world council of churches

Orthodox Liturgical Renewal and Visible Unity
New Skete Monastery, Cambridge, New York, USA, 26 May - 1 June 1998

This is the report of the first meeting in Faith and Order's study programme on the role of worship in the search for Christian unity. Entitled "So we believe, so we pray" (a rough translation of Prosper of Aquitaine’s lex orandi lex est credendi), the study explores how the worship life of the church may inspire and inform the churches' efforts to express more fully their oneness in Christ. The study also addresses, from a "faith and order" perspective, the issues of eucharistic sharing and recognition of baptism. The report below (1) explores the common ordo or pattern of much Christian worship as a basis for the churches' increasing communion; (2) explores problems and possibilities in the inculturation (local adaptation) of worship in various cultures around the world; (3) offers many examples from local situations of how common worship is already helping Christians to experience - and express - more of the unity which is theirs in Christ; and (4) makes specific proposals for future Faith and Order work in this area.


1. "All on earth fall in worship before you; they sing of you, sing of your name!" (Ps. 66:4 NAB). Every human being is created with the capacity to praise God. Worship therefore is universal. It lies at the very heart of human existence. But at the same time, worship is extraordinarily particular. It finds different expression in each human situation. For this reason worship sometimes has been compared to language. Through worship we communicate with God. But just as languages have their own peculiarities of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary and change through time, so also our ways of worship vary and change. Consequently, the gestures, symbols and style of a given time or place may not be immediately understandable in another context.

2. Within Christianity, variety in the "language" of worship is evident from the beginnings of the Church, as local communities developed their own forms for expressing and celebrating their faith. Through the centuries, in order to carry out its mission of spreading the Gospel to all nations and all peoples, the Church has continued to adapt its ways of worshiping to new contexts. Among the Orthodox this concern for enculturation is most evident in the use of the vernacular, but it has been expressed in many other ways as well - in musical idiom, in iconography, and in order of services.

3. Generally speaking, our Orthodox churches have not confused unity in faith with uniformity in liturgical practice. They have recognized not only the pastoral utility but also the inherent value of this rich diversity. But sometimes diversity and change - however natural and salutary - can cause anxiety and confusion. For a variety of reasons, this is the case in many parts of the Orthodox world today. For example, during the decades of communist domination in Eastern Europe, the Church’s mission was effectively limited to maintenance of the inherited forms of worship within the church building. The post-communist era has brought new opportunities for mission, but this in turn has raised new questions concerning adaptation of worship in response to these new circumstances. In other regions, Orthodox worship has developed in very different circumstances and has faced very different challenges, ranging from fundamentalism to secularism and pluralism both religious and cultural. Throughout the world, our churches are now being called upon to address unprecedented challenges to Orthodox unity arising from both internal and external circumstances. And central to discussion of virtually all these challenges is the issue of liturgical worship.

This consultation

4. The present consultation on "Orthodox Liturgical Renewal and Visible Unity" was organized by the World Council of Churches Unit 1 (Unity and Renewal), in collaboration with the Society for Ecumenical Studies and Inter-Orthodox Relations (Thessaloniki), in order to discuss some of these challenges. Held at New Skete Monastery, near Cambridge, New York, a notable center for Orthodox liturgical study and renewal, the consultation enjoyed true monastic hospitality and experienced the joy of monastic worship. The Ascension cycle of worship was an integral aspect of the consultation’s program.

5. The work of this consultation benefited from and built upon the work of previous consultations and inter-Orthodox meetings, such as those organized by the former WCC subunit on Renewal and Congregational Life, whose work has been continued by the Stream on Worship and Spirituality of Unit I. We took special note of the consultation on Christian Spirituality for our Times held at Iasi, Romania in April/May 1994, the consultation Toward a Common Date of Easter held at Aleppo, Syria in March, 1997, and the two consultations on Women in the Life of the Orthodox Church held at Damascus, Syria in October 1996, and Istanbul, Turkey in May 1997. Our work at New Skete built directly on the Inter-Orthodox Consultation on Renewal in Orthodox Worship held at Bucharest, Romania in October 1991. It also took into consideration the contributions on worship made at the Fourth International Conference of Orthodox Theological Schools, held at Bucharest, Romania in August 1996. As all these consultations and conferences have demonstrated, worship must play a significant role both in the internal renewal of church life and in the search for Christian unity.

