Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | February 25, 2008

A Peace of the Western Rite

The Western Rites in the Orthodox Church get a fair amount of bandwidth here on the net. There are a few boosters, but it largely remains a small movement – amounting to about 10% of the parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese and a smaller number of folks. Many parishes are new, full of the recently illumined, and struggling to learn the Orthodox faith, life and practice. There are plenty of skeptics, and some quite vocal, though in truth sometimes it is hard to discern whether it is the rite that it is the bother, or the struggles of conversion. Over the whole lies a peace of sorts which I would reinforce.

To begin, within the Western Rite there is probably as much diversity of opinion on the merits and demerits as elsewhere. Folks are no more monolithic here than anywhere else, and people will always have their private opinions, just as they do everywhere else – in every other Rite of every church and jurisdiction on earth. Fact is, the Western Rite probably shouldn’t be the topic of conversation that it is…. it’s just another rite in the Orthodox Church. Yes, it’s not the form of St. John Chrysostom, but neither is that of St. Basil or St. James. And yes, it represents a blessing of an actual historic liturgy (or liturgies) into Orthodox practice… and some things have changed from the form as originally practiced, and yes, these changes challenge certain notions of integrity of the form – and this can present a problem for some.

Yet our bishops say this form is Orthodox… and until further notice to the contrary, that’s good enough for many. In my case as in that of many others, conversion was predicated not on the matters of the rites, but on the matters of the faith and the prayers. In particular, I found conversion “do-able” only after visiting in both rites and feeling that yes, I could pray these prayers – each in their place. And in all honesty, I continue to feel an enormous pull to worship according to the eastern rites, as the music and experience of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is what thrilled my heart into making the commitment to convert. The opening of these services from “Blessed is the Kingdom…” and the responding “Amens” and “Lord have mercy” in the Litany as it continues cannot be topped, nor can the close: “..for as much as He is good and loveth mankind”.

The fact that the Western Rite is close-to the form followed in my earlier life had less bearing than is often suggested, nor did I find it easier as some would have it. Yes I recognize a few hymns… but there is a lot that is new as well. And when you’re giving up almost all that you’ve known for nearly fifty years for a whole cloth conversion, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other as to where you land… and it’s not about trying to hold on to one thing or another for one’s own sake. The commitment to come into Christ’s Church is clearly not about picking and choosing, but about accepting things as they are and changing one’s self. Rather, if there is any holding on to anything… it is to recognize that there is life and love in all God’s creation… and not to isolate oneself and ignore that which is good elsewhere as if moving simply from one sheltered cocoon to another. Conversion has its rough patches without adding unnecessarily to them – unless it is done with purpose and the care and feeding of one’s spiritual advisor. Instead, I think the choice tends to be resolved on the basis of other matters.

Nevertheless, everybody’s got their view of “what’s wrong with the Western Rite”, and I’m no exception. But again… that’s not the point. Instead, I would suggest that if the rite was once in the Church – and it was – then the rite belongs to the Church, and not to me or someone else or necessarily even to another church. Moreover, while every objection does in fact have some measure of merit, and I have no grounds to doubt the motivations of those that make them, I think that equally the case can be made that the catholicity of the Church should be capable of encompassing approaches to her people that supercede and transform the more limited range of rites practiced within the last 1,000 years – beautiful and complete and wonderful and rich as they are, and reclaim her full breadth by reclaiming her western forms as well.

Fairly, the open question remains as to whether it is better to acclimate the eastern forms to the western mind, or endeavor to inculcate the western forms with the eastern mind. Lossky notes these differences, but also notes that for at least 1,000 years, the differences were managed without divergence. These are bigger issues than I have the time or space to address here, but in passing over them, I do not wish to suggest they are without merit. On the contrary, they remain important and for better minds to address. Yet I would wonder that if these problems were deemed insurmountable, that then the premise would have to be that man has changed in the last millennium and cannot regain a breadth once managed but lost. And that such a circumstance should stand in-between him and the aspirations of those institutions of his heart – his churches – seems giving voice to a sad note of despair that seems not quite right.

Perhaps these concerns simply reflect the stresses of a more general transition of the Church towards recovering her commission and baptizing all lands, to reach beyond the traditional geographic boundaries and peoples, to dissolve the notion of a here-and-there, to eliminate temporal distinction between mother church and diaspora, and to free herself from perceptions and limits of the past. For these voices equally are right to recall that just as the church in the West re-asserted itself after the end of the invasions and came to some difficulties in the process, so too we may engender similar risks in our churches and in our time as well. There is merit and caution in these thoughts.

