In What Sense is the Byzantine Rite Eastern?

What makes a liturgical tradition Western or Eastern? In 1899, Edmund Bishop famously characterized the “genius” of the Roman Rite as “a simplicity, practicality, a great sobriety and self-control, gravity and dignity.” Or as Maxwell Johnson used to describe it in class: “Get in; state your business; get out.”

By contrast, the Eastern rites (or so the story goes) are marked by lengthy prayers and mystical theology. This quote from a mid-20th-century textbook on liturgy sums up a view that is still encountered frequently today:

“The Eastern Churches are diffuse and rhetorical; they abound in adjectives and superlatives…They are, for example, very fond of privative adjectives, as in this passage: ‘for you are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible [from the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom].’”[1]

Here, “Eastern” equals mystical, as opposed to the rationalistic “West.” The prolixity of the Eastern anaphoras appeals more to aesthetics than to reason. They are infused with apophatic theology, speaking more about what God is not than what God is.

I want to contend that whatever grain of truth the above description may have, it is only relative to the Byzantine Rite, not Eastern rites in general, just as Edmund Bishop’s characterization is fair description of the Roman Rite, but not Western rites in general. For it includes a set of cultural signifiers that mark off East from West in ways that have very little to do with actual liturgies and their histories. Rather, the description fits neatly into the caricature of Orient versus Occident analyzed by Edward Said in his seminal book, Orientalism.

Eastern versus Western: Orientalism and Orthodoxy today

Edward Said argued that the orientalist mindset treats the “East” (Said primarily discusses the Middle East) as irrational, primitive, and despotic opposed to the enlightened, rationalist West. Eastern religion in particular is seen as exotic and mystical, operating outside the realm of logic and reason. As he showed, these stereotypes are misleading, and were created to serve European and American imperial and colonial projects.

Yet orientalism is not just a one-way street. Such stereotypes can be appropriated by non-Westerners for their own purposes. For example, many Russian Orthodox bishops attempt to justify the current war by stating that Ukraine has been infected with “Western values,” whereas beleaguered, non-Western, “Christian values,” supposedly embodied and expressed in the Orthodox Church, need to be preserved and spread.

At its most extreme, self-orientalism equates everything “Western” with evil and everything “Eastern” (in this case, Russian) with good. This “dualistic, dichotomizing, and Manichaean worldview,” to quote Ukrainian Orthodox priest and Putin critic Fr. Cyril Hovorun,[2] is part of the ideology driving the war in Ukraine today.

Today’s self-orientalists believe that the values of the West and those who hold those values must be eliminated in Ukraine in order for a distinctly Eastern, Russian culture to bloom. Naturally, they place a high purchase on the supposedly Eastern qualities of Orthodoxy, the essence of which is expressed in its mystical public worship–the Byzantine Rite.

 “Eastern” qualities of Byzantine liturgy

But is the Byzantine Rite “Eastern” in the way that aligns with neo-orientalist ideology? Let me return to the two supposedly Eastern qualities of Byzantine worship: its lengthy prayers, and its use of privative adjectives typical of mystical theology. We can treat these in short order.

First, the lengthy prayers. There is no denying that the Byzantine anaphoras are much longer than the Roman Canon. But any student of liturgical history knows that the Roman Rite is not the only Western rite, and its particular genius is not normative for all historic Western liturgies. Take, for example, the stunning eucharistic prayer of the early Gallican Rite: it tarries in its opening section of thanksgiving for creation every bit as long and “diffuse” as the Byzantine anaphora of St Basil the Great.[3] This small example shows that lengthy prayers are not necessarily a tell-tale marker of Eastern rites, but can be found in Western ones as well.

What about apophatic statements about God? It is telling that the prayer cited in the quotation above is the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom, from the Byzantine Rite. If fact, one does not find such privative adjectives used for God in any Eastern anaphora outside the Byzantine Rite (with the lone exception of the prayer of Sarapion of Thmuis from Egypt). Thus it is not a characteristic of Eastern liturgies broadly construed, but a distinctive characteristic of the liturgy of the Byzantine tradition.

