(First published on this site under ‘Orthodox Life’ in 2009)
All religions have rites. Rites are necessary because we are incarnate. The bodiless angels do not need rites, but we do. In other words, the outward structures of rites are necessary in order to hold the spiritual content of religion, just as our bodies are necessary in order to hold our immortal souls. It can be said that a rite is a glass; the content is the wine. It is clear which is more important.
But which rite or rites should we use to contain this wine? Clearly, they must be worthy. In the Orthodox Church we have four very ancient eucharistic rites: those of St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, St James of Jerusalem (the most ancient of all) and the Presanctified Rite attributed to St Gregory the Dialogist. They all go back to the first century, but were not really settled until the fourth century and a few changes were made to them even after this. But beyond these, we have the rites associated with the many other services of the liturgical cycles of the year. Eucharistic rites are only part of the rites that we use. However important, the Eucharist is only part of Church life.
The question of a Western rite in Orthodoxy goes back generations and has a whole history in Western Europe, in North America and elsewhere. This question of a ‘Western rite’ seems to come up at regular intervals, every ten years or so, and well-rehearsed arguments are presented in favour of it. For the sake of those new to the Church, it would also be helpful to speak of the arguments against. These are not often expressed, all the more so when the arguments come from experience and observation of reality. What are these arguments?
The first argument against a Western rite is ‘why?’ Why have a ‘Western’ rite? Rites do not save souls, it is the spiritual contents of rites that save souls. Thus, Orthodox rites do not save in themselves: the case of Uniatism, which imitates Orthodox rites, proves this. Moreover, if great attention is paid to rites, this leads to ritualism, a particular danger in High Church Anglicanism or Anglo-Catholicism. After Anglicanism had lost continuity with Roman Catholic liturgical rites, this movement tried to recreate them in the nineteenth century.
Inevitably, this resulted in ritualism, the study of dead rites and attempts to revive them through a sort of artificial respiration. Most people find any ritualism irrelevant to their daily lives and boring. They say: Why have another rite in Orthodoxy when we have perfectly good ones already? Why try to breathe life into what has been long dead? Why such interest in the glass, when it is only the wine that is interesting?
In answer to this last question, we come to a second argument. This is the argument that ‘Western ritualists’ are placing their local culture higher than Church culture. Thus, the concept of a Western rite simply prolongs the East-West myth, beloved of the condemned Anglican branch theory, which heretically declares that the Orthodox Church is merely an ‘Eastern’ Church (and its rites ‘Eastern’ rites and not universal rites) and that the ‘other half of the Church’ is ‘Western’. The fact is that all rites come to us from the ‘East’, that is, from the Temple in Jerusalem through the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints. In other words, our rites come from the Holy Spirit, in Whom there is neither East nor West.
The concept of a Western rite suggests heretically that the Universal Orthodox Church is incomplete. The Western rite places a local culture, specifically a Western one, one which a thousand years ago fell away from the Church, above the catholicity and universality of the Church. Do we then reject Christ because He too came from the Temple in Jerusalem, because He was ‘Eastern’, an Asian, and do we try to replace Him with a ‘Western’ or ‘European’ Christ? Is this talk of ‘Western rite’ simply not all Western chauvinism, racism, the usual Western feeling of ‘superiority’ to the rest of humanity? Siberian peoples, Chinese, Aleuts, Japanese, Kikuyus, Indonesians and Thais all use the rites of the Orthodox Church. What is so special about ‘Westerners’ that they need some special rite?
The Fullness of Living Rites
Thirdly, any rite is much more than what is to be found on paper. Thus, a text of the liturgy of St John Chrysostom gives no idea of the wealth and beauty of this rite in practice. It gives even less idea of the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly liturgical cycles. The paper text of a eucharistic liturgy gives no idea of the pattern of Orthodox Vespers or Matins, the Hours, of the Sanctoral (services to saints), of Holy Week, Easter, Christmas etc.
Furthermore, texts give no idea of the outward beauty of the church building, of singing, of vestments, of ritual actions and, above all, of the atmosphere of prayerfulness a worthy rite creates. Orthodox Christianity is a whole way of life, not a rite taken from a manuscript celebrated inside a church building for two hours a week. Orthodox Christianity has to be transmitted from generation to generation down the centuries by families and monasteries, it cannot be invented from manuscript studies of a dead ‘rite’.
Which Western Rite?
Fourthly, when the term ‘Western rite’ is used, of which Western rite is revival meant? The Roman rite? The Gallican? The Ambrosian? The Mozarabic? Or some later version based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer? The problem is that the ancient rites only survive in an incomplete manuscript form. Can they ever be restored?