But at the end of the day, I would plead that much in these considerations is simply imponderable and beyond our limited ken to resolve. Old fashioned virtues of stability and patience may go much further and accomplish far more than our palpitating hearts and minds on these matters. And rather than dithering in lost efforts to refine, perfect or improve these rites, we might consider the merits of simply following the earlier decision to let the proof be in the pudding. In a generation or more, if there is still demand for the continuance of the Western Rite, it will grow. If converts come to the Church for our faith and the Western Rite succeeds in this effort, both will grow. If not, the rite will wither whether due to its own merits or that of its people and cease to present a concern. Worrying about a possible fork down the road long before we’re even up, have our shoes on and begun to walk may simply assume more of ourselves than we can handle.

Yet I think we can be absolutely certain of one thing: The people, the priests, and the hierarchs love this ancient Church, its people, its faith, and our Lord and His Revelation brought to us in the fullness of the Orthodox faith, and I have no doubt that they will not settle for less than this fullness in the Western Rite as they do in all of us. And that if we trust in this process, and if we let it happen, it may in fact prove a blessing in untold ways that enriches the Church beyond measure.


  1. Joseph | | | IP:

    I ask _not_ to be belligerent… how is Western Rite Orthodoxy any different from the proselytism or old-style convert-where-can Uniatism of the pre-Balamand days?

    Feb 26, 9:25 AM — [ Edit | Delete | Unapprove | Approve | Spam ] — Slogans

  2. Appreciate the question…. have moved it to where I think you meant to post (on the Western Rite piece).

    As a convert to Orthodoxy, I’m going to admit first that your question centers on an issue that is part of an unsettled matter… between the East and West ( I think covered here: ), and venturing into that is like stepping into a long-running family quarrel… and I’d rather leave that to others to resolve to your satisfaction to the extent that it addresses some valid ecclesiological issues – and I think it does. Not having heard our bishops speak specifically on this or seen writings of theirs on the issue as you frame it, I am left to my own experience and speculations – a dangerous proposition.

    One nevertheless wonders that the circumstances here in the US where the Antiochian effort lies are not substantially different – given the essentially protestant and secular culture of continuous change and innovation as a backdrop – even in more recent years in parts of the Roman Catholic church. Here, Orthodoxy offers traditions and personal relationship that no matter the form, presents an offering of love and stability – for which there is neither economic, nor political, nor specific gain in ecclesial polity and power, and sadly less and less alternative elsewhere. The fact is, in most cases, conversion comes at a steep price in prestige, money, experience, and often encounters open resistance and ridicule from family and friends. It is less about “facing up to reality” and more about something of a real calling. Whether this is completely opposite to the experiences in other lands… I cannot say. But for the most part, I am certainly unaware of any conversion of Roman Catholic parishes to Western Rite Orthodoxy or any Orthodoxy for that matter. There have been conversions of protestant parishes… but that has also been true (only more so) of parishes to the Eastern forms. While there were once some concerns with those efforts… I see less with time… but they may still lie extant somewhere. As Rosanne Rozanna Danna used to say on Saturday Nite Live… “There’s always something.”

  3. Thanks for the move. Accustomed to blogspot’s placement of comment boxes below the post.

    In order not to move this comment discussion into a long and winding back and forth on the merits of the Western Rite(s) I’ll leave it at that. 🙂 It’s really part of a larger discussion about renewing the ties of East and West, the value of (if any exists) ecclesiastical territory, and a few other issues. Certainly not something that can be solved in a few sentences! As someone who has experienced the Western Rite churches, with friends with children at one of their schools, and with friends from the protestant churches (primarily Episcopalians) who joined the Western Rite churches either corporately or individually there do seem to be a few marks that are rather consistent…

    … a desire to live out their Western (often Anglican) heritage in orthopraxis without the distractions of the broken, hulking, confused mass that is the Anglican Communion.

    … a lamentable ABC mentality (anything but Catholic) that bounds between childish barbs and well-reasoned retorts differing from parish to parish or even person to person.

    And to pick up on another topic the price of conversion is very high indeed. Neither my wife nor I were prepared for the backlash from our families on living a life of faith with our children. They were all for “church on Sunday” but not so much for openly living our faith and all that that entails.

  4. Thanks. Appreciate your observations for those of us less well traveled. The ABC bit is a touch of a surprise – especially given that everyone else seems to look at Orthodoxy as well… an invitation to take some free whacks…. while there are quite a number of folks who may disagree with the Pope but at least give voice to the notion that “the Pope has an inside line to the man upstairs.”

    Personally, I’ve wondered whether one of the advantages of the Eastern rite lies precisely in the differences and that therefore the engagement of a new way of thinking may be more organic…. as it is more necessary…but leave that to the psychologists and educators to address. For the interim, the Western Rite suffers an admitted shortage of teaching materials specifically formed on the basis of its worship in the rich way this has been done for the eastern forms in recent years… but one would hope that time should fix that.

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