August 20, 2013 Length: 53:14
In his continuing series on the Divine Liturgy, Fr. Thomas is now at the point of the Apostle reading. He comments on how, where, and by whom it is to be read.
In our continuing reflections about the Divine Liturgy as it’s served today in the Orthodox churches all around the world—it’s the same Divine Liturgy, mostly St. John Chrysostom, most of the time, but ten times a year St. Basil the Great—we are reflecting on the liturgy of the catechumens, or of the Word, which is the first part of the Divine Liturgy, that culminates in the reading from an apostolic writing—either one of the letters of the New Testament or the book of the Acts of the Apostles—and the reading from the holy Gospel from one of the four gospels.
We reflected last time about the prokeimenon, saying that it was mostly, almost all the time, a verse from one of the psalms that is chanted solemnly to set the stage for the reading of the epistle at that particular liturgy. On festivals of Mary, the Theotokos, Mother of God, that prokeimenon and its verse is taken from the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary, in the Gospel of St. Luke. But most of the time, 99% of the time, it’s from one of the writings, the letters of St. Paul or another one of the apostles in the New Testament, and during the Paschal season it is a reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. By St. Luke, it’s the second volume of St. Luke’s two-volume work, the Gospel according to St. Luke and the Acts of the holy apostles.
Today we want to comment, reflect a bit about the actual reading of that apostolic writing. We will see that there are different practices of doing this in different ways, and I will just give my personal commentary, reflection on them, even my opinion. I have the opportunity to kind of share my convictions and my insights on these things after being in the priesthood for 50 years and seeing a lot of things. The prokeimenon is chanted, the verses are chanted, and then at the conclusion of the prokeimenon, the deacon or the priest will say, “Wisdom!” and then the reading will be announced: “The reading is from the first letter of the holy Apostle Paul to Corinthians,” or “The reading is from the letter of the holy Apostle Paul to the Romans,” or “The reading is from the letter of the holy Apostle Paul to the Galatians,” or “The reading is from the book of the Acts of the holy Apostles,” or “The reading is from the general epistle of the holy Apostle James.” Just the announcement is made of where the reading is from, and it’s done by, of course, the reader who is doing the reading.
Now, this leads to the next point. Who does that reading? Well, normally, in a parish church on Sunday, if there’s a priest—always a presbyter leading the congregation—sometimes there’s a deacon: if there is a priest and a deacon together, serving, or the priest all alone, the reading is done by a reader, a chanter, a person who is selected and set aside and blessed for the purpose of doing chanting and reading at the services of the Church. So it would be a reader who would read the apostolic writing at that point. If there’s more than one deacon, the second deacon or the youngest deacon often reads the prokeimenon and the apostolic writing, and then the chief deacon would read the holy Gospel.
What we have to notice, to begin with, is that after the bishop—if a bishop is serving—gives the peace to all and then the prokeimenon is announced, is read and sung, the bishop who until that point in the liturgy was wearing the great omophorion on his shoulders to show his episcopal rank, while the prokeimenon is being chanted, the servers or subdeacons come to the bishop according to the rubrics of the Divine Liturgy, and they remove the great omophorion. The great omophorion is taken off his shoulders while the prokeimenon is being chanted, and then when the apostolic writing is being chanted and read at the liturgy.
I think that the reason for that removal of the great omophorion is that it shows that the bishop is like everybody else in church: he has to hear the reading of the apostolic writing at that particular liturgy. He stands before his throne, and once the reading of the apostolic writing begins, he actually sits down. He sits down to listen to the epistle or the book of Acts and what is read at that time. He sits down, having had his great omophorion removed from his shoulders, and then that great omophorion is not used again at all during the Divine Liturgy. A small omophorion is used at certain times.
To make things more simple, a lot of times the bishop will just wear the small omophorion from the beginning of the liturgy to the end and will not take it off or put it on. I can honestly say that when I was younger, when I was very young and watched all this stuff being done in church, I often wondered: Why don’t they just leave that thing on or take it off, one or the other? Why do they keep putting it on and taking it off, and then putting it on again? The Russians basically do that. I think that there’s a significance of it; there’s a purpose of it.
