A Liturgical Voice from the East: Active Participation in the Byzantine Rite

Sr. Vassa Larin is a Russian-Orthodox “ryassofor” nun and teaches Liturgical Studies in the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna in Austria. Her presentation on the Byzantine understanding of active participation can be found here.

Sr. Larin’s presentation on active participation from a Byzantine perspective is fascinating. She begins by posing two questions:  First, from a Roman Catholic perspective – “Does the Byzantine Rite traditionally foster the fully conscious and active participation of the laity in liturgical celebrations?,” followed by “a very Orthodox question in that context and that is:  ‘Why should we [the Orthodox] care?’”

Sr. Larin’s presentation calls to my mind the Liturgical Movement’s struggle to move the Roman Catholic Church toward a greater concern for the active participation of the laity before the Second Vatican Council. Her presentation outlines the historical and modern day role of the laity in the Byzantine Rite, while providing stories from her own childhood. She ends by discussing the state of crisis the Byzantine Rite is in today.

In many ways, the struggles of the Roman Catholic Church are similar to those of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.  It seems from my perspective that the Eastern Orthodox Churches today must grapple with the role of the laity in liturgical celebrations just as the Roman Catholic Church did in the mid-20th century (and continues to do today).  Obviously the way in which the Eastern Orthodox Churches do this will be different from the way in which the Roman Catholic Church from the time of the Second Vatican Council to today has chosen to address this topic.

Our churches problems are not all that different, and perhaps through greater ecumenical dialogue we would discover that each tradition has yet unknown solutions to the other’s problems.  This is why it is so important that the Church breathe with both lungs.  Unity in diversity and diversity in unity are the key to maintaining a healthy Church which looks back, within, and around itself in order to move forward.

It seems that the answer to Sr. Larin’s first question is that the Byzantine Rite could do more to foster the fully conscious and active participation of the laity in liturgical celebrations in a way which is in keeping with the spirit of its own tradition.  And the answer to the second question, “Why should we [the Orthodox] care?,” I think is obvious:  because we your sister church in Rome care, and in the spirit of ecumenism that should be reason enough.

As an aside, I would like to plug Sr. Vassa Larin’s channel on YouTube entitled “Coffee with Sister Vassa.” Every week Sr. Larin does a brief video on the liturgical calendar for that week. To find out more, click here.

8 comments

  1. Nathan: It seems from my perspective that the Eastern Orthodox Churches today must grapple with the role of the laity in liturgical celebrations just as the Roman Catholic Church did in the mid-20th century (and continues to do today).

    The various revolutions of thought which now significantly define the development of “western” Christian liturgy and theology have been experienced in the Christian “east” in quite different ways. Scholasticism, Enlightenment, modernism, and postmodernism, as well as their admixtures, both inside and outside Christianity, have quite different characteristics depending on ecclesial groups.

    For example: it’s important to remember that while the Roman church passed through its Tridentine era, and Protestantism matured in liturgy and theology, many Byzantine Christians were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Rome, who voluntarily chose in the early modern period to freeze its liturgical and theological development, many Slavic and Greek Christians were forced into a state of suspension given the legal and social restrictions on dhimmi. These prohibitions included restrictions on church building and repair, a ban on some displays of public worship, etc.

    “Secular history” must be considered when analyzing past and future liturgical change in any see. I scarequote “secular history” only because this is an extremely mutable and subjective topic.

  2. Unfortunately, a nearly hour long podcast is not feasible for me, unless there’s a ready transcript.

    I am curious if she addresses the issue *sacramental* participation of the laity. I am aware that in the Orthodox parishes that are largely attracting converts from Western Christianity (rather than legacy ethnic faithful), there can be considerable rigor in setting expectations that laity will not only observe the traditional Eucharistic fast and abstinence (closer to what was once precept in the Roman church) but also that the faithful will participate in Vespers or Matins (varying by rite) beforehand as well as confession. I gather that there is often less rigor in less self-selected communities, but I wonder where the trends are and what that portends for active participation in more than one liturgical dimension.

  3. “And the answer to the second question, ‘Why should we [the Orthodox] care?,’ I think is obvious: because we your sister church in Rome care, and in the spirit of ecumenism that should be reason enough.”

