The "Western Rite": Is It Right for the Orthodox?

The vast majority of Orthodox Christians identify with a specifically Orthodox way of worshipping. Though different languages are used throughout the Orthodox world, Orthodox Christians who are traveling - or simply visiting a different "jurisdiction" in America - can count on the church architecture looking familiar, the outline of the Liturgy being the same and the means of approaching and receiving the sacrament of Communion being the same as they are used to. Or at least they could until recently. In America an increasing number of converts to Orthodoxy are using a liturgical ritual that looks far more like services done in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism some thirty years ago. This is being enthusiastically promoted in some quarters of the Church as "western rite" Orthodoxy.

The idea of using a "western rite" in the Orthodox Church first surfaced in England during the 19th century. A former Roman Catholic, Dr. Joseph Overbeck, joined the Orthodox Church in that country and apparently decided that Orthodoxy would never be able to evangelize the West unless it used western forms of worship. Otherwise, he reasoned, the Church would not have a "western memory." Overbeck suggested that a version of the Roman Mass - purified of any medieval errors - be used. His proposal, though received with interest in parts of the Orthodox Church, was never implemented.

Earlier in this century, a small "western rite" group - the Eglise Catholique-Orthodoxe - began functioning in France. And still later, in the late 1950s, another small group (the Basilian Fathers) were received into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in the United States by then Metropolitan Anthony Bashir. These Basilian Fathers became the start of a canonical "western rite" presence in this country. Although the "western rite" of the Antiochian Archdiocese continued for years as a mere handful of par ishes, it has recently received a "shot in the arm" with the reception into Orthodoxy of a number of disaffected Episcopalians - sometimes including entire parishes. It is argued that the existence of a "western rite" within Orthodoxy offers these Anglo-C atholics a virtually perfect solution, since they can enter the Church without substantially changing their way of worship. After all, why should "unnecessary barriers" be placed in their way? Furthermore - so we are told - these "western rite" communiti es represent a return to the Orthodox Church of the authentic, pre-schismatic Orthodox worship of the ancient Christian west and therefore enhances her catholicity and appeal to all people.

Compelling as these arguments may seem, the presence of a "western rite" within Orthodoxy represents a change from the way things have been since the Western Schism of the 11th century (or at least since the Fourth Crusade). As such, this innovation needs to be examined very carefully. For the sake of brevity, we will confine ourselves here to "western rite" Orthodoxy as practiced in America and examine it with regards to four fundamental questions:

1.) Does the reconstituted "western rite" actually represent an authentic return to the pre-schismatic Orthodox worship of the ancient Christian west?

2.) If there were a mass return of western Christians to Orthodoxy (say, union with Rome or Canterbury), would this "western rite" provide a workable precedent?

3.) Does the Orthodox Church need a "western rite" in order to evangelize Americans?

4.) Does the "western rite" serve the internal needs of the Orthodox Church in this country today?

Does the reconstituted "western rite" actually represent an authentic return to the pre-schismatic Orthodox worship of the ancient Christian west?

The "western rite" as currently practiced in the Antiochian Archdiocese consists of two Eucharistic liturgies. As they are quite different from one another, let's consider them separately.

First, the "Liturgy of St. Gregory": this liturgy gets its name because it supposedly represents the Roman rite as practiced in the time of St. Gregory the Great, the bishop of Rome from 590 to 604 AD. There is no question that St. Gregory the Great left his mark on the history of worship - not only in the west, but also in the east. (Indeed, it may be argued that the Orthodox Church already has a Liturgy of St. Gregory - namely, the Presanctified Liturgy where this saint is always commemorated in the dis missal.) If the situation of having two Liturgies of St. Gregory isn't confusing enough, the question remains whether or not the Liturgy of St. Gregory as currently practiced in the "western rite" parishes of the Antiochian Archdiocese deserves this title at all. In fact, what we are actually presented with is the Tridentine Latin Mass (i.e., the Missal of Pius the V, printed in 1570), translated from Latin into King James English, with - among other things - references to the "merits of the saints" left out and the epiklesis of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom stuck in. In this regard, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the Tridentine Mass was the Liturgy of the Roman Church as revised at the Counter Reformation. Second, the Gregori an Sacramentary (which, so far as the MSS tradition is concerned, is primarily Frankish and not Roman in origin) had already been revised in the 11th century (near the time of the Western Schism). So the present "Liturgy of St. Gregory" as used in America n "western rite" parishes is at least two revisions away from the saint whose name it bears - and both revisions were made at times of severe crises of faith in the west.