6. This consultation took place at a time when many Orthodox are reevaluating the ecumenical movement in general and participation in the World Council of Churches in particular. We discussed the report of the Inter-Orthodox Meeting on "Evaluation of New Facts in the Relations of Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement" held at Thessaloniki, Greece in April/May 1998, as well as the Report of the Orthodox Pre-Assembly meeting held at Damascus, Syria in May 1998. These reports had an impact especially on our discussion of the problematics of ecumenical worship.

7. Presentations, papers and discussions in the course of the consultation were marked by a sense of urgency. They addressed a wide range of issues, including the present state of Orthodox worship in various regions, liturgical language, anthropological and sociological perspectives, the role of liturgy in Christian formation, the ecclesiological significance of baptism and eucharist, and prayer in ecumenical contexts. Participants took note of a host of specific challenges and problems related to liturgical renewal and reform. They also repeatedly called attention to the need to identify basic principles of worship that can serve as criteria both for liturgical renewal in the Orthodox Churches and for Orthodox participation in ecumenical worship. What, in an Orthodox understanding, is the nature of worship itself?

Fundamental Principles

8. In the estimation of the consultation, the following principles are fundamental for Christian worship:

Implications for Orthodox renewal

9. These general principles concerning the nature of worship have a number of implications for Orthodox worship in our time. First of all, if the principles enunciated above are to be fully realized, our worship normally should be conducted in the vernacular, in the language of the people. For centuries the Orthodox have appealed to the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. In recent practice, however, this principle often has been violated. Our churches must consider whether the language of their worship in fact conveys its real meaning to the faithful and to the world.

10. Liturgical worship is carried out by the entire assembly, not just by the clergy. For this reason, liturgical prayer generally employs the first person plural. This is clear, for example, in the anaphora, the central prayer of the eucharistic liturgy: "Remembering this saving commandment..., offering you your own of your own.... we praise you, we bless you, we give thanks to you..." The central action here is our corporate offering of praise and thanks, our eucharistia. It is appropriate, therefore, for liturgical prayer, the prayer of the assembly, to be recited aloud, for all to hear.

11. Our churches should examine critically the ways in which full participation of the laos tou Theou (people of God) in worship is hindered. The corporate nature of liturgical worship demands that we consider how we utilize the power of sacred space. We must be aware of legitimate alternatives for church architecture and furnishings. For example, would not the iconostasis in a more open form serve to keep the people connected to the priestly function that is performed in their name? Where is the appropriate place to proclaim the reading of the Scriptures, and how may this be adapted in particular circumstances? Do choirs and cantors facilitate the congregation’s involvement? Does the music adequately convey the meaning of the text? Are certain classes and groups of persons systematically excluded from full participation (e.g., women, as a result of erroneous application of Old Testamental laws on ritual purity; children, as a result of being sent away to Sunday school during the Divine Liturgy)?

12. While the entire people of God are to participate fully in the Churchs worship, they do so in different ways, through a diversity of ministries. Recent pan-Orthodox consultations, including the Inter-Orthodox Conference on Rhodes in 1988, have repeatedly called for the restoration of the diaconate for women, but as yet no concrete steps for implementation have been made. We believe that a deeper and more extensive exploration into the role of the diaconate, both male and female, is now long overdue. Reconsideration of the role of other ministries in the Church is also needed.

