Why a Western Rite is Needed in Orthodoxy by Rev Dr John (Patrick) Ramsey

Why a western rite is needed in Orthodoxy and responses to common criticisms toward it

There is a pressing issue with the presence of the Orthodox Church in western Europe and in regions settled or politically established by western European nations, such as in North and South America and in Australasia. That is the establishment of Orthodox churches from different regional jurisdictions beyond their territorial boundaries in the same “western” territories on the basis of the regional languages and customs of these churches. Thus, the Orthodox churches in western regions have become based on local custom of specific territories that are not local to the western territories. This means that Orthodox churches are being identified by customs rather than by common Tradition and each maintains itself on its imported local customs as distinct from the others. This then gives no space of the indigenisation of the Church in western lands to develop its own customs as defined by those in these lands and not imposed by those from foreign areas. This problem would not have occurred if the Orthodox churches had remained faithful to their territorial boundaries and only one jurisdiction, either one immediately contagious to the western territory, such as Russia to Alaska or Canada, or the Ecumenical Patriarchate as being ”New Rome” as proxy for “Old Rome” in the territories of “Old Rome”, while the Schism remains. If there was a sole Orthodox jurisdiction in each land then its customs could prevail somewhat in the western territory and set a starting point for localisation. However, given the range of regional customs in each place, there is more need for a neutral starting point for localisation of the Church in western regions. This neutral point can be established by the re-establishment of the rites given to these lands by the Fathers, the so-called western rites with the common canon of St Gelasius (as it is known in the Stowe missal). These then also open the door to a readier reintegration with Old Rome should there be a healing of the Schism. The western rite then gives a way for the localisation of the Church in western territories that both overcomes the regional differences that have grown in various long established Orthodox territories to unite people from all regions into one local church in each western region and also for westerners coming to the Orthodox Church to have a cultural affinity in the Church to remove any need to become another culture or nation in their own lands. It also provides a more rapid means for establishing local leadership in each region, even if under patriarchal oversight from eastern regions. There has been an issue with many interested in the Orthodox Church as faithfully preserving Apostolic Tradition feeling estranged by the language and customs of those from other regions packaging the Tradition in Orthodox parishes in western areas.

Along with the issue above, there is another need for a western rite and that is to serve as a corrective to developments in the eastern rites. These apply to two main issues. One is that the eastern rites have accumulated many sets of canons and hymns that were originally inserted between biblical psalm and canticle verses that form the main structure of the services. This structure is true of both eastern and western rites. In the eastern rites, these inserted hymns are much more extensive than those inserted in western rites and they have lengthened the services so that they are too long for many faithful to attend regularly. Often they are shortened, but at the expense of the psalm and canticles forming the framework of the service. The western rite, having a much lighter use of inserted hymns and antiphons in its structure, has preserved the core psalm and canticle framework as well as remaining at a length of service that can be adjusted in tempo for the faithful to manage to attend the full service. It is a reminder to those in eastern rites of their own core structure and the common heritage of psalms and canticles.

Secondly, on a non-textual matter, the eastern rite fasts have incorporated a number of fasting periods through its calendar. These have become quite extensive and many struggle to keep them all. If fasts are going to be prioritised then there are certain fasts that are obligatory according to the canons of the Church and these should be prioritised over other customary fasts. The eastern churches have started to conflate these and consider all fasts at the same level. The western rite is a reminder that the Church does not have one set of fasting customs but a range with a central fasting traction of the forty days before Easter with Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year. Having a lower range of fasting, one can see from the western rite the common canonical fasting as distinct from customary fasts. The lighter load of fasting too is something more manageable and one can expect the faithful to maintain them more rigorously during the fasting time.

Given these benefits of a western rite in helping to localise the Church again into western lands, there are a few issues with re-establishing a western rite in western regions. These include matters such as the majority of Orthodox in western lands are immigrants from other regions and having their own customs in Church helps to provide a point of familiarity for them in a foreign environment; the extant western usage as continued by those in communion with Old Rome or the various schisms from Old Rome such as Lutherans and Anglicans has either incorporated customs and practices contrary to Orthodox Tradition or have been rewritten to reflect the various theological reforms of the schisms, which often moved away from Orthodox understanding; and an issue that those who become Orthodox with the western rite often only become Orthodox at a superficial level.

