Is Liturgical Reform Possible?

I recently visited Kyiv, Ukraine, as a participant in the annual “Assumption Readings” conference hosted by a number of institutions, including the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the “Dukh i litera” publishing house, and the Kyiv Pecherska Lavra Monastery, hosted by Dr. Constantine Sigov. I was also honored to deliver a lecture at the newly-established Open University of St. Sophia, a non-denominational educational institution that offers education to the public in current issues in the Church, hosted by Archpriest Heorhiy Kovalenko. I wrote the lecture in English, and delivered it in Ukrainian, with the assistance of a professional translator. I am posting the English version of the lecture here on Pray Tell, with the hope that it might interest some readers. The lecture draws from my recently-published book, Liturgical Reform After Vatican II (Fortress, 2015). At the end of the lecture, I express hope that Kyiv might become a center of liturgical reform.

Why am I sharing this lecture with Pray Tell?

In class, students are quite concerned about celebrating the office correctly. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying moments of satisfaction from the work we invest in liturgical celebration. It is a God-given gift to enjoy a liturgy of good music, especially when we have cared enough to be attentive and energetic. That said, I think we really need to illuminate larger objectives of liturgical reform: revealing the glory of God and God’s love to the world. God has given this responsibility to the Church, and the rites we celebrate have strong parallels in ordinary daily life. Did I achieve my objective? Let the reader decide.


I begin this lecture with a memory of a comment made to me by a retired Anglican priest during a session of the North American Academy of Liturgy some years ago. He said, “you Orthodox have such a splendid liturgy, so theologically rich. Why are your Churches not full on Sundays with such a powerful liturgical tradition?” This priest’s remark caused me to think carefully about what we mean when we have conversation about “good liturgy” in the Church. I also believe that his remark can be helpful in debating the matter of whether or not the Orthodox Church requires liturgical reform at this time. In this lecture, I am going to attempt to answer the question, “Is Liturgical Reform Needed in the Orthodox Church?” I promise not to conceal my response from you: in my opinion, liturgical reform is needed in the Orthodox Church. First, I need to establish the basis for my argument, and I want to begin with assumptions.





Let us begin with our first assumption: Orthodox Liturgy has never changed and cannot be changed. We are indebted to the work of generations of scholars who have proven that Orthodox liturgy has evolved throughout history. The scholars who excel in the field of comparative liturgy have demonstrated just how much liturgy has changed since Jesus shared a festive meal with his disciples. Consider for a moment the two liturgies used by Orthodoxy today: St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. Gabriele Winkler’s scholarship suggests that the anaphora of St. Basil had several editors, with some material reflecting the Christology of Antioch before the Council of Nicea. Robert Taft noted St. John Chrysostom’s dependence on the anaphora of the twelve apostles in the Antiochian tradition. Generations of scholars beginning with the pre-revolutionary schools in Kiev and St. Petersburg, including Anton Baumstark, and continuing with Juan Mateos, Miguel Arranz, Robert Taft, Stefano Parenti, and the dozens of liturgical historians formed by Taft have produced detailed histories of Orthodox liturgy that illuminate its periods of development. For example, we understand the impact of the Triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm on the decoration and architectural arrangement of Churches, along with developments in the interpretation of the liturgy. We also know that hymnography increased in the Orthodox liturgy when St. Theodore the Studite imported hymnographers from St. Sabas monastery in Palestine, with the mutual influence between the liturgical centers of Jerusalem and Constantinople resulting in the introduction and establishment of new traditions in each center. The fusion of the monastic and cathedral rites in the liturgy of the Hours permanently changed the structure of Vespers and the placement of the prayers recited by the presider. In the middle-Byzantine period, the emergence of a sophisticated proskomedia rite guaranteed the pre-liturgical accomplishment of salvation and the visual depiction of Orthodox ecclesiology on the diskos before the people even began to arrive for the Divine Liturgy.

We can argue that Orthodox liturgy has actually evolved and changed from its very beginning. But we should also recognize that liturgical changes had many causes in history. A frequent causes of liturgical change is pilgrimage: pilgrims participate in an urban liturgy and create a connection with their home city, which becomes the host to new liturgical traditions (this applies in particular to Jerusalem and Constantinople). Theology also inspired liturgical reform: the triumph of icon veneration privileged not only the monastic order of liturgy, but also the particular Christological and ecclesiological themes of the proskomedia rite. Therefore, the assumption that Orthodox liturgy has not changed and cannot be changed is false on both fronts, since historical scholarship has proven otherwise.

