In a previous post I promised to explore what unity looks like in the Orthodox Church. Although there are a set of agreed upon liturgies, it certainly is not an absolutist, mechanical approach. I’ve been to a diversity of Orthodox parishes over the years, and they have all been different.
Some are Greek or Antiochian or Russian or Serbian. Sometimes the service has been in a completely different language, sometimes the service has all been in English, other times you will hear a multiplicity of languages all in one service.
Some parishes have hymnals and the laity are encouraged to sing along, others have nothing to follow and the choir alone chants most of the service. Some jurisdictions celebrate saints and feasts on different days of the year. Certain regions have more saints that they commemorate beyond the universal commemorations. Some priests have beards and wear cassocks everywhere they go, others don’t.
Orthodox people aren’t infallible in any sense, they live in the world like everyone else and their clergy face the same pressures that clergy in all other churches face including temptations to false doctrine. There are many different types (typically called jurisdictions) of Orthodox churches in the United States… so what is united about that? What makes Orthodox worship unified even in its diversity?
A great clue about unity in worship… is it recognizable? Could you walk into a service, without being told what religion or denomination it was, and know instinctively what type of church it belonged to?
Whenever I’ve attended an Orthodox liturgy, regardless of ethnic background or language or style of music, I’ve always known I’m in an Orthodox Church. I’m worshiping in continuity and harmony with brothers and sisters around the world and across time.
It was not always that way in Lutheranism. Many times I found myself in settings where I wasn’t sure what exactly was shared between myself and certain Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod congregations other than that the signs on our respective churches both claimed to be “LCMS”. Other times I didn’t even have that much of a clue, as the congregations tried to hide their affiliation as much as possible from the general public.
The Oberlin Statement has a wonderful explanation of what constitutes unity in worship for the Orthodox Church. How is it that the same Spirit is present in all Orthodox liturgies, even with the vast multitude of differences between them? I’m going to take the quote piece by piece:
“A common faith and a common worship are inseparable in the historical continuity of the Orthodox Church. However, in isolation neither can be preserved integral and intact. Both must be kept in organic and inner relationship with each other.”
First, the Orthodox Church recognizes (and many Christians instinctively know) that it is not possible to preserve unity in doctrine unless you also preserve unity in practice. My former denomination, along with many Western churches, deny that diversity in worship promotes diversity in doctrine. By ignoring this truth, the fellowship that is shared with any other congregation is immediately put at risk.
“It is for this reason that Christian unity cannot be realized merely by determining what articles of faith or what creed should be regarded as constituting the basis of unity. In addition to subscribing to certain doctrines of faith, it is necessary to achieve the experience of a common tradition or communis sensus fidelium preserved through common worship within the historic framework of the Orthodox Church.”
This is exactly how most Western Churches attempt to attain unity, and why they are continually failing to do so. This is why splits and new denominations are a regular and continuing threat, even 500 years after the reformation that was supposed to reclaim the ancient truths of Christianity.
“There can be no true unanimity of faith unless that faith remains within the life and sacred tradition of the Church which is identical throughout the ages. It is in the experience of worship that we affirm the true faith, and conversely, it is in the recognition of a common faith that we secure the reality of worship in spirit and in truth.”
Faith, as we discussed in our last post, cannot be alone. It must remain within the life of the Church in order to be preserved. In order to keep the faith, we must live out our faith. We must experience that faith. And in order to keep Christian unity, we must experience that unity.
Unity and faith are realities to be lived, not just doctrines to be thought about and agreed upon. It’s good to agree on paper, but we are called to much more than that. We are called to live in unity, in agreement, with one another. Living separately in separate worship services and perpetuating individualistic practices is the opposite of what Scripture has asked us to do.
Practically, how is this living together in unity done? How is unity in worship, and therefore unity in mind and judgment, accomplished?
“We who were gathered from all tribes and nations set aside our individual preferences and ideas for worship, and instead adopt the mind of the Church treasured for us her liturgical tradition. Ego, personal taste, and all such self-aggrandizing individualism is set aside in favor of the communion of persons united in Christ as the new and everlasting humanity - the Church.” – a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church
My experience of Orthodoxy has confirmed what he shared with me. Wherever I have gone in the Church, I see all tribes and nations setting aside their individual preferences and ideas for worship in order to worship in an Orthodox manner.
My education and experience in Lutheranism taught me two things well. Doctrine matters. Worship Matters. Unfortunately, what I finally saw was that the departure from the historic liturgy had affected many congregations. And it wasn’t an accident or a simple stain to be removed. It was the logical conclusion of the heritage that Lutherans and the West received from reformation theology.
It became painfully clear that if I ever wanted to have unified Christian worship and truly unified doctrine with the pastors and congregations I was in fellowship with - there was only one place that such a thing existed. And that was in the Orthodox Church.