The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge

AgiaSophiaLiturgyI have been involved in Christian liturgical life for most of my adult experience. The first part of that experience was as an Anglican – a liturgical experience that is both Western and reformed. I have been involved in the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity on one level or another for the past 16 years or so – and as an Orthodox priest since 1999. The two experiences are difficult to compare.

There is something “linear” about the reformed liturgies of the West (and by “reformed” I do not mean “Reformed” but “redesigned after 1500 and some after 1960”). The linear character of these liturgies is the simple fact that they tend to do one thing at a time, and in a manner in which actions are simplified and straight-forward. Orthodox liturgies are, in contrast, frequently engaged in several actions at the same time and often bring together varieties of images and events in a single service. 

Principles that have driven reform over the centuries, and particularly in the 20th century, have often been quite rational and even sloganeering. My Anglican training reduced all ritual motion by a priest to things that could be seen and easily interpreted by the congregation. Actions only had meaning as they amplified the accompanying words and only had meaning within the mind of the people observing. No action had significance within itself (thus ritual became “pantomime”).

Despite efforts by some to reform the Byzantine heritage of Orthodoxy, it remains largely immune to the rationalizing and pantomiming principles of Western liturgies. Actions often occur out of sight of the congregation (even behind closed doors). Such actions can only have meaning because something is actually supposed to be happening. There is also a mammoth non-linear aspect to Eastern liturgies. Though liturgical texts are necessarily written in a linear fashion (unless you’ve ever seen the old Hapgood translations) what is described is a service in which many things may be happening at once. It is quite normal for choir, Deacon and Priest to all be doing things in a fairly simultaneous manner (which means that if you are not familiar with the service – a book can be more confusing than helpful).

More than the non-linearity of the service text is the lack of simplification in the liturgical event itself. One of the simplifying principles of the modern West has been the elimination of liturgical aggregates (you only celebrate one thing on a day). Thus it is frequently the case that feasts are moved away from Sundays in order to maintain the focus on the resurrection (notable exceptions are All Saints’ Sunday and the like). According to the Orthodox Typicon (the book which contains the directions and reasoning for liturgical practice) the greatest possible liturgical celebration is the concurrence of Pascha and the feast of the Annunciation on the same day. When this occurs, the Annunciation is not moved to a later or earlier time but is celebrated alongside and within Pascha itself (the rules for this being fairly complicated). This coincidence only occurs under Old Calendar usage since the “New Calendar” mixes the Old Calendar reckoning of Pascha along with the Gregorian reckoning of fixed dates. 

The thought of celebrating both the Annunciation and the Lord’s Pascha simultaneously is utterly foreign to Western liturgical usage. What becomes impossible under a regime of liturgical simplicity is the dialog that occurs when the Annunciation and Pascha are able to speak at the same time. This “polyphonic” character of Eastern liturgies is quite common. Every day of the week has a particular dedication (Monday for the angels, Tuesday for St. John the Forerunner, Wednesday the Betrayal of Christ, Thursday the Apostles and St. Nicholas, Friday the Crucifixion, Saturday the Theotokos and the Departed, and Sunday the Resurrection). Each day also has its saints (of whom there are very many each day). A day may also be a particular feast. It is not unusual in the course of the services for a particular day (which would include Vespers, Matins, as well as the Divine Liturgy) to have touched on all of these liturgical aspects rather than simplifying everything to a single point.

The result (particularly over a period of years) is a richness of experience in which each thing in the faith is brought into contact with everything in the faith. There is a fullness expressed in this experience that cannot be duplicated in another manner. This manner of liturgizing is reflected in the Orthodox resistance to separation and codification as a means of knowledge. The habits of a millennium in the West have been to break things into separate components and to seek to understand the whole by understanding its parts. The result is often an impoverishment of the faith and the experience of the faithful. 

To know something in its fullness by experiencing it in the context of everything instead of in isolation is a difficult path. It requires greater stretches of time and often results in a knowledge that cannot easily be spoken. If such knowledge could be spoken in simplicity then it probably would be – but it cannot. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is inimical to reductionism.

The knowledge granted to us by God which is unspeakable is just so because it is too large for words. Liturgies which are less are just that – less.