Our second assumption comes from the chorus of Orthodox who view Vatican II as the event which inaugurated liturgical reform. This perspective fuses liturgical reform with modernity and the social revolutions of the 1960’s. The perception of Vatican II as the catalyst of radical liturgical reform comes from the actual outcome of the implementation of liturgical reform which was supposed to be based on the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first magisterial document issued by Vatican II. Alexander Schmemann noted the discrepancy between the principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the new liturgical structures and components manifest in the outcome of implementation. Schmemann judged the principles of SC to be coherent with those of the liturgical movement, whereas the actual implementation of Vatican II was flawed, since the method employed was ‘surgery’.

Allow me to add two observations about Vatican II and its contribution to resistance to liturgical reform in the Orthodox Church. First, no reform in Orthodoxy can match up to the stature of Vatican II, which holds the authority of an ecumenical council in Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Second, Orthodoxy does not have the same mechanisms for promulgating and implementing any Church teaching or reform: The Roman Church has explicit definitions and categories of magisterial teachings and its teaching, and clergy are bound to follow the liturgical reforms printed in the Missal and the various rites and rituals. While Orthodoxy tends to inscribe liturgical law in the service books, clergy are known for developing their own local traditions and for omitting some practices while adding others. Furthermore, Orthodoxy does not have the ecclesiological apparatus of Rome. Local Orthodox churches are free to ignore or reject agendas and even conciliar declarations, as we saw with the assembly of Orthodox bishops for the Holy and Great Council in Crete.

The real reason that Orthodox people tend to attribute liturgical reform to Vatican II is based on a distortion of Vatican II’s authority beyond the Roman rite. While some non-Roman churches embraced the same spirit of freedom in implementing liturgical reform, there is no real substance to viewing a reform in Orthodoxy as the result of the influence of Vatican II. In fact, some of the most important liturgical reforms of Orthodox pre-date those of Vatican II, the most substantial being the translation of liturgical texts into the local vernacular from more arcane texts (examples include the translation of liturgies into modern Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and English, among other languages). Thus, when we consider potential rationales for liturgical reform in Orthodoxy, we should dismiss the notion that Vatican II created innovation in Orthodox liturgy, as Vatican II had much more of an impact on Western liturgy.

The third assumption we must address is the question of liturgical reform as a way of introducing a more lay-centered ecclesiology. Some Orthodox who privilege absolute hierarchy in the structure of the Church view liturgical reforms oriented towards the laity as “Trojan horses” for altering hierarchical ecclesiology and replacing it with a more egalitarian, democratic way of worship. Examples of such changes include more modest iconostases in the Church which provide more visual access from the nave to the sanctuary, the recitation of prayers aloud for the people to hear (especially the Eucharistic prayer), and a more deliberate involvement of laity in the liturgy.

One of the most vocal opponents of liturgical reforms in the milieu of the Russian Empire was Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky. Vladyka Antony was firmly opposed to architectural alterations and styles of liturgical celebration that engaged people. He taught that clergy are not actors, and that liturgy is not entertainment, so the best possible way for the people to engage God through the liturgy was for the clergy to concentrate solely on prayer and worship of God, which the people would then learn, observe, and honor. Vladyka Antony also encouraged clergy to work closely with choir directors and revive canonical singing, especially regional chants, which would contribute to liturgical comprehension. In some contemporary liturgical schools, there is a desire to emphasize the distinctions between clergy and people through liturgy by retaining silent prayers and reserving certain liturgical functions to ordained clergy (for example, only ordained men can hold the cloth for communion in many places).

The allegation that liturgical reform was inspired in part by a lay-centered ecclesiology is true. One needs only to identify the consistent theological revival within Orthodoxy of Chrismation as anointing the people into priest, prophet, and king who constitute the holy order of the laity. Paul Evdokimov, Alexander Schmemann, Boris Bobrinskoy, and Dumitru Staniloae are among the Orthodox theologians who attempted to rehabilitate the theology of lay priesthood and locate it within liturgical structures, but no theologian made the case as persuasively as Nicholas Afanasiev. Drawing upon the liturgical sources of late antiquity – especially the controversial Church order known as the Apostolic Tradition – Afanasiev argued that Baptism and Chrismation constituted the ordination of laity to the lay priesthood, with the prayer at the tonsuring referring to God’s outstretched hand a vestige of what must have been the imposition of hands we see in the Acts of the Apostles (and retained by the Roman rite). Generations of clergy who followed Afanasiev’s ecclesiology connected it to the Eucharist, which he imagined as the rite concelebrated by none other than the laity itself. Schmemann’s posthumously published monograph on the Eucharist follows Afanasiev’s Eucharistic ecclesiology, fused with the Eucharistic teachings of Kyprian Kern, and Schmemann formed a generation of clergy who encouraged a Eucharistic revival manifested by the more frequent participation in communion by the laity.