How is Byzantine liturgy “Eastern”?

The best and perhaps only reason to label the Byzantine Rite as “Eastern” is because it took shape in Constantinople: the East Roman capital. The adjective Eastern relates more to geography than culture. But even here, it is relative. Syrian Christians in Mesopotamia would have been surprised to learn that the liturgy of the Roum (Roman) Orthodox from Constantinople was somehow Eastern.

My point is that liturgical traditions should play no part in today’s dangerous rhetoric of East versus West. The “anti-rational” or “mystical” quality of Orthodox Christianity is a misrepresentation that has long since been debunked.[4] It is important to critique the orientalist description of Byzantine liturgy because it gives Orthodox worship a certain cachet that some find useful for propaganda purposes, not least the current Russian government and its state church.

A better way of thinking about the Byzantine Rite is that much of it was forged in an era of theological debate and controversy. It distinctively expresses the profundity and beauty of Christian theological truths, including through the use of apophatic language and lengthy praises of the Triune God in all His attributes. And that is something that all Christians can appreciate, not just “Eastern” ones.

 

[1] James Norman, Handbook to the Christian Liturgy (London: SPCK, 1944), accessed at http://www.katapi.org.uk/Liturgy/RegionalRitesV.htm.

[2] See Cyril Hovorun, “Russian World 2.0 and Putin’s Spirituality,” Religion in Praxis, February 26, 2022.

[3] The text of the prayer can be found in R.C.D. Jasper and G.J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed, 4th ed. edited by Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2019), 217-20.

[4] See John Anthony McGuckin, “Orthodoxy and Western Christianity: The Original European Culture War?” in Orthodoxy and Western Culture, ed. Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 85-108.

Rev. Dr. Mark Roosien is Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School and a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. 

5 comments

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful and relevant essay. You can even project the culture ‘East v. West’ war back further than the great Schism.

    As a boy at school I remember reading accounts of the Battle of Salamis, presented as the victory of West (good) over East (bad) – ‘whose values and apprehension of truth and right and wrong were so different from our own,’ I remember the textbook read something like that.

    I hear with horror what the Russian Hierarchy is saying about the brutal invasion of Ukraine. It is nothing to do with the supposedly decadent ‘West’ and more to do with the simple assertion of military power for political aims. My Russian Orthodox friends are as horrified as I am.

    AG

  2. By my rough word count of the English translations, the Roman Canon is actually longer than the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom.

    1. Microsoft Word has informed me that the Anaphora of Chrysostom is around 100 words longer. But at any rate, they are roughly the same length.

  3. It’s not only the anaphoras.

    I played the organ a number of years ago for the wedding of a cousin. Her fiancé was Greek Orthodox, and the wedding was to be conducted by the local Anglican vicar (for civil and ecclesiastical validity) and then by the Greek Orthodox priest. The choir of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London had been hired for the occasion, too.

    What struck me most about the proceedings was that the “C of E” part of the rite took about 20 minutes, and the Greek Orthodox Rite that immediately followed took well over three times as long. Prolixity was the name of the game. There was a lot of singing by priest and by choir. Every prayer seemed to be prayed at least three times over, and in some cases, nine times over. One wondered why all these spiritual booster shots were thought desirable or necessary,

    As well as the interminable sung prayers, there was quite a lot of carefully choreographed ritual movement by priest and by the couple, a little like circle dancing. The whole thing was supervised by an extremely efficient lady master of ceremonies, who not only organized the couple but told the priest what to do at many points in the service.

    I think perhaps it’s the lengthiness and the repetitions that characterize Eastern liturgies in people’s minds. A commonly-held impression is that services generally last for three hours, and that all the men congregants go out for a smoke halfway through, leaving the women to carry on witnessing the praying on behalf of the men folk……

  4. Here’s Pope Francis speaking of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch:: “A Patriarch can’t lower himself to become Putin’s altar boy.”

    Sometimes we need to cut through the niceties and speak to what’s staring us all in the face.

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