Liturgy is a primary means given to us in the Church for encountering God. Why should such a thing be reasonable and simple and easily understood?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



27 responses to “The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge”

  1. Yudi Kris Avatar

    Another very good post, father!


  2. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    Father did the Liturgy have a influence on you becoming a priest?

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good question. I would say it was the dominant form of my vocation. I like to preach and enjoy every aspect as a pastor – but my internal sense of vocation was precisely in the context as liturgist. It is where I feel most at home and closest to God, always. This was true even as an Anglican – though the modernization of the rite, in hindsight, was counter-productive in my own experience. The Byzantine liturgy was and is a tough re-training, but is infinitely more satisfactory. I cannot think of anything that I miss… Some liturgies are more profoundly experienced than others (probably on account of my sins). The opportunities I have had to concelebrate with my bishop are deeply remembered. Last month I served as the only celebrant for a weekday liturgy at our Cathedral in Dallas. It was a very special day.

    But, truth told, being with my Deacon and servers in the altar on any given Sunday is about as sweet as I could ever ask. God grant me more years to stand at His altar!

  4. Lucian Avatar

    Don’t listen to Father: he’s just trying to make it more interesting than it actually is. 8) What happens is that the priest basically says longer prayers in secret, whose expression (in words) is being done in a more unfolded manner, and which expound the same ideas that are being sung at the same time, but in fewer words, by the people, that’s all — since singing something obviously requires more time than reading something. And the Monophysite services are far way “cooler” than ours. (Actually, everything that they do, or have, or just simply are, is far way more interesting than anything we have to offer). And I watched the Catholic Novus Ordo Mass on an Italian TV station (Rai Uno) many times, broadcast from Rome every Sunday, and I see nothing `complainable` about it.

  5. Damaris Avatar

    One of the first times I saw a liturgy was in a Russian church. I didn’t understand anything, of course, and at first I was a bit distressed that people came and went, children wandered around, etc. But then I noticed that no matter what anyone was or wasn’t doing, the liturgy continued. It was obvious that the audience was God, not the restless congregation. When I returned to my evangelical church, I asked the pastor if he would do the same things he had planned to do this Sunday if no one showed up. He was very struck by that and couldn’t answer.

    Who is our audience for “worship”? That ought only to be a transitive verb. Too many people just say “worship” and don’t mention who or what they’re worshiping. I even saw a cringe-worthy sign outside a church recently: “Have a great worship!” The ancient, preserved liturgy protects us from these errors.

  6. Karl Avatar

    Damaris: It sounds like the sign was trying to suggest that all of our life, all of our actions, ultimately our whole day should be an act of worship to God. We should not just equate a Sunday morning service with worship. In evangelical circles “worship” often just means “the part of the church service where you sing songs to God.” I have heard a number of sermons trying to get past that conception.
    While I want to agree that liturgy can protect us from errors I was always amazed in my time in the Episcopal church at how much depth there was in the liturgy we spoke on Sundays and yet so many people that I knew grew up saying those words every Sunday but seemed to be completely unaffected.
    I find your contrast between the orthodox liturgy and the “show” that a sunday service is at most evangelical services very intriguing. Its true if the congregation or “audience” didn’t show up there would be no reason to go on with the service. I am an evangelical who is very curious about orthodoxy and you have revealed something that has lately been bothering me about my church but I hadn’t been able to fully articulate it until now. its a good way to contrast the two services.

  7. greg Avatar

    damaris: fascinating observation. The first Orthodox service I attended as an adult was at a Russian church: a huge cathedral with maybe three worshippers, plus some who came and went. I was puzzled but after the first visit that everything was designed to minister to God rather than an audience. I can only say this deeply impacted my thinking and together with a study of the early Church, continues to be the thing to draw me closer and closer to Orthodox Christianity.

  8. davidperi Avatar

    Father…Are there books on the market, like the Orthodox Typion that explains to us in the congregation the meanings or theology behind these practices? When I was at for 2 weeks, I used their library during my free times and found some good resources, but there were just too many. Can you suggest a very good one?

