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Liturgical Renewal

I read in Orthodox America an article that said that the way our bishops serve today is not correct and that it comes from the Byzantine court practice....I was surprised by this, since I thought these services were old and had not changed....These people also like little churches. Is it wrong to have big churches? I thought  that maybe you, who are traditionalists, could help me in my confusion. (B.P., CA)

The Priests taking part in the dialogue on liturgics which appeared in Orthodox America, "Liturgical Renewal" (Vol. XI, no. 4 [Oct. 1991], pp. 6-7), appear to be very pious and sober men. However, both the Church of Latvia and Russia, to which they belong, have been long under the influence of modernist thinkers. Constant references to the innovative and often misleading liturgical research of the late Father Alexander Schmemann are perhaps evidence of this fact.

One of the Priests, Archimandrite Zinon, rightly points out that Baptism must be accomplished by immersion, not sprinkling, as is often the case in modern Russia. But his reference to Archbishop Chrysostomos of Vilnius, who often serves in the rank of a Priest, shows us how careful we must be in approaching liturgical traditions. The fact that Bishops have served as they do in the Church now for four centuries certainly argues against a sudden return to supposed earlier practice. In fact, Bishops often serve both in the style of Priests and in the style attributed by Father Zinon to Byzantine court custom, which shows us that modern practice encompasses more than one single tradition anyway.

As well, careful scholarship does not support the idea that the totality of today’s hierarchical service derives from court usage. This is a gross overstatement. If it did derive from such usage, we must realize that Orthodox spirituality does not make a sharp distinction between the profane and Divine, but encourages us to transform what is worldly into something spiritual. Thus, the adaptation of some Byzantine court customs to ecclesiastical usage does not necessarily mean that the Church appropriated things profane for sacred use, somehow thus contaminating Church services.  Rather, the exalted practices of the court—practices, incidentally, that consciously sought to endow the political branch of the Byzantine Empire with spiritual imagery and to make the earthly Byzantium an icon of the Heavenly Kingdom—evolved into practices that have served the Church and which properly reflect its uniquely spiritual notion of majesty. Holy Tradition is not only that which is sacred and ancient, but that which has been transformed and which has evolved into something sacred over time and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Quite obviously, on sober reflection, few of us would discard the beautiful hierarchical services of the Church today for some theoretical restoration of the past, so that we would not have to bow so often or sing "Many years, Master," a sentiment towards our Shepherds which is neither Byzantine nor an innovation, but which is represented by exclamations found in the earliest liturgical texts.

Regarding Church buildings, we should remember that the Church should be our spiritual home and should be adorned with the best that we have to offer. The temporary Churches that many immigrants built when they came to this country were built out of necessity and were just that: temporary. They should not serve as a model for our Church buildings. At the same time, Churches should not be lavish buildings that reflect a materialistic way of life or the desire to impress others. Small, humble Churches which are decorated in traditional Orthodox style need be neither shacks nor palaces. They should show the sacrifice of their congregations without providing an occasion for pride or showiness.

It behooves us to remember that pious reflection on Church worship can often correct errors. It can also provoke errors. But the piety associated with that reflection eventually rectifies any such errors. Impious or idle reflections on Church worship, however, can lead one to error, blasphemy, and innovation, which in turn often result in that vicious pride that obviates correction. In this sense, one must be very careful about printing the speculative reflections on Church worship of even the most pious persons. Moreover, sometimes "renewal," though perhaps honestly undertaken, comes to be misused by those who want to change services simply to make them shorter and who, placing greater emphasis on material gain than spiritual soundness, want small buildings in order to avoid donating more money to the Church. Laziness and greed are, to be sure, all too often the bedfellows of a "renewal" that serves innovation. 

From the "Question and Answer" section of Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IX, No. 4, pp. 13-14.