Orthodox Worship As A School Of Theology: Part Three

by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

Lecture delivered at the Kiev Theological Academy on September 20, 2002

Is a revision of liturgical texts possible?

Several years ago I came across a short article in a journal of the Coptic Church where it stated that this Church had decided to remove prayers for those held in hell from its service books, since these prayers “contradict Orthodox teaching”. Puzzled by this article, I decided to ask a representative of the Coptic Church about the reasons for this move. Recently I had the possibility to do so, and a Coptic Metropolitan replied that the decision was made by his Synod because, according their official doctrine, no prayers can help those in hell. I told the metropolitan that in the liturgical practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and other local Orthodox Churches there are prayers for those held in hell, and that we believe in their saving power. This surprised the Metropolitan, and he promised to study this question in more detail.

During this conversation with the Metropolitan I expressed my thoughts on how one could go very far and even lose important doctrinal teachings in the pursuit of correcting liturgical texts. Orthodox liturgical texts are important because of their ability to give exact criteria of theological truth, and one must always confirm theology using liturgical texts as a guideline, and not the other way round. The lex credendi grows out of the lex orandi, and dogmas are considered divinely revealed because they are born in the life of prayer and revealed to the Church through its divine services. Thus, if there are differences in the understanding of a dogma between a certain theological authority and liturgical texts, I would be inclined to give preference to the latter. And if a textbook of dogmatic theology contains views different from those found in liturgical texts, it is the textbook, not the liturgical texts, that need correction.

Even more inadmissible, from my point of view, is the correction of liturgical texts in line with contemporary norms. Many Protestant congregations have already gone a long way in such efforts. Recently, however, several members of the Orthodox Church in the West have also begun to propagate the idea of revising orthodox services in order to bring them closer to contemporary standards of political correctness.

For example, Archpriest Serge Hackel, an active participant in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, has proposed the removal of all texts from the Holy Week services that speak of the guilt of the Jews in the death of Christ (cf. his article How Western Theology after Auschwitz corresponds to the consciousness and services of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Theology after Auschwitz and its Relation to Theology after the Gulag: Consequences and Conclusions, Saint-Petersburg, 1999). The twelfth antiphon from the matins of Great Friday is a cause of Fr Hackel’s special concern:

Thus says the Lord to the Jews: ‘O My people, what have I done unto thee? Or wherein have I wearied thee? I gave light to thy blind and cleansed thy lepers, I raised up the man who laid upon his bed. O My people, what have I done unto thee, and how hast thou repaid Me? Instead of manna thou has given me gall, instead of water vinegar; instead of loving Me, thou hast nailed Me to the Cross. I can endure no more. I shall call My gentiles and they shall glorify Me with the Father and the Spirit, and I shall bestow on them eternal life.

Fr Hackel calls this text a “shameless invention” that should be removed from the services:

“It is thought that such a service as the matins of Great Friday was compiled according to the teaching of the Church, since the lex orandi is the lex credendi. But the authority of this service is based solely on the fact that it has existed for many centuries. It was not confirmed at any Ecumenical Council and does not need one in order to be revised or, if necessary, removed. But nothing has been done until now, and we still continue to participate in these services just as before”.

In his parish in southern London, Fr Hakkel has already “performed surgery”, as he puts it, and

“removed anti-semitism from the ambo”.

Not limiting himself to calling for the revision of liturgical tradition, Fr Hackel questions early Christian texts that speak of the guilt of the Jews, including those found in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles and writings of the church Fathers, in the treachery against Christ. In the Gospel according to John, he notes that the word “Jew” is mentioned 70 times, carrying a negative connotation in half of the cases, while the Book of Acts frequently describes how the Jews crucified Christ (2:23, 3:13-15; 4:10; 10:39). A “superficial and selective” reading of the Scriptures brings the reader to the conclusion that the Jews crucified Christ, claims Fr Hackel. However, he further states, the important role of Pontius Pilate and the Roman administration in Jesus’ condemnation is neglected: if such a thing happened, it is they who would be responsible for the sentencing and crucifixion not just of a particular prisoner, but of all prisoners.