The first issue is something pastoral of ministering to large numbers of immigrants from eastern regions is perhaps the most difficult to address. If the churches in the western regions used the western rite then many of those coming from eastern regions may feel unfamiliar with the services and disinclined to attend. Some may even think that it is not Orthodox. Overall, many of the parishes in western regions have not only used an eastern rite, they have done so to accommodate the regional origins of the majority of the parishioners or their episcopal authority on the grounds that this is that with which the people are most familiar. Generally, pious Orthodox will attend services of another regional Orthodox usage, such as Romanians attending a parish using Greek customs or a parish using Russian customs, yet given the opportunity to attend a parish with Romanian customs, this will be their first choice rather than the nearest local church. Many of one origin do not attend services of another eastern custom, even if it is close and there is no other choice. This is particularly true for those seeing the Church as a cultural haven rather than as a means of union with God. Using a western rite would likely result In a lower church participation and since the majority of Orthodox in western regions are those from eastern regions, a western rite may be pastorally inappropriate. However, this situation makes it hard for those coming to the Orthodox Church from western regions, who have to not only change their overall Church identity and Tradition but to adapt to customs and languages from other regions in their own territory; this has had a negative effect on those converting or thinking of doing so. The solution then is either to standardise an eastern rite into the local language of the western region, but then one has issues about which local eastern customs to inherit, or to standardise a western rite in western regions that can be draw on its own regional history, so be more localised than any eastern customs and also transcend easter regional customs and the segmentation resulting from preference to known customs derived externally. This though requires a commitment to have the Church localised in western regions and co-ordinated with western synods in these regions. This  though is presently lacking. It also requires considerable education among Orthodox faithful from eastern regions to accept the rite as Orthodox and to attend even if culturally unfamiliar to them. There is a real issue that this will not be effective and many may simply stop attending church services. This also has financial implications because the local communities of Orthodox in western regions may not be sufficient in size to sustain parishes because many parishes are developed for the needs of eastern immigrants rather than local Orthodox. Western rite usage may also result in a level of isolation of western converts to the Orthodox Church from their eastern brethren in the same area. Nevertheless, even a small western rite usage along with eastern rite usage can help to form and develop something that can both minister to western cultural needs and become something to which a localised Church can turn to form its common liturgical usage as inherited from the Fathers who first brought Christianity to these regions.

The next issue is also rather challenging. There are a number of approaches to the western rite at present from those maintaining a Church of England derived ritual based on a modified Book of Common Prayer, to those implementing a Tridentine style of ritual (this is the most common form) to those using pre-Schism or medieval ritual such as the Sarum ritual or the Stowe Missal or Ambrosian ritual. Each has its own issues, which will be addressed below.

A modified Anglican ritual has the advantage of appealing to those converting from the Church of England or Anglican communions outside England to provide a continuing and familiar set of rituals for the convert. It also avoids a feeling of identification with the Papacy as may is culturally associated with a Tridentine ritual, although this matter is generally more an issue with older generations than younger. However, criticisms of this approach at a ritual level rather than the level of internalising the Orthodox Tradition in conversion, is that the usage of the rite is the Book of Common Prayer is a reconstruction of the western rites as extant prior to the separation of the Church of England from the Papacy. This reconstruction was influenced by Protestant thinking, and while keeping a connection to its ancient heritage, the texts have been changed and reflect, at least ambiguously, Protestant ideas or concerns. This was noted by a 19th Century Russian commission set to examine the rite, especially the offering of the Eucharist and the rite was found wanting in certain areas. There has been an attempt to patch up the rite, but these attempts have been done without full depth of understanding of ancient canons and fail to properly establish the canon. There is also an issue with the musical style of service, which is rather different from the style of chant in the early church and maintained in Greek speaking regions. In all this, reference is to traditional Anglican practice and not modern developments in the latter half of the 20th Century. Overall, while this has been used and approved to some level, the use of Anglican rites is not considered here to be a satisfactory usage for a western rite and should be put aside. One cannot really correct something that is written by those not long embedded in the Orthodox Tradition, but rather long estranged from it. There are better and more reliable options available.