    This is rather audacious. Then the people here at PrayTell should care more about the fact that the mainline position among the Orthodox is that our approach to liturgy since Vatican II is iconoclastic and that we threw tradition out the window and that the Novus Ordo is a disaster…

    1. @Timothy Jenkins – comment #3:

      Setting aside your take on the Orthodox position of the liturgical reforms since Vatican II, perhaps I was not as clear as I should have been in the section of my post which you have quoted. However, I thought that this sentence would be contextualized by my statements above, not excerpted to stand by itself. It should be read in light of my statement: “This is why it is so important that the Church breathe with both lungs.” My intention was not to project any sort of Roman supremacy, which seems to be the way in which you interpreted this section of my post. Rather, it was quite the opposite as I thought my usage of the phrase “sister church in Rome” would suggest.

      Just as Gaudium et Spes begins by saying that “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age…are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” (§1) my point was that the joys, hopes, and concerns of one of the Christian faithful should be the joys, hopes and concerns of all of the Christian faithful.

      For me the reason why the Orthodox should care about active participation is because this is a concern expressed by other Christian churches. However, I acknowledge that “the way in which the Eastern Orthodox Churches do this will be different from the way in which the Roman Catholic Church from the time of the Second Vatican Council to today has chosen to address this topic.” Also, the fact that Sr. Larin goes through the history of active participation in the Byzantine Rite shows that this concern is germane to their tradition as well.

      Greater respect and dialogue are needed between the East and the West. But this can only happen if we each take seriously the concerns of one another. My hope is that both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will begin taking the joys, hopes and concerns of one another more seriously, since this is precisely what being Church means.

      I hope this provides clarity to my post.

    2. @Timothy Jenkins – comment #3:

      With all due respect, do you really believe that the Orthodox, especially the Russian Church Abroad, view the Roman Catholic Church as a “Sister Church?”

      I can assure you, they do not. If they did view it as such, Communion could be easily restored.

  4. I agree with Karl that this wide-ranging and in-depth talk is badly in need of either a transcript or at least an outline if it is to actually be engaged rather than the usual projections. It ranges from early church through the final phases of the development of the Typicon to contemporary practice. It is hard to see the forest for the trees.

    One good source of contemporary data to which the Sister Vassa referred is contained in this website.

    http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/research/orthodoxindex.html

    These were take from the Five Interesting Facts pdf which is a good place to start. If you dig deeper in the website there is a lot more.

    There is much difference among the Orthodox communities.

    While 73% of the liturgy is in English that varies, e.g. 85% in the Orthodox Church in America to 66% in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. In my local OCA parish Slavonic is as rare as Latin in local Catholic parishes, e.g. a few times a year some of the very long Kyries will be alternated with Greek, Slavonic and English just for variety’s sake!

    GOA parishes have a stronger ethnic identity (66%) than OCA parishes (35%)

    OCA parishes which have many converts report 44% attendance whereas GOA parishes report only 22%.

    Very interesting is the very strong inverse relationship between parish size and attendance, it does down from over 50% in parishes with a hundred people to under 20% in parishes with a thousand! Take a look at the graphic in Figure 3 of the pdf! Rarely does one see such a regular pattern.

    In some of the larger parishes, e.g. a Greek ethnic neighborhood I suspect there are many things (language, schools, associations) that keep the religious-ethnic culture and so people don’t go to church very often. They get their culture from many sources

    On the other hand in many of the smaller parishes, like my local OCA parish, there are many converts, little ethnicity, and so going to church regularly, including for many people the Saturday Vigil (Vespers plus Matins) and quarterly confession are important (most people receive communion at most Divine Liturgies). Active participation in this parish would be the envy of most Catholic parishes! Imagine a Catholic parish were 25% of the parish went to a hour long Vigil on Saturday evening and 50% came to a ninety minute Sunday Mass!

  5. Sr. Vassa’s excellent article has been published in the most recent issue of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly.

    Orthodox theologians have been discussing active participation for over a century. The preconciliar deliberations of the Russian Orthodox Church, which began in the late 19th century, took up numerous questions of lay participation. Several émigré theologians also raised the issue, most notably Nicholas Afanasiev in his books, “The Lord’s Supper” and “The Church of the Holy Spirit.” Paul Evdokimov also takes up the issue in “The Ages of the Spiritual Life.” Evdokimov’s theology of the royal priesthood of the laity is quite profound. Of course, Alexander Schmemann addressed this issue throughout his writings, though he usually referred to it as “corporate worship.” The Church of Greece established a synodal commission for liturgical renewal that captures the vocabulary of Vatican II and presents several recommendations to foster the laity’s active participation in the liturgy. I think the most intriguing development was the linking of Baptism and Chrismation to the Christic gifts of king, priest, and prophet in the Orthodox theologians, a way of recasting priesthood that is similar to the notion of priesthood in Sacrosanctum Concilium. So the Orthodox have been working through this issue for over 100 years (and needless to say, I am working hard on this issue now).

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