Thus, the assumption that liturgical reform is based on a lay-centered ecclesiology is partially true, but also ironic. It is ironic because all of the schools of liturgical reform honor the significance of forming faithful laity and place the burden of responsibility for teaching the liturgy well on the clergy. Most modern schools of Orthodox liturgical reform are actually quite conservative and restrained, focusing on gently forming laity through catechesis on the received liturgical tradition rather than surgery. This approach is exemplified by the liturgical reforms of Schmemann, the Church of Greece, and even the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Only New Skete Monastery follows a more radical, surgical approach to reform, at least in the models I analyzed in my study.

Thus, liturgical reform is linked clearly to a lay-centered ecclesiology, but this is the outcome of the common efforts of select theologians devoted to the neo-patristic revival, not a political egalitarian agenda. (Note: one school of liturgical reform was politically motivated, and this was the one enacted by none other than the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church of 1921 under the leadership of Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkiwsky).

Our fourth and final assumption argues against liturgical reform since it violates the rule of organic development. Opponents of liturgical reform argue that its proponents find attractive liturgical components and structures in Byzantine history and wish to revive them today, which would be instances of antiquarianism. One of the most vicious rebuttals of liturgical reform can be found in the work of Father Michael Pomazansky, a well-known dogmatic theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.  Pomazansky critiqued Schmemann’s doctoral dissertation (Introduction to Liturgical Theology) and dismissed Schmemann’s conclusions because of his employment of Western methods of assessment and historical critique. Pomazansky stated that the liturgy is an organic development improving over time with age, and that the problem with the Typikon was not its age or content, but the absence of discipline among Orthodox clergy in attempting to honor the Typikon. Pomazansky suggested that altering liturgy in any way would amount to disrupting its natural growth and produce only harmful outcomes. Instead, he called for greater love for the received tradition among the clergy, and for their introduction of the fullness of the liturgical tradition to the youth of the Church as soon as possible.

Pomazansky’s argument is parallel to that of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), who is a well-known proponent of reforming the Roman liturgical reform. I note this assumption exemplified by Pomazansky as a dismissal of liturgical reform one encounters among Orthodox people. I emphasize two outcomes from this final assumption: first, the reservations expressed about antiquarianism in liturgical reform are noteworthy. The ultimate point of liturgy is to worship God and deepen communion with God, not to re-create historical masterpieces of liturgy. Second, it is almost impossible to reconcile the notion of liturgy as an organic development with the method of historical criticism. Even the most conservative liturgical theologians of the twentieth century recognized that society and culture did not evolve in organic rhythm with liturgy. Society and culture developed more rapidly than liturgy, and the problem caused by this fact is that the sights, sounds and symbols of liturgy became more remote from one’s daily experience, leading to pastoral explanations of liturgy as “mysterious” to explain the lay person’s difficulty in understanding liturgical symbols. Thus, one cannot simply dismiss liturgical reform on the basis of interrupting organic development, because development can require change.

Now that we have reviewed our assumptions, we can return to the larger question of this lecture: is liturgical reform necessary in Orthodoxy? I propose we respond with “yes,” “in order to capacitate the people of God to deepen their communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to be God’s servants for the life of the world.” I will now turn to examples of liturgical reform and reveal how our approaches to assessing them were flawed, and will propose both a program for liturgical reform and a better method of assessing it.

In order to present an argument in favor of liturgical reform, allow me to state the reasons why some of the Orthodox proponents of reform proposed programs for it.