The next approach is to use a slightly modified Tridentine ritual. This is a better approach than using the Anglican ritual because the canon of the offering at the time of Tridentine uniformity was largely unchanged from that preceding it from the texts available from the 8th Century onwards.  The rubrics for this ritual are still extant and practiced, so one my accurately learn them. This rite appeals to traditional minded converts to the Orthodox Church from Roman Catholic backgrounds. However, there are some issues with the Tridentine issue for Orthodox usage. Most importantly is the use of unleavened bread in the ritual. This usage has not be accepted by Orthodox and so it needs to be replaced with leavened bread. Using leavened bread requires some modifications to the ritual to manage its peculiar properties compared to unleavened bread. Another issue that has not been generally addressed is that of the ritual developed about the Words on Institution to reflect the idea that became accepted in the western regions, especially post-Schism, that the offerings change at the time of the Words of Institution. This has led to the inclusion of elevations, bell ringing and genuflections to mark the moment. Orthodox do not accept this idea and so the ritual is not consistent with Orthodox thinking and its continuance in ritual is somewhat foreign to the Orthodox understanding, even if eastern rites do exclaim the Words of Institution in a highlighted manner also, but with less piety, which is usually shifted to the epiclesis. The means of giving communion is another issue with the ritual because it is not given, normally, in both kinds. Tridentine usage also points to a type of liturgical uniformity that does not reflect the prior localisation of the rite into each region and so this too is contrary to the ethos of Orthodox liturgical usage if left in a strictly uniform manner. There is also an issue with the style of vestments used also, which can tend to be more modern and more estranged from the common heritage of vestments. Musically, there is an issue with the use of the organ and for Orthodox usage, Gregorian chant should be used without an accompanying organ. The singular use of Latin for the services is also an issue, and it is considered better to have a standard English usage rather than Latin for pastoral reasons. Also, pushing the altar against the eastern wall is not common Orthodox usage, which has a free standing altar before the synthronon although facing East through the offering is common to Orthodox practice. Overall, modified Tridentine usage is better than modified Anglican usage, but it still reflects changes in piety and thinking to which the Orthodox objected and did not accept.

The third approach is to re-establish the ritual usage found in pre-Schism manuscripts or even early post-Schism texts. The common criticism of this approach is a lack of any “living” continuity in ritual usage and thus resulting in a somewhat artificial construction. In response, there is a good range of documents explaining and testifying to usage of these rites at that time, so one does not need to invent practice. Also, one finds in the older usage practices more in common with eastern practices, so that one may more readily and authentically substitute eastern liturgical practice where there is something missing in the extant rubrics. This substitution of eastern ritual usage can have the added benefit of making the rite more accessible and familiar to eastern faithful as well as ensure that the Orthodox sense of piety is expressed during the liturgy. There are still some modifications that need to be made to these earlier rituals, although more of re-establishing elements lost rather introducing elements that were never in the western ritual. Such things as prayers for the catechumens and diaconal litanies, of which there are extant litanies found in the Stowe missal and Ambrosian ritual. The liturgical rubrics of the offering can be used without modification, as per say the Order Romano of 8th Century Rome, because at this stage there was no particular emphasis on the Words of Institution and leavened bread, with communion in both kinds, was still the normal usage. The altars are also free standing before the synthronon as seen in earlier churches in Rome and in other western regions. This harmonises with eastern usage better than Anglican or Tridentine usage. One can also draw on older forms of vestments, such as the conical chasuble, which were common to both eastern and western regions and thus provide a point of contact between them. There are also a variety of extant regional usages from Ambrosian to Irish to Mozarabic that open the way to ritual localisation, while maintaining a common canon of offering, which is the core of the rite. The usage of early and some eastern ritual also enables this rite to both be accessible to western faithful due to it being familiar in basic form to Anglican and Tridentine ritual and yet somewhat specific to Orthodox usage as belonging to a distinctly Orthodox Tradition, thus making identity with the Orthodox Church stronger, which helps to address issues addressed next and also any claims of a type of “Uniate” approach. Musically it is best to use older western forms of chant such as Old Roman or Gregorian chant, which the older rites help to foster. There is also less pressure to keep texts in Latin than the Tridentine rite, which is more tied to the idea of Latin as a sacred language. Overall, the re-establishment of the older extant liturgical texts and ritual avoids the issues with Anglican and Tridentine usage and its reconstruction with some eastern ritual helps its usage by Orthodox churches rather than make it inauthentic to western usage. Sufficient western customs are extant and common for it to lose its western heritage. All the above options though need to conform to the canons recognised at the Sixth Ecumenical Council session at Trullo and other universally accepted Orthodox canons, even if not western practice from earlier centuries because divergences form these contributed to the Schism.

