Liturgy in Migration: Eastern Christian Insights and Western Liturgical Reforms: Travelers, Texts, and Liturgical Luggage

Moderator’s note: This post is part of our short series “Liturgy in Migration.” This series is based on the new Liturgical Press book Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace.

by Anne McGowan

Many Western Christians have been exposed to the ritual practices and theological ethos of Eastern Christian worship as a result of the westward migration of Eastern liturgies. Theological and ecumenical concerns provided the immediate impetus for some of the modern Western interest in Eastern liturgies, and this curiosity was fueled by the circulation of people, texts, and liturgical units. Some Eastern liturgies took up residence in the West when they accompanied groups of Eastern Christians who settled in the West temporarily or permanently. The presence of Byzantine scholars in Rome in the fifteenth century and Russian Orthodox refugees in western Europe in the twentieth century, for example, provided opportunities for contact and conversation on theological and liturgical matters. The fruits of such interpersonal encounters were promoted in a more organized way through scholarly centers in the West that educated Eastern Christian students, ecumenical endeavors such as the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, and occasional dialogues exploring the possibility of fuller communion among separated churches.

Eastern liturgical texts also traveled west, and the dissemination of printed editions and translations in western Europe from the sixteenth century onward made these texts available to a much wider audience. The supposed echoes of Christian antiquity found in Eastern rites likely helped focus attention on these liturgies, especially their oldest surviving witnesses. Some elements of Eastern liturgies were selectively incorporated into Western rites (such as the appearance of “A Prayer of Chrysostome” in Thomas Cranmer’s English Litany of 1544) and certain passages (sometimes taken out of context) provided ammunition in disputes over the proper celebration and interpretation of liturgical rites in the wake of the Reformations of the sixteenth century and beyond.

In recent decades, some components of Eastern liturgies have been more broadly adapted and used in Western liturgical contexts—prompted especially by the desire to enrich and complement certain aspects of Western theology and practice with insights from the East. Given their portability and flexibility, smaller liturgical units have been especially influential in this context. To more overtly connect a postbaptismal handlaying and/or anointing to the gift of the Spirit given in baptism, for example, several Western churches have adapted the chrismation formula from the Syro-Byzantine rite, “N., be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, as an ecumenical gesture, several Western churches have adopted some form of the Egyptian version of the Anaphora of Basil—although typically with some modifications to better accommodate the expectations of Western eucharistic theology.

It appears that increased exposure to Eastern Christian practitioners, texts, and liturgical units motivated some Westerners to view Eastern liturgies as a potential complement or corrective to their own and to consider incorporating certain insights from Eastern liturgies into Western worship. These borrowings are typically motivated by a genuine concern to share in the common heritage of the undivided ancient church or express solidarity with contemporary Eastern practice; thus they combine respect for an idealized past with an ongoing search for identity in the present.

Anne McGowan received a PhD in theology with a concentration in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame in 2011. Her dissertation, “In Search of the Spirit: The Epiclesis in Early Eucharistic Praying and Contemporary Western Liturgical Reforms,” explored the historical and theological influence of the Eucharistic epiclesis on the shape and content of the current Eucharistic rites of several major Western churches. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year as a postdoctoral associate in liturgical studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in New Haven, Connecticut. She will be an adjunct professor at Saint John’s University this coming spring.

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