13 . In some Orthodox churches, frequent reception of communion has become the norm, while in others the faithful come only rarely. In both cases, however, the reception of communion is often seen as an act of private devotion. Our churches need to rediscover the communal and corporate dimensions of the eucharist. They also need to reevaluate their various practices related to confession, fasting, and other forms of preparation for communion. This is necessary particularly when these practices not only obscure the ecclesial significance of the eucharist but also discourage frequent communion, thus inhibiting the spiritual growth and nourishment of the faithful.

14. In the Divine Liturgy, we receive spiritual nourishment not only through reception of communion but also through the hearing of God’s word in the Scripture readings. But given the fact that few people regularly attend more than the Sunday morning Liturgy, the lectionary itself needs to be reexamined. In our present usage, only a very small portion of the New Testament is ever heard by the faithful, and the Old Testament is virtually absent. The faithful hear about the miracles of Jesus with great frequency; but they are not exposed to His ethical and moral teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount).

15. The word of God is also made present through the sermon, which is an integral part of liturgical worship. But all too often the sermon is of poor quality or simply omitted. Our churches should devote special attention to this critical need.

16. Other aspects of liturgical worship should not be overlooked. In 20th century Orthodox parish life, the daily office as a communal activity has been virtually abandoned. A Sunday-only church is a church deprived of much of the power of Scripture and most of the treasures of Orthodox hymnography. Our churches must explore new ways in which the discipline of daily prayer can be restored.

17. Our churches must be willing to support and advance a timely, orderly, and informed process of liturgical renewal and reform, in order to recover the essentials of our liturgical tradition. A careful study of worship will help free us from ritual formalism and help us discover and articulate the meaning of our liturgical patrimony. Among other things, such study will help to determine whether our worship today inspires the faithful, young and old, to carry the message of the Gospel into all areas of life and society, and to bear witness (martyria) to the compassion, justice, mercy and wisdom of God.

Implications for Ecumenical Worship

18. The participation of the Orthodox Church in the quest for Christian reconciliation and the restoration of the visible unity of the churches is rooted in the saving], words and actions of our Lord as expressed through Scripture and Tradition. In following her Lord, the Church has always sought to proclaim the apostolic faith and to heal the wounds of division through prayer and dialogue. As the Third PanOrthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference in 1986 said, "the Orthodox participation in ecumenical movement does not run counter to the nature and history of the Orthodox Church: It constitutes the consistent expression of the Apostolic faith within new historical conditions, in order to respond to new existential demands."

19. From the beginnings of the ecumenical movement, the Orthodox have participated in services of common prayer with Christians of other traditions. Prayer in common with other Christians, especially prayer for the unity of the Church and the healing of divisions, is not only possible but even required because of our shared baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity and our common belief in Jesus Christ our Savior. We affirm this in full awareness that the issue of baptism is highly contentious in the Orthodox world today. Some would claim that it is meaningless to speak of baptism as a spiritual reality outside the Orthodox Church. After careful consideration of this issue, we find that arguments in support of such claims have no sound historical or theological basis.

20. The present divisions between Christians did not happen overnight or in a single solemn act. Divisions occurred - and continue to occur - over the course of time. Divisions often became evident long after the process of estrangement had begun. In the wake of divisions, different liturgical practices often became symbolic of the sad divisions. Indeed, some liturgical differences, which existed prior to a division and caused no problems whatsoever, were subsequently used to justify schisms.

21. The decision of the Orthodox Church to enter into ecumenical dialogue and prayer with other churches was a decision to begin to reverse the tendency towards greater and deeper divisions. This was a conscious decision, consistent with the Church’s ecumenical vocation and with her ways of dealing with past challenges, such as Donatism and separations over christological issues.

22. Within the ecumenical movement, the Orthodox have placed a high priority not only upon the importance of affirming the apostolic faith but also upon the value of prayer for reconciliation and unity among Christian people. Reconciliation will not result simply from formal doctrinal agreements, necessary though these are. These agreements must first be prepared for and then be received at the grassroots level by believers whose hearts have been opened to each other through prayer.