The inadequacies of this rite become obvious on close examination. The anaphora, for example - far from being a single unified prayer as one would expect - seems more like a loosely joined collection of prayers. Stranger yet, the first of these prayers b egins with the word "Therefore" (referring to what? Apparently, some transition has gone missing!). As if the disjointed nature of this anaphora weren't bad enough, tinkering with it by well meaning Orthodox has only made matters worse. According to the great Orthodox liturgical scholar and saint, Nicholas Cabasilas, the prayer in the Roman rite "Supplices te rogamus" ("Most humbly we implore Thee") is an "ascending epiklesis." Even so, the epiklesis from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has been adde d, thereby giving this rite both an ascending and descending epiklesis, in which the celebrant asks for the consecration of the gifts to be completed after it has already happened! Furthermore, such improbable features as the "last Gospel" are retained. (This was the reading of the prologue to the Gospel of John at the end of the service, a practice that had begun as a private devotion of the celebrating clergy sometime curing the 11th or 12th centuries and which, by the 16th century, had become a prescri bed appendage to the Mass.)

Second, the "Liturgy of St. Tikhon": However inappropriate the "Liturgy of St. Gregory" may seem for Orthodox worship, it can't hold a candle in this regard to the other "western rite" liturgy now in use, which has somehow gotten itself named after a 20th century Russian saint. St. Tikhon served as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America before being elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1917. During his tenure in America, he apparently received a petition for the use of a "western rite" from a group of American Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians. St. Tikhon then forwarded their request to the Holy Synod in Moscow, which examined this proposal carefully and granted the possibility of a "western rite", provided far reaching changes in the Book of Commo n Prayer were made. The Holy Synod left the final decision to St. Tikhon, who - for whatever reason - never formally authorized the establishment of a "western rite" during his pastorate in America. It therefore seems farfetched in the extreme to name th is liturgy after St. Tikhon. He is not the "father" of this "western rite" in even remotely the same way that St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great are the fathers of the Liturgies which bear their names. Furthermore, even if St. Tikhon had authoriz ed the use of a "western rite", every administrative decision made by a saint should not be considered infallible.

What, then, is the "Liturgy of St. Tikhon"? First of all, it is not the Eucharistic rite of the Book of Common Prayer as ever approved by the Episcopal Church. Rather, it is based on a strange amalgam commonly known as the "Anglican Missal." This missal was developed by Anglo-Catholics to make up for deficiencies they perceived in the Book of Common Prayer . The Anglican Missal contains the anaphora and other prayers from the BCP, folded together with parts of the anaphora and other prayers from the Tridentine Mass translated from Latin into King James English. As now used in the "western rite" of the Antio chian Archdiocese, it contains still further additions and corrections made by the Orthodox. A more confusing liturgical hodgepodge could hardly be imagined! The "Liturgy of St. Tikhon" is the Reformation rite of Thomas Cranmer, with additions from the C ounter Reformation rite of the Council of Trent, with still further superficial tinkering in order to make it "more Orthodox."

In defense of this rite, some Orthodox are saying that we should accept it because it contains "nothing heretical." Unfortunately, that itself is an Anglican argument. An Orthodox rite must do far more than avoid heresy - it must clearly proclaim and tea ch the Orthodox faith. In Communist Russia as in Ottoman Greece, the Orthodox Liturgy alone maintained the faith through long years of persecution. Bearing in mind that Cranmer was probably a Zwinglian who designed his rite to express "the real absence" of Christ in the Eucharist, it is easy to see that the "Liturgy of St. Tikhon" could never meet the basic criterion of being an Orthodox Liturgy.

In summary, the "Liturgy of St. Tikhon" has no historical validity whatsoever. The "Liturgy of St. Gregory" can be traced back to that great saint only in a very attenuated way. The simple fact is, neither of these liturgies represents an authentic retur n to the pre-schismatic Orthodox worship of the ancient Christian west.

Does the "western rite" provide a path for the eventual reunion of Christians?

With the reception of "western rite" parishes into Orthodoxy, there were some who felt that the Uniate ideal had now found its proper home. Comparison of Western Rite Orthodox to Eastern Rite Catholics is, of course, inevitable. And, we should keep in mi nd that historically, Rome has often held up its Eastern Rite Catholics as a bridge to union with the Orthodox. How successful has that bridge been?

The truth is, Uniatism has been a continuous obstacle to unity between Orthodoxy and Rome. And this recurring difficulty reared its head again only recently, with the breakdown of Communism in eastern Europe. We would be naive in the extreme to suppose t hat "western rite" Orthodoxy will have a more beneficial result. If they grow in numbers, the "western rite" Orthodox will increasingly appear to western Christians as a kind of pseudo-Orthodox whose purpose is not to evangelize but to proselytize.

