While on holiday in the Dodecanese recently I made my way each Sunday to the town’s church to attend the Divine Liturgy according to the Greek Orthodox Rite. As always I was struck by timelessness of this ancient liturgy, of the sense of being caught up into the heavenly places, but also by the differences with the Sunday Liturgy of the Western Rite. As far as liturgy goes there is indeed “a wideness in God’s mercy” as Frederick Faber famously wrote. Here are a few observations based just on two Sundays on one Greek island. I’m afraid I have no idea whether what I experienced was typical, but here goes;
- The Liturgy is offered in the context of a religious monoculture. The Liturgy is the offering of a whole people, of a place, as well as of the Church. On the island where I was staying, there were no other Christian traditions offering different forms of worship alongside. It would simply have made no sense. This was an Orthodox community, and Orthodox was what you got. This meant that the Liturgy was rooted and grounded in its culture in a way which is difficult to appreciate in a pluralistic society like the US, or indeed much of Europe.
- This close identification of the Liturgy with the local culture was visibly embodied in the person and role of the parish priest, in and out of church. The person who as it were guarded the gate of heaven in the liturgy, as he moved between the people and the holy of holies beyond the iconostasis, was the same person, highly visible in his cassock, who every day walked the streets of the village, stopping to talk to all he met, who sat in its cafes, and was prominent among those who gathered at the police station when an incident arose one day involving a boatload of illegal immigrants. This kind of highly visible representative role was familiar to many of us ordained in the 60s in England, but has long since gone.
- Participation in the Divine Liturgy was minimal. People stood, or sat, with great attentiveness, and made the ritual gestures with devotion, but in the main were content to observe the rite and listen to the cantors who sang for them. This is a far cry indeed from the full, conscious and active participation encouraged and expected in the West.
- Likewise there seemed to be no encounter, no real dialogue, between priest and people. The priest faithfully observed the rite, performed the ritual acts and spoke or sang the ritual words, but there was no direct connection made, no eye contact even. The Liturgy went its own majestic way and the people tagged along. They seemed to need no encouraging word, no little clerical ad libs, no lifting of the spirits with humour. They evidently felt supremely privileged simply to be there.
- Of the congregation of about 60 or so local people, only 3 received Holy Communion, whereas everyone, visitors included, went forward at the dismissal to receive the blessed bread, or antidoron. Although delighted at this gesture of inclusion not customary in the West, I was saddened to think that here was exhibited that evasion of direct encounter with the Holy, historically common to both West and East. At various periods of our history, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant communions have each found ways of spurning the gracious gift of God with barriers and prevarications of our own making. It was a pity, though perhaps also a little reassuring, to find that in this respect at least East and West were exactly the same.