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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • Orthodox Worship: The Earthly Heaven
      • Doctrine and worship
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Doctrine and worship

There is a story in the Russian Primary Chronicle of how Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, while

still a pagan, desired to know which was the true religion, and therefore sent his followers to visit

the various countries of the world in turn. They went first to the Moslem Bulgars of the Volga,

but observing that these when they prayed gazed around them like men possessed, the Russians

continued on their way dissatisfied. ‘There is no joy among them,’ they reported to Vladimir,

‘but mournfulness and a great smell; and there is nothing good about their system.’ Traveling

next to Germany and Rome, they found the worship more satisfactory, but complained that here

too it was without beauty. Finally they journeyed to Constantinople, and here at last, as they attended

the Divine Liturgy in the great Church of the Holy Wisdom, they discovered what they

desired. ‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour

or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God

dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we

cannot forget that beauty.’

In this story can be seen several features characteristic of Orthodox Christianity. There is

first the emphasis upon divine beauty: we cannot forget that beauty. It has seemed to many that

the peculiar gift of Orthodox peoples — and especially of Byzantium and Russia — is this power

of perceiving the beauty of the spiritual world, and expressing this celestial beauty in their worship.

In the second place it is characteristic that the Russians should have said, we knew not

whether we were in heaven or on earth. Worship, for the Orthodox Church, is nothing else than

heaven on earth.’ The Holy Liturgy is something that embraces two worlds at once, for both in

heaven and on earth the Liturgy is one and the same — one altar, one sacrifice, one presence. In

every place of worship, however humble its outward appearance, as the faithful gather to perform

the Eucharist, they are taken up into the ‘heavenly places;’ in every place of worship when

the Holy Sacrifice is offered, not merely the local congregation are present, but the Church universal

— the saints, the angels, the Mother of God, and Christ himself. ‘Now the celestial powers

are present with us, and worship invisibly’ (Words sung at the Great Entrance in the Liturgy of the Presanctified).

This we know, that God dwells there among men.

Orthodox, inspired by this vision of ‘heaven on earth,’ have striven to make their worship in

outward splendour and beauty an icon of the great Liturgy in heaven. In the year 612, on the staff


of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, there were 80 priests, 150 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 70 subdeacons,

160 readers, 25 cantors, and 100 doorkeepers: this gives some faint idea of the magnificence

of the service which Vladimir’s envoys attended. But many who have experienced Orthodox

worship under very different outward surroundings have felt, no less than those Russians

from Kiev, a sense of God’s presence among men. Turn, for example, from the Russian Primary

Chronicle to the letter of an Englishwoman, written in 1935:‘This morning was so queer. A very

grimy and sordid Presbyterian mission hall in a mews over a garage, where the Russians are allowed

once a fortnight to have the Liturgy. A very stage property iconostasis and a few modern

icons. A dirty floor to kneel on and a form along the wall ... And in this two superb old priests

and a deacon, clouds of incense and, at the Anaphora, overwhelming supernatural impression

(The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, p. 2.18).

There is yet a third characteristic of Orthodoxy which the story of Vladimir’s envoys illustrates.

When they wanted to discover the true faith, the Russians did not ask about moral rules

nor demand a reasoned statement of doctrine, but watched the different nations at prayer. The

Orthodox approach to religion is fundamentally a liturgical approach, which understands doctrine

in the context of divine worship: it is no coincidence that the wordOrthodoxy’ should signify

alike right belief and right worship, for the two things are inseparable. It has been truly said

of the Byzantines: ‘Dogma with them is not only an intellectual system apprehended by the

clergy and expounded to the laity, but a field of vision wherein all things on earth are seen in

their relation to things in heaven, first and foremost through liturgical celebration’ (G. Every, The

Byzantine Patriarchate, first edition, p. 9). In the words of Georges Florovsky: ‘Christianity is a liturgical

religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine

and discipline second’ (‘The Elements of Liturgy in the Orthodox Catholic Church,’ in the periodical One

Church, vol. 13 (New York, 1959), nos. 1-2, p. 24). Those who wish to know about Orthodoxy should

not so much read books as follow the sample of Vladimir’s retinue and attend the Liturgy. As

Philip said to Nathanael: “Come and see(John 1:46).

Because they approach religion in this liturgical way, Orthodox often attribute to minute

points of ritual an importance which astonishes western Christians. But once we have understood

the central place of worship in the life of Orthodoxy, an incident such as the schism of the Old

Believers will no longer appear entirely unintelligible: if worship is the faith in action, then liturgical

changes cannot be lightly regarded. It is typical that a Russian writer of the fifteenth century,

when attacking he Council of Florence, should find fault with the Latins, not for any errors

in doctrine, but for their behaviour in worship: ‘What have you seen of worth among the Latins?

They do not even know how to venerate the church of God. They raise their voices as the fools,

and their singing is a discordant wail. They have no idea of beauty and reverence in worship, for

they strike trombones, blow horns, use organs, wave their hands, trample with their feet, and do

many other irreverent and disorderly things which bring joy to the devil’ (Quoted in N. Zernov, Moscow

the Third Rome, p. 37; I cite this passage simply as an example of the liturgical approach of Orthodoxy, without

necessarily endorsing the strictures on western worship which it contains!).

Orthodoxy sees man above all else as a liturgical creature who is most truly himself when

he glorifies God, and who finds his perfection and self-fulfilment in worship. Into the Holy Liturgy

which expresses their faith, the Orthodox peoples have poured their whole religious experience.

It is the Liturgy which has inspired their best poetry, art, and music. Among Orthodox, the

Liturgy has never become the preserve of the learned and the clergy, as it tended to be in the medieval

west, but it has remained popular — the common possession of the whole Christian people:

‘The normal Orthodox lay worshipper, through familiarity from earliest childhood, is entirely

at home in church, thoroughly conversant with the audible parts of the Holy Liturgy, and


takes part with unconscious and unstudied ease in the action of the rite, to an extent only shared

in by the hyper-devout and ecclesiastically minded in the west’ (Austin Oakley, The Orthodox Liturgy,

London, 1958, p. 12).

In the dark days of their history — under the Mongols, the Turks, or the communists — it is

to the Holy Liturgy that the Orthodox peoples have always turned for inspiration and new hope;

nor have they turned in vain.

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