Here I think the removal of the great omophorion and the bishop standing in church without an omophorion on until the Great Entrance at the Liturgy of the Faithful—that’s when the small omophorion would be put on him—is to show that he’s one of the people and that he has to hear the readings; he has to hear the apostolic writings being read. He has to hear the holy Gospel being read. He’s the first one who has to hear it, because he’s responsible for it. He’s responsible for the proper explanation, the proper exegesis, the proper understanding, the proper explanation. He’s the head of the congregation, the bishop in his area, and then of course the presbyters or priests who are appointed to their particular parishes, when they are there by being ordained and signed by the bishop. So he’s responsible for those priests also, what they say and what they do, how they serve and how they chant, how they preach. This is all the responsibility of the bishop.
So the bishop wears that omophorion, which is kind of the sign of his pastoral office, on his shoulders, but it’s removed and he doesn’t wear it when the readings are being done. When the apostolic reading is being done, when the Gospel is being proclaimed, he has it off, and I think that that is to signify that he has to hear it. He’s the first one to listen to it, because then he’s going to have to be responsible for it, and in normal situations he has to give the homily. The bishop himself has to preach. He has to preach to his people, or it can happen, as we’ll see, that he can bless someone else to preach the sermon, maybe another bishop could preach if there’s another bishop present or he can bless a presbyter to preach. He could even bless a deacon or a layperson to preach if he wants to, as long as he’s responsible for it and what they would say and that it would be accurate and orthodox and true and inspiring, instructive, illuminating, edifying—all the things that the sermon is supposed to be. We’ll get to the sermon later, but right now we notice that the bishop listens to the readings without the pastoral stole over his shoulders. He does not wear it.
This also explains, a bit, it seems to me, about the place of the reading of the apostolic writing. Where is it read from? It’s read by a junior deacon if there is one at the Divine Liturgy, and if there’s not, it’s read by the reader, someone blessed to read, someone who knows how to read, how to chant, who has been trained and tested as a person who can read properly and loudly enough and clearly enough and pronounce the words properly, not mispronounce words, and be very prepared to do that reading so that the bishop and all the people in the church, all the other clergy and all the people, could hear the inspired word of God being taught to them, being announced to them.
Now, this means that the practice, when the bishop is present and there’s a deacon, or more than one, is that the apostolic writings are read in the middle of the church, often from the cathedra in which the bishop was standing when the liturgy began in the Russian tradition, perhaps even from the throne of the bishop, if there’s one in the Greek tradition. But the deacon reads the reading, and then the chanter reads the reading if there’s no deacon there and just the priest is serving without a deacon or with one deacon. The reader reads it facing east, facing the altar area. Basically what he is doing is facing the celebrant of the liturgy, who is on the high place behind the altar. If it’s the bishop, he’s seated on his throne, and if it’s a presbyter he’s seated on his chair behind the altar on the high place, while the apostolic writing is being chanted, but it’s being read by the reader or the junior deacon.
It seems to me that that’s why, rubricly, the reading is facing the altar area, which means that when the epistle reading or the book of the Acts is being read, it is not read facing the congregation. It’s read from the midst of the congregation so everybody could hear, but the voice is projected forward to the celebrant of the liturgy who is at his place behind the altar table at the so-called high place, where he listens to the word that he then has to explain and preach about at that particular liturgy. It seems to me that that is the proper procedure.
Now, in some of our churches nowadays I notice, particularly the Antiochian tradition and the Greek tradition, is that the one reading the epistle reading or the book of Acts reading, the apostolic writing reading at the liturgy, is often up in front, facing the congregation, facing all the people. I think the rationale behind that was that somebody thought, somewhere, “Well, we should read this to the people. This reading is for the sake of the people, and therefore the reader ought to face the congregation when he reads it.” However, that particular rationale suffers from one defect, and that is it neglects the fact that the clergy and the bishop or the head priest are also among the people, and they are the ones responsible for the word, and they’re the one, so to speak, first of all, who has to hear it, who has to hear it proclaimed at that particular liturgy and then be responsible for preaching the sermon and the homily about it, explaining it to the people, opening up its meaning, its application to our life today and so on.
So it would be, I think you almost might put it this way: to read that apostolic writing, the epistle or the Gospel, with their back to the altar, in front with the back to the altar, even in some sense it’s not very polite to turn your back on the bishop or to turn your back on the priest while you’re reading to the congregation that is gathered. It can appear—because this is what’s done in Roman Catholic churches, Protestant churches—that the reading is read from some reading stand by someone facing the people and doing the reading. But I think that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is more traditional and perhaps in that sense more accurate, that the readings would be done in the midst of the congregation, at a special place within the congregation, facing the altar area where the celebrating clergy of the liturgy are standing to listen, and they’re the ones who are first among the people who have to listen.
