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Orthodox Liturgical Practices in America, a Critical Look
By Chris Banescu - September 30, 1996

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the proper "Orthodox" liturgical practices we should all follow in America. It is true that some Greek Orthodox churches have a tendency to over-emphasize Hellenism at the expense of Orthodox Holy Traditions. It is also true that American Orthodoxy is in danger of becoming too "bland" and some of the more traditional Orthodox traditions may have become a little too watered down.

However, I believe there are several issues that I think everyone can agree on. Before tackling the entire issue of liturgical, jurisdictional and linguistic unity I think that all Orthodox should resolve some of the more obvious "modernisms" and "ethnicisms" that have crept into the various Orthodox churches in America.

First of all, the use of organs in liturgical worship is one obvious modernization that I believe should be dispensed with. As far as I know, no other churches outside the United States and Canada, whether in Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, or any other jurisdiction here in America, currently use or have ever used musical instruments during the Holy Liturgy. The only times you might hear an artificially created note is when the choir director uses an electronic keyboard or piano to give the tone and lead the choir. I simply do not understand how Greek Orthodox churches in America continue to use them.

It's especially puzzling when Greek-American faithful who hear organs playing every Sunday, go back to Greece and attend services in their mother country where organs (or any other instruments for that matter) have never used. Doesn't that make them pause and ponder why? Don't those faithful realize that their mother country What is truly amazing, is that these very same congregations have magnificent choirs that would put to shame even some professional groups. Yet, their heavenly voices are many time drowned out or superimposed with the artificial tones of an organ; which infuses a distinctly un-Orthodox flavor to the liturgy.

Second of all, the "shortening" (or many would call it the "mutilation") of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that occurs in some of parishes must also be revisited. While three-hour-long liturgies, a common in monasteries and seminaries, are indeed an overkill, one hour or less liturgies, that include a ten minute sermon, is going gone a little too far in simplifying our ancient liturgical traditions. I have attended certain churches that have done away with entire Antiphons, skipped over entire litanies and left out entire hymns, all in the interest of "accommodating" the faithful. Of course, some of those "modern" faithful, seem to have little problem spending 3-4 hours watching or attending a football or baseball game, but will scream bloody murder if the priest dares to prolong the Sunday liturgy beyond the one hour mark. Regardless of the language used in the service, "chopping" the liturgy in order to appease the lowest common denominator Orthodox Christian parishioners is not acceptable, in my humble opinion.

Finally, I have been in several Greek Orthodox churches where the choir sings most of the hymns "phonetically" because over half of them cannot read Greek. What's even more distressing, is that many of the younger Greeks born and raised in the US do not understand what is being said during the liturgy, because they only have a superficial understanding of the Greek language. In some Romanian parishes also the services are almost entirely in Romanian, while all of the youngsters do not understand the language and many cannot follow any part of the liturgy. In many of these parishes these youngsters grow up in the faith without the opportunity to fully participate in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church. These very same youngsters then leave the church when they grow up, while their parents scratch their heads and wander what happened. We are sacrificing the future of new generations of Orthodox in order to appease those faithful who stubbornly hold on to their native tongue, not for religious reasons, but rather for personal satisfaction and selfish ethnic pride.

It's also interesting to note that in many parishes the term "Orthodoxy & Hellenism" are always used together without exception. Not once does the statement refer to just "Orthodoxy". I also have a vague suspicion that what they mean by "Hellenism" is not the true and correct historical interpretation that Fr. Alexander Schmemann talked about and represented the "essence" of the faith, the "Christian Hellenism" that is our universal Orthodox heritage. I strongly suspect their reference to "Hellenism" is mostly the ethnical/secular "Greek nationalism" that seems to be threatened lately by too many converts joining the Church. This appears to be an organized effort to promote the "national Greek" traditions, with the term "Orthodoxy" thrown in for "decoration" and to appease the hierarchs. I have seen too many "Festivals" (Romanian, Russian, Greek, Serbian, etc.) use our faith to fund-raise, but you wouldn't even know whether the events and people attending these festivals had any semblance to the essence of our Christian faith. This is not what Orthodoxy is supposed to be about!

It's about time we, as Orthodox faithful, started to return to the proper meaning and understanding of Orthodox Holy Traditions and liturgical practices. The ethnic taint of our various cultural traditions (that's the little "t" traditions) and pride, together with our modern accelerated lifestyles and "go-go" lifestyles have serious encroached on the ancient and proper meaning and practice of the Orthodox liturgical practice. We need to make the necessary corrections before it's too late!

As Orthodox, regardless of our individual cultural backgrounds, we must recognize the dangerous detour we have taken away from proper Orthodox liturgical Traditions and return to the very essence of our faith. We must stop the slippery slope of innovation for pride and expediency's sake, and return to following the narrow road that Christ talked about. We have to stay true to what's important and eternal. If we do not wake up and make a course correction, we may reach a point of no return, that will lead us also to the problems and errors evident in the Western churches.