Notes and Comments on the “Western Rite”

Notes and Comments on the “Western Rite”

The question of rites is precisely not, has never been and cannot be a mere question of rites per se, but is and has always been a question of faith, of its wholeness and integrity. The liturgy embodies and expresses the faith, or better to say, the experience of the Church, and is that experience’s manifestation and communication. And when rites, detached from their nature and function, begin to be discussed in terms of “acceptance” and “rejection” or “likes and dislikes”, the debate concerning them becomes meaningless.

For many people, the eastern and western rites are two entirely different and self-contained “blocks” ruling out, as an impure “hybridization”, all contacts and mutual influences. This, however, is wrong – first of all, historically. In a sense, the entire history of Christian worship can be termed a history of constant “hybridizations” – if only this word is deprived of its negative connotations. Before their separations, the east and the west influenced one another for centuries. And there is no exaggeration in saying that the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy is infinitely ‘closer’ to the Roman anaphora of the same period than the service of Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer is to, for example, the Tridentine Mass.

What makes a western rite Orthodox? For many proponents of the western rite, all it takes is a few additions and a few deletions, e.g. “striking the filioque ” and “strengthening of the epiclesis.” This answer implies, on the one hand, that there exists a unified and homogenous reality identifiable as the western rite and, on the other hand, that except for two or three “heretical” ingredients or omissions, this rite is ipso facto Orthodox. Both presuppositions are wrong.

Indeed, one does not have to be an “authority on the West” in order to know that liturgical development in the West was shaped to a degree unknown in the East by various theologies, the succession of which – and the clashes of one with another – constitute western religious history. Scholasticism, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, etc., have all resulted in sometimes radical liturgical metamorphoses and all have had a decisive impact on worship. Therefore, one should speak today not of the western rite, but of western rites, deeply – if not radically – differing from one another, yet all reflecting in one way or another, the western theological tragedy and fragmentation. This does not mean that all these rites are “heretical” and simply to be condemned. It only means that, from an Orthodox point of view, their evaluation in terms merely of “deletions” and “additions” is – to say the least – inadequate. For the irony of our present situation is that while some western Christians come to Orthodoxy in order to salvage the rite they cherish (Book of Common Prayer , Tridentine Mass, etc.) from liturgical reforms they abhor, some of these reforms, at least in abstracto, are closer to the structures and spirit of the early western rite – and thus to the Orthodox liturgical tradition – than the later rite, those precisely that the Orthodox Church is supposed to “sanction” and to “adopt.”

It is my deep conviction that the eastern liturgical tradition is alone today in having preserved, in spite of all historical “deficiencies”, the fullness of the Church’s lex orandi and constitutes, therefore, the criterion for all liturgical evaluations.

Father Alexander Schmemann (1920-1983)
(SVTQ 24/4, 1980)

The Priest. A Newsletter for the Clergy of the Diocese of San Francisco. Issue No. 5, May 1996