Theologians in the Church of Greece observed that Church life had remained frozen in pre-modernity. Two instances of serious problems in the life of the Church were liturgical language and the inability of the people to comprehend symbols. Among the earliest proposals for liturgical reform were translations of the liturgy into the local vernacular. The Moscow council of 1917-1918 had considered such proposals, which included translating liturgical texts and proclaiming the word of God in Russian and Ukrainian. The Church of Greece authorized the reading of the word of God in modern Greek in the parishes of Athens in 2004, but the initial attempt to implement this reform failed. In North America, translations of liturgical texts into English appeared in 1922 under the patronage of Isabel Hapgood and with the blessing of Patriarch Tikhon. An example of the use of a symbol was the Greek synod’s recommendation that the bishop or priest wear bright white vestments for the reading of the eothina Gospel at Orthros (the cycle of eleven resurrection Gospel readings appointed for each Sunday), a symbol of the announcement of the joy of Christ’s resurrection. The proposals calling for liturgical updates were minor revisions to the received tradition of the liturgy: proponents hoped that comprehension would increase participation among the people and enhance their capacity for transformation into servants of God.


By far the most common rationale for liturgical reform is the desire to Christianize the people. Gregory Freeze reported that the eparchy of Vladimir instructed clergy to arrange for ornate and elaborate liturgical celebrations and processions in public spaces in 1913, in an attempt to engage the people and demonstrate the beauty of Orthodoxy to them. The Eucharistic revival attributed to Schmemann is rooted in the active participation of the people in the liturgy (Schmemann often referred to such active participation as ‘corporate worship’ in English, a reference to the worship of the entire body of Christ, and not just the clergy). The theological foundation for this desired outcome was the notion that liturgical participation would shape ordinary Christian people into God’s servants, who would then have the capacity to transform and transfigure the life of the world. For Schmemann, minor adjustments to the received tradition would suffice, the most significant being frequent reception of Holy Communion and full participation in the liturgy. The practical dimension of Schmemann’s theological synthesis confronted him, as evidenced by his “Transformation of the Parish” lecture delivered in Boston in 1971. Schmemann addressed problems that disrupt parish life, including strained relations between clergy and laity, and referred to the Eucharist itself as the only solution. Schmemann encouraged clergy and parishes to practice the kind of community life depicted by the ritual performance of the Eucharistic liturgy: his words suggest that he was consistent in imploring all to strive for the unity of the Eucharist, yet he was frustrated by the failures of clergy in particular to emphasize the unity of communion, as clergy tended to assume stereotypical roles of authority within the parish. Schmemann also struggled with the tendency of clergy to drift towards clericalism and the desire to recreate a type of Byzantium in the local parish, which was its own peculiar version of antiquarianism. In Schmemann’s reflections on the Eucharistic revival, we find the tension between a Eucharistic ecclesiology that emphasizes the priesthood of the laity and a clericalism which attempts to distinguish the clergy from the laity. Schmemann’s Eucharistic revival was essentially an implementation of Afanasiev’s theology, and included contributions from theologians like Kern. This ecclesiological model viewed the ordained priesthood and compatible with the laity’s: the ritual performance of co-offering the Eucharist was to shape the life of the parish as well. Schemmann’s laments about the tendency to detach the clergy from the laity reveals the resistance with which this particular liturgical reform was met.

I have focused on Schmemann’s Eucharistic revival here because it is perhaps the best-known attempt at a liturgical reform within Orthodoxy. But even more conservative approaches than Schmemann’s admitted the need to liberate the laity from passive observers to liturgical concelebrants, as evidenced by the program for liturgical reform in the Church of Greece. The Greek Church’s proposed reform encouraged the people to receive communion frequently, demanded that the clergy serve liturgy for communal participation – and not to express fancy personal liturgical aesthetics – and envisioned a generation of clergy which was immersed in biblical study and excelled in preaching. The Greek program did not remove the distinction between the clergy and laity, but sought to raise a generation of clergy able to catechize the laity, so that clergy and laity would together come to love the liturgy, attend it faithfully, and engage it fully. We even see this sentiment in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which cultivated the principles of canonical chant music of the Moscow Synodal Choir to enhance the people’s comprehension of the liturgy and even encourage congregational singing. Thus, a liturgical reform centered on promoting a lay-centered ecclesiology was manifest in all of the reform schools of my study, which differed in terms of their visions for clergy-laity relations and liturgical components requiring reform. I would like to emphasize that all of these reforms were generally conservative: they were aimed towards illuminating the riches of the received liturgical tradition, and assumed that improved liturgical formation of clergy would make them into better liturgical celebrants and teachers. The Benedictine scholar Thomas Pott describes this approach to liturgical reform as appealing to the people to convert to the liturgy.


