Saturday, May 1, 2010

The future of the Western Rite in the Orthodox Church

A week ago I had a brief conversation with a friend of mine who is a catechumen at our sister church here in Omaha, St. Vincent of Lerins. St. Vincent is a Western Rite Parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Before, I get into what the conversation was about, let me give some background on the Western Rite.

Currently, only two jurisdictions in this country have Western Rite Vicariates, the Antiochians and the ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia). Most Orthodox Christians worship according to the Eastern Rite, which revolves around the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Western Rite Orthodox Christians use either the Rite of St. Gregory the Great or that of St. Tikhon. The latter was an emended form of the Rites used in Anglican Churches. St. Tikhon saw nothing unorthodox about it but made some changes, most especially in the canon, and it was pronounced Orthodox. Thus, many Roman Catholics as well as High Church Episcopalians and Lutherans will find that the Order of Service for a Western Rite Orthodox Church is very familiar to their own rites.

The Western Rite is not without controversy. As I said, only two jurisdictions here in America (and probably for the world) offer the Western Rite. There are many, both cradle and convert, both layperson and clergy who feel that the Eastern Rite is the only Rite for Orthodox Christians. Some say that Western Rite Orthodox Christians have yet to embrace the fullness of the faith and the church. I shake my head at such accusations. We must remember that there were a number of "competing" liturgies even in the Byzantine Empire. It was not until the 8th century where the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was made the "usual" practice thus sidelining the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, which is now used only about 10 times a year. We must also remember that the West (as a whole) was Orthodox until about the 10th century when diversions from the true faith such as the filioque, azymes, different baptismal practices and the doctrine of papal infallibility would cause schism later. Nonetheless, the Western Rite, developed long before these innovations came into practice is Orthodox, in its theology, in its prayer. Granted, those innovations I mentioned crept into the prayers but those, for a modern Western Rite, can be easily excised.

That is not to say that I am all keen on the Western Rite. For instance, some ceremonies and feasts have been retained that lead not only to split between east and west, but also to the Reformation. The feasts of the sacred heart, the immaculate conception, corpus Christi have been retained and these are problematic.

Now, back to my conversation. My friend is an Orthodox catechumen. He was enrolled as a catechumen at St. Vincent of Lerins. Catechumens are required to go through an exhaustive preparation before they are received into the Church. This is done for their benefit. It is all the craze now to go "church shopping." The catechumenate exists so as to eliminate any doubt that this is just a passing thought in his/her mind. Anyway, as preparation, catechumens go to classes, attend the Liturgies and as many other services as they can to accustom themselves to the lex orandi, lex credendi of Holy Orthodoxy, and also read a lot of books. These catechumens are reading Bishop HILARION's (now Metropolitan) book "The Mystery of Faith." It is an excellent book, but like all books on the faith of the Eastern Orthodox, it relates the faith through the Liturgy of the Eastern Rite exclusively.

The Liturgy is our great teacher. It is not something we dispense with simply to go with something more hip and more "relevant." It is our great teacher and has been for a long time. The problem is that with all the books out there about the Eastern Orthodox faith, they all reference our faith through the lens of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or Basil the Great. This poses a problem for our Western Rite catechumens who, desiring to learn the faith and process it and make it part of thesmeslves, cannot make connections between what they read and what they experience in the Western Rite.

Thus, there is a great need for books to be published on how the Orthodox faith can be grasped and apprehended through the Western Rite just as through the Eastern Rite. Sadly, nothing as yet exists. And, if there is no remedy, I fear that the Western Rite for Orthodox may disappear altogether. And that should not be allowed to happen.

As for my friend, he has decided to complete his catechumenate at St. Mary which uses the Eastern Rite. He was originally to be chrismated at Pentecost, a few short weeks away, but now his chrismation and his entry into the church will be delayed for a little longer. He has decided upon this course because, whether rightly or wrongly, he experiences the fullness of the faith only in the Eastern Rite. The lack of adequate reading materials to help him and others complete his journey in the Western Rite needs to be given great attention.

At the same time, I feel that this is not an isolated case. Western Rite parishes are very hard to start up and maintain here in America. And many Western Rite parishioners have come over to Eastern Rite churches because they feel that the Eastern Rite is, to them, "more Orthodox," whatever that may mean. It would be a great shame and sadness if the Western Rite were to disappear. I hope someone would take it upon himself or herself to write about how the Western Rite Liturgy is just as Orthodox as the Eastern Rite; to demonstrate how the Western Rite reflects and practices Orthodox spirituality through its Liturgy. That needs to happen sooner rather than later.

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