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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • Orthodox Worship: The Earthly Heaven
      • The outward setting of the services: Priest and people
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The outward setting of the services: Priest and people

The basic pattern of services is the same in the Orthodox as in the Roman Catholic Church:

there is, first, the Holy Liturgy (the Eucharist or Mass); secondly, the Divine Office (i.e. the two

chief offices of Matins and Vespers, together with the sixLesser Hours’ of Nocturns, Prime,

Terce, Sext, None, and Compline) (In the Roman rite Nocturns is a part of Matins, but in the Byzantine rite

Nocturns is a separate service. Byzantine Matins is equivalent to Matins and Lauds in the Roman rite); and

thirdly, the Occasional Offices i.e. services intended for special occasions, such as Baptism,

Marriage, Monastic Profession, Royal Coronation, Consecration of a Church, Burial of the Dead.

(In addition to these, the Orthodox Church makes use of a great variety of lesser blessings).

While in many Anglican and almost all Roman Catholic parish churches, the Eucharist is

celebrated daily, in the Orthodox Church today a daily Liturgy is not usual except in cathedrals

and large monasteries; in a normal parish church it is celebrated only on Sundays and feasts. But

in contemporary Russia, where places of worship are few and many Christians are obliged to

work on Sundays, a daily Liturgy has become the practice in many town parishes.

The Divine Office is recited daily in monasteries, large and small, and in some cathedrals;

also in a number of town parishes in Russia. But in an ordinary Orthodox parish church it is sung

only at week-ends and on feasts. Greek churches hold Vespers on Saturday night, and Matins on

Sunday morning before the Liturgy; in Russian parishes Matins is usuallyanticipated’ and sung

immediately after Vespers on Saturday night, so that Vespers and Matins, followed by Prime,

together constitute what is termed the ‘Vigil Service’ or the ‘All-Night Vigil.’ Thus while western

Christians, if they worship in the evening, tend to do so on Sundays, Orthodox Christians

worship on the evening of Saturdays.

In its services the Orthodox Church uses the language of the people: Arabic at Antioch,

Finnish at Helsinki, Japanese at Tokyo, English (when required) at New York. One of the first

tasks of Orthodox missionaries — from Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century, to Innocent

Veniaminov and Nicholas Kassatkin in the nineteenth — has always been to translate the service

books into native tongues. In practice, however, there are partial exceptions to this general principle

of using the vernacular: the Greek-speaking Churches employ, not modern Greek, but the

Greek of New Testament and Byzantine times, while the Russian Church still uses the

ninth-century translations in Church Slavonic. Yet in both cases the difference between the liturgical

language and the contemporary vernacular is not so great as to make the service unintelligible

to the congregation. In 1906 many Russian bishops in fact recommended that Church Slavonic

be replaced more or less generally by modern Russian, but the Bolshevik Revolution occurred

before this scheme could be carried into effect.

In the Orthodox Church today, as in the early Church, all services are sung or chanted.

There is no Orthodox equivalent to the RomanLow Mass’ or to the AnglicanSaid Celebration.’

At every Liturgy, as at every Matins and Vespers, incense is used and the service is sung,

even though there may be no choir or congregation, but the priest and a single reader alone. In


their Church music the Greek-speaking Orthodox continue to use the ancient Byzantine

plain-chant, with its eighttones.’ This plain-chant the Byzantine missionaries took with them

into the Slavonic lands, but over the centuries it has become extensively modified, and the various

Slavonic Churches have each developed their own style and tradition of ecclesiastical music.

Of these traditions the Russian is the best known and the most immediately attractive to western

ears; many consider Russian Church music the finest in all Christendom, and alike in the Soviet

Union and in the emigration there are justly celebrated Russian choirs. Until very recent times all

singing in Orthodox churches was usually done by the choir; today, a small but increasing number

of parishes in Greece, Russia, Romania, and the Diaspora are beginning to revive congregational

singing — if not throughout the service, then at any rate at special moments such as the

Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

In the Orthodox Church today, as in the early Church, singing is unaccompanied and instrumental

music is not found, except among certain Orthodox in Americaparticularly the

Greeks — who are now showing a penchant for the organ or the harmonium. Most Orthodox do

not use hand or sanctuary bells inside the church; but they have outside belfries, and take great

delight in ringing the bells not only before but at various moments during the service itself. Russian

bell-ringing used to be particularly famous. ‘Nothing,’ wrote Paul of Aleppo during his visit

to Moscow in 1655, ‘nothing affected me so much as the united clang of all the bells on the eves

of Sundays and great festivals, and at midnight before the festivals. The earth shook with their

vibrations, and like thunder the drone of their voices went up to the skies.’ ‘They rang the brazen

bells after their custom. May God not be startled at the noisy pleasantness of their sounds’ (The

Travels of Macarius, edited Ridding, p. 27 and p. 6).