The outlier in Orthodox liturgical reform is the one taken up by New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, New York. New Skete was founded in 1966 by Franciscan friars who observed the Byzantine liturgical tradition. The friars used the received liturgical tradition until they discovered that the full cycle of services was incompatible with the requirements of their work and monastic environment. Encouraged by the spirit of Vatican II and the historical foundations established by liturgical ressourcement (especially the work of the Jesuit scholar Juan Mateos), New Skete adopted a different approach to liturgical reform by creating a new order suitable for the monastery’s work. Relying on the scholarship of Mateos, the monks of New Skete created a new order for liturgy based on cathedral elements of liturgy from Constantinople and Jerusalem that had fallen into disuse during the Studite-Sabaitic synthesis in the ninth through the 13th centuries. New Skete adopted a surgical approach to liturgical reform, reconstructing the order of liturgy and removing elements that had lost their symbolic significance.

Perhaps no reform is more substantial than the one for Holy Week. We all know that the services of Holy Week are long – they are actually also quite repetitive. Many of the Gospel readings are repeated, especially those appointed for Holy Friday – long excerpts from the Twelve Gospels of Orthros occur again at the Royal Hours and Vespers. Furthermore, the services present Judas as the ultimate antagonist: he is wicked, devious, and he shares the spotlight with Jesus throughout the hymnography of the week’s services.

In their assessment of the Holy Week offices, the monks of New Skete argued that the lectionary needed to be revised to remove the repetition from the appointed readings. They also removed most of the hymns on Judas, claiming that the hymns distracted the assembly from the primary figure of the week’s journey, Christ, who was making his way to the cross and the Father. The monks also forsook the celebration of the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil appointed for Holy Saturday, as this was essentially the first cathedral Paschal service designed for the newly-baptized Christians to join the assembly and hear the joyous announcement of the resurrection for the first time. The monks’ rationale for the removal of these items and their restructuring was that the legacy of Byzantine liturgy had been entrusted to Orthodox monks, who had failed in their responsibility to be good stewards of liturgical tradition. New Skete argued that monasteries had simply permitted liturgical material to collect and become enlarged without a critical assessment of the viability of the material in the received tradition. New Skete observed that Orthodox monks had failed to purify the liturgy by removing components that had essentially died or become irrelevant. While New Skete appears to have implemented radical liturgical reform, perhaps their boldest achievement was to assume responsibility for liturgical tradition by purifying it.

The Monks of New Skete were particularly sensitive to the inability of the people to access the liturgy and its traditions.  Their solution to this problem was to remove confusing symbols from the liturgy, especially if we consider liturgical components themselves to be symbols. Thus, the entrances of the Divine Liturgy which were reduced to the clergy leaving the sanctuary only to return to it in a modest semi-circle were reformed and became real entrances of the whole assembly into the Church, with the people gathering outside of the church at the fountain to sing antiphons, the presider reciting the entrance prayer at the door of the Church with the entire Church proceeding inside together, singing the introit. This kind of restoration did not merely include the laity in actions typically performed by the clergy, but was an attempt to restore the integrity of the original symbol by making its function practical in the new order of liturgy. Thus, New Skete adopted the boldest approach to removing liturgical fossilization from the liturgy  by removing hymns and offices and revising structures so that the laity could understand the purpose of ritual performances (such as entrances and processions).


We have seen that many of the liturgical reforms had noble purposes: to strengthen lay participation in the liturgy, to remove confusion, to deepen communion with God. Now we return to the story I began with: in response to the Anglican priest, can I make the case that the liturgical reforms implemented by Orthodoxy has produced real communities of saints who are busy doing God’s work by transforming the world?

The proponents of liturgical reform tend to argue that the reforms have been successful. For example, in North American Orthodoxy, people tend to receive communion quite frequently. The prayers are read aloud in many parishes, and the Orthodox academies are working steadily to improve the quality of preaching. We could also add that there has been a significant renaissance in liturgical singing, and in many places, the people join the choir in singing the liturgy.

But are these changes worthy of celebration? It would be difficult to argue that liturgical reform has reformed parish life so that parishes produce people of unparalleled moral quality, who are icons of the Gospel. There are two common ways of assessing liturgical reform in Orthodoxy: the first assessment observes the changes manifest in ritual forms and components, such as increases in the frequency of receiving Holy Communion. The second approach is to link liturgical reform to the health of Church life in general. What kind of people is the Church producing, and how is the liturgy shaping their lives? Do Orthodox Christians make significant contributions to society? Does the Church raise global leaders whose vision for the world reflect the teachings of the Gospel and the kingdom of God? Do the people of the Church conduct themselves in ways consistent with the larger aspirations of liturgical reform? So, for example, if we emphasize the Gospel commandment to forgive one another’s sins and to exchange the kiss of peace, and make that ritual moment particularly important in liturgical celebration, can we claim that we are becoming people who habitually forgive the sins of others? Can we claim that we seek to end divisions in our homes, neighborhoods, cities, and countries, and commit ourselves to making peace?

