The Orthodox Liturgy

The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine RiteThe Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite by Hugh Wybrew

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend and I have been having an enduring, good-natured disagreement on the nature of the Church and Christianity. He sees the history of Christianity as the accumulation of dogmatic and hierarchical barnacles that must be scraped away in order to get back to the pure, original Christianity of Christ and the first apostles. If you look at the history of the institutionalized church, he says, you see accretion, abuse, and general messiness that wasn’t an initial part of what Christ intended. The history of the Church, I think he might say, is a long history of missing the mark.

There’s certainly some truth to this. But if we’re using the analogy of barnacles encrusting something original and true, my answer to this metaphor is that I don’t think Christ came to entrust the apostles and the early Church with a boat. That is, I don’t think His purpose was to create or deliver something whole and entire that was supposed to be passed down, static and unchanging.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christ did not come to deliver the truths of the kingdom of God or that those truths evolve or develop over time. I’m talking about the Church itself. It did not spring whole and mature at Pentecost like Athena from the mind of Zeus. Christ did not deliver a boat that we have to scrape the barnacles off to get back to the original shape. Rather, something was born at Pentecost, something given life by the descent of the Holy Spirit, and that thing is better represented (in my mind) as a thing living and growing in history (like a tree) than a shape or structure that needs to be restored.

This difference comes out most clearly when we talk about the actual practices of the Church. What is it here to do? My friend might say that all the dogmatic and ecclesiastical elaborations— incense and vestments and hierarchy and everything else that goes with liturgical worship— are examples of encrustations that need to be cleared away. It’s obvious these were not what the apostles were doing in the generation or two after Christ’s ascension.

On the other hand though, neither was the Canon of Scripture established, the dual nature of Christ articulated, or the trinitarian dogma formalized in those first generations. These were things the Church did in response to the historical events of the life and resurrection of Christ. They didn’t fall out fully formed and articulated. They were the result of the Church wrestling with what they knew to be true under— we believe— the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Christ didn’t deliver a body of beliefs or a structure of worship; he birthed a Church: a living, organic, growing, evolving thing.

To me, this view is necessary for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in the narrative of history. It’s never made sense for me to see the Church as almost immediately “going wrong,” though proponents of this view often disagree about just when it started to depart from the “pure” faith of the apostles. If, as many do, they point to the reign of Constantine, this is also the same point at which the Nicene Creed is first articulated. So if we want to throw up our hands at the Church getting in bed with Imperialism, we also have to throw up our hands at the first attempts to formalize statements of Christian belief, which came about by the instigation of the Emperor.

I say all this to say that whichever view you take— barnacles or growth— will influence how you interpret the work of Hugh Wybrew in The Orthodox Liturgy: the Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. Either it’s a story of how multiple encrustations of liturgical worship grew up from the first to the fourteenth century to obscure the Church’s early and pure form of worship, or its a story of the development of the liturgy to the rich, vibrant form it has today. Enrichment or encrustation is a matter of perspective and teleology.

Wybrew, former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, offers a comprehensive, in-depth survey of the development of the liturgy in the East— the liturgy celebrated by Orthodox Christians each Sunday around the world— from the the earliest Christian documents until its more or less fully developed form in the fourteenth century. One the one hand, you can’t read this book and then maintain that your Church worships in the same way as the apostles, or in the first generations after them, or even as the Church did in seventh century Byzantium. The liturgy has evolved. On the other, you’ll find surprising consistencies throughout. Wybrew follows both these aspects, change and continuity from the apostolic days until the fourteenth century, in this work.

The study is chronological, drawing on surviving documents and accounts to give a representation of liturgical worship (which, it needs to be pointed out, was not simply one way of worshiping but the structure of Christian worship) in different periods in the Byzantine Empire. Early on there are different forms of the liturgy, all with certain common traits, but by the seventh century the form practiced in Byzantium comes to dominate and become the standard throughout the Eastern Empire. Here the book’s focus is delineated: Wybrew isn’t looking at the rites of other non-Chalcedonian Christianities, nor is he doing a detailed comparison between the liturgy of the Greek East and the Latin West. It’s the evolution of a single species, albeit one that for various reasons became the dominant form of worship still practiced in almost all Orthodox churches around the world.

Wybrew— himself not an Orthodox— does not idealize this process, though he clearly sees the liturgy itself as a meaningful, historically rich, and important aspect of Christian worship. He points out places, for example, where changes over time have obscured the ritual’s original form, where certain important practices (such as Old Testament readings) have been dropped, or where vestigial practices (for instance the intonation of “the doors” before the reading of the Creed) have lost their original meanings. The most problematic trend that Wybrew sees though is the move throughout the centuries to separate the clergy from the laity, making the liturgy clergy-centric to the exclusion of the common people. Aspects of this include the practice of saying certain prayers inaudibly, closing off of the alter from the rest of the church, and infrequent communion by the people. All of these things served to separate the laity from the liturgy itself and make them more and more simply spectators of things they couldn’t fully hear or see or understand. (This perspective though also helps one appreciate how important are recent trends to correct this.)

Another helpful part of this work is that Wybrew doesn’t only provide a historical narrative of how the liturgy developed; he also outlines a history of its interpretation. That is, as the liturgy developed, it became something itself interpreted by theologians, linking the different aspects of the liturgy with scenes from the life of Christ, for instance, or with various representations. Like Scripture itself, the liturgy has an superabundance of meaning. The Great Entrance, for example, may historically be a vestigial practice that grew out of bringing the bread and wine from a separate building where they had been deposited by members of the congregation to the church itself, but today it is seen as also symbolizing the entrance of Christ into the temple, for example, or the beginning of His earthly ministry, or more generally simply the coming of the Word of God into the World.

Which illustrates something important about the Orthodox Liturgy, and something that brings us back to the idea of barnacles and boats. Is something like the Entrance a piece of encrustation that obscures the original practices and life of the Church? If by this question one is asking whether it’s something that was practiced from the very beginning or something vital to an understanding of Christianity, then the answer is probably no. So should it then be abolished? An Orthodox Christian would say no, because it’s a part of the organic growth of the practice of the Church. It has a place and a significance and a meaning. The Holy Spirit was the gift of God to the Church at Pentecost, and that Holy Spirit has been continually creating the Church and its realities in our world since. Things like the Entrance are part of a living heritage of faith.

The liturgy, as Wybrew shows so well in this text, has been a process of growth and development. It has been an evolution. It continues to evolve. It’s alive.

A random and perhaps theologically-flawed analogy: in some ways my view of the Church is like my view of marriage. Sure, I want to remain focused on the faith and the promise of my marriage and at times work to get back the simplicity of love that drew my wife and me together. But marriage isn’t something static; it’s the beginning of a unified life. I don’t look on everything that’s developed over our years together, all the practices and realities of a relationship and family and the traditions that have grown up in our home, as barnacles I need to scrape away to get back to the true purity of our original wedding day. I wouldn’t even know what that means.

A theologian could probably point to flaws in my analogy, and Wybrew’s work is certainly not an argument toward this understanding of the liturgy or the faith itself. Wybrew’s work is simply information: a comprehensive and well-researched outline of how the liturgy has developed and been interpreted over the centuries. How you view that information— as illustrating pointless accumulation of dead ritual or organic growth of living worship— is up to you.

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