Western Rite Orthodoxy in the Global Village

For the past several centuries, most Orthodox churches in the world have been celebrating the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. And as history fades into the background, some Orthodox Christians have started assuming that worldwide liturgical sameness is a desirable (or even necessary) aspect of the Orthodox faith.

Predictably, such people can be quite surprised when they encounter a Western Rite Orthodox congregation. It is a church which is fully in-communion with the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, and all other Orthodox jurisdictions. Yet they celebrate a liturgy which is notably different from the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Most commonly, Western Rite congregations celebrate the liturgy of St. Gregory, or the liturgy of St. Tikhon.

In fact, numerous rites were in use during the first millennium of Orthodoxy. There were multiple Eastern Rites in use, and multiple Western Rites. And if liturgical sameness was not necessary for Orthodox unity in the first 1000 years, how could it be necessary for unity now?

In a critical article, The “Western Rite”: Is It Right for the Orthodox?, Fr. Michael Johnson offers a brief polemic against the modern Western Rite. While he recognizes the wide liturgical diversity that was existent during the first millennium of the Church, he argues that liturgical diversity is not acceptable today:

There was indeed considerable liturgical variation from one place to another in ancient times. The reason for this was the simple fact that the average person never got more than 25 miles from his place of birth and communications from one place to another were slow and difficult. Under such circumstances, liturgical diversity was a natural development and hardly a problem. Today, by contrast, we live in what has been called a “global village” where communications are instant and American families often move several times, from one state to another, while their children are growing up. Everything in our environment argues for greater uniformity in liturgical practice.

For example: what are potential converts to do when they happen to see coverage of an Orthodox service on television, become intrigued, and then are completely confused when they discover that Orthodoxy in their area has an entirely different look? Or, on the other hand, what is a “western rite” Orthodox family to do when they move to another town where the only Orthodox parish is “Byzantine” and possibly ethnic? What will they do when they feel far more at home in a “continuing” Anglican parish that meets down the road?

. . . In summary, the “western rite” can only impede the progress of the Orthodox Church towards reaching a goal of unity within ethnic diversity. Furthermore, a multiplicity of rites is simply inappropriate in a highly mobile society linked by global communications.

Fr. Michael Johnson is correct to note that today’s society is far more of a “global village” than would have been conceivable a thousand years ago. But is that a good reason to reject liturgical diversity?

In response, my first inclination is to note that the “reasons” people give for believing things, while honestly stated, often are not the real reasons at all. Evidence of this can be pointed out when two people come to opposite conclusions, yet offer the same “reason” for doing so.

As an example of this, consider a story I heard about Sir Edmund Hillary’s attitude, contrasted with the attitudes of the indigenous Nepali people. When asked why they didn’t climb Mt. Everest, their consistent reply was, “Nobody has ever climbed it before.” When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, Hillary’s reply was similarly that “Nobody has ever climbed it before.” The locals thought that the lack of precedent was a good reason to avoid doing something. Hillary thought that the lack of precedent was a good reason to do it. Thus, the reason they both gave, really wasn’t the core reason at all. At a deeper level, other reasons were at work. The interesting question to ask would be, “Why did Hillary think it was good to be the first to do something, and why did the local people think it was undesirable to be first?” If we investigated that question, then we would get closer to their true reasons and motivations.

Back to Fr. Michael Johnson. He says that the existence of today’s global village is a reason to avoid liturgical diversity. On the contrary, I believe the existence of the global village is a central reason to embrace liturgical diversity. But globalization cannot truly be a “reason” for two opposing positions. So we need to dig deeper. Here are a few thoughts off the top of my head:

1) Multiple rites help us distinguish between the core of the Orthodox faith and the liturgical wrapping paper that is used to convey it.

Two churches under a single bishop may practice different rites, one Eastern, and one Western. By looking at the differences between the two rites, a person can discern the distinction between the actual core of the Faith, and the “wrapping paper” which presents the Faith in a particular way. It helps a person tell the difference between “Big-T Tradition” and “small-t tradition”. I believe the most effective method for making this distinction is to compare and contrast the Western Rite with the Eastern Rite. In the first millennium, the limited movement of people and information made such a comparison relatively difficult. But today’s global village makes such a comparison easy. I myself serve as a Western Rite deacon in a Western Rite parish, yet on multiple occasions I have served as a deacon in Eastern Rite churches, both Russian and Antiochian. Such capabilities were few and far between in the first millennium.

2) Today’s broad accessibility of information reduces the risks involved with liturgical diversity.

The global internet community gives us an unprecedented amount of easily accessible information at our fingertips. If a person wants to learn more about Western Rite Orthodox or Eastern Rite Orthodoxy, he can research it to his heart’s content, without ever leaving his living room. That means a person living today is better able to find answers to his questions about Orthodoxy, than anyone living in the first millennium. This makes liturgical diversity less of a danger, not more.