23. The divisions which afflict Christianity today are not simply the result of doctrinal differences and misunderstandings compounded by cultural and political factors. These divisions are also the result of a form of spiritual blindness that manifests itself in pride, arrogance, triumphalism, self-righteousness, and lack of love. We affirm that prayer for the unity of the churches is the necessary foundation for all decisions of doctrine and for the resolution of differences. Our divisions will be healed if we truly approach them with the "mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16). We must always be sensitive to the fact that we are called to speak about the reality of the Triune God with an honesty and humility reflecting the presence of Christ in our midst.

24. The practice of common prayer with other Christians contributes to the process of reconciliation. It is the necessary foundation for the restoration of the visible unity of the churches. We have not, however, reached the point where full communion has been restored between the Orthodox and other churches. Serious differences still need to be examined and resolved. Because of this, the Orthodox continue to affirm that participation in the eucharist is the expression of unity; and we avoid the acceptance of so-called "intercommunion" or "eucharistic hospitality." This painful separation before the Lord’s Table is a constant reminder that we have yet to be fully reconciled with each other in the apostolic faith. It is also a challenge to persevere in our prayer for reconciliation and in theological dialogue, which has as its goal the restoration of the visible unity of the churches.

25 . In this regard we took note of the special relationship which has developed between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox (pre-Chalcedonian) Churches. Nurtured by prayer, our churches have been engaged in theological dialogue for over thirty years, at first on an informal basis 1964 and since 1985 at the level of an official Joint Theological Commission. As the Anba Bishoi 1989 and Chambésy 1990 statements of the Theological Commission clearly show, our churches have come to see that we share the same Orthodox faith despite centuries of formal alienation. As the Anba Bishoi statement says: "We have inherited from our fathers in Christ the one Apostolic faith and tradition, though as Churches we have been separated from each other for centuries. As two families of Orthodox Churches, long out of communion with each other, we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the common Apostolic faith of the undivided Church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed." With this joyous recognition in mind, the participants in this consultation look forward to the restoration of full communion between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches in the near future. This would be the obvious and indeed necessary consequence of our full agreement in questions of faith.

26. The consultation recognized that in recent times some Orthodox have questioned whether praying with other Christians is in fact contributing to the restoration of the kind of Christian unity willed by Christ. On the one hand, Orthodox in Eastern Europe, who have become the object of western proselytism, feel under siege and have experienced the breakdown of previous ecumenical relationships. On the other hand, many Orthodox argue that some Christian churches in dialogue with us have experienced radical changes in ethos, priorities, and moral stance which have come to be reflected in patterns of prayer and worship.

27. In order for ecumenical services of prayer to contribute to reconciliation and unity, they should reflect the kinds of fundamental principles of Christian worship sketched above. Unfortunately, rather than being theocentric and dialogical, ecumenical worship sometimes has been dominated and driven by issues which not only deflect from the concern for Christian unity and reconciliation but also themselves become the focus of attention. Rather than having communion with the Triune God as its focus, ecumenical worship sometimes has become the platform for particular social and political agendas and causes incompatible with the Gospel. Of course, in worship it is appropriate to lift up our living concerns in prayer. But when these concerns become the dominant element, Christian worship is deformed. Here we must acknowledge that we Orthodox have not always been blameless in this regard.

28. Orthodox participation in ecumenical prayer has been predicated upon the fact that the fundamental convictions of the apostolic faith continue to be expressed through the Scripture readings, prayers, and hymns of the worshipping community. When these fundamental convictions of the apostolic faith are lacking or intentionally distorted, it becomes difficult if not impossible for the Orthodox to participate. When, however, these convictions are embodied in ecumenical worship and do reflect the fundamental principles presented above, we should rejoice in joining our brothers and sisters in Christ in praise of God.

29. Mindful of the prayer of the Lord "that they all may be one," we remain committed to the search for Christian reconciliation and visible unity. We remain convinced that common prayer and common life will, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, lead to the healing of our divisions and disunity, so that God will be glorified and the world will believe.

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