Some might still argue that the "western rite" would at least demonstrate to "western" Christians what Orthodoxy would expect liturgically if a reunion of Christians should occur. Yet this too is groundless. The simple fact is, those parishes using the " western rite" within the Antiochian Archdiocese are not following the "western rite" as now practiced by the overwhelming majority of "western" Christians. Indeed, one must ask why the Orthodox Church should have made herself into a safe haven for a tiny minority of western Christians who have rejected the reforms of the liturgical movement. Regarding the "Liturgy of St. Gregory" - it would be ludicrous for the Orthodox to tell the Roman Catholics that they should go back to doing the "last Gospel" at the end of their Liturgy. Or that revisions made by Vatican II to the Roman anaphora to make it read more like a single prayer were somehow misguided. The "Liturgy of St. Tikhon" would be even more indefensible in the case of Anglicans. Many of the recent revisions to the Book of Common Prayer (as with the Roman Missal ) have been based on sound liturgical scholarship - and many are clearly borrowings from the ancient Christian east! Furthermore, since both of these "western-rite" liturgies are being celebrated in "King James" English, are we telling the Christians of t he various western confessions that modern English is unacceptable as a liturgical language? This, in spite of the fact that modern English is now used in many translations of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom?

In summary, a "western rite" Orthodoxy, at least as it is currently being practiced, seems fated to have an increasingly negative effect on our already troubled position in ecumenical relations.

Does the Orthodox Church need a "western rite" in order to evangelize Americans?

If we can picture Overbeck in 19th century England we might realize why he felt an Orthodoxy using a "western rite" was absolutely essential if the Church was to have a viable mission in the West. Overbeck would have only been able to experience the worsh ip of Orthodoxy as done among recent immigrants, using not English, but the languages of their mother countries. No wonder he might reach the conclusion that only an Orthodoxy with a different rite, that had a western memory, could ever again be the churc h of the venerable Bede.

St. Bede, of course, was a great Anglo-Saxon historian who lived long before the Western Schism. As such, he is perfectly acceptable to us Orthodox today as a saint to be venerated. So are many of the other saints of northwestern Europe - such as Patrick , Aidan, Alban and others, who are now being included in the liturgical calendars of Orthodox Churches. It is obviously a great advantage for converts to be able to venerate saints of their own ethnic background - and it speaks to the catholicity of the C hurch. Clearly, Orthodoxy doesn't have to have a "western rite" to have a western memory. With this in mind, let us suppose Overbeck's experience of the Church had been quite different. Suppose he had attended the celebration of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on the feast of the venerable Bede and there in the narthex was a beautiful icon of this saint for veneration by the faithful. Suppose, too that the Liturgy had been conducted entirely in English. What could he find missing to celebrate the fe ast of this great saint of the early Christian west? True, the Liturgy would not be served in exactly the same way as Bede himself would have done. (But then, neither - by a long shot - would the "western rite" liturgies of St. Tikhon or St. Gregory be t he same as done by the venerable Bede.) What matters most is that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the ancient, pre-schismatic liturgical life of the west were the same in all essentials.

Without question, Byzantine worship has demonstrated its suitability for all people. It became the dominant liturgical expression for the Russians as truly as it had been for the Greeks. It also rooted itself deeply in the culture of those Orthodox "Lati ns", the Romanians. And in Alaska it expressed the religious aspirations of native cultures - Aleuts, Tlingets and others. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is now being celebrated in Japanese, Korean and a half dozen tribal languages in Africa. Recent ly, it provided the scriptural worship sought after by the Evangelical Orthodox Church, who were, until recently, the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission. The use of the Byzantine liturgical tradition by the AEOM is one of the strongest arguments, aga inst the need of a "western rite" for purposes of evangelization in America.

But doesn't the use of the "western rite" make it easier to bring people into the Church when they already have "their own" liturgical tradition? Perhaps, but the drawbacks are enormous. Shortly after her former Episcopal parish was received into the "we stern rite" of the Antiochian Archdiocese in Spokane, WA a woman commented, "We were kind of underdogs in the Episcopal Church by worshipping in the old way. Now we feel we're in step with our Church." Sadly, it can only be a matter of time before she di scovers that she is now far more out of step liturgically with her new Church than she ever was with the old. In summary, the use of the "western rite" as a tool for evangelism seems unnecessary at best and misleading at worst.

Does the "western rite" serve the internal needs of the Orthodox Church in this country today?

