This post was meant to be Part Two of my decision to ask to become an Oblate of the Order of St Benedict (ObOSB). Instead I want to write about this Sunday’s experience of joining a Choral Eucharist at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton (pictured). The fact is, I was playing hooky, away from my home church, St Elias Ukrainian Orthodox, in order to immerse myself for a morning in a liturgical tradition far removed from the Byzantine. (Well, mostly; the service lasted 1 1/2 hours, the same as ours, it being High Anglican, apparently.)
The differences between the two Liturgies are striking. First off, the core of the Byzantine Rite is attributed to a fifth century archbishop of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom (Greek for Golden Mouth) while the Anglican Liturgy, as I understand it, is embodied in the Prayer Book of 1662. So, about a thousand years separate the Byzantine from the Anglican. I’m not sure when the Anglicans began using inclusive language in their texts but I was grateful this morning, when reciting the Nicene Creed common to us both from 381 CE (except for that bothersome filioque [and the Son]: for specialists only), that we said “for us and our salvation” as compared with the current English-language usage in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, “for us men and our salvation.” Grrrr. (Interestingly, the Ukrainian-language text omits the “men.”)
Ah, the English language, my mother tongue, after all. While there are many soulful verses in the Ukrainian-language Liturgy, and, in my experience, missing from most Western Rites (for example, the Trisagion or Thrice Holy hymn of great antiquity), there is a particular joy in uttering every word as though it belonged to English literature as well as to worship:”Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known.” Indeed. There is, however, one utterance, by the choir, in Greek (Greek!) Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy) which we, the congregants in the Byzantine Rite, chant – Hospody Pomylui -approximately 64 times (I just counted). In the Orthodox Liturgy on Sundays there is no place for a reading from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible – there are fragments especially from the Psalms in the Antiphons, the Propers and Collects – which goes a long way to explain why I had to ask an Anglican poet friend in England what he meant by “Isaac’s kiss” in a recent poem. (I really must get around to reading the OT.)
The Anglican Liturgy is much more participatory than Orthodox services. I have sometimes chosen, in my church, to be absolutely silent (except for the Lord’s Prayer and all those “have mercies”) just to be meditative for awhile. But Anglicans make a joyful noise throughout: belting out the hymns and intoning most of the prayers and praises, the Confession and Absolution, the Breaking of the Bread together. (In the Byzantine Rite, the only spoken part of the liturgy is the Sermon.) And in this Cathedral, at least, they sing along with the great peals of the organ; there is no instrumental music in Slavonic Orthodox services, which may account for the stupendous choral repertoire of our churches.( Listen to this incomparable chant by Bulgarian monks.)
Laypeople of various genders and ethnicities are servers – women, and people of colour, in their own version of vestments, move around the nave and sanctuary from the entry procession to the closing dismissal, along with the clergy, a most welcome inclusivity. This is heightened by the absence of an icon screen, which in Orthodox churches can obscure much of what the priest and deacons and altar boys are doing around the High Table. Here the celebrant preparing and serving the Eucharist is in full view, facing us (this may not always have been the case, historically),in contrast to the Orthodox priest who has his back to us as he breaks the bread and lifts the chalice (“After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “ Drink this, all of you…”). To be fair,it has been explained to me that the Orthodox priest does not have his back to us, he is facing the same way – toward the east – as we are, he is part of the “people.” I like that.
Not only is there no icon screen in All Saints, there are no icons, period, unless you count the images on banners and in the stained glass windows. It’s in the windows that you see an image of the Mother of God (she is ubiquitous in Byzantine iconography), in a Nativity scene and, high above the altar on the eastern wall of the sanctuary, she stands at the foot of the Cross along with St John the Evangelist. I rather missed her this morning: in my church, among the myriad images of male apostles, saints, martyrs, evangelists, theologians and bishops, her countenance of deep, compassionate inner self-knowing in the feminine is consoling.
But among the Anglicans this morning there was much consolation for me- no, delight – in hearing The Reverend Canon Gwen Bright give the Homily (without notes) and cite Hildegard von Bingen: “Nothing is outside the arms of God.” To be reminded that when we receive the Eucharist – “Do this in remembrance of me” – we are re-membering, bringing back together, His dismembered, broken body; and that the birth of Jesus is not just about a birth but about “God among us,” incarnate. And I smiled and clapped along with the others when, near the end of the service, Rev. Cheryl stepped before us, a newly-ordained priest of the Anglican Church of Canada who, for eleven years, had faithfully risen at 6:00 in the morning to get to the Cathedral and make porridge for the Friday Morning Community Breakfasts. Axios!