On a more controversial issue, is a criticism that western rites in general lack of an explicit epiclesis. It is clear that since the establishing of the canon of St Gelasius in the 5th Century, that there has not been an explicit epiclesis in the western canon. This was true for at least five centuries of continued communion with the eastern churches and it was not among the matters of contention at the time of the Schism, although it has later come to be an issue. This is indicates that an explicit epiclesis is not necessary in a canon of the offering. The idea of such a need seems to be a relatively recent development in the eastern rites that is rather distorting eastern practice than being something missing from western practice. Orthodox western rite usage has been influenced by this modern eastern epiclesis piety and some form of epiclesis has been added to the rites in use In generally a manner that interferes with the flow of the western canon and is quite foreign to its order as an offering as well as an affront to the Fathers who provided it to the western regions. It is considered here that it is better not added to the canon and this again serves as a corrective to modern Orthodox piety regarding the epiclesis, which even sees additions to the text of St Basil in some regions to include the words “changing by Thy Holy Spirit”, which are absent from that canon. This piety moves the canon from an offering to accepted by God and returned as the Body and Blood of Christ to an incantation to change the gifts by the right formula, which is a criticism of later western developments about the Words of Institution. The western rite in its pre-Schism form provides a clear sense of offering, acceptance and return and does not highlight out any aspect of the canon until the final doxolgy. Rather than a criticism of the western rite this is rather a critique of common present Orthodox understanding and piety during the canon.

The issue of superficial conversion is something that has raised criticism about western rite usage. The use of a western rite can mean that while one shifts from say an Anglican background to the Orthodox Church, one does not really change his way of life and practice to that of the Orthodox Tradition, as far as it varies from present practices among non-Orthodox in western regions. The familiar ritual helps to provide such a sense of continuity form the past that the incentive to develop further in Orthodox ways of life is somewhat lost. There can also be an issue of isolation from other Orthodox faithful, who attend eastern rite services, which can lead to a rather eccentric development into Orthodox life. However, this problem can occur in eastern rite communities also and it is not a function so much of the rite but of the clergy and particularly the priest. The key is that the priest is well established in Orthodox Tradition, so that he can lead the flock well. This process of establishing him does require time spent with well established Orthodox communities, which are largely eastern rite. It is helpful that the priest lives the piety and customs of an eastern rite and expresses these in any gaps of the western rite, so that the “feel” of the rite is common to Orthodox experience rather than purely western experience, especially if one believes that these matters have been more faithfully preserved in eastern regions than in western regions. This training is true for western or eastern rites and western rite usage in itself is only slightly more prone to this, especially if using a re-established older ritual from before the Schism when much more of the piety was shared along with eastern churches. Some parts of the rite, such as the lectionary of readings can be follow eastern usage to provide a greater level of cohesion, yet without any loss of the distinctive character of a western rite. These provisions can ensure the those coming to the Orthodox Church with the western rituals are able to grow as fully into the life of the Orthodox Church as those with eastern rituals.

In conclusion, there is a role for a western rite in the Orthodox Church to enable the localisation of the Church in western regions in recognition of their earlier patristic inheritance prior to the Schism and in recognition to the distinct cultural heritage of western regions. The critiques in regard to a western rite can be overcome best by re-establishing the rite as prior to the Schism and incorporating some eastern elements within it to help to unify with the continuing Tradition of the Church as expressed in the eastern rites and to ground it as part of the Orthodox Tradition as distinct from others. Western rite priests should be trained in and familiar with eastern rites so that they can share the same liturgical piety as easterners and concelebrate with them, although they should use western rubrics where extant as proper to the western rites, but the style in which they are performed with carry an eastern feel. There should also be regular contact with eastern rite Orthodox faithful to prevent isolation. The principle purpose of a western rite in Orthodox usage is to allow a localisation of the Church in a manner providing cultural affinity, yet at the same time establishing one in the common Orthodox Tradition. It also provides a corrective to developments in eastern liturgical practice and a narrow form of identity as Orthodox that incorporates purely eastern modes of dress and customs.

Rev Dr John (Patrick) Ramsey, January 2021.

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