A knowledgeable Orthodox Christian, if asked about the Church's greatest need in western Europe and the Americas today, would probably respond with a single word: unity. In this regard, the Byzantine liturgical tradition has been of inestimable value in h olding the Church together. On the other hand, ethnicity has probably been the greatest force for disunity. Ethnic heritage, of course, does not have to be a divisive factor. One can be proud of one's heritage while celebrating the fact that one is part of a Church that is truly multiethnic (as opposed to "non-ethnic", as the alternative is sometimes wrongly presented.)

How does the "western rite" fit into this need to bring the Church together as a truly multi-ethnic community, united by faith and worship? Unfortunately, the "western rite" can be viewed as a kind of "super-ethnicity" which is just the opposite of what t he Church needs today. Narrow as their ethnic view might have been, and as much as they may have insisted unwaveringly on the use of their own language, Orthodox Christians have always shown a willingness to use a common form of worship - until now. For all intents and purposes, the use of the "western rite" takes ethnicity one step further. Not only do these converts insist on using (an archaic) form of their own language, but they also insist on using an exclusive liturgical rite that is common to no o ne but themselves.

Orthodox Christians who visit a "western rite" parish will find themselves in an alien environment. Not only will the structure of the worship in a "western rite" parish be unfamiliar, but the very method of receiving the sacrament of communion will be di fferent, so that even though technically in communion, visitors from established Orthodox traditions will be discouraged from receiving the holy mysteries. ("Western rite" visitors to other Orthodox parishes will be similarly discomfited.) Contrary to th e ancient practices of the Church, "Byzantine" clergy visiting "western rite" parishes are not allowed - in current Antiochian practice - to concelebrate (and would hardly know how to, even if permitted). Pan-Orthodox services like the vespers for the Sun day of Orthodoxy are now rendered complex if not downright confusing by the possible presence of "western rite" clergy. Pilgrimage is a vital part of the Orthodox tradition and the current situation is bound to affect "western rite" pilgrims to traditiona lly Orthodox countries like Greece or Russia. Instead of finding themselves "at home" in the liturgical traditions of these foreign lands, they will be strangers in their own Church, unable to fully benefit from experiencing the liturgical life served in those holy places that mark the heartlands of what is supposed to be their faith. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the majority of Orthodox faithful and clergy in these countries would accept "western rite" visitors as "their own." Instead, they will pro bably be looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion, as a kind of "sheep in wolves clothing."

Perhaps the plight of "western rite" Orthodox Christians is best understood by looking at the actual structure of an Orthodox Church, where the western part of the building is called the narthex. Though they are canonically within the body of Christ, the Church, Orthodox Christians using the "western rite" are still, in a sense, "only in the narthex." They will not be fully integrated into the Church's life until they can come forward and fully participate in the Church's liturgical worship with their bro thers and sisters in Christ.

There are some, of course, who will point out that there was considerable liturgical diversity in the early Church - and therefore, why is such diversity not possible and even desirable today? There was indeed considerable liturgical variation from one pl ace to another in ancient times. The reason for this was the simple fact that the average person never got more than 25 miles from his place of birth and communications from one place to another were slow and difficult. Under such circumstances, liturgic al diversity was a natural development and hardly a problem. Today, by contrast, we live in what has been called a "global village" where communications are instant and American families often move several times, from one state to another, while their chi ldren are growing up. Everything in our environment argues for greater uniformity in liturgical practice. For example: what are potential converts to do when they happen to see coverage of an Orthodox service on television, become intrigued, and then are completely confused when they discover that Orthodoxy in their area has an entirely different look? Or, on the other hand, what is a "western rite" Orthodox family to do when they move to another town where the only Orthodox parish is "Byzantine" and pos sibly ethnic? What will they do when they feel far more at home in a "continuing" Anglican parish that meets down the road? In summary, the "western rite" can only impede the progress of the Orthodox Church towards reaching a goal of unity within ethnic diversity. Furthermore, a multiplicity of rites is simply inappropriate in a highly mobile society linked by global communications.

There is no reason to question the motives of those who support a "western rite" within Orthodoxy. They are apparently doing so for what they consider to be the very best of reasons. In fact, we might all agree on the ends - yet with all due respect, we simply cannot agree on the means. The "western rite" is inherently divisive. Even so, we must not allow it to divide the Church. At the same time, Orthodox who do not accept the "western rite" are not simply "impeding progress." Rather, they are trying to safeguard the Church from a policy that is neither in the best interests of her established members, nor of her converts. We rejoice whenever and wherever converts are received into the Church. But we also take heart from the fact that many "western rite" parishes eventually see the wisdom of "converting" to the Byzantine liturgical tradition. We can only hope that others will continue to follow that good example.

Father Michael Johnson
pastor, St Nicholas Church
Tacoma, WA

The Priest. A Newsletter for the Clergy of the Diocese of San Francisco. Issue No. 5, May 1996

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