I offer these questions as potential illustrations of the criteria we might employ to assess the effectiveness of liturgical reform. And more importantly, we might return to a more sustained discussion about the aspirations of liturgical reform and what one might call “good liturgy.” How do we imagine a “successful” liturgical reform: is it the vision of multitudes of people coming forward to receiving Holy Communion? Is it the production of husbands and wives who truly love one another in faithfulness and martyrdom, dying to themselves, and raising children who love God? If we are holding liturgy to the highest possible standard, then we must not limit our understanding of good liturgy to the apparent perfection of ritual performance. The manifestation of good liturgy is the emergence of transformed communities who love God, are thankful for their life in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and who love and attend to their neighbors. In other words, the love for God, thanksgiving, and love for one’s brother and sister must be inscribed upon and communicated by the very liturgical rites we engage.

In my book, I suggested that we will know liturgical reform has been effective when our Orthodox people are Paschal in every aspect of their lives, when our married couples embrace the way of the cross and love one another despite the temptation to find someone new after a few years, when families go home from Church singing the psalmody they just heard during the Divine Liturgy, when parishes do not have to debate offering alms to the poor and perform acts of mercy because of their love for God and humanity. It is not sufficient to claim that liturgical reform has been effective when we say prayers aloud or celebrate the large number of communicants in the Church. Ritual performance is rehearsal for daily life: Holy Communion in Church must be translated into Holy Communion in our homes, neighborhoods, and countries. The sign of peace at Church must shape our habit to seek peace in daily life. For some reason, we are failing to take the next step and apply love for God and neighbor, thanksgiving for Christ’s death and the cross and resurrection, to our daily lives.

One of the most important tasks of contemporary Orthodox liturgical reform is to attempt to identify why the Church fails to take that final step of being God’s body in every aspect of life. My final words are an attempt to outline a program for this next crucial phase of Orthodox liturgical reform.

Step 1: Recognize the Problem of Liturgiolatry (Making Liturgy into an Idol)

The first issue is one I have been implying throughout this presentation. In assessing liturgical reform, we cannot see beyond our liturgical participation. If we are pleased with our aesthetical liturgical celebration and the appearance of participation by the laity, we believe that the outcome has been achieved.

In the twentieth century, liturgical theologians liberated liturgy from subservience to systematic theology, thanks in part to Schmemann’s rehabilitation of lex orandi est lex credendi. Schmemann established that liturgy is the source and epiphany of the kingdom of God. But we have never truly addressed a parallel issue on the other side of the liturgical spectrum, that our assessment of liturgy ends when we congratulate ourselves for celebrating well. Liturgy is the gate connecting our daily life with God’s life, and so we must account for all of our activities when we assess our liturgies. Many parishes have the appearance of being liturgically healthy: they have nice icons, celebrate liturgy with dignity, and are known for good music. Some of the same parishes have clergy that ignore their people or exploit the ambon for their own political agendas, or have parishioners who are indifferent to the world and contribute to division in the parish and in society. Confining our evaluation of liturgy to the liturgical event alone is to make an idol of the liturgical event. We need to broaden our perspective to see the life God has called us to live after the liturgical event. If there is no connection between the liturgical event and the lives we lead before and after the liturgy, we are committing liturgiolatry and need to see how liturgy shapes the entirety of our lives.

Step 2: Consider Symbols and Their Interpretation

I believe that the most formidable obstacle to effective liturgical reform is the inability of our generation of believers to gain access to the living God on account of the Byzantine saturation of our liturgical symbols. When we gather for and celebrate the liturgy, we assume that people understand the purpose of our entrances and the sophisticated words we use for liturgy. Historians and theologians refer to the mystagogical reflections on the liturgy produced from late antiquity through the middle Byzantine period. We continue to refer to the liturgy as retracing the steps of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For example, when we perform the Great Entrance, the altar becomes the grave of our Lord; at Holy Communion, the pouring of the boiling hot water (zeon) into the cup signifies the descent of the Holy Spirit. But the liturgical texts and rites are likewise inscribed by imperial triumphalism and depict the Church as an arena in which the Church celebrates a glorious victory over the devil. This model translates too easily into an interpretation of world events where the Orthodox Church is a spiritual empire at war with the non-Orthodox Christians and peoples of the world. Even Christ’s death on the cross becomes an occasion to condemn those who put him to death, when it should be our opportunity to practice dying to our sins and claiming the new life Christ has given to us in the liturgy.

