Needed Liturgical Reform Addressed at Fr. Schmemann Memorial Lecture

by Fr. Joseph Woodill

(Winter, 1997)

  The Fourteenth Annual Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture began on January 30, 1997 with a splendid festal vespers lead by Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean of the Seminary, and his son Deacon John. The crowded vesper service was attended, among others, by Metropolitan Theodosius, Archbishop Spyridon, the new head of the Greek Archdiocese, and our own Archbishop Peter. After a service that might just as well have filled all of our needs that night--those who have not been to a festal evening service at the seminary really ought to take time to attend--everyone squeezed into the chapel basement for the evening's talk.

  Metropolitan Theodosius had only warm words of welcome for the first American-born leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Theodosius reiterated his hope that all Orthodox Christians might recommit themselves to full jurisdictional union in America. Archbishop Spyridon praised the many great teachers that have taught at the seminary, and noted the important work that Fr. Schmemann had accomplished by making liturgy accessible to the faithful. Fr. Hopko concluded the introductory remarks by observing that the speaker, Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, President of Hellenic College/ Holy Cross, is also a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary.

  Fr. Calivas opened his lecture, "Worship in the American Context: Issues of Liturgical Inculturation," by remembering what it was like to be a student in Fr. Alexander Schmemann's classes--Fr. Calivas was the very first recipient of the seminary M.Th. degree. He recalled Fr. Alexander's wonderful humor and his practice of trailing off sentences and ideas, so that the student was challenged to respond and engage in Liturgical Theology. Fr. Calivas insisted that this is still our task, because "true worship is dynamic; it changes!" Change is needed--to be sure, it must be tested and in continuity with the Tradition--but we must not be fearful of liturgical creativity in response to the needs of our times. "Worship," Calivas said, "is faith in motion." Since true worship is the vision of a way of life, it must retain a certain ascetical tension with the culture. There must be no inauthenticity or extraneous elements in Orthodox Liturgy. His paper would involve three interrelated elements: First, we must examine the inner meaning of worship; second, we must engage in a critical study of ritual activity respectful both of rite, symbol AND the actual cultural situation of the Church in America; lastly, we must encourage liturgical creativity, which would involve catechesis and outreach.

  Of particular concern to Calivas was that we avoid the misplaced piety that results in wrong theological explanations. He noted our compulsion to concoct explanations, for example, for why the priest waves the altar cloth over the gifts, when the real reasons and importance of this gesture have been long since lost to us. While the altar cloth speculations result in little damage but no real clarity, other wrong explanations are profoundly harmful. He noting an earlier explanation of why the people receive from a spoon, that only served to incorrectly divide the assembly. As if those who receive "in the hand" and "behind the screen" are, thus, more worthy than those who receive by a spoon! The 40th-day service for women who have given birth was singled out as being a rich liturgical rite that needs references to blood- and/or birth-impurity expunged. The blessing of the baptismal waters seem to canonize an antiquated view of the world as made up of four elements, thus alienating a more contemporary and scientific understanding. The restoration of the Easter Vigil and, in general, the recovery of the real participation of the congregation in song and movement is, according to Calivas, imperative! The two-calendar dating of Pascha was also singled out as ripe for change. "This must be settled," he said, "once and for all!" Among other subjects considered was the restoration of a real--not merely ornate--deaconate, a female deaconate, and the creation of an order of worship that does not presume that most churches are peopled by monks. The readings of the Scripture, we were told, must be expanded to include more of the Bible and, perhaps, there ought to be Old Testaments readings put back in liturgy.

  This powerful, learned, spirit-filled, and--not least of all--very courageous talk was concluded by recognizing how very disturbing considerations of liturgical reform might be to some. This pressing need will, Calivas recognized, cause stress in some and very deep displeasure in others, but our worship has never been fixed! Some structures of liturgy are essential, but others are merely instrumental. These distinctions are not always clear to everyone. This is NOT, he explained, a radical or irreverent endeavor, but a true commitment to the faith in the present age. Liturgy always engages the times and the place, and our people must again be able to make these connections. "The world we live in is neither better nor worse than other worlds Orthodox have lived in, merely different." We must, he continued, search for images and symbols that speak to today's women, men, and children.


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