But in any case, that writing has to be read. I don’t think it’s… I don’t know how gravely important it is if the reader reads it facing the congregation, but I do think that that’s not totally accurate, and it really should be avoided. I think that the reader should go into the middle of the church, the middle of the assembly, at a special place, maybe a slightly elevated place. Sometimes in the Greek churches they have a pulpit that’s on the side of the nave of the church where the reader will go up there and read the apostolic writing for the people. But it seems that that makes more sense, that the reading would be done in the middle of the church, with the reader facing the altar area and surrounded by the people, who can clearly him, or, if it’s a woman reading, the epistle reading might be read by a woman at some point. We can just talk about that in a minute. But the positioning is, I think, normatively facing forward, facing the altar area, rather than standing on the solea or standing in front on the floor of the church facing the people.
Now, it is the duty of all the clergy and laity gathered to listen to that reading, to hear that reading. They are invited to do so. It’s called, “Wisdom!” They are told to be attentive. They are told to stand up, although usually they sit during the epistle and stand during the Gospel, but they say, “Wisdom, let us attend!” and “Wisdom! The reading is from the letter of the holy Apostle Paul to the Romans. Let us attend” or “Let us be attentive,” and everybody has to be attentive, beginning with the celebrant himself, the bishop or the presiding presbyter. They all have to hear it together.
Therefore it has to be read by someone who has a loud, good, strong sounding voice, and that can project the reading so that the people can hear it and listen to it as it’s being read. Here there are two things that I would like to comment on. The reader has to be a competent reader. Whoever is doing that reading, and certainly if that person is a deacon, it has to be someone who is skilled in reading, who is able to read, who is able to project the voice, who is able to say things clearly, doesn’t have a defect of speech in some way, who has a strong voice. It is for the sake of the—well, if we use St. Paul’s words about the prophetic preaching in the letter to the Corinthians—it would be for edification, exhortation, and consolation. You are edifying the people, building them up; you are exhorting them to certain activity; and you are consoling them and comforting them with the grace and good news of the Gospel of Christ about the salvation of the world. So everybody all together as a common act ought to be listening. One of the members of the assembly should do the reading and be a person who can read.
Now, there’s always a question that comes up about women reading in the church, and it seems to me—this would be my opinion—that a woman could do anything that a layperson can do in the Church, and the woman can also do anything that is not required to be ordained to the diaconate or the priesthood or the episcopate. In other words, I do think that it’s certainly perfectly all right for a woman to read in church: to read psalms, to read the verses, to read the prokeimena, and to read the readings of the apostolic writings, the epistle reading or the book of Acts. But she also has to be trained and to be able to do it, and have a voice, liturgical type of voice that can actually be heard and understood.
There’s a question also: Should the women who have to do that—because in many churches the women have to do it; there isn’t any man who can do it sometimes in small congregations, and maybe a woman can do it very well. Now, she should definitely be blessed for that particular ministry. It could be a de facto type of blessing, so to speak, a factual blessing where the priest blesses her or the bishop blesses her to do that particular reading. There is a service of the setting aside of the readers and chanters in Church services in the Orthodox service books. It seems to me that the prayer of the blessing of a reader could be done over a woman as much as over a man, but it has to be done over a person who’s competent to fulfill this particular ministry.
The one thing that makes it a bit difficult here, that would cause some hesitation, is that the prayer for the setting aside of a Church chanter or reader has a line in it that says that if you fulfill this ministry well, you may be raised to a greater service, meaning you may be ordained a deacon or you may be ordained a priest or even become a bishop, but you begin your service in the Church by doing reading at services. Of course, in the Orthodox Church a woman would never be consecrated a bishop and never ordained a presbyter; that’s just not the practice of the Orthodox Church. We can discuss reasons for that, and there are reasons for that, it seems to me, good, historical reasons why that would be the case. It’s certainly the teaching of the New Testament and the letters to Timothy and Titus about who may be a bishop, who may be a presbyter, what are the qualifications, and who may be a deacon.
