Early in the morning, and at night, through dinner we heard a loud speaker delivering the chanting of the divine liturgy to those sitting outside. While we were in Greece, the Church celebrated two feasts: the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul and the feast of the holy Twelve Apostles. We went in to have a look.
This was not the first time that I had been inside an Orthodox church, so the layout was familiar to me, but this time other things stood out. First, I saw that there is a place from which the responses in the liturgy come. This was over to the right. There, a lay person chanted all of the ‘congregational parts’ and another lay person read some of the readings. So the other worshipers were more passive than I have been used to because they did not have anything to say, except ‘Amen’ from time to time. People were coming and going and lighting candles, and writing intercession notes on slips of paper, and praying before icons.
The thing that struck me was that this is probably what a mass in the English or European Mediaeval Church would have looked like. Being in Old Greek, many of the worshipers may not have fully understood what was happening. As in pre Vatican Two times, unless one knew Latin, then the Mass was incomprehensible. So the people would go about their private devotions: saying prayers from books that had been especially written for the purpose, saying the rosary, and perhaps coming and going. The Liturgy goes on for three hours or so, so that staying for all of it is a bit difficult.
To compare this to how we do Eucharist in the Anglican Church now I could say that much more is required of a congregation than before. The connection between the president and the people is greater, so that it really does feel to me as though what we do on a Sunday is as a whole body, all doing something ‘for God’. In the Greek Church, it looks like the president and ‘responders’ are doing one thing for God, while the other members of the congregation are attending, or listening to what they are doing, but they themselves are doing ‘something else’ for God for most of the time, except at the communion, where the two activities come together in the giving and receiving of the Sacraments.
Although I get a bit frustrated sometimes at the lack of vigour and sense of responsibility for the Eucharist by the ‘not very vigorous’ responses of the congregation, I am pleased that the aim of ‘full, active and conscious’ participation is one that the Western Church has adopted.
This picture fits with our place in society these days. As the Church is no longer ‘society at prayer’ so the entrance way into participation in divine things is not at the sanctuary or communion rail, as it is in Greek Churches, but at the front door of the Church building. This means that we have to both find ways of commending the Good News to those who do not know it, but also as members of the congregation, know more, be more active, and play our parts in the Eucharist.
But I can’t help being envious of the Orthodox. The people came! Twice during the week people came out to celebrate the divine mysteries. Life with God is somehow so built into the cultural life of Greek people, that no one at the restaurant next to the Church is complaining if their meal is accompanied by the chanting of the Divine Liturgy, heard through the loud speakers.
So I am wondering, is there a practical difference for Greeks and Westerners in the quality of their lives as Christians. Clearly for Greek people, the cultural supports that used to make going to Church easy in the West (like no TV, nothing on Sunday nights, no sport on Sunday) are still in place to some degree in Greece. This makes ‘cultural Christianity’ more of a possibility in Greece than for us. But at the same time, the aim of ‘full, conscious and active’ participation in the Liturgy that being Christians in the West demands has not been achieved either. Is this a ‘zero sum’ game?: What one has on the cultural roundabouts in Greece, is about the same as one has on the personal swings of Western Christianity?
In one sense, Anglicanism has the worst of both worlds. The Roman Catholic Church used to have such things as ‘Holy Days of Obligation’ where one had to go to church. Anglicans are now lucky if we can celebrate a saint’s day during the week. The Roman Church still makes everyone go to some form of confession before Eucharist, as a preparation. Anglicans are lucky if we go to confession once in a lifetime. Christendom no longer applies for us, but then the more rigorous standards of some smaller groups do not apply either. We are in the realms of persuasion in a consumer culture.
There are some ‘start up’ congregations which say ‘As a bottom line, we expect that everyone who joins us here will do our ‘Christianity 101’ course. This is possible for people starting anew, but more difficult for Anglicans whose culture is more ‘Christendom’ than ‘confessional Church’. But some form of continuing education has always been part of Christian renewal.
So here is what I think is a ‘fair thing’: I would like it if every member of the congregation said “apart from holidays and illness, being in Church on Sunday, with ‘full, active and conscious’ participation is a non negotiable. “ Second, I would like it if everyone asked themselves ‘What am I doing to grow and develop my relationship with God?” This could be attending a Bible study, or a regular commitment to prayer, or a commitment to a ministry in the World or the Church.’
So there it is. I love the sense of participation in events that the whole community shares in, in the Orthodox Church, but I also think that ‘full conscious and active’ participation is a good goal for us.