Western Rite Orthodoxy
In the first thousand years of Christianity, Christian communities were formed all across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, all sharing one common Faith and all a part of one unified Church. The liturgical worship of all these communities came from a single source, but the expression of that worship took on regional colorings, differing in languages spoken, musical tonalities, architecture, and poetic tradition. Broadly, liturgical distinctions followed the cultural divide between the Latin West and the Greek East, but these differences were no barrier to full communion and a shared Faith.
Eventually cultural and political (as well as some theological) troubles led to the tragic situation known as the Great Schism, and communion between the East and the West was largely broken. The Orthodox East persisted in the Faith as the Church had preserved it since the time of the Apostles, but the West strayed into innovative territory, altering the universally accepted Creed and altering the understanding of the role of the bishop of Rome, among other things. Despite these doctrinal and ecclesiological departures, the liturgies of the West remained very Orthodox. Even the Church of England amidst the upheaval of the Protestant revolution sought to maintain liturgical continuity with her Orthodox heritage.
This tendency toward conservatism instead of innovation in Western liturgics made it possible for Westerners beginning in the 19th century to be received into the Orthodox Church while being blessed to retain their own cultural identity. Various Orthodox bishops and synods have offered slight alterations to Western liturgies and blessed them for use within the Orthodox Church. Our archdiocese has blessed two liturgies in particular, the Rite of St. Tikhon (an Anglican use liturgy) and the Rite of St. Gregory (a Roman use liturgy). As our church comes from an Anglican heritage we celebrate the Rite of St. Tikhon.
An Explanation of the Liturgy
This is an explanation of the Divine Liturgy of St. Tikhon, and how it may differ from the Eastern Liturgy used in the Orthodox Church.
Comments on the Western Rite
By His Grace Bishop Basil, Courtesy of St. Paul Church, Houston, Texas
My observations begin with my own experience with Western Rite. Some of you who have known me since I’ve been consecrated have heard this confession before. Before I was thoroughly exposed to the Western Rite by attending services, I was very leery. I knew that philosophically and historically it was legitimate. But I couldn’t believe that it could be authentic. And that was because I hadn’t experienced it. So the confession is that you have a convert here.
The second observation is that among the clergy of our Diocese in general—there’s always going to be one or two who can’t be included in the generalization—there does not seem to be an identification process going on. When the clergy are meeting each other I don’t see any separation by rite, i.e. that you’re Western Rite and we’re Eastern Rite.
I saw this clearly at a clergy retreat in the Southwest region. A priest and deacon were ordained at that retreat for a new Western Orthodox parish. That region had been expanding, so many of the clergy had not met each other before. Some had just joined us from another region of the Archdiocese. Others, like the ordinands who had just come in from the Episcopal church, were new to the diocese. By the end of the first day it was like a class reunion. This happened not just by the end of the retreat, but on the first day. Even for the two new men, at the moment they were ordained they were brothers right away. The sense of unity in the Diocese is for the faith, not the rite.
Orthodox who are of the Byzantine Rite know that the way one worships is not a proof of anything. We have been in churches, and some of us have relatives who attend these churches that look like ours and they smell like ours, and if you would go to communion it would probably taste like ours. When you eat the holy bread it tastes like ours. The music sounds like our music. The accents that the people have are the same accents that we have, but it’s not the Church.
So for Orthodox people, the fact that something looks the same and smells the same is not a proof of anything. It is in this sense that our Eastern Rite people are coming to a greater appreciation for the Western Rite. It looks different, the vestments are different, the incense smells different, the words and music are different—and it is the Church.
I remember well the first time I attended a Western Rite service. It was not at one of our churches, but at an Episcopal cathedral. On this first visit, I wept. This was not just because it was aesthetically pleasing; I don’t cry at concerts. Rather, I wept because this beautiful and authentic tradition was in danger of dying out.
You are the inheritors of a precious treasure: the authentic and Orthodox rites that nourished thousands now in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Orthodox Church thanks you for preserving this tradition all these years, so that it could be restored to her through Western Rite Orthodox parishes.
These words truly come from my heart. We know what the men and their wives and children who pastor our Western Rite communities sacrifice. There are economic sacrifices, which can be large and major. We know that. And we appreciate it. But there are other sacrifices that I cannot even imagine having to make. Breaking ties with men that I went to seminary with, and people that I grew up with, with my godparents, aunts and uncles. Our Western Rite people really incarnate what it means to love Christ more than father and mother and brother and sister and lands. Your lives and your ministries in your parishes are homilies to all of us who, by God’s grace, have not had to make those sacrifices.
We admire what you’re doing. It has nothing to do with rite; it has to do with your witness to the truth and those things which you are not only willing to sacrifice, but are in actuality offering up in sacrifice for the truth.
Whenever I attend a Western Rite conference or a small Western Rite parish, someone raises the topic of growth. It may surprise you, but in one sense I don’t care if Western Orthodoxy grows. Let me qualify that. This comment does not have to do just with the Western Rite, although I’m speaking in a Western Rite context now. I am not concerned about growth and numbers at all. Of course growth and numbers are good because they mean that more souls are being saved. In that sense I do hope that all come to the knowledge of the truth. And in that sense I am glad that so many people and parishes have become Western Orthodox.
But the worth and validity of the Western Rite do not depend on growth or numbers. What if only a single parish were to survive by God’s grace? What if somehow all of the seeds that you have planted and have tended for so long shrivel up, like many churches do in many places—Byzantine and Western Rite and Catholic and Lutheran and Methodist? If only one Western Orthodox parish flourishes someplace, then it is to the glory of God. It provides a home for someone of the Orthodox faith to worship God in a liturgical context in which they feel not only comfortable but authentic.
The faith that you hold, combined with the rite in which you practice that faith, is more important than anything else. You gentlemen know that. Indeed, that’s a message that’s been brought home to all Orthodox by you.
We want to thank all of the guests who have been with us this week. We know that it’s been painful for some of you. We hope that there’s been some blessing and some joy and some sense of fellowship among people of a different family. Know that you are in our prayers, that our hearts are open to you. As these men show so well by their lives, we have nothing to offer but the truth. That’s it. There’s no fame, there’s no glory—in this world—that we have to offer. If it comes, it comes as a gift from God. The Orthodox faith is there, it’s for all. But we’ll be picky, to make sure that that’s all that you want, and that’s all that you practice. That’s all, thank you. And God be with you.
Bishop Basil is the Bishop of Wichita and the Midwest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.