Why it matters how we worship?


This ancient Latin phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi, translates into English as the law of prayer is the law of belief. It simply means that the way in which we pray and worship forms and determines what we believe. The development of the liturgical forms of the worship of the Church are not accidental, nor are they, within our ancient Orthodox spiritual Tradition, liable to change with the passing customs of the secular world around us.

Of course there is a development which can be studied and understood, but it is a careful and organic, prayerful and considered development. It is a process which entirely respects and builds upon that liturgical structure and substance which is already hallowed by centuries of use. There are, very deliberately, no great discontinuities in the liturgical and spiritual Tradition of the Church. When I teach non-Orthodox about Orthodox spirituality it is to the witness of the early Fathers of the Desert that I most often turn. We have not become more wise than they in our modern and post-Christian age. On the contrary, their understanding of the condition of the human heart and soul is as perceptive and necessary as it ever was.

Likewise, the use of liturgical forms of worship are not an archaeological relic of the past, but truly represent the wisdom and character of the authentically spiritual, of the life of the Holy Spirit indeed, in the Church which is the Temple of God. It is interesting that when Anglican missionaries went into the most desperately poor areas of the East End of London in the 19th century it was with both a missionary zeal, and also with an expression of the most beautiful and ancient Western spiritual tradition. There were other models of worship which they might have adopted even then. But they understood that which Orthodoxy insists upon, that the worship of the Church is always liturgical and always in continuity with the tradition.

The architecture of any building used by Christians tells us a lot about what they believe. If I am in a room that looks like it is set up for a business seminar, with a platform in a corner perhaps, and chairs all facing the speaker, then that reasonably indicates that much of what goes on there is similar to a self-help meeting. If I am in a room that looks like it is set up for a rock concert, with a stage and lights and speakers, then that reasonably indicates that much of what goes on there is similar to a modern musical performance, with the same secular values.

Even when I have visited older church buildings here in the British Isles, and especially in Scotland, where the established Church is Protestant and Presbyterian, I have sometimes been confused by the layout. When I first visited one very ancient place of Christian worship, I turned to make the sign of the cross to what would have been the altar, and was suddenly disorientated because there was no altar at all, just a pulpit. Such an architecture says clearly that what matters most is preaching, and in such communities the Eucharist, in whatever form is adopted, only takes place occasionally.

We can understand that the design of a building expresses its function to a great extent, and therefore forms and moulds the spirituality which is experienced. This was especially the case at the time of the Protestant Reformation, though it was a revolution rather than a renewal of what existed. In fact the vast majority of the English population wished to remain members of the Catholic Church and continue to express that Catholic spirituality in their worship. But the practical changes which were instituted by law and imposed by force meant that this became increasingly difficult.

The interior structure of church buildings was radically changed to support the new Protestant ideas, and at the same time this departure from the continuity of ancient tradition made the preservation of Catholic spirituality impossible. The iconography which covered the walls of churches was painted over so that buildings were a plain white. The wooden screens which separated the altar area from the congregation were destroyed, and any icons they might have carried were removed. Statues of Christ and the saints were eliminated, and the feasts of the saints were forbidden, together with the processions and festivities that accompanied them. Even altars and the shrines of saints were broken up, and the relics of the saints thrown onto rubbish heaps. A wooden table was set up for communion and the priest, who was now a minister only, faced the congregation rather than leading the offering of their prayers to God.

Those who lived through these times remembered how they had once worshipped and what they had once believed. But their children, and especially their grandchildren, growing up without any expression of Catholic spirituality in the worship and architecture of the church building could only grow up with Protestant ideas and values. Over a period of time it even became the case that English people developed a mistrust of Catholic spirituality and beliefs, yet only a century before they had represented essentially an unbroken continuity of spirituality from the earliest Christian period.

It is very easy for the ancient and Orthodox spirituality and faith to be undermined by such radical innovations in worship and the context of worship. This is because in each generation that same authentic spiritual tradition must be received and participated in, so that it can in turn be passed on to future generations. If we do not receive it and do not participate in it, then we are not able to experience it or pass it on as abundant life in Christ. It becomes a burden to us, and we too easily dismiss it without ever having shared in it or understood what it represents. This is what happened when a small group of Protestants gained power in England and imposed their own views on the nation. In a generation or two all remembrance of the Catholic spiritual tradition had been eliminated, and this was achieved especially by making changes in the practical context and substance of worship.

What is the process by which development takes place within our Orthodox spiritual tradition? It is surely that those whose lives are most taken up with a fruitful participation in and experience of the tradition as they have received it are able, out of this participation and experience, to reflect most perceptively upon how this ancient tradition might find expression in some new context. Yet even in this case the development of the tradition is never discontinuous or revolutionary.