3) Historically, the absence of a global village pushed the Church toward schism. If liturgical diversity was nevertheless widespread and desirable then, then it is desirable even moreso now, in the presence of a global village.

I honestly believe the Great Schism was due, in part, to the existence of multiple rites in the absence of a global village. With 1000 miles separating Rome and Constantinople, it was possible for doctrinal drift to occur over centuries, to the point that Cardinal Humbert could actually accuse the Patriarch Michael Cerularius of “omitting” the filioque from the creed and “introducing” leaven into the Eucharist. I do not think that grossly erroneous accusations of that sort (on such a high ecclesiastical level) could take place nearly as easily today. I am not saying that people on the Internet don’t say stupid things; they do! Rather, I believe that the centuries leading up to 1054 saw a doctrinal and liturgical drift between East and West, which wouldn’t have been as likely to happen if instant communication between them had been possible.

4) Fr. Michael Johnson’s critique is just as applicable to the Eastern Rite as it is to the Western Rite.

For people who lack the initiative to use the Internet’s capabilities for reasearch, Fr. Michael Johnson’s concerns are just as applicable to the Eastern Rite as they are to the Western Rite. Suppose a person sees an English-speaking Greek Orthodox service on TV, becomes intrigued with Orthodoxy, and then haplessly visits a local Russian parish where there are no pews and the whole service is in Slavonic. Wouldn’t that be every bit as jarring, if not moreso, than if the same person had stumbled into a Western Rite parish? Even if we do not factor in the language barrier in many parishes, the local differences regarding pews, practices, and music can be bewildering to some. I have relatives who recently became Orthodox, and were members of an OCA parish in Colorado Springs. While in another state, they visited an Eastern Rite parish with their son, and they were bewildered. The music was vastly different from what they were used to, and the church had pews. Afterwards, one of my relatives asked if they had just visited a Western Rite parish! Believe it or not, that is how vastly different two Eastern Rite parishes can appear to be from one another, when viewed through the eyes of a new convert. Thus, eliminating Western Rite congregations from the landscape will not fix that sort of problem.

It is also important to remember that, today, Western Rite parishes are accustomed to being in the minority. Therefore, they are used to having to explain themselves. When an Eastern Rite person visits my congregation, I automatically assume that I will need to offer some explanations for various things, to help orient the new guest appropriately. This mitigates any confusion that might otherwise ensue.

All things considered, I believe the conditions for liturgical diversity are favorable in the global village, even moreso than they were in the first millennium when that global village did not exist.

One danger that does resonate with me is the danger that Western Rite Orthodox children will later move away, find Byzantine churches to be “foreign”, and fall away into Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran worship.

I believe this danger can be mitigated in the following ways:

  • Plant more Western Rite churches! The more widely Western Rite congregations exist, the less viable this danger becomes.
  • Western Rite families should make every effort to familiarize themselves with the Eastern Rite. Visit Eastern Rite churches. It broadens one’s view of the Faith.
  • Eastern Rite families should likewise broaden their horizons by familiarizing themselves with the Western Rite when possible.
  • Catechism, Catechism, Catechism! If our children switch Faiths merely because of similar liturgies, then shame on us for not teaching them well. The same could be said for Eastern Rite children who convert to Catholicism and attend Byzantine Catholic services. Either way, the fault is not with the liturgy; the fault is with the lack of adequate catechism and child-rearing.

At the end of the day, I think the central question should be, “Is the life and faith of Western Rite Orthodox Christians full, rich, authentic, and faithful to Christ?” If the answer is “yes”, then the Holy Spirit is working, and He will bring about good fruit in ways that we haven’t even imagined yet.

And I am not sure this is the sort of question which even can be fully answered via mere hypothetical reasoning. Orthodoxy is famous in its disdain for Western speculative philosophy. Yet, ironically, many Eastern Rite critics seem to use this mindset when they critique the Western Rite. I hear a lot about the speculative results of their academic research. I rarely hear of a critic who made close relationships with Western Rite believers, participated in numerous Western Rite services, made a wholehearted attempt to understand the Western Rite from the inside, and yet still found it lacking. Such critics probably exist somewhere, but they are not the norm.

I do not expect anyone to embrace the Western Rite overnight. I merely point out the existence of many Western Rite saints in our Orthodox heritage, I point out the present acceptance of the Western Rite by many Eastern Rite bishops, and I ask people to give it a fair shot. And as you know, giving anything a fair shot takes time and patience.

Deacon Joseph Gleason
Christ the King Orthodox Church

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
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