  9. D Burns Avatar

    While everyone is renumerating on our 1st encouinter with the Orthodox liturgy… I remember comenting to my wife after (or maybe durring) that service that while very strange it felt like REAL worship. People actually bowed down before God, the creator of the univerise and master of life. It was very powerfull to witness.
    Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve been learning to sing with the chanters in our parish (or at least atempting to learn byzenteen chant) at the behest of our priest. While I have enjoyed the process I find it dificult to place myself in prayer. Unlike when I just sung with the congregation, now I have to concentrate more on trying to stay in the right tone (God help me when I have to change tones in the services) and sing the words so that everyone can understand them. Have you every experienced anything like this? I’m sure your extremely familure with the services by this point and can go on auto pilot at some points, but I find it difficult to worship while singing from the chanters stand. I guess I’m asking at what point does singing the liturgy, or vespers or matins, become natural? Does it ever? Will there be a time I can once again just concentrate on being in the presance of God wile at the same time singing the various hymns?

    I should mention that I’ve sung in choirs (shcool & church) most of my life and continue to sing and play bluegrass on a regular basis. I find singing in the Orthodox church VERY different.

  10. Jason Avatar

    “Despite efforts by some to reform the Byzantine heritage of Orthodoxy, it remains largely immune to the rationalizing and pantomiming principles of Western liturgies. Actions often occur out of sight of the congregation (even behind closed doors).”

    I am always struck by this during the Presanctified liturgy, which has a great deal going on behind closed doors (and curtains)–the cencing of the altar, the procession to the prothesis, etc. Even after serving in the altar during this service for several years (as an altar server and then as a Subdeacon), it still seems strange to me to be doing all of this stuff when no one can see it. I still have to remind some old part of my self that that is not the point.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nice humor, but wrong.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    In mainline Episcopal circles – it is a commonplace that the words used are not necessarily to be taken literally. I knew of very few priests who actually believed all of the Creed. Those who did, have largely left the mainline and gone elsewhere. This, of course, was tragic. If the words are not to be believed, then they should not be said. But it was difficult to find someone who believed even in the Virgin Birth. Thus the feast of the annunciation was more of a scandal than a revelation. I’m not making this stuff up.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    One of my favorite services. It is blatantly about God.

  14. Paul Johnston Avatar
    Paul Johnston

    I am an Evnagelcal who is trying to understand E. Orthodoxy . As I have listened to clergy talk about their transition from Anglican to Orthodox ministry, many have talked of the beauty of the liturgy, as you have here. What I am wondering is if the people are able to enter into the liturgy and the experience of God in the same way that the clergy can? Not only emotionally and spiritually, but in terms of the awareness of the connections you describe above? (I don’t know how to ask this question properly, but I am asking honestly and respectfully.)


  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, I would say so. I have many conversations with my laity that indicate that they are. My wife sings in the choir and is quite able to enter into the liturgy. It’s not just a clerical thing. It takes time for anyone (clergy included) who is knew to Orthodoxy, time and attention (with patience). I’ve been doing the liturgy as an Orthodox priest for 11 years now, following 18 years as anglican. Some things I only just now see (not the larger things but many things). I trust this will be the case to my dying day.

  16. eleftheria Avatar

    What is ALWAYS striking during liturgy, vespers, sacraments is how much we take away and/or absorb each time. This is more pronounced when we attend every Sunday, every feast day. For me, it is a constant series of epiphanies – small revelations – that reveal just how very much God’s love encompasses us.

    On a very specific level, there are parts of The Revelation by St. John that correspond EXACTLY to Divine Liturgy. So, that makes me very aware that heaven, the Lord, His angels are right there – at the altar, in the church, con-celebrating during services.

    Thank you, Father, for this ministry…truly, Glory to God for All Things!

  17. greg Avatar

    jason: I am under the impression that the ‘hidden’ prayers, gestures, indeed the solid iconostasis is a Byzantine accretion – Fr. Schmemann would say a corruption that artificially separates the clergy and laity. I don’t mind them at all, but some have certainly criticized these developments.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    “Byzantine accretion” is a problematic phrase. I am devoted to much of Fr. Schmemann’s work – but I think that much of the Western influence of the Liturgical Movement has proven its bankruptcy in the Church’s of the West that have employed its theories with little resistance. The same application in Orthodoxy would have, I believe, the same disastrous effects (this, I admit, is my private opinion). Accretions, so called, frequently have good reason beyond those imagined by 20th century reformers. By the same token, their removal to an academically determined “time before” is quite problematic. As I have stated before – the absence of an iconostasis in one period and its absence in modernity may mean and signify vastly different things. I do not idealize some previous “pre-Byzantine” century. This would seem a mistake to me. Fr. Schmemann’s own piety, as evidenced in his journals (and in my conversations with many who knew him), seems to have been quite traditional and not nearly as reformist as some would have you think.