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According to Fr Hackel, every passage in the New Testament that mentions the guilt of the Jews in Jesus’ death is a result of “the influence that polemics and discord in first century society exerted on the writing and editing of sacred texts”. He argues that

“earlier it was thought that the Christian Church was the New Israel that succeeded the Old Israel”.

Such a view is characteristic of several church Fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom. It would be possible to ignore their teaching, states Fr Hackel, “but unfortunately there exists in many Church circles a false notion that one should show great respect to the works of the Holy Fathers despite the obvious shortcomings of some of their writings”.

The quotations above from Fr Hakkel’s article are revealing examples of how a distortion of the lex credendi inevitably leads to “corrections” in the lex orandi. This is not only a question of revising liturgical tradition, but also a re-examination of all Christian history and doctrinal Tradition. The main theme of all four Gospels is the conflict between Christ and the Jews, who in the end demanded the death penalty for Jesus. Pilate said of Christ that

“I find no guilt in this man” (Jn. 19:4),

and washed his hands as a sign of disagreement with the accusations against Jesus, while the Jews shouted

“May his blood be upon us and our children” (Mt. 27:25).

There was no conflict between Christ and the Roman administration, the latter being involved only because the Jews did not have the right to carry out a death penalty. It seems that all of this is so obvious that it does not need any explanation. This is exactly how the ancient Church understood the Gospel story, and this is the understanding that is reflected in liturgical texts. However, contemporary rules of “political correctness” demand another interpretation. Here we can see the beginning of a watering down of Church doctrine, whose goal is to bring not only the Church’s services, but the Christian faith itself in line with contemporary trends.

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I do not want to create the impression that I am an opponent of the theological dialogue between Christians and Jews. Such a dialogue, in my opinion, is necessary just like other interfaith dialogues. However, it is necessary to follow one cardinal rule both in interfaith and inter-Christian dialogue: each party must clearly articulate its position and not attempt to adapt it to the other side. Moreover, each participant should be obliged to express not his own personal opinions, but the position of his Church or religious organization, otherwise the dialogue turns into an exchange of personal opinions. The aim of interfaith and inter-Christian dialogues is not to blur the lines of one’s doctrine in order to reach a compromise, but to strive in understanding and accepting others just as they are. The services of each tradition, be it Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or any other, are the most authentic expressions of its doctrinal foundations. Dialogue may only touch upon the interpretation of certain liturgical texts, but must not lead to their alteration.

Services especially adapted to various categories of believers have existed for a long time in Protestant congregations in the West. For example, there are feminist services with their own specific texts. I have had the opportunity to be present at such a service, which the congregation began with a prayer to

“the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel”.

This was followed by talk of God as a Mother with a female minister reading excerpts from early Christian writers, particularly Tertullian, that speak of women disparagingly. The reason for this reading was to demonstrate that the ancient Church was imperfect and therefore should not be regarded as a criterion of truth. The service ended with a call to fight for women’s rights to ordination. In this case, the lex orandi fully corresponded to the lex credendi, but the lex credendi itself was obviously a result of serious “surgery” on the very heart of Christian Tradition, carried out not from inside the church community, but from the outside, by a secular world which has given rise to the feminist movement.

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It is my belief that the Orthodox Tradition is safeguarded from such occurrences, since it possesses a sufficient number of “defense mechanisms” that prevent foreign elements from penetrating into its liturgical practice. I have in mind those mechanisms that were set in motion when erroneous or heretical opinions were introduced into the liturgical texts under the pretext of revision. One may recall how Nestorianism began with the suggestion to replace the widely-used term “Theotokos” (Mother of God) with “Christotokos” (Mother of Christ), the latter was seen as more appropriate by Nestorius. When this suggestion was made, one of the defense mechanisms was activated: the Orthodox people were indignant and protested. Later, another mechanism was put into operation when theologians met to discuss the problem. Finally, an Ecumenical Council was convened. Thus, it turned out that a dangerous Christological heresy, lurking under the guise of a seemingly harmless liturgical introduction, was later condemned by a Council.

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