However, I think that it’s also clear, very clear and absolutely certain, that there were women among the deacons in the earliest Christian Church. In fact, in almost every generation, there were some women who were actually ordained with the laying-on of hands to be a deaconess or to be a woman deacon. In the Byzantine tradition, the prayer for ordaining the deacon, the man deacon and the woman deacon, is exactly the same prayer—with one difference. When a man is being ordained a deacon, the reference is made to Stephen, who is considered to be the first leader among the seven deacons, whose election was shone forth in the book of the Acts of the holy apostles, the choosing of the seven deacons led by Stephen. The prayer when it’s done with the laying-on of hands on a woman, the reference is made to Phoebe, and Phoebe is mentioned in the letter to the Romans as being Phoebe, diakonos. A grammatical point there is always made, because the word “deacon, diakonos,” is a masculine word in Greek, so it would be ho diakonos, but when it’s read for a woman, the text says he diakonos. There’s no feminine for the word “servant” or “deacon.” “Deacon” is “deacon.” So I think if we were speaking accurately, we wouldn’t use the expression “deaconess”; we would use the expression “woman deacon.” So you have a man deacon who has certain functions, and women deacons who have other functions.
But it also does seem to be the case—this is how I see it, but maybe not correct; other people know better—it seems to me that it is also the case, as a matter of fact, that the women deacons that existed… For example, in the time of John Chrysostom, there were 300 of them in Constantinople alone who were assisting the bishop in his various duties, mainly preparing women catechumens, baptizing them, because you had to go naked into the water or with a white robe on; that wasn’t proper for the bishop to do, so the woman deacon would do it—and other things that the women deacons would do. They would visit sick people, elderly people, infirm, children—there was lots of work for the women deacons to do. But it seems that they were not reading in church. It seems that they were not serving at the altar as a male deacon would do. That probably means that they were not reading the Gospel, either; they were not proclaiming either the apostolic writing or the Gospel, which, when there are deacons, are done by deacons. Both the epistle reading and the gospel reading are done by deacons when there are deacons who are serving.
But it doesn’t seem that the women deacons had the same liturgical functions as the male, man deacon did. But it doesn’t seem that they’ve had the same functions any way. They had different functions in the Church. But a case can be made that there were women in the diaconate of the Christian Church in the beginning, because it’s referred to in the Bible. I already mentioned Phoebe, the deacon, in the letter to the Romans—I believe it’s the Romans. Here, let me just find it, and we’ll be sure about this. Yeah, the 16th chapter of Romans begins: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe,” and it says in the RSV, “a deaconess,” but as I already mentioned, in Greek it would be “a deacon,” but with a feminine article in front of “deacon” rather than a masculine one. But the word is diakonos in Greek, the same word for both men and women. So:
Phoebe, a woman deacon, of the Church in Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.
So you have this reference to this woman, Phoebe, who was called a deacon.
In the pastoral epistles, Timothy and Titus, you have the qualifications for being a deacon, a presbyter, elder, and a bishop. They’re written in this letter. What you find in these epistles about how they ought to behave and what the qualifications ought to be, we say that there is this teaching in these very letters that women generally in the congregation are there in silence; they’re not doing the reading or the formal preaching in the church. They have a different function. But when you also look at what is said about the bishop, the bishop who is requiring a noble task, and then you have the qualifications about how he should be—that’s 1 Timothy 3—it says, “If anyone aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task.” That means you can aspire to the office, but not be lusting after it. As Pope St. Gregory the Great pointed out in his book on pastoral care, the Pastoral Rule, he said that really was a noble task, because when that sentence was written, the bishops were very often being killed as martyrs, martyrs for the faith in Christ, so you were called to be the martyr. Then they give the qualifications for the bishop. Then it says:
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain, hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, be tested first, prove themselves blameless; let them then serve as deacons.
Then it continues:
The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.
And I think what that means is “and the women deacons, likewise.” It doesn’t just mean women in general. It says the deacons must be serious, not double-minded, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain, hold the mystery with a clear conscience… and the women likewise. So you have these qualifications there that seem to apply also to women who were serving as deacon. And the deacon at that time, the diakonos, the word, it simply meant a minister, a servant, someone who helps, someone who assists. The deacons are basically helping and assisting the bishops, and then also they’re helping and assisting the presbyters, who are serving as pastors of local Christian communities, of parishes.