    I think the conversations he began are far from over. The Orthodox world of 2009 is, in many ways, a vast remove from the Orthodox world of 1983 (the year he died). The OCA, for instance, may only just now be seriously considering much of what he had to say and teach about an autocephalous American Church.

    His greatest and lasting impact on the American Church, and perhaps elsewhere, is the development of Eucharistic piety that makes for frequent communion. At present it is probably not what he intended (it borders on becoming too casual) but was quite important given what obtained before.

  19. greg Avatar

    I don’t have much of an opinion – nor am I in any position to voice one if I did. As it happens, though, both of the OCA parishes in which I have spent time have had “open” iconostasis for one reason or another: one a mission, the other by design. There is in a sense in which this style of iconostasis actually does draw a person in to what would otherwise be for the most part hidden. I have been in some chapels in Russia where the separation is definitely tangible.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have served in both settings as well in parishes that sort of “split the difference.” I do not have the inner agenda of reform in me in order to drive the minimalization of the iconostas. Perhaps because of my background in which I watched the constant forced reform of liturgy and architecture by liturgical reformers over the protests of their people (in the Episcopal Church) that reform is simply emotionally and intellectually distasteful to me. It means that I am probably very jaundiced on the subject. I distrust reformers and I’ve heard the rhetoric before – and saw its bankruptcy.

    It is a rare thing to find an Orthodox priest who actually favors the ordination of women (there are a tiny number). They also seem to favor various other reforms, liturgical, etc. Seems so like an agenda I once endured.

    I’ve been told on occasion that I am importing an issue from outside of Orthodoxy – but I think the other side has imported an agenda and can prove the historical case.

    Mostly I think reform is a red herring. The issue is true knowledge of the living God, which is not dependent upon the size or non-existence of an iconostasis, but is dependent on our repentance and forgiveness of our enemies, etc. This is what I think about and teach (with an occasional reflection such as this article to stir up trouble) 🙂

  21. […] The Strange Land of Liturgical Knowledge « Glory to God for All Things […]

  22. Lucy Avatar

    One of the things I love about being Orthodox is that multi-layered approach to every day. I do not even come close to “taking advantage of it,” so to speak, but it is always there, in the back of my mind, that *something* is being celebrated today.

    I can’t remember what feast it was, but the service for it had been sparsely attended at my church and the next Sunday our priest was teaching about that feast. He made an observation that has stuck with me (and I’m probably going to do a terrible job of quoting him): even when we are not able to be at services, it is important to remember that church is still happening. We are still part of the Body even when we cannot be physically present. I have found that to be immensely important to me to know that even when I’m not there, church (and by definition, worship) is still happening and that because I am part of the Body, I am still somehow participating, even if I cannot be there.

    I love that even if the priest can’t be at matins or vespers or even Liturgy, it still goes on, if in a somewhat different manner, because God is our audience. The revelation that church was not about me, nor on one level *for* me, was a huge part of my journey to Orthodoxy.

  23. […] Catholic blogs, the comments sections of his posts are also valuable and full of insight. One such insight sent me reeling a few days ago when I read it: One of the first times I saw a liturgy was in a […]

  24. […] Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth, that does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously. […]

  25. […] Liturgy has a grammar, a way of speaking and revealing truth. This grammar does things that cannot be done as easily in discursive theological writing. I have written about this previously. […]

  26. […] The liturgical movement of the mid to late-twentieth century began to look at ritual. However (from my perspective) its conclusions were largely predicated on the assumptions of Protestant thought and produced a theatrical understanding of liturgy (resulting in what I have elsewhere termed “pantomime“). […]

  27. […] The liturgical movement of the mid to late-twentieth century began to look at ritual. However (from my perspective) its conclusions were largely predicated on the assumptions of Protestant thought and produced a theatrical understanding of liturgy (resulting in what I have elsewhere termed “pantomime“). […]

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