Part of the purpose of this blog is to publish bits of a class series I did some time ago titled “Liturgical Dynamics.” An introduction to this topic is given in one of the early blogs, so I won’t repeat that hear. But Part II (or was it Part 2?! – I seem to be inconsistent with my labeling!) dealt with the communal and liturgical aspects of Orthodox life: our life is communal, and it is worked out liturgically.
Part of the liturgical character, but not it’s only one, is that it is ordered. For many people, what is distasteful about liturgical life is its ordered character: things aren’t (supposedly) spontaneous. For them, this means that it is not free, and, more importantly, that it is not genuine, of the heart, personal. Therefore, it cannot be of faith. I think I’ve got this right because I grew up with this stance, and held it for some years before rejecting it.
A “gimme” (er, concession): This isn’t entirely incorrect. There is very much a danger of cold formalism, even ritualism, in liturgical life. I can’t deal here with these objections in depth except by saying (a) that there are very many resources available that deal with the subject of liturgy, its biblical foundations as well as its history, development, etc.; and (b) that all public life is, or becomes, liturgical, or should I say, non-spontaneous. The difference is not whether a Christian community’s worship follows predictable forms or not, but are its forms (actions, sentiments, gestures, etc.) good or bad. Are they adequate to the expression of and transmittance of the content of the Faith and to the worship and praise of God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit?
I’ve attended, planned and led very many “free church” services, and I can tell you there is little spontaneous or truly “free” about them. They all followed predictable and expected forms with predictable and expected formulas of words. When there were surprises, they were almost always predicated on somebody’s personal charisma and dynamism and “creativity.” Even those times that seemed especially “meaningful” and prompted of the Spirit were not outside the expected norms of the community. It was most definitely “liturgical” in this sense. The problem is, when a community mis-identifies itself and its experiences, it is open to accepting a falsehood. There’s no way that a community can claim a non-liturgical characteristic and have adequate liturgy.
The ordered nature of Orthodox communal life is characterized by liturgical experience, and this experience is bounded by a “rite,” a way of doing things, a certain form of words and gesture. This ordering contains procedure and precedence, structure and ranking. This allows the liturgical (and other aspects of life) to be done in a manner that is above the individual believer, whether he be a pastor or a layman. It isn’t subject to a committee or a commission. It isn’t dependent upon someone’s creativity or dynamism. The same liturgical experience and content is available any place that believers are gathered and celebrating to the best of their ability.
Examples of this ordering include the table of scriptural lessons that are taken in public services. Rather than a community depending on a local pastor to see that the Word written is meted out faithfully, the Church has given us an ordering of lessons that not only see to it that all parts of the New Testament are taken regularly, but that they are appointed in such a way as to teach the faithful what their use and purpose is. For example, the Gospel of John is read after the experience of Holy Week and Pascha. Prior to that, a steady diet of instruction throughout Great Lent led us through Genesis, Isaiah, Proverbs, Hebrews and Matthew. In other words, to understand John, one needs the basics of biblical history, moral instruction, prophetic witness, and messianic fulfillment.
The manner in which services are led teaches the Faithful that the community has a hierarchy, an order that, while far from perfect, assures training in humility and obedience – both of which are necessary for repentance and salvation. There are given tasks for priests, deacons, readers and others. While all are equal in Christ in that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female…,” all are not equal in terms of gifts or roles or responsibilities. And this is imaged out in how various offices participate in public service.