So it seems that there is no great offense or problem of a woman reading in church and even being formally blessed to do so. In our time, we know that several of the Orthodox bishops—I know that in Russia this was the case, especially under Communism, but it’s the case even now, and in America for sure—that some of our bishops do actually tonsure and lay their hands on the women to set them aside to be Church [readers]. We don’t have any women deacons right now, but St. Nektarios of Aegina had two of the nuns he had laid the hands on, and they wore a sticharion when they were in church, and they served. And undoubtedly with St. Nektarios in the women’s monastery, the women were doing the readings.
I serve with a monastery with women, and sometimes—there’s eleven of them there—when everyone’s at home and in church, which is most of the time—sometimes they’re traveling—but sometimes I’m the only man at the Divine Liturgy. The entire congregation are the women, the nuns themselves, and the sisters, and even sometimes the guests who come at those weekday liturgies may be other women, like my wife, for example, could be there, women from the neighborhood come, and so on. So sometimes the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy is the only male in the building. The congregation is made up of all women. Therefore they do the reading, they do the singing, they read the epistle, they do everything that they can do, and that’s perfectly meet and right. It’s perfectly normal; it’s perfectly good.
But in any case, they have to be competent to do it. They have to be prepared. They have to be prepared ahead of time. They have to check the tough words that exist that they are not familiar with, how they are to be pronounced. Especially they need to check before they read on the pronunciation of names, because sometimes names are listed there. Epenetus, Epaphroditus, Titus, Phoebe. How do you say those names? Sometimes they’re pretty tricky names: Prisca, Aquila. Sometimes there’s names to be read. In Old Testament readings, there’s all kinds of names that are not very familiar to people. But the reader has to know how to read those things, and where the proper emphasis should be put when they read, and how the words should be properly accented.
So this leads to another reflection that I want to make about reading in church. Beside the preparation and the pronunciation of words and being familiar with what you’re going to read before you stand up in church to read it, we also have to say that there is a question about not only the volume and the clarity but about the way, the manner in which those readings are read or chanted or sung. This really is a very important thing, and especially in America and in the English-speaking world, because of the following reason.
Most of our—in fact, all of our—Orthodox churches in the West have their roots in some old-country church. It can be a Greek church, it could be Antiochian, could be Ukrainian, could be Russian, Serbian, Romanian. Those churches all had their ways of singing, their ways of chanting, their melodies that they use. They all had their Ochtoechoses with the eight tones for the troparia, kontakia, prokeimena, and so on. Very often, those readers in America, they have those melodies in their head. The melody is kind of ingrained in their—I don’t know what you want to call it—their brain wiring and in their system. And so, very often, when they are assigned to read the reading in English language—American English or British English or whatever, Australian English—the melody comes from the tradition of the church which they are in.
So in the Byzantine churches, they have one way of singing things; in Slavic churches, like Carpathian, Ukrainian regions, they have their ways; Romanians have their ways; the Great Russians have their ways. And that kind of melody sticks in their head, which then leads sometimes to very great difficulty in understanding when this person is reading the text in English, because using that melody, which wasn’t meant for the English language, often leads the person chanting to mis-accent words and to put emphases on the wrong places, because they’re following a melody which was originally for another language, and now they’re doing it in English.
So it’s very, very important, when we have the Divine Liturgy in English, that those who are chanting in English, whether they’re using Byzantine chant or Ukrainian chant or Great Russian chant or Romanian or Serbian or whatever it is, that they still have to make sure that it is appropriate for English language, that it isn’t just sounding like a Slavic or a Greek reading done in English language. It has to be an English reading in the English language. It sometimes is done so often that people hardly ever notice it, but how much violence is done to the English language by Church readers in the Orthodox Church! Because they mispronounce and mis-accent words in order to maintain a certain melody of the singing and of the chanting that doesn’t really apply to the English language.
I can just give you an example, because I’ve heard it and done it so many times, even in my own youth probably was guilty of this. For example, I happen to have the Bible open to 1 Timothy. Just as an example, if you’re reading a line that says, “So I would the younger widows marry, bear children, rule their households.” If you’re doing it in English and, let’s say, in a Carpathian type of chant, your tendency would be to do something like this: “I would have the younger widows marry… and bear children… rule over their households, and give the enemy no occasion to revile us.” The problem is: that’s not properly accented in English. The word is not marry; it’s marry, m-a-r-r-y. “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children…” So it would have to be something like, if you’re using that melody: “So I would have younger widows marry… and bear children…” I wouldn’t say: “And I would have the younger widows marry…” That’s just mis-accenting. Maybe that’s what you do in Slavonic, but you can’t do it in English.