Symbols should emerge in local churches in dialogue with culture, language, idioms of communication, and the rhythms of daily life. Deliberations on the creation of symbols in the Church and their interpretation are subject to simply removing all symbols from the Church in a variant of postmodern iconoclasm and the embracing of minimalism, or returning to the classical periods of iconography in the history of Orthodoxy. In American Orthodoxy, most of the Greek Orthodox Church has implemented a program of Byzantinism in iconography and music. While some good has resulted from the retrieval of aesthetical traditions, it would have been ideal to consider how tradition can meet contemporary postmodern culture in shapes, styles, and words people can comprehend. As Orthodoxy slowly enters the present age of complete religious freedom, in which denominational loyalty is in decline, pastors can no longer afford to ignore the people’s difficulty in comprehending liturgical symbols. Orthodoxy confesses an incarnate Christ who dwelt among us and spoke to us in plain words. The primary theological principle for all symbols and rites should be the revelation of the living Christ who continues to speak to us today.

Step 3: Formation of Pastors

The four Orthodox models of liturgical reform I studied shared one priority: the glaring need for clergy who are able to teach and lead liturgy. This imperative does not require clergy to teach the meaning of the Divine Liturgy during its time of celebration. What is needed are clergy who celebrate in such a way that they lead the people into the bridal chamber of Christ and walk together with them to receive God’s gift with boldness and courage. Humility is required for clergy to preside in such a way that the people will encounter the living God without the interference of the priest. I propose that all eparchies should establish post-seminary programs of liturgical formation for clergy to improve their liturgical skills (especially in presiding), but what is needed more than anything else is a new spirit of asceticism among the clergy who need to die to their own attachments to particular liturgical styles and instead lead the people as they are to the living God.

Step 4: Inaugurating an Era of the Word of God

If the twentieth century ushered in an era of Eucharistic revival in Orthodoxy, many faithful Orthodox Christians are deprived of the riches of the proclamation of the word of God. The best Greek patristic theology is founded upon the liturgical proclamation of God’s word – the very best contemporary hymns of the Byzantine rite echo the homilies of the fathers of late antiquity.

Language and communication have always been important, but words are more valuable today than ever. The apostles and the people wondered over and over again at Jesus’ words. Our Orthodox lectionary has been ignored for hundreds of years, and biblical illiteracy is increasing. The time has arrived for a renaissance of the word of God throughout Orthodoxy so that the Holy Spirit would descend upon the people when they hear the word of God, both in the public reading of Scripture, but also in the presider’s homily. The best way for the Orthodox Church to enhance the Eucharistic revival of the twentieth century is to make proclaiming and preaching the word of God its most important objective. At the end of the liturgy we sing the Troparion, “let our mouths be filled with your praise, o Lord!’ Have we considered that hearing the word of God and letting it take root in our hearts is just as much of a divine mystery we have received as a gift from God as the body and blood of our Lord? Surely, Orthodoxy has many biblical experts who can work with liturgical scholars to revise the lectionary so that the people will be exposed to more of the Holy Scriptures. We can also begin the process of emphasizing good liturgical preaching in post-seminary clerical formation. But all that is truly needed to revive the word of God in parish life is for pastors to love the Gospels and the Scriptures. In an age where words are more powerful than ever, Jesus Christ attempts to speak to his people and invite them into communion with the living God. A renewed emphasis on the word of God will bring the people one step closer to the communion of the Holy Spirit.