If we consider the iconography of Isaac Fanous, as the father of the neo-Coptic school, we discover that it is not a revolution in Orthodox art, but an expression of the ancient forms and canons in the present time, with a clear continuity. Fanous was one whose life was given over to the study and practice of iconography. He did not suddenly produce a new form of iconography out of a vacuum. Neither did he model his work on forms and styles outside of Orthodoxy. But reflecting as a master iconographer on all that he had learned by participation and experience he was able to renew the Coptic Orthodox practice of iconography in continuity with the tradition as he had received it.

Likewise the introduction of hymns into the worship of the Church. These have not been written and added to the Liturgy simply because someone in ancient times had produced something intending to honour God. On the contrary, it is only occasionally, and as an expression of the highest quality of hymnography, that a hymn has been added to the authoritative canon of our liturgical tradition. Those who have presented such work to the Church have been themselves entirely immersed in the liturgical tradition so that their own efforts are the fruit of such participation and experience. But even in such cases, we should not imagine that the Church has adopted such developments in all cases, or without them being submitted to the judgement of the tradition as it has been received.

We do not find that developments are simply accepted because they have been presented. This is not to doubt the good will of those who have sought to honour God in all ages, including our own. But iconography according to our Orthodox spiritual tradition is more than art, and an iconographer is more than someone who can paint an attractive image. It requires a discipleship, a spiritual apprenticeship, and a participation in and experience of the iconographic tradition before there can be any thought of producing something new.

Likewise, to produce hymnody for the Church, and all of our spiritual tradition is liturgical, has always required more than the ability to write a song and set it to a tune. The Church has never accepted everything that has been produced. A very strict judgement has always been preserved, which is why so much of the liturgical substance of our spirituality is both ancient and stable. This is not to doubt or dismiss the good intentions of those who have produced such hymns and songs in past ages and today. But the proper source of hymnody is found in those who have committed themselves to the fullest participation in and experience of the liturgical tradition of our Coptic Orthodox Church, and even in such a case more is required, both the highest poetic ability and the grace of God.

There are certainly aspects of the liturgical tradition which could be fruitfully developed. But these are not perhaps those aspects which some might consider. As the Orthodox Church grows in the West, and as more Western folk become Orthodox, there is a need for the hymns and doxologies of the Church to be translated into the very best English, and other European languages. This requires the co-operation of those who know the Coptic language and tradition to the highest degree, and those who have the highest poetic gift in these Western languages.

There are also a great many Western saints, members of the great community of Orthodox witnesses, who deserve to be honoured with their own Doxology in the Western languages. But this is not a work which can be conducted over a cup of coffee one afternoon, as if it were merely a clerical task. It surely requires, of anyone who might feel called to such service of the saints, a great experience and knowledge of the existing collection of Doxologies. What do they say? How have they been written in the past? What aspects of the life of each saint have been most important? Without such a knowledge and experience, gained through prayer and practice, the writing of even a Doxology becomes an expression of self-will rather than of the spiritual tradition we have received.

This is surely why the spiritual fathers of our Church, even since the 19th century, have resisted the introduction of any elements into the Orthodox spiritual and liturgical tradition which are alien and in discontinuity with what we have received. In our Orthodox tradition we do not start with some external element and ask if it can be considered Orthodox in some minimal sense. We begin always with the tradition as we receive it, and developments are made within that context. Therefore those who would introduce something new must always be those who know the Tradition best, not those who experience and understand it least.

There is no Orthodox life which is not liturgical, and which is outside the spiritual tradition. Therefore there is no space where non-Orthodox expressions can be introduced in discontinuity. To do so, even with the best of intentions, is to undermine our Orthodoxy. To allow our spirituality to be guided and inspired by sources outside this living tradition is to be building the temple of our heart on entirely the wrong, and unstable, foundations. It is to build on sand, since it is to turn to this source while we find it attractive, and then to turn to this source. It is to be moved by this fad and fashion, and then some other fad and fashion. Orthodoxy presents to us one life-giving source of spirituality to which we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly. When we do so then we may become those whom perhaps God will use to extend the experience and expression of this tradition into new places and among new peoples. But without the fullest participation and experience in the Orthodox spiritual Tradition we have no justification to seek changes in the Tradition. It is only those who know it best, and who have been transformed by a grace-filled participation, who are able to understand how the Tradition speaks to new situations.

How we worship matters. It really does. When we demand changes to suit our own preferences we have already fallen into the worship of self. When we turn to non-Orthodox sources of inspiration we have already undermined our Orthodoxy. Perhaps the consequences will not be immediately apparent. But to give ourselves to the spiritual life we have been offered as an integrity is to find in it a fullness that is always missing when we decide for ourselves what we will do and how we will worship, and even more so when we turn to other non-Orthodox traditions. When we think that we know best we are most in danger of deceiving ourselves. When we want to worship according to our own preferences then we are following another tradition, not the one offered to us as life in Christ. Orthodoxy presents us with a coherent spiritual life that is both personal and communal, liturgical and spontaneous, exterior and interior. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly to God in this coherent Tradition we will find him. It is the gift of God to each generation. Let us preserve it in our own experience and by participating in it as we receive it, for our salvation and the glory of God.

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