Thursday, 24 January 2013

The restoration of ancient liturgies

St. James the Brother of the Lord
I just returned from the celebration of the Divine Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian at the Church of Ss. Panteleimon and Paraskevi in Harrow, London. This is the second time this beautiful liturgy has ever been celebrated in the United Kingdom, and I would venture to guess that it has only been celebrated a handful of times elsewhere in the last millennium. In the early Church, the rites of the eastern churches were diverse and distinct - the main traditions being Alexandrian, Antiochene, Byzantine - with a number of different anaphoras being used within each local rite. Following the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and the persecution of Christians that ensued, the Orthodox patriarchates in those regions became increasingly dependent upon, and influenced by, Constantinople. Patriarch Balsamon of Antioch, for example, was a permanent resident of Constantinople and never actually set foot in his own see. By the end of the first millennium, the liturgical rite of Constantinople had come to replace the ancient rites of Antioch and Alexandria, which survived only among the non-Chalcedonian Syrian Jacobite and Coptic churches respectively, though the form of the rites  within these churches have naturally undergone significant development since the schism of 451.

The Liturgy of St. James, which had remained in continuous use only on the Greek island of Zakynthos and the holy city of Jerusalem - and then only on one day a year - is today celebrated in an increasing number of Orthodox churches. This has in turn led to an increased interest in other ancient liturgies and the Liturgy of St. Mark (the principal liturgy of the Alexandrian Rite), following the version preserved by the much loved St. Nektarios of Aegina, has now been officially approved by the Holy Synod of the ROCOR. I have also heard of recent celebrations of the liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions. If its celebration within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain will now continue on an annual basis, the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian too is likely to be celebrated more widely within the Church.

Ss. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian
While I think this is certainly a positive development - it can only be a blessing for these ancient and beautiful prayers to once again resound in our churches after a thousand years of silence - it is something that raises a number of interesting questions. To what extend does restoration of a particular liturgy involve the restoration of a rite? To what extent should we attempt to recreate the rites as they were when they were in use vs. adapting them to current (i.e. Byzantine) use? The Liturgy of St. Mark, for example, is heavily Byzantinised. Rather than following an Alexandrian structure, it essentially follows the usual Byzantine structure of Great Litany, Antiphons, Small Entrance, Trisagion,  Readings, Great Entrance, Creed, etc. with the prayers of St. Mark's Liturgy slotted in to the appropriate places. The Liturgy of St. James, on the other hand - though not without the instertion of Byzantine elements - is often characterised by attempts to reconstruct ancient Jerusalem practice. The altar is moved outside of the iconostasis, the clergy face the people (a practice for which there seems to be little justification), and so on. This to me goes too far and seems needless and inappropriate. Where do we draw the line? Shall we try to reconstruct ancient chants based on the guesswork of musicologists, ancient vestments based on depictions on old icons? Moreover, many ancient texts have very limited rubrics and we're forced to fill in the gaps. The Liturgy of St. Gregory, for example, has many long and elaborate prayers, but relatively little chanting. Should these prayers simply be read or be intoned in accordance with ancient practice? If intoned, in what way? In other words, a certain degree of reconstruction is needed, and it seems better to do this through the incorporation of existing modern practice.
Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian celebrated in the
Church of Ss. Panteleimon and Paraskevi, Harrow, London.
Then there's the question of content. Some texts will not include things like the Symbol of Faith, since this did not become part of the Liturgy until after their compositions. But the Church did not add the Symbol of Faith to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, or of St. Basil, but to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in general and so its omission from an ancient text does not warrant its omission from the celebration of that liturgy today. To what extent does this principle apply to other things? Can you, for example, begin a Divine Liturgy without an opening benediction just because there isn't one in the text? Was the Trisagion added only to specific liturgies, or generally to the Eucharistic service? 

St. Mark the Evangelist
As I said above, some liturgies remain in use only among the non-Chalcedonians and many of these ancient texts show clear signs of post-schism (i.e. after 451) additions, which have never been part of our own tradition. Even if the content of these additions is perfectly orthodox, their use seems somewhat problematic and is akin to the practice of some "Western Rite Orthodox" in America and elsewhere who make use of post-schism Western Liturgies (the Book of Common prayer, for example) but alter the text so as to make it theologically Orthodox. But surely the point of restoring these ancient liturgies is to bring back into use the ancient prayers of the Church, not prayers written by those outside that Church and which have never been used in the Church. Some of these additions are obvious, but others less so. Some are attributed to figures the Orthodox Church does not consider saints, but such attributions are often honorific rather than historical and are therefore not necessarily proof of authorship. So which bits should be omitted? Should they merely be omitted or be replaced, and if so, replaced with what?

It's a subject that fascinates me and I really regret the fact that my limited knowledge of relevant languages doesn't allow me to involve myself in a meaningful way. I think the renewed interest in the restoration of disused liturgies is a wonderful development, which can only continue to enrich our experience of the Church's already rich tradition of worship. I think it would be very useful for our hierarchs, before approving any particular editions or forms of the various liturgies, to gather together competent and knowledgeable people to put together some form of directive that focuses on the underlying principles of liturgical restoration, forming a balanced and holistic set of guidelines as to how people approach the subject.

I'd like to congratulate all those who worked to make the celebration of St. Gregory's Liturgy possible today, and hope its celebration will continue in future.

Some useful links:
Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great
Divine Liturgy of St. James the Brother of our Lord
Divine Liturgy of St. Mark the Evangelist
Presanctified Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome

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