It’s very, very important, and especially we’re very fortunate, I think, in the last ten, fifteen years or so, certainly the last five to ten years, of having skilled people actually working on that issue. How do you read in church, using chants from another culture and another time and place, in the English language, without doing violence to the grammar and the accents and the pronunciations of the words in English? In other words, there has to be an anglicizing or an English-izing of those melodies if we’re going to use them. They’re very familiar and they’re wonderful to use and they sound nice, and the people are familiar with them. Sometimes when a person goes to a church where they’re not familiar, it doesn’t even seem like church.
I remember once being in Crete. There’s a wonderful bishop in Crete; he’s now the Archbishop of Crete. At the time he was the bishop in Chania, named Irinaios. We were there for a youth meeting many years ago, and we were all singing in our particular languages and our particular ways at the services, and it was interesting at that particular meeting that people from churches of the Great Russian tradition, the people of the churches of the Finnish tradition, and the people of the American churches of the Russian tradition, they all would use the same melody. I remember it was the time of the Epiphany, so each one was singing the first tone for the hymn of the Epiphany.
In Slavonic, the Great Russian way, not Ukrainian or Carpathian, but the Great Russian way would be:
Vo Iordane kreshchayushchusya Tebe, Gospodi…
So in English we would say:
When thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan…
And then the Finns would sing it their way. Well, this bishop, Irinaios, he said to me, after a couple of days of this; he said to me, “Fr. Tom, I have to tell you something, really honestly. He said, “When you folks sing, you guys who are from this Russian tradition, whether it’s in English or Finnish or Slavonic, it doesn’t even seem like church to me. That melody just doesn’t seem like church.” And I responded to the archbishop, who was a good friend of mine—we met when we were both priests, actually; really our young years when we were both young priests, we met, so I knew him well; I loved him, I still do: he’s still alive there, as the Archbishop of Crete—but I said, “You know, Your Grace”—he was a bishop at the time—“we would say the same thing when we go to a Greek church. When we go to a Greek church and hear Byzantine chant, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Russians say: That doesn’t even sound like church to me. It sounds like some Turkish singing or something. I’m not familiar with it. I don’t like it. It doesn’t seem like church.”
Well, you want the reading and the singing in church to seem like church to the people who are there. Of course, in America this is a great challenge, because in many congregations we have people from various old-country traditions, and then we have lots of converts. In fact, in Orthodox churches in America today, the Orthodox Church in America, if you take all the jurisdictions together, for the first time it happened in the last few years, the majority are converts. Some study was done that 51% of the Orthodox in the Orthodox churches in America are converts. So those people have their own issues, because they’re not used to any of these melodies or traditions, and they have their own, let’s say, Evangelical Protestant background or their Anglican background, that they really love, and they want to try to keep and preserve. It’s a big question of how to do that, if you can, and we should really try, obviously. Something has to happen. Things will change in countries that are serving in English, especially when we get more and more people in who do not know the original ways from the old country.
Our children pretty much know, but even then they couldn’t really do it in Church Slavonic. Our son who is a priest, Fr. John, he can’t sing in Church Slavonic practically at all, but he is familiar with those melodies, and he has to use them in English because he serves entirely in English in his parish of St. Cyril and Methodius in Terryville, Connecticut. So English is being used all over the place, and we now even see lots of work being done on how to sing the Byzantine chants in the English language. The Russians were a little bit easier because they were more melodious and very often were types of Westernized singing anyway, whereas the homelands of the Greek and the Antiochians, their tradition of singing is completely different. It’s more like, you might say even Islamic type of singing. If you walk by a mosque in those countries and you hear them singing, and you walk by an Orthodox church, from the outside it sounds the same, because it’s the same type of melody.
But there is a challenge here—a big challenge—of how to do the reading properly in English language so that you’re not mutilating the language, and you’re not mis-accenting and violating grammar and mispronouncing and all that, for the sake of keeping a certain melody that’s ingrained in your mind. So we really have to work on that, and, thank God, a lot is being done. A lot is being done in our time, which is very, very welcome, so that the reading of these writings in the church, as well as the hymns and psalms and whatever else needs to be chanted would be done in a way that would be not doing any violence to the English language and would sound normal to English-speaking people. It wouldn’t sound stilted or alien; it would just sound English.