Surely, any restoration would only be partial, leaving a danger for fantasy and lack of authenticity, as was the case with the much disputed revived ‘Gallican’ rite used by the group known as ECOF (‘l’Eglise Orthodox Catholique de France’) in France. How can a rite be restored anyway? Surely a rite must be living, practised in continuity? Would any restored rite not be artificial, self-conscious, unnatural?
Who for? Fifthly, even if it were possible to restore a rite, whom would it be for? In the year 2009, most Western Europeans never set foot in any Church and 99% of practising Non-Orthodox have no historic rite at all. The Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic rite was all but abolished at the Second Vatican Council in favour of a Protestantised rite. Since the 1960s Anglicans have only very rarely used their Prayerbooks, which retain vestiges of the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic rite and have swapped it for happy-clappy, ‘make it up as you go’ rites. Even Gregorian chant is largely an invention of nineteenth century Benedictinism. (And do any rooted Orthodox actually feel at home with that?)
For me, as for 99.99% of Western Europeans, though for different reasons, the term ‘Western rite’ is meaningless. I have never known any other rites than those used by the Orthodox Church, since I have never been Anglican or Roman Catholic. If I were asked to celebrate a service according to the ‘Western rite’, first of all, even before considering if I wanted to and asking my bishop for a blessing to do so, I would have to find out what it is. I would have no idea as to its practical implementation. For Western Orthodox like us, we already have ‘Western’ rites. These are the universal rites of the Orthodox Church, used in Western European languages and also in services to the local Western saints. We need nothing more, for us the ‘Western rite’ is already here and in regular use.
Theory and Practice
However fine the concept of a restored ‘Western rite’ is in theory, it seems not to work in practice. Certainly, the example of ECOF, the so-called ‘French Orthodox Catholic Church’, founded under Mgr Jean (Kovalevsky) and once several hundred strong, sends shudders down the backs of canonical Orthodox who had experience of it. Surely the fact is that ‘Western rite’ simply does not work in practice?
Surely a Western rite would only ever attract a small minority of old-fashioned Roman Catholics or Anglicans? They would be unable to integrate organic Orthodoxy and be unable to transmit anything to the next generation or anyone else outside their closed ‘ritual’ group. These would inevitably be cut off from mainstream Orthodox and find their services ignored by them, as if they belonged to an uncanonical sect.
St Tikhon and St John
Nevertheless, there is a strong argument for ‘Western rite’. This is that a form of the Anglican rite was approved by the Holy Synod of the pre-Revolutionary Russian Church and sponsored by none other than Bishop (later Patriarch and St) Tikhon at the beginning of the last century. And fifty years ago, Bishop (later Archbishop and St) John of Shanghai helped former Roman Catholics into Orthodoxy through Fr Evgraf Kovalevsky, whom he then consecrated bishop, launching a missionary ‘French Orthodox Church’, allowing it a ‘Western rite’ and the new calendar for the fixed feasts.
However, the fact that this small group later left the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in order to go onto the Roman Catholic Easter, sailed through many jurisdictions, causing many scandals, degenerated into ECOF and all but died out at the end of the twentieth century, makes for sobering thoughts. Above all, it has to be admitted that a century ago, Anglicans still had a rite and a sense of Tradition. And fifty years ago, in 1950s France, so did Roman Catholics. Therefore, pastorally, we could see what was done then as justified, even heroic. But surely times have changed? Today Roman Catholics and Anglicans do not have serious, historic rites. Time and again I meet Roman Catholics who come to the Orthodox liturgy and say: ‘At least you have ‘a real mass’, what we have is insulting’. Is there then any actual need for or interest in reviving a ‘Western rite’, even if it were possible?
Whatever reservations most Orthodox have, it must be said that bishops can give their blessing for the formation and practice of a Western rite in the Orthodox Churches. This is if they consider it pastorally necessary, if, in other words, there are people who can be brought into genuine Orthodoxy through it.
It may be that with the dissolution of Anglicanism in particular, there is now a place for a ‘Western rite’ in Orthodoxy. Despite all manner of disadvantages and difficulties, a ‘Western rite’ could perhaps fill a temporary pastoral need for some specific small groups.
However, it is doubtful if this need extends beyond a handful of individuals. In any case, whether we are for or against, interested or bored by the question of, ‘Western rite’, it is not up to us. It is ultimately up to those who have pastoral oversight, our bishops, to encourage or discourage a ‘Western rite’, according to whether they find anyone who needs it or not.