A Western Orthodox Rite?

Is there a place for a Western Rite within Orthodoxy?

We can imagine that, insofar as it would result in the wider salvation of souls through the extension of God’s mercy, an Orthodox bishop may sanction the use of a Western Rite. That is, we can postulate that a particular situation might arise in which a bishop may consider the application of economy according to leniency and agree to the use of such a rite. Just such a situation arose for St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, when he was serving as bishop of the Aleutians and North America. For ca. 1904 he consulted the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church concerning “the proposal of some Protestant Episcopalians that they be received into the Orthodox Catholic Church but be permitted to continue to conduct Church Services and administer Sacraments according to the Rites and Formularies laid down in the Protestant Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.”[1] The actual question St. Tikhon asked comes to us translated as: “If an entire parish with its minister should simultaneously leave Anglicanism to join the Orthodox Church in America, then would it be possible to authorize the ‘Common Prayer Book’ for their liturgical use? If so, then what in this book should be deleted, what corrected, and what supplemented?”[2]

Before considering the Synod’s response to St. Tikhon’s question, it is perhaps important to reflect on the fact that an extensive but unproductive dialogue had taken place during the 19th Century between Anglicans and the Russian Orthodox. The bottom line was that Anglicans wanted to remain Anglican but be recognized by—be in communion with—the Orthodox (which, of course, was unacceptable). St. Tikhon would have been aware of this issue at least to some degree, and so, we can surmise, he sought for advice from those who may have had some insight as a result of past dealings with the Anglicans. The Synod appointed a committee to draw up a report of “observations” on the American edition [1892] of the Book of Common Prayer. The conclusion reached, however, was that “…since the detailed changes in the ‘Book of Prayers,’ and, generally speaking, in Anglican liturgical practice together with the compilation of new prayers and even of entire rites can be carried out only on the spot, in America, in correspondence with existing demands and conditions, it is found desirable to send the ‘Observations’ themselves to the Right Rev. Tikhon, the American Bishop. They will thus serve in the negotiations as materials for the determination in detail of the conditions on which Anglicans disposed to Orthodoxy can be received.”[3] That is, as a bishop, St. Tikhon remained responsible for determining whether or not and how to apply economy according to leniency in this situation. The only specific guidance given was that:

On the one hand everything must be removed from the Book that bears a clearly non-Orthodox character—the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Confession, the Catechism with its protestant teaching about the sacraments, the Filioque, the idea of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the sole source of the teaching of the Faith, etc. On the other hand, there must be inserted into the text of the prayers and rites contained in the Book those Orthodox beliefs which it is essentially necessary to profess in Orthodox worship—into the rite of the Liturgy, the profession of belief in the change of the Holy Gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ, and of belief in the sacrificial significance of the Eucharist; into the rite of ordination ([khirotonii]), the belief in the divine establishment of the ministry with its distinction of degrees, and the recognition of the distinctive right of the priest to offer the bloodless sacrifice. Into all the services in general prayers must be inserted addressed [sic] to the Blessed Mother of God, to Angels and Saints, with the glorification and invocation of them (direct), also prayers for the dead (especially in the Liturgy and the Burial Service). There must be included in liturgical practice, and put into the Book, the missing rites for the sacraments of penance, oil-anointing and unction, and the rite of consecration of churches (as distinct from the consecration of a house of prayer); and finally there must be introduced the cult of sacred images.[4]

In the end, the Episcopalians did not follow through on their proposal, and St. Tikhon was not faced with the task of developing an Orthodox version of the Book of Common Prayer, if, indeed, he would have even chosen to do so (the Western Rite developed and given St. Tikhon’s name has nothing to do with St. Tikhon himself nor was it developed by or for the Russian Orthodox[5]). However, had St. Tikhon done so, it would have been for the purpose of easing the transition of this Protestant congregation into Orthodoxy (although conceptually such materials could have assisted other congregations as well—had there been others at the time that would have needed help in this regard). It had nothing to do with the planning or establishment of a so-called Orthodox Western Rite in perpetuity. Eventually, if gradually, in the administration of the Sacraments (as well as in all other areas of Church life such as teaching), there should be no essential divergences between the newly united community and the Body of the Church which received it such as would cause the Orthodox flock to be cautious of resorting to its clergy.

Does such a thing as an Orthodox Western Rite actually exist today?

The committee appointed by the Russian Synod to report on the American edition of the Book of Common Prayer stated[6] that it “…would not be admissible in Orthodox worship … merely from the fact that it was compiled in a spirit of compromise, and that, while skillfully evading all more or less debatable points of doctrine, it endeavors to reconcile tendencies which are really contradictory. Consequently both those who profess Protestantism and their opponents can alike use it with a quiet conscience.” But, perhaps even more telling was the comment that “…worship which is so indefinite and colourless … cannot, of course, be accepted as satisfactory for sons of the Orthodox Church, who are not afraid of their confession of Faith, and still less for sons who have only just joined the Orthodox Church from Anglicanism. If it were, their prayer would not be a full expression of their new beliefs, such as it ought essentially to be.” Their “colourless” liturgy fits in well with their whitewashed walls!

But you say “the West was Orthodox before 1054! So, while the Book of Common Prayer may not be the best starting point, all that is necessary is to use a Western Liturgy that is traceable in time to before that date.”[7] Actually, no. The year that Rome officially broke with the East does provide a reference point that is useful for investigating, e.g., the lives of those who may be commemorated as Saints. But the reality is that the West was spiritually unhealthy long before this time. The church had become corrupted and had turned into a human institution. True Orthodoxy had long since died. That is, Western Orthodox Tradition has not been passed down to us through the successors of the Apostles—the bishops. Records of liturgies that survive from before the schism may be of historical interest, but there is no Life in them, and so they are not of practical value in Orthodox worship today. While it may be very important for us to try to understand why Orthodoxy withered away in the West, it is not possible to somehow recreate a healthy Western Orthodoxy

To what end should there be an Orthodox Western Rite?

The crux of the issue is to try to understand why someone may seek to use something like a Western Rite in the Orthodox Church. St. Tikhon, as a bishop, was considering an adaptation of a Western rite for economy purposes—for the salvation of souls. Clearly this would be acceptable. However, if—as it appears for many of the so-called Western Rite Orthodox—the desire is only to following someone’s romantic notion of what it must have been like in days of olde, be they Celtophiles, Anglophiles, or what have you, the idea would seem to a misguided effort that can only be a distraction to people that leads away from what is truly important: taking up our cross and following after Christ along the narrow path He has set before us.

[1] “Notes on the American (Protestant Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.” The Orthodox Catholic Review, Vol. 1, No. 6 (June 1927), 250.

[2] Russian Observations upon the American Prayer Book. Alcuin Club Tracts XII. Wilfrid J. Barnes, translator. Walter Howard Frere, editor. (Oxford: A.R. Mowbray, 1917).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alcuin Club Tracts XII.

[5] “The Divine Liturgy of St. Tikhon” was produced by Father Joseph Angwin, an Episcopalian priest, ca. 1977 for use by his parish when they were accepted into the Antiochian Archdiocese.

[6] Alcuin Club Tracts XII.

[7] Although it should be noted that, in fact, all of the so-called Western Rites in use today by churches calling themselves Orthodox have had to be amended, corrected, or revised to some degree to be useable. That is, they are contrived, and not representative of a Western Orthodox Tradition.