The Old Rite - part one

I have recently developed something of an interest in the Old Rite. I find it absolutely fascinating, although I do have mixed feelings about it. However, all in all, I am delighted that it is an ongoing part of the life of the Church.

Some of you will be aware of the differences today between Russian and Greek practice. Russian churches tend to do the three antiphons in full while Greek churches usually replace them as standard practice with the much shorter form of a few verses from the psalms interspersed between responses - a form that is properly only used on feasts of the Lord. Russian churches do the epiklesis in full while Greek churches do a much, much shorter form, (the longer form did appear in some earlier Greek manuscripts but has fallen into disuse there now). Ask Greek clergy about the Litany for the Departed at the Liturgy and you will be greeted with blank stares. The Litany for the Catechumens is often omitted, as indeed are most of the litanies between the Gospel and the Cherubikon. When the Augmented Litany is used in Greek churches, it is seldom augmented - the reason it is called the augmented litany is that this is when special petitions are supposed to be inserted for local concerns: the sick and departed of the parish, travellers, expectant mothers, the newly-baptised, and so forth - these are not added in most Greek churches. I have also neither heard Psalm 33 chanted in its place in Greek tradition churches nor have I seen it in the Greek service books.

These omissions and abbreviations in the Greek church, (and other churches that follow the Greek tradition), are much maligned by the Russian clergy - and rightly so, in my opinion. How can we stand there during the cherubikon, singing, 'let us now lay aside all earthly cares, for we are about to receive the King of all', while simultaneously omitting half of the Liturgy so that we can get home to the Sunday roast or the football match on the telly? It obviously makes sense to some people but I am afraid that my little mind simply cannot comprehend it. The Saints before us entered as fully as they could into the prayer of the Church and it seems to have done them no harm.

But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them.

2 Timothy 3:14

Many - though not all - of these differences are due to a new Greek typikon which was introduced in 1888. It was the revision work of one man rather than a conciliar effort of liturgical scholars and hierarchs of the Church. Yet, it was blessed for use by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and is today most widespread in the Greek parochial (though not the monastic) tradition, although it is still objected to by many Greek clergy, including Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, who has described the changes as "ill-advised" and the new typikon as being "flawed in many places". I should emphasise at this point that my criticism is not of Greek-tradition clergy. They are simply being obedient to the customs that they have been taught and I am sure serve these forms of the services faithfully. It is the customs themselves to which I am objecting.

So why is there such distaste among the Russian-tradition churches for these Greek-tradition practices? The obvious answer is that many of them reflect a will to shorten the services as much as possible. However, I wonder whether there may be something more to it than this. You see, this has happened before, and I suspect that, having before their eyes to this day the lasting effects of the conflict that ensued, the Russian Orthodox people see it as much more prudent to remain faithful to the tradition that they have received, rather than risking stirring up further and unnecessary trouble.

If we were to travel back in time to the 17th century, what we would find would be a situation where the Greek church had simplified and abbreviated its services over time, ridding them of many accretions that clouded the meaning of the services but also of many beneficial elements that aided the participation of the faithful in the Mysteries of the Church. Patriarch Nikon of the Russian church decided that it was time that Russian practice caught up with these changes in Greece. These changes were implemented, and the result is largely what most Orthodox people today are accustomed to experiencing in the churches and regular prayer life - the New Rite. However, these changes did not slip through without considerable oppositon. Some may see a parallel to what happened in the last century in the Roman Catholic church, which would perhaps have done well to learn from the past mistakes of its Orthodox friends. To cut a long story short, those who opposed the changes were anathematised for their disobedience, and have been treated with alternate sympathy and persecution in the intervening centuries. Today, those who remain faithful to the old rite are called Old Ritualists. Sometimes they are referred to as Old Believers but this has often been used as a pejorative term and many consider it offensive.

There has been a significant amount of hurt caused over the years but the anathemas against the Old Ritualists were finally lifted in the 1970s. A number of Old Rite people have returned to the main Russian church and have been permitted to continue using their earlier forms of prayer and worship, and I pray that the poor treatment that they have received in the past may remain a thing of the past, and that this reunification will continue over the coming years.

Bishop Daniel of Erie, ROCOR Old Rite bishop

In order to better facilitate this, in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, there has been consecrated an Old Rite bishop to care for an extra-territorial diocese of Old Rite communities, wherever they may be, and one of the most recent episcopal consecrations in our church, that of Bishop John of Caracas, was performed according to the Old Rite.

One of the most prominent Old Rite parishes to have returned to the mainstreasm Russian church is the Church of the Nativity, on whose website there is a fair amount of information about Old Rite practices. I hope to post a little about these practices myself in the near future but, in the meanwhile, please explore this site and learn more about our brothers and sisters who remain faithful to the old ways.

Through the prayers of the Mother of God, may the rapprochement continue!

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