In a discussion at St Augustine’s Western Rite Orthodox Church in Denver, the priest shared that Fr Alexander Schmemann once said words to this effect: You cannot refer to “Anglican Liturgy” because although there is one prayer book, if you go different parishes you find that each parish does things differently, based on the whims of the priest. I realized he was right – it is 100% true.

You could, at that time pick up your BCP’79 or BCP’28 (I don’t know when Fr Schmemann said it) and wander to the nearest Episcopal Church and take notes:

  • At St Swithun’s, Fr X did this but not that. He followed this rubric, skipped that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked A and D.
  • At St Audrey’s, Fr Z did that but not this. He skipped this rubric, followed that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked B and C.
  • Ad infinitum
It is truly different at most Episcopal parishes.  Fr Schmemann, from the seminary in New York, could have seen – probably did see – the stately Cathedral liturgy at St John the Divine, run by Canon Edward West, the late Mediaeval High Mass of St Mary the Virgin Church in Times Square, the middle of the road English Parochial rite at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, and maybe even the low church Morning Prayer service at Grace Church, Broadway.  All of these happened on any Sunday and all were called “Episcopal liturgy”. Some used incense and some did not. Some genuflected and some did not. Some may have inserted petitions to the saints into the text, some would have removed anything that sounded remotely like those petitions.  And all would have been called Episcopal. Yet, there were very few places anywhere in the world where a visiting Episcopalian could go and – even with all the different options picked – he would not have known “This is the Episcopal/Anglican liturgy. I am at home.”  (One place where that didn’t happen was my former parish in SF, but we’ll not need to go there for this essay.)
But what makes that different from the Orthodox Church?
Based entirely on the whims of the clergy (they will call it “local tradition”)…
At St Spyridon’s they will start the day with Matins. They will skip most of it. It will last 15-20 mins. Then the divine liturgy will be served. They will skip many of the litanies although one will be all in Greek, the Anaphora will be silent – but the music will be so fast that there is no way at all that Fr Stavros is saying all the prayers – he barely has time to glance at them. No one will take communion, also Vespers never gets said.
At St Seraphim’s the night before they will have served “the All Night Vigil”. It will have lasted about 1.5 hours. Vespers and Matins will have both been sung, but many parts will have been skipped. The Canons at Matins will have been shortened from 60 mins (when you do all of them) to about 10 by singing only half of the verses of one. The Psalms at both services will have been skipped entirely. Liturgy will take the same amount of time, but, like at St Spyridons, a lot of things get skipped – however, here, everything is sung so slow and “piously” that it takes forever.
At St Olga’s, a congregation of three or four people will attempt to do everything.  Vespers the night before will take 1.5 hours.  The Psalms were chanted in full until everyone became hoarse. Matins in the morning, begins 1.5 hours before liturgy, again, everything is chanted in full. The canons – all of them in their august complexity – are rushed because they could take an hour by themselves. But the choir sings the responses nicely. Liturgy lasts 2 hours plus.  Everything that can be done is done. And at communion time everything stops while Fr Stanislos Smith hears everyone’s confession before giving communion.  During this time the Pre-communion prayers are read as well as the Canon of Repentance.  Then, after communion, the post-communion prayers are read and finally all the communion psalms are chanted joyfully and hella fast.
Another way to say this:  
  • At St Spyridon’s, Fr X did this but not that. He followed this rubric, skipped that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked A and D.
  • At St Seraphim’s, Fr Z did that but not this. He skipped this rubric, followed that one, and of option list on page 4 he picked B and C.
  • At St Olga’s, Fr S did that and this. He followed all the rubrics, and of option list on page 4 he picked A, B, C, and D.
  • Ad infinitum
In the three Orthodox Western Rite communities I’ve recently had the privilege of worshipping, I saw 5 different versions of the same liturgy – one community had visiting clergy.
My Orthodox readers will recognize that I have combined the liturgical practices of ROCOR-like parishes, GOARCH/AOCANA parishes and OCA parishes.  But we all claim to be “the Orthodox Church”.  If what Fr Schmemann said of ECUSA is true, then it is also true of Orthodoxy. We must admit, that by and large, what we have in Orthodoxy is no different than the liturgical chaos we find in ECUSA or the Roman Church.  We may not have guitars – yet – but if it is true that lex orandi lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of faith, or “As we pray so we believe”) then it must be confessed we pray rather differently in different places.
And it is true that one Orthodox person, travelling from parish to parish, will say “this is Orthodox liturgy and I am home” just as easily as the travelling Episcopalian.  But – again like the travelling Episcopalian – he will be happy to get back to his home parish where “things are normal”.  This is, I think, normal parish life no matter what parish or denomination you belong to.  It was that way when Paul felt he had to write to the Corinthians and correct their liturgical abuses: someone had already complained that “they do it different at Corinth”.  The New Testament Church, the Apostolic Church, the Post Apostolic Church… in every period there seems to have been vast liturgical diversity. The Churches of Rome and Constantinople both had reformation moments when they commanded all parishes in their jurisdictions to use one liturgy – but even then, post haste, the evolution began anew.  This is a good thing.
In this day of the internet when we can literally watch what they do next door on our smartphones as we do something different in our parish, it is hard to admit – we are both right.  But if we are members of the same Church, under the same bishops, in communion with one another, then: that liturgy there, no more than my liturgy here, is a real liturgy.  I am annoyed when the Myth of Orthodox (or Catholic) Uniformity arises and is quickly discovered to be a lie and, rather than blame the Myth itself, we blame “them” for “doing it wrong”.   If I convert believing the Myth of Orthodox Uniformity – or the Myth of Catholic Uniformity – I’m going to trip myself up the minute I go on vacation and stumble into another parish. If I end up thinking, essentially, only my parish does it right then I’m just a congregationalist: a Byzantine Rite (or Latin Rite) Baptist, as someone once said.  This – and not the diversity itself – is a bad thing.
It seems to me that, if we are in the same church, in communion one with another, then I must allow that our Bishops have let you be that way, as they have let me be this way.  I have to love you (and vice versa) no matter what “liturgical abuse” you perform or what “liturgical excess” you find in my parish.  We are Christians together. If we are not Christians together then there is not only no way you can speak of “The Orthodox Liturgy” but there is no way to speak of “the Orthodox Church”.  Rather, what we have, is “The Orthodox Churches” – and so also “The Roman Catholic Churches”.  We have the Boutique of St Spyridon, the Boutique of St Seraphim, etc. We are each in tiny, walled-off communities where “only my parish does it right” and I don’t have to pay more than lip service to the idea of loving those who do it differently (ie, wrong).

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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