I do believe, personally, that you can do it in every single one of those melodies of those traditions. It could be done in Byzantine, could be done in High Russian, could be done in Ukrainian, Romanian, whatever, Serbian—it can be done, that you can use that basic melodic pattern and put it into English in a proper way that’s very beautiful, very understandable, and is not doing violence to the English language; it’s not distorting the English language.
So we have to work on those things, and the reader, the chanter, has to read in a way that the people can understand, which then leads to another problem, and that is this. If we’re only speaking about English-language liturgy, we still have to say that the English that’s being used has to be understandable to the people. Of course, a lot of us have to go to Orthodox churches where they’re still using a lot of Greek and Slavonic, and we may not even understand a word of what is being said. We like it emotionally but don’t understand a thing, or very, very, very little. But when it’s in English, it gives the opportunity for everyone there to understand everything—if it is being done well: loud enough, slowly enough, clear enough, not too slowly, not dragged out, with the emphasis being on the meaning, and the conveying of the meaning of that text to the people who are listening, first of all the bishop or the priest who is standing on the high place listening to that apostolic writing being read from the middle of the church for the edification, consolation, illumination, instruction, exhortation of all the people who are gathered.
It’s a corporate act of listening that’s taking place, too, which leads to another comment that I would make. I personally am very opposed to putting the printed texts of the epistles and the gospel into the people’s hands before the liturgy. Then you have people just looking at their little leaflet while the reading is going on, and they’re not even listening to what the person is saying. Chances are, if they’ve got that paper in their hands, they may be way behind where the reading is taking place; they may be way ahead of it; they may not even be look at it: they may be looking at the announcements on the back of the leaflet. It’s just leading people into temptation in my opinion, in a very non-liturgical type of action, to put printed words on papers for the people in the pews of the church.
Sure, you can use a liturgy book. The hymn words could be there, and so on, especially if the people are going to be joining into the singing of the service itself. But when it comes to the reading of the apostolic readings and the holy Gospel, I think that they should be heard and listened to in church, and you shouldn’t have a deacon or a priest reading, or a layperson reading the epistle reading or the gospel reading to people who are not even listening. They’re not even paying attention. They’re looking at a piece of paper that they’re holding in their hands, and they’re having their own private little inter-relation with those words, which they’re not supposed to have in the liturgy, because this is something that’s common, corporate, done all together. We all enter into listening, and that attentive listening is very important to the power of the actual proclamation of the word, both when it’s being read and when it’s being preached about by whoever is giving the sermon at that particular liturgy, which would normally be the bishop or the head priest.
I really think that it’s not good to print the readings. In fact, what might be better would be to print the readings for the upcoming Sunday and tell the people to read them every day at home before they come to church on Sunday, but when they get to church on Sunday that they are to stand there and listen to it; they’re not to bring their paper and read it while it’s going on, flipping pages, and very often not even being at the place where everybody is, or just getting lost all the time and not… just struggling with a prayer book the whole service rather than just standing there and listening.
My experience would tell me that if a person goes to the Orthodox Church liturgy, especially the Divine Liturgy, virtually every Sunday of their life, if not from childhood but from the moment that they became interested in Orthodoxy, within a year or two they’ll understand and memorize just about everything that’s there. They won’t even need the book. But if they’re always having their nose in the book while the service is going on, very often they never come to the point where they ever understand anything, because their mind is split while they’re there. So I would really suggest: Put all the books away, certainly the readings that are read at the service. Don’t have them. Maybe give them to the people after the service is over and tell them to go home and read them slowly once again and contemplate them. Give it to them before the service or give it to them after the service, but just don’t let them have it during the service, which then really divides up the congregation and loses the common mind and you have a whole bunch of people standing in one place doing their own thing, and none of them are really engaged in what is going on at the time in the liturgy itself by its liturgical leaders: the singers, the chanters, the deacons, the priests, and the bishop. We want to listen there.
One more comment for today is the comment about microphones. You know, one great scholar of media, Marshall McLuhan, from Canada, years ago said, “The medium is the message.” If you have a liturgy in church where all of a sudden you’re hearing it through a microphone, especially in those churches where they’ve—how can you say?—like Roman Catholic, Anglican churches, Lutheran churches, where the clergy are not vested as extensively as they used to be, and they’re facing the people for the whole service, they’re not standing in the same position, facing east with the people, he says: change the clothing of the clergy, give them a microphone, and have them face the people, Marshall McLuhan said, and you’ve got a different religion. You’ve got a different liturgy. It ain’t the same any more, because the mode in which it is delivered is part of its very message.