In this lecture, I have reviewed many of the assumptions concerning liturgical reform. I have attempted to address common myths about liturgical reform by clarifying the place of Vatican II in Orthodox liturgical reform and reviewing some of the models of liturgical reform within Orthodoxy in the twentieth century. I have also presented four suggestions for rejuvenating liturgical reform. I have not addressed all of the issues: I assume that many people would like to hear more about the creation of a parish Typikon, the question of creating new liturgical texts and rites, and the revision of liturgical rites. I have addressed dozens of these issue in my book, Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy, in English. To me, a sign of a healthy Orthodox Church would be open dialogue on these questions without fear of canonical interdiction.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate the most important aspect of liturgical reform expressed by Father Schmemann of blessed memory. Schmemann insisted that liturgical reform requires a rationale. The only legitimate rationale for liturgical reform is to find the best way to lead people into communion with the living God, to receive his nourishment and be his body in service for the life of the world. Our people do not need Byzantinism to receive the gift of God’s son: they need the beauty of his word and the glory of his cross, which are granted by the lifegiving Spirit. The entire world confronts the challenges of geopolitical conflict, poverty, addiction, corruption, violence, and isolation. Ukraine is one of a handful of countries suffering mightily from these afflictions. Ukraine needs God’s body, his Orthodox Church, to lead the nation in confronting these problems by showing society that love for God and all people yields a pearl more lifegiving than any earthly precious stone: the gift of Jesus Christ and eternal life in God. Given Ukraine’s longstanding tradition of confronting geopolitical trouble by engaging the Orthodox intellectual tradition, I can think of no place more ripe for a liturgical reform that breathes divine life into both the Church and society than the Kyivan Church. I hope your pastors and theologians will join a conversation on how we can celebrate liturgy in such a way that our people will come to know and love God, and know and love his people and his world. Thank you for your attention!




10 responses to “Is Liturgical Reform Possible?”

  1. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    I would think a submission of this length and complexity is more suitable for Worship.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Jack Feehily:
      I disagree. We publish a variety of things here, and not everyone likes or needs to read each type of post.

    2. Nicholas Denysenko Avatar
      Nicholas Denysenko

      @Jack Feehily:
      Sorry for the length – yes, it is a bit unusual. But I’d have compromised some of the context by abbreviating it. I wanted to touch on the connection between liturgy and everyday life: everyday life being what we might call, “the liturgy after the liturgy” (not coffee hour)!

  2. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    New Skete offers its version of an Orthodox lectionary online.

    I know that the Old Ritualists retain patristic lections for Mattins which have virtually disappeared from the regular Orthodox churches but I’m not sure if their scriptural lectionary is more abundant than that of the official Orthodox.

    1. Nicholas Denysenko Avatar
      Nicholas Denysenko

      @Brian Duffy:
      I discuss New Skete’s wonderful lectionary in my book.

    2. Brian Palmer Avatar
      Brian Palmer

      @Brian Duffy:
      ” You have certainly given me, as a Catholic, much to think about.”

      Wow, me too.

  3. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    Nicholas, I want to thank you for sharing with us this very helpful, educative, courageous, and indeed passionate talk. I learned so much by reading it. Your overview of the different approaches to reform and objections to reform was precise and clear. But most of all, I found your witness to the purposes and principles of reform illuminating and invigorating.

    I can and do say a lively “Amen” to statements such as this one:

    “The manifestation of good liturgy is the emergence of transformed communities who love God, are thankful for their life in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and who love and attend to their neighbors. In other words, the love for God, thanksgiving, and love for one’s brother and sister must be inscribed upon and communicated by the very liturgical rites we engage.”

    How I wish these words could be inscribed over the mirror in every sacristy — in all the churches!

    And this insight, related to it, struck me as no less than prophetic:

    “Confining our evaluation of liturgy to the liturgical event alone is to make an idol of the liturgical event. We need to broaden our perspective to see the life God has called us to live after the liturgical event. If there is no connection between the liturgical event and the lives we lead before and after the liturgy, we are committing liturgiolatry and need to see how liturgy shapes the entirety of our lives.”

    I hope your audience responded well to the talk. You have certainly given me, as a Catholic, much to think about.

    1. Nicholas Denysenko Avatar
      Nicholas Denysenko

      @Rita Ferrone:
      Rita, thank you for your kind comments. I am happy to say that the lecture was well-received by the Kyivans who attended. A few folks are wondering whether a reform is realistic, and that is a fair question. But how will we achieve the objectives of reform if we are afraid to speak publicly?

    2. william dehaas Avatar

      @Rita Ferrone:
      Agree with Rita ++++ Thank you for your time, efforts, and study.

  4. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    My question for the author: could liturgical reform be liturgical Renaissance–not just reclaiming some alleged glory day of Byzantine liturgy, but going back to the institution as inaugurated by Jesus and practiced by the earliest Christians: a Vesperal liturgy in the home in the context of an evening meal? Would not this serve to knit our parishes together in greater love, connection to the apostolic tradition, and holiness? Can we go wrong doing what they did? Would this ever be possible in Orthodoxy? Has it been attempted?

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