not a complete prayer, but merely selected bits from a prayer, which when strung together still lack coherency.   In fact the only complete prayer heard by the congregation to which they respond by adding their “amen” is the final so-called “Prayer before the Ambo”, which (ironically enough) was originally to be offered by the priest silently as the congregation was leaving and while the priest himself was on the way out. It is fair to say that St. John Chrysostom, to whom this Liturgy is ascribed, would be perplexed by this practice of silent recitation, and perhaps not at all pleased.

Those serving in this “classic” pattern point out that the people of course know (or can know if they want to) what the priest is silently reciting while the choir is singing. They also point out that this practice of silent recitation has been the Church’s practice for centuries—along, I might add, with its practice of only communing the laity once a year. Given this long history of silent recitation, I am sometimes asked why I recite all the prayers aloud (or at least the prayers to which a congregational “amen” is expected).

By way of answer, I might ask the question, “Why do deacons speak at the Liturgy?” That is, why do they chant the petitions of their litanies aloud in full? They could simply raise their voice at the end of each bidding petition, so that all the people would hear is the cue, “Let us pray to the Lord”. In that case, the audible part of the Great Litany would be as follows: “In peace let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. Let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. Let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. Let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy” and so until the final audible clause uttered by the priest, “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 and unto ages of ages”. I may ask: why doesn’t the deacon do this, using the same liturgical method as the priest? The rationale would be the same, for the people could know what he was saying if they wanted to. The question is not meant to be cheeky or rhetorical. It requires an answer: why does the deacon say all of his litanies aloud?

The answer, of course, is so that the people can understand what they are praying for and can respond with a “Lord have mercy” which is actually meaningful. In other words, for congregational prayer to be meaningful and authentic, the congregation offering the responses must know to what they are responding. This applies both the deacon’s petitions and to the priest’s prayers. Another way of saying all this is to ask how it is that someone can add their “amen” to a prayer which they have not heard—or which is some cases has not yet be offered. Saying, “Well, they know what the prayer is” is not an answer, for they know what the diaconal biddings are also, but the biddings must still be offered audibly. That is the difference between private and congregational liturgical prayer.

What is at stake here is not simply a choice between two different ways of reciting the prayers at the Liturgy. What is at stake is the place and importance of the laity. The laity are not present simply as passive hearers of a sacred concert offered by priest, deacon, and choir. They are the ones actually offering the Liturgy, along with the priest, deacon, and choir. Each person has his own specific assigned function in the Liturgy, specific according to rank.

This principle goes back to St. Clement of Rome in the late first century (unless you count St. Paul), when Clement said, “To the high priest [i.e. the bishop] the proper services [literally, “liturgies”] have been given, and to the priests the proper office has been assigned, and upon the Levites [i.e. the deacons] the proper ministries have been imposed. The layman is bound by the layman’s rules.  Let each of you, brethren, give thanks [or “make Eucharist”] to God with your own group [Greek taxis], not overstepping the designated rule of his ministry [Greek leitourgia], but acting with reverence” (First Epistle, chapter 40-41). We note here that each group—bishop, priest, deacon, layman—has its own particular “liturgy” or role in the corporate offering of worship. The layman is not part of a passive audience for whom the spectacle is arranged, but has his own part to play.

The specific lay “liturgy” involves hearing the prayers offered by bishop, priest, or deacon, and sealing the audible prayer by providing the “amen”. This final “amen” does not mean, “The prayer is now over”, but rather (as Justin Martyr pointed out long ago) “so be it”. It seals the prayer and makes it the prayer of the gathered church. This was pointed out rather more recently by Fr. Alexander Schmemann when he wrote, “The correlation between the celebrant and the people finds expression in the eucharistic prayers, which are all, without exception, structured as dialogues. Every prayer is ‘sealed’ by the gathering with one of the key words of Christian worship, ‘amen’, thus binding the celebrant and the people of God at whose head he stands into one organic whole” (The Eucharist, chapter 1).

