Review: The Second Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Symposium

Fr. Alvian N. Smirensky / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Spring/Summer 1996

I have always been impressed by the presence of Oriental Orthodox faithful at our services, particularly by their piety and devotion. On one occasion I was able to attend a Coptic baptism and a Divine Liturgy, an experience I remember to this day. When St. Vladimir’s Seminary announced, the second Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Symposium on the theme of "Christ in Liturgical Worship," on March 12, 1996, I saw this as an opportunity to experience and learn more about the liturgical traditions of our sister Oriental Orthodox Churches.

The session began with Morning Prayers according to the Coptic (Egyptian) tradition. Although the rite was considerably abridged to fit in with the Symposium’s schedule, it was obvious that the Copts believed very much in the sanctification of time, a lot of time. The chant, unfamiliar to most of us Eastern Orthodox, was unhurried and conducive to prayer even though the service took place in the auditorium and not a church.

The moderator, Fr. Arakel Aljalian, introduced the speakers for the morning session. Professor Paul Meyendorff spoke briefly about the formation of Eastern Christian worship. He noted that many factors need to be appreciated if one would seek to understand the development of liturgical practice. First, geography, resulting in the cross fertilization of ideas and influence based on the location of major centers and trade routes, played an important role. Theological controversies generated the incentive for the development of hymnography that strengthened various dogmas: those in praise of the Holy Spirit following the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 and of the Virgin Mary following the Third Council in 431. Certain individuals like St. Basil, St. Ephrem the Syrian, and Severus of Antioch and movements such as monasticism played significant roles. Certain cities (Jerusalem and the pilgrimages to there beginning in the 4th century; Constantinople and especially the Great Church of Hagia Sophia) exerted tremendous impact. Finally, contrary to popular opinion, the worship of the Eastern Church has also been much more flexible to change than has that of the West (the Byzantine Rite was not really formalized until the 14th century).

The next speaker, Fr. Athanasios, representing the Egyptian Coptic tradition, described the central place which the incarnate Christ occupies in the liturgies of the East. In referring to Jesus, Fr. Athanasios pointed out that, "He took what is ours and gave us what is his." Fr. Athanasios gave a number of examples of that Christ-centeredness in the various rites which, without neglecting the Trinity, is common to the Oriental Orthodox tradition.

Deacon Michael Findikyan, a doctoral student at the Oriental Pontifical Institute in Rome and a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (as actually were all of the morning’s speakers), gave a lively presentation describing the variations in liturgical practices among the Eastern churches and how they came about. He gave a number of vivid examples to illustrate that things are not always what they seem to be and pointed out there are often extenuating facts related to history or context that need to be evaluated if one would want to examine the differences behind theological or liturgical differences. He encouraged the audience, above all, that when seeking to examine what may seem to be a confusing or inappropriate ritual to read the prayer that accompanies the action. Here the Latin expression, "lex orandi, lex credendi" (the rule of prayer should be the rule of belief), ought to be heeded. He noted that in working towards reunion one needs to distinguish between those aspects of liturgy and faith where differences can and cannot be tolerated; absolute uniformity in all areas is not always expedient or necessary.

The afternoon session moderated by Fr. Thomas Hopko introduced the participants to examples of a variety of liturgical practices of the various traditions through the magic of television and videotape. For the Orthodox who are used to a rather uniform liturgy it was interesting to learn, for example, that there are may be as many as eighty-three anaphoras in one of the Syrian rites. The Byzantine rite familiar to us seemed somewhat austere when compared with the colorful celebration of the Oriental traditions. There is more censing, gestures, and other moments. The vestments and furnishings are more colorful and elaborate. The singing, chanting, bell-ringing are more spirited and enthusiastic.

The dialogue between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian representatives has been going on for some time now and there is agreement that everyone shares the same faith, even though the expression may be different. Last year’s session witnessed feelings of frustration that nothing is being done on the higher echelons to bring this unity to fruition. Unfortunately, there is not enough contact between the various communities on the grass roots level.

Perhaps the individual Chalcedonia and non-Chalcedonian parishes should take the initiative to contact each other on the local level to learn as much as possible about their respective traditions. This was also suggested last year.

At the first Symposium held a year ago, one of the speakers referred to the late Fr. John Meyendorff who identified "ignorance (beyond the circle of informed theologians)" and "institutional passivity" as the obstacles to full communion.

Unfortunately, the present physical facilities at St. Vladimir’s are limited and thus not enough people can come to sessions such as this one. Perhaps it would not be out of line to suggest that the non-Chalcedonian Churches could be included in a function such as the Orthodox Education Day which could then serve an enlightenment for all of us who are ignorant of this rich Christian heritage.

Besides myself, others from our Diocese who attended were Fr. Daniel Donovan, Fr. John Shimchick, Fr. Yaroslav Sudick, and Fr. Michael Zahirsky.

NOTE: Several interesting materials were mentioned during the Symposium. The first issue of St. Nersess Theological Review was made available. It includes among other articles, the papers delivered during the first Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Symposium held in 1995. It is available for $8.00 / $15.00 for a full subscription. Contact: St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, 150 Stratton Road, New Rochelle, NY 10804.

A helpful reference for learning more about the complex backgrounds of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches is Roberson’s, On the Eastern Churches (available at St. Vladimir’s Seminary Bookstore).

Fr. Alvian Smirensky is Rector Emeritus of St. Nicholas Church, Cohoes, NY.

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