Here I would say, obviously, some churches need microphones. They need some type of way of amplifying sound so that people could here. But I think we have to be very, very careful how we wire our churches for sound, and what we do. You can’t have celebrants at the liturgy walking around with—I don’t know, in the old days before we had wireless, with wires coming out of their… in the altar area or whatever. You can’t do that.
We also have to be very careful where we place where we place where the sound is coming from. I’ve been in churches where I’m standing in church, I’m looking at the deacon or the priest reading the epistle or the gospel or chanting litanies or whatever, but the sound I hear is coming from behind me. So it’s a weird experience: you’re watching someone in front of you reading something, but you’re hearing them coming from behind you, not in front of you. Then sometimes it’s very loud because you’re standing next to where it’s being projected from. This leads to a lot of, lot of troubles in worship in spirit and in truth, because it’s got to be corporate worship, all together, in a very organic and natural way for people to relate to. It seems to me that some buildings— I don’t understand why Orthodox churches before we had microphones got along so well and had such good acoustics when nowadays, when we have such methods, we microphone everything up; we wire everything up. You can’t go to church if you’re a clergyman any more, without being wired, and you don’t preach except with something clipped onto your vestment in front of you.
Well, it may be needed sometimes and necessary, just so people could hear, but it’s sad when that’s the case. It really would be much better when that does not have to be done, or if it is done, that it’s done in a way that is not disconcerting or disorienting to the people who are present. So it does seem to me that, with putting in an audio system into a church building, it’s a very delicate operation so that it becomes helpful and not harmful to the actual liturgical worship. That’s something that I think we really need to think about, because we’re becoming more and more technological as the clock ticks. Who knows what’s going to come next? There’s going to be iPods with the liturgy on and the daily reading that everybody’s going to come in and open up and read while they’re standing at the service. Well, they might as well be at home, then, because they’re not really involved in what’s going on.
So it does seem to me that we’ve got to recover in our reading and chanting the corporate nature of us doing this together, some people doing the chanting who have competence, other people listening, all paying attention, all asking God to inspire all of us together to understand it, and not just be a bunch of isolated people standing in a church building communing intimately with God in our own heart. That’s necessary to do, but not during liturgy. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I love to go to church, because I could be lost there. I don’t know anybody, and I can get in my pew and say my prayer and have my intimate relationship to God.” And you want to add: “Yeah, by yourself.” Well, that should be done when you’re at home and you go into your room and shut the door. That can be done in the closet of your own heart while you’re riding the subway or stuck in traffic or whatever, but at liturgy it’s supposed to be common and everybody together, and all involved in the activity together to have it a real act that the Holy Spirit can come and inspire and unite us all to one another.
When we have holy Communion at the liturgy, we say, “Unite us all to one another in the one bread and the one cup.” You want to say at the liturgy of the word: Unite us all together in the proclamation of these apostolic writings and of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Let us all do this together, bring our attention together, our energy together, our spiritual focus together, and that will enliven the liturgy fantastically much when we get to do it. Then we’ll see later on that we don’t need those printed pages with the texts on during the service. In fact, they’ll get in our way. They’ll get in our way.
So when we’re together, it’s important that we read and listen together to these words, the apostolic writings, then the gospel proclamation, and then the sermon, which just go together, and that that be done as a corporate act. Even the one who is doing it has to remember that he or she is doing it for the sake of the people who are gathered. They’re not doing it just because they like it and have fun to read in church or sing. They’re doing to convey the words and the Spirit of God—the Spirit, too, not just the words—to one another, all together, with one mind, heart, soul, and mouth. We even say, “With one mouth, one heart, one mind.” Well, that’s what we should do, and everything we do should be to accomplish that particular end which is a very unique thing when the Church of God really becomes the Church of God in Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and we’re all together in that church, worshiping in spirit and in truth all together.
Well, we’ll reflect upon these things again and again, as we continue on responding. Next time, hopefully, I will speak about the Alleluia, singing Alleluia with the verses after the reading of the apostolic writing and before the proclamation of the Gospel, because between the epistle reading and the gospel reading, there is this solemn singing of Alleluia with verses, which in some of our churches is not even done any more, and that’s a very great tragedy. But we’ll talk about that next time.