An Orthodox Church is usually more or less square in plan, with a wide central space covered

by a dome. (In Russia the Church dome has assumed that striking onion shape which forms

so characteristic a feature of every Russian landscape). The elongated naves and chancels, common

in cathedrals and larger parish churches of the Gothic style, are not found in eastern church

architecture. There are as a rule no chairs or pews in the central part of the church, although there

may be benches or stalls along the walls. An Orthodox normally stands during Church services

(non-Orthodox visitors are often astonished to see old women remaining on their feet for several

hours without apparent signs of fatigue); but there are moments when the congregation can sit or

kneel. Canon 20 of the first ecumenical Council forbids all kneeling on Sundays or on any of the

fifty days between Easter and Pentecost; but today this rule is unfortunately not always strictly


It is a remarkable thing how great a difference the presence or absence of pews can make to

the whole spirit of Christian worship. There is in Orthodox worship a flexibility, an unselfconscious

informality, not found among western congregations, at any rate north of the Alps. Western

worshippers, ranged in their neat rows, each in his proper place, cannot move about during

the service without causing a disturbance; a western congregation is generally expected to arrive

at the beginning and to stay to the end. But in Orthodox worship people can come and go far

more freely, and nobody is greatly surprised if one moves about during the service. The same

informality and freedom also characterizes the behavior of the clergy: ceremonial movements are

not so minutely prescribed as in the west, priestly gestures are less stylized and more natural.

This informality, while it can lead at times to irreverence, is in the end a precious quality which

Orthodox would be most sorry to lose. They are at home in their church — not troops on a parade

ground, but children in their Father’s house. Orthodox worship is often termedotherworldly,’

but could more truly be described as ‘homely:’ it is a family affair. Yet behind this

homeliness and informality there lies a deep sense of mystery.


In every Orthodox Church the sanctuary is divided from the rest of the interior by the iconostasis,

a solid screen, usually of wood, covered with panel icons. In early days the chancel was

separated merely by a low screen three or four feet high. Sometimes this screen was surmounted

by an open series of columns supporting a horizontal beam or architrave: a screen of this kind

can still be seen at Saint Mark’s, Venice. Only in comparatively recent times — in many places

not until the fifteenth or sixteenth century — was the space between these columns filled up, and

the iconostasis given its present solid form. Many Orthodox liturgists today would be glad to follow

Father John of Kronstadt’s example, and revert to a more open type of iconostasis; in a few

places this has actually been done.

The iconostasis is pierced by three doors. The large door in the center — the Holy Door

when opened affords a view through to the altar. This doorway is closed by double gates, behind

which hangs a curtain. Outside service time, except during Easter week, the gates are kept closed

and the curtain drawn. During services, at particular moments the gates are sometimes open,

sometimes closed, while occasionally when the gates are closed the curtain is drawn across as

well. Many Greek parishes, however, now no longer close the gates or draw the curtain at any

point in the Liturgy; in a number of churches the gates have been removed altogether, while

other churches have followed a course which is liturgically far more correct keeping the gates,

but removing the curtain. Of the two other doors, that on the left leads into the ‘chapel’ of the

Prothesis or Preparation (here the sacred vessels are kept, and here the priest prepares the bread

and the wine at the beginning of the Liturgy); that on the right leads into the Diakonikon (now

generally used as a vestry, but originally the place where the sacred books, particularly the Book

of the Gospels, were kept together with the relics). Laymen are not allowed to go behind the iconostasis,

except for a special reason such as serving at the Liturgy. The altar in an Orthodox

Church — the Holy Table or Throne, as it is calledstands free of the east wall, in the center

of the sanctuary; behind the altar and against the wall is set the bishop’s throne.

Orthodox Churches are full of icons — on the screen, on the walls, in special shrines, or on

a kind of desk where they can be venerated by the faithful. When an Orthodox enters church, his

first action will be to buy a candle, go up to an icon, cross himself, kiss the icon, and light the

candle in front of it. ‘They be great offerers of candles,’ commented the English merchant Richard

Chancellor, visiting Russia in the reign of Elizabeth I. In the decoration of the church, the

various iconographical scenes and figures are not arranged fortuitously, but according to a definite

theological scheme, so that the whole edifice forms one great icon or image of the Kingdom

of God. In Orthodox religious art, as in the religious art of the medieval west, there is an elaborate

system of symbols, involving every part of the church building and its decoration. Icons,

frescoes, and mosaics are not mere ornaments, designed to make the churchlook nice,’ but have

a theological and liturgical function to fulfill.

The icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As

each local congregation prays Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by the figures of Christ, the angels,

and the saints, these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of

the whole company of heaven at the Liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church

open out upon eternity, and they are helped to realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the

same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of

heaven on earth.’

The worship of the Orthodox Church is communal and popular. Any non-Orthodox who

attends Orthodox services with some frequency will quickly realize how closely the whole worshipping

community, priest and people alike, are bound together into one; among other things,


the absence of pews helps to create a sense of unity. Although most Orthodox congregations do

not join in the singing, it should not therefore be imagined that they are taking no real part in the

service; nor does the iconostasis — even in its present solid form — make the people feel cut off

from the priest in the sanctuary. In any case, many of the ceremonies take place in front of the

screen, in full view of the congregation.

Orthodox laity do not use the phrase ‘to hear Mass,’ for in the Orthodox Church the Mass

has never become something done by the clergy for the laity, but is something which clergy and

laity perform together. In the medieval west, where the Eucharist was performed in a learned

language not understood by the people, men came to church to adore the Host at the Elevation,

but otherwise treated the Mass mainly as a convenient occasion for saying their private prayers

(All this, of course, has now been changed in the west by the Liturgical Movement). In the Orthodox Church,

where the Liturgy has never ceased to be a common action performed by priest and people together,

the congregation do not come to church to say their private prayers, but to pray the public

prayers of the Liturgy and to take part in the action of the rite itself. Orthodoxy has never undergone

that separation between liturgy and personal devotion from which the medieval and

post-medieval west has suffered so much.

Certainly the Orthodox Church, as well as the west, stands in need of a Liturgical Movement;

indeed, some such movement has already begun in a small way in several parts of the Orthodox

world (revival of congregational singing; gates of the Holy Door left open in the Liturgy;

more open form of iconostasis, and so on). Yet in Orthodoxy the scope of this Liturgical Movement

will be far more restricted, since the changes required are very much less drastic. That

sense of corporate worship which it is the primary aim of liturgical reform in the west to restore

has never ceased to be a living reality in the Orthodox Church.

There is in most Orthodox worship an unhurried and timeless quality, an effect produced in

part by the constant repetition of Litanies. Either in a longer or a shorter form, the Litany recurs

several times in every service of the Byzantine rite. In these Litanies, the deacon (if there is no

deacon, the priest) calls the people to pray for the various needs of the Church and the world, and

to each petition the choir or the people replies Lord, have mercy Kyrie eleison in Greek, Gospodi

pomilui in Russianprobably the first words in an Orthodox service which the visitor

grasps. (In some Litanies the response is changed to Grant this, O Lord). The congregation associate

themselves with the different intercessions by making the sign of the Cross and bowing. In

general the sign of the Cross is employed far more frequently by Orthodox than by western worshippers,

and there is a far greater freedom about the times when it is used: different worshippers

cross themselves at different moments, each as he wishes, although there are of course occasions

in the service when almost all sign themselves at the same time.

We have described Orthodox worship as timeless and unhurried. Most western people have

the idea that Byzantine services, even if not literally timeless, are at any rate of an extreme and

intolerable length. Certainly Orthodox functions tend to be more prolonged than their western

counterparts, but we must not exaggerate. It is perfectly possible to celebrate the Byzantine Liturgy,

and to preach a short sermon, in an hour and a quarter; and in 1943 the Patriarch of Constantinople

laid down that in parishes under his jurisdiction the Sunday Liturgy should not last

over an hour and a half. Russians on the whole take longer than Greeks over services, but in a

normal Russian parish of the emigration, the Vigil Service on Saturday nights lasts no more than

two hours, and often less. Monastic offices of course are more extended, and on Mount Athos at

great festivals the service sometimes goes on for twelve or even fifteen hours without a break,

but this is altogether exceptional.


Non-Orthodox may take heart from the fact that Orthodox are often as alarmed as they by

the length of services. ‘And now we are entered on our travail and anguish,’ writes Paul of

Aleppo in his diary as he enters Russia. ‘For all their churches are empty of seats. There is not

one, even for the bishop; you see the people all through the service standing like rocks, motionless

or incessantly bending with their devotions. God help us for the length of their prayers

and chants and Masses, for we suffered great pain, so that our very souls were tortured with fatigue

and anguish.’ And in the middle of Holy Week he exclaims: ‘God grant us His special aid

to get through the whole of this present week! As for the Muscovites, their feet must surely be of

iron’ (The Travels of Macarius, edited Ridding, p. 14 and p. 46).

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