The practice of depriving the people of the audible reception of the prayers also impacts their meaningful sealing of those prayers, for the laity cannot meaningfully seal a prayer which they have not heard or which has not yet been uttered. It is not coincidental that the rise of the silent recitation and the practice of infrequent Communion as the norm came at about the same time, for both are expressions of a failure to appreciate the role of the laity. In those later centuries the laity were no longer the initiated but the un-initiated (a change furthered by the collapse of a functioning catechumenate). The laity had become not an indispensable part of the assembled Church with their own liturgical contribution to make, but simply the audience, the consumers of liturgical product. One even hears of reference to the necessity of a high and solid iconostasis so that the Gifts may be “shielded from profane gaze”—i.e. from the gaze of laity. In the early church, the laity were a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9); now they are described as “profane”. In this mindset, the laity had become de-sanctified, and so now are fit to receive Holy Communion perhaps only once a year.

This is the fundamental problem. The audible offering of the prayers is part of a larger project—that of the restoration to the laity of their proper dignity. By holy baptism, they have become the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and part of their task is to seal the prayers offered, thereby making them the prayers of the Church. They are the Body of Christ, and so each time the Liturgy is served, they receive the Body of Christ. The ultimate issue here is not liturgical, but ecclesiological. The real question is: who are those people standing in the nave, and what is their significance?



  1. Indeed, an excellent piece, thank you. It certainly supports the old axiom of “as we pray, so we believe”, or said another way “the rule of prayer determines the rule of faith”. In even more concrete terms, “if you want to know what we believe, come and hear what we pray together”.

    Fr., does it follow that the inverse is also axiomatic and true, specifically, “if we do not pray it, we don’t believe it.”?

    1. I think that is true to a degree–e.g. Baptists do not have expressions of the Real Presence of Christ in their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, which indicates that they do not believe it. I think the problem here with the Orthodox is that we do believe things, but they are not finding an audible place in the Liturgy. They are in the services books, but not recited aloud.

      1. It re-enforces to me that, to extrapolate Fr. Schmemann, that liturgical theology is the basis, the foundation, on which all other theology is built. Is it accurate to say, then, that is no variance between what we believe and what is prayed (audible or not)? Or are there faith requirements which are not found within the liturgical life of the Church?

        1. I suppose it depends on how narrowly one defines “the liturgical life of the Church”. The works of the Fathers and the Councils and the monastic traditions should be consulted as well–as well as the Scriptures, of course.

          1. That gets back to the mirror-axiom, “if we don’t pray it, we don’t believe it.” If it’s not publicly accessible and transparent to all, how will we know that it’s what the Lord proclaimed, the Apostles revealed, and the Church has guarded? and wouldn’t that otherwise introduce gnosticism?

  2. Another anomaly is asking the people to bow their heads for a blessing that they don’t hear or that is not even made.

    I appreciate the discussion of the inner workings of the Liturgy, Father.

    1. Yes–including the practice of the priest also bowing his head for the prayer while facing east, away from the people. Ancient practice dictates that he faces them and extends his hand over their bowed heads. That is why some of the “bowing prayers” (or “Prayers of Inclination”) include a line about the people actually bowing to God, and not to “flesh and blood”–i.e. the priest. It may look like they are bowing to him, but they are really bowing to God.

  3. I’m confused. If the laity are indeed the body of Christ and they bow their heads in prayer and the Priest bows his head because even though the Priest stands for THE FATHER, he is not THE FATHER, where is THE FATHER? Where is the Panagia? Is not Christ the everlasting Father united with the Panagia and the body of Christ in the Divine Liturgy ?

    1. Attending a Liturgy might help with the confusion. Christ sits in heaven at the Father’s right hand. The Theotokos is in heaven as well. The priest blesses the people numerous times in the Liturgy on earth, conveying to the people the blessing of God. Christian worship (unlike, for example, Islamic worship) is hierarchical in nature, with the priest conveying God’s blessing to the people. C.S. Lewis wrote of this somewhat in his little article Priestesses in the Church? There he wrote, “To us the priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us.”

  4. I understand that there are fewer Orthodox Christians in the US than there were 100 years ago, that many “cradle” Orthodox leave the Church as young adults, and that even converts to Orthodoxy leave the Church at a disappointingly high rate. I wonder if these trends at least partially result from this loss of meaning and responsibility for the laity? Why stick around if you’re just an observer?

    I’m a relatively new convert myself, so there’s loads I don’t understand. It always surprises me to see most of the nave empty out immediately after the blessing is given, but before the final prayers are offered.

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