Liturgical Literacy

by Richard Barrett

Recently, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s Metropolis of Chicago announced the ten areas of strategic focus they had developed during a three-day retreat. His Eminence Nathanael, Metropolitan of Chicago, said that these areas represent  “who we are and what we stand for as Orthodox Christians[.]” Number nine on the list was “Worship Engagement and Accessibility.” This appeared to grow directly out of at least one weakness called out in the published SWOT analysis: “Unsatisfactory church experience (welcoming and liturgical).” This announcement echoed the concerns raised in Alexei Krindatch’s report, “Orthodox Christian Churches in 21st Century America: a Parish Life Study,” released in January of this year by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. According to Krindatch, attendance at Sunday services declined overall between 2010-2015, and in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the Antiochian Archdiocese in particular, regularly participating members have become less engaged in the lives of their parishes.Issues of language, comprehension, and participation are oft-cited barriers to engagement; the service is in a language that the people do not understand, following an order with multiple moving parts that the people cannot track, which gives the people nothing to do. As a result they do not see that they have a reason to be there.

This perceived state of affairs is in marked contrast to the commonplace that from the Eastern Orthodox Church perspective, the primary act of the Christian is to worship God. We are a liturgical church, so it is said; our faith is formed by our worship—“Lex orandi, lex credendi”—and we express our identity as Orthodox Christians in the context of our worship. As such, it is wonderful that a Metropolis publicly prioritizes worship as a fundamental component of “who we are and what we stand for as Orthodox Christians,” and wants to address the problem of people having unsatisfactory liturgical experiences.

I propose, however, that as part and parcel of a discussion of engagement and accessibility in worship, we also need to consider how we can address the objective of liturgical literacy, and consider how these concepts all contribute to a liturgically healthy Orthodox church.

What do I mean by liturgical literacy? I do not mean, to be clear, that everybody in the congregation should be a fluent typikaris and have personal copies of the Menaion that they bring to church. What I suggest is that, at minimum, liturgical literacy means that all we the liturgical actors—the clergy, the singers, and yes, the congregation—understand that we have important roles in the Church’s services, that it is important for the Church to have those services, the different components of those services are also important, and most of all, it is important that we be there for them. As a friend once said to me, “When I ask people if they’ve ever been to Orthros, the usual answer is, ‘Not on purpose.’” Perhaps, then, we can say that liturgical literacy includes the understanding of why somebody might go to Orthros on purpose, and finding it compelling.

To give an example—Greek Orthodox Archdiocese parishes commonly have Sunday-only liturgical schedules, save for the parish’s feast, Holy Week and Easter, and—perhaps—certain other major feasts. Saturday Vespers is generally not served. In some parishes, Matins (Orthros) is increasingly being cut down (usually by skipping the reading of the Six Psalms and/or the Stichera of the Praises) if not eliminated; the “standard cut” of Matins that is usually promulgated for parish use is itself becoming a maximal observance. The question, however, is whether or not these minimal schedules and reductions to what services are offered actually aid engagement or accessibility of worship; certainly if, as Krindatch reports, overall Sunday participation is down, and even those who attend regularly are less engaged, then it seems unlikely that that these cuts cultivate liturgical literacy or health.

What do I mean by liturgical health? The story we tell of the Tsar’s emissaries to Constantinople and the conversion of Russia sets a high standard: our worship of God should be so beautiful and inspiring as to convert world leaders and their people, while also continuously shaping the faithful into the mold of Christ. More concretely, perhaps liturgical health is reflected by services that are beautiful, edifying, and instructive, such that people want to be there.

What are the barriers to liturgical literacy and health? As noted above, liturgical language and opaque service order are commonly brought up. Fortunately, today there is no shortage of good English-language resources for Orthodox worship. If anything, we are in the middle of an Anglophone explosion of high-quality Orthodox liturgical texts and guides to service order, and technology can make these resources accessible to all.

What I might suggest from my own observations as a serious barrier to liturgical health is this: simply put, it is too easy for us to see our services as burdens of which we must be relieved. As we consider how to address issues of liturgical literacy and health, we might do well to frame that as a question. Are our services are, practically speaking, a burden on the faithful that ought to be reduced as much as possible? If so, then that is one thing. If, however, Orthodox liturgy is intended to convert nations and produce disciples, then that is something else, and we need to ask ourselves how to best accomplish that objective. Rather than ask how we can cut Matins down, for example, we might ask how we can build it up, serving it in a way that makes it sufficiently beautiful, edifying, and instructive that people will make a point to be there.

I applaud the Metropolis of Chicago for working publicly to address these liturgical issues. The Krindatch report makes it clear these challenges face all of us, and we all must work towards a worshiping Church that engages its faithful, while also cultivating a deeper understanding of what our liturgical tradition means and shaping us into Christ’s image.

Richard Barrett is Executive Director of AGES Initiatives, which promotes and sustains the liturgical and musical ministries of the Orthodox Church, and Artistic Director of the Saint John of Damascus Society, a sacred arts organization that seeks to engage the general public through excellence in Orthodox sacred music. He is also the co-host of the Ancient Faith Radio podcast A Sacrifice of Praise, which explores the living tradition of Byzantine chant in English.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.