Western Rite

What is Western-Rite Orthodoxy?

Fr. Patrick McCauley

Former Rector of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Apostles (now St. Peter’s), Fort Worth, Texas. He has since fallen asleep in the Lord. Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord.

By AD 2000, approximately 1.433 billion persons, or slightly less than one third of the world’s population, will be Christian, according to David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia. In spite of these millions of adherents, the percentage of the globe’s population that calls itself Christian will have fallen slightly since 1900.

Sadly, these statistics include folk who claim to be Christian but who are not necessarily active in local congregations. Even more startling for most Americans is the decline in influence of Christian institutions and values on contemporary life in terms of ethical standards and practice, political and economic policies, and popular culture, such as movies, music, the press, and so forth.

As a consequence of this diminution of Christianity’s impact on society at large, historians, both Christian and secular, call this a post-Christian age. Martin Marty, a faculty member at the University of Chicago and author of The Modern Schism, notes that industrialization and urbanization which swept through Western Europe and North America in the latter half of the nineteenth century resulted in a society in which religion, if acknowledged at all, has been relegated to the private concerns of most citizens’ lives where it has less and less importance for each passing generation.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a long-time Christian missionary in India and author of Foolishness to the Greeks, maintains that the culture most impervious to the Christian Gospel is not Africa, Asia, or Oceania, but the industrialized West (Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand).

Newbigin’s observations are manifested in the decline of mainstream American churches since the 1960s, when, according to Christianity Today, Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and Episcopalians lost literally millions of members. While mainline churches are on a condition of retrenchment for a multiplicity of reasons, conservative Christian bodies continue to grow.

Among those groups that are growing are Christians known as Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. Orthodoxy in North America claims somewhere between 5 to 6 million adherents. Worldwide, the Orthodox Church has a membership of about 250 million persons, which makes it the second largest Christian body on the globe, with Roman Catholicism’s having a membership of somewhat less than 1 billion.

In the United States, Orthodoxy, which was first brought to North America through Alaska by colonizers from czarist Russia in 1794, has been, until the last few years, a church primarily of immigrants and their descendents from Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. With these new arrivals came their clergy from the old country; so, today in the United States and Canada there are 14 Orthodox jurisdictions that reflect the ethnic make-up of those who originally brought the ancient Christian Faith to these shores.

Among those jurisdictions are at least four groups that came out of czarist Russia (the largest being the Orthodox Church in America), the Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Albanian Orthodox, and the Antiochian Orthodox. While each of these groups has its own hierarchy of bishops and administrative responsibilities, all of these churches are a part of the ancient Church of Christ known as Orthodoxy or Eastern Orthodoxy and are in communion with each other.

All of these bodies believe in the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has always existed as one God in three divine Persons. Orthodox Christians believe that Almighty God created all that is, and that He is the Lord of all history.

These Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that He died for the sins of mankind, that He was raised from the grave by the power of the Father on Easter morning, that He ascended into heaven, that He is the head of His body, the Church, and that He sent God the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth. The summary of the faith is proclaimed each Sunday, when the faithful recite the Nicene Creed during the Divine Liturgy.

To the casual observer, the Orthodox Church appears to have much in common with the Roman Catholic Church.

This is of course true in many ways. However, Rome began the process of breaking with the Eastern expression of the catholic faith, i.e. Orthodoxy, in the eleventh century.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy, laying aside differences in regard to the role of the Pope in the life of the universal Church and certain other doctrinal disagreements, is the form of worship followed by most Orthodox Christians.

More specifically, the worship of the overwhelming majority of Orthodox congregations is called Eastern-Rite or Byzantine. This last term comes from the name of the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, Byzantium. Byzantine liturgics (forms of worship) are gloriously beautiful, complex, mostly sung, and quite repetitive from the perspective of contemporary Americans. Depending on the parish, liturgies in American and Canadian-Orthodox congregations are sometimes even conducted at least partially in the native tongue of the jurisdiction. But many now use English almost exclusively.

Not all Orthodox Christians use the Eastern or Byzantine liturgical forms. At least two branches of Orthodoxy in America also include congregations that use Western liturgies. The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese is the larger body that sanctions the use of forms of worship that most Americans and Canadians would perhaps find more familiar.

This liturgical form is known as the Western Rite. More specifically, the Western Rite is a specified form of worship that was used by Christians in Western Europe before the Roman Catholic Church broke with the Orthodox Church.

The Western Rite, when compared to Byzantine liturgical forms, is simpler, less redundant, obviously shorter, and employs a hymnody (the hymns used) that are familiar to a great many American Christians. More precisely, the Western Rite, as approved by the Antiochian Archdiocese is a theologically corrected form of worship formerly used by either the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Communion.

In most Western-Rite Orthodox parishes, this means the liturgy is based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In other Western-Rite congregations, the liturgy may be a Latin or English form of pre-Vatican-II Roman Catholic worship. In fact, all native French Orthodox Christians, who number in the thousands, use this form in Orthodox Churches in France.

For those Western-Rite Christians who use a theologically corrected Anglican liturgy, the modifications, while important, would not be terribly noticeable to even the most regular worshippers from a traditional Episcopal congregation. Two of these alterations include the deletion of the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed and the addition of a stronger epiclesis in the eucharistic prayer said by the priest at the consecration of the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ.

Filioque is the Latin word for and the Son in the third section of the Nicene Creed that affirms the church’s belief that the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the triune Godhead. Orthodox Christians insist that the phrase and the Son in speaking of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father is an addition by a meeting of Western bishops that was never universally accepted by the Church. Even the papacy, which now accepts the phrase, originally rejected it. Moreover, this phrase causes a blurring of the roles of each of the three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the Godhead. It is from the Father that the Son is begotten and from the Father that the Spirit proceeds.

Besides the removal of the filioque in the Creed, the Orthodox version of the Western Rite in its Anglican form requires the priest specifically to petition God the Holy Spirit to act in changing the gifts of bread and wine into God’s gift of the life-giving Body and Blood of the Incarnate Son.

In addition to these two changes, the Orthodox Church’s Western Rite includes other indiscernible changes that most Anglo-Catholics (old-fashioned, High-Church Episcopalians) would find to be either familiar or certainly acceptable.

Finally, as mainstream Anglicanism and other mainline Protestant Churches continue their decline and denial of basic catholic faith, doctrine, and worship, and turn to inclusive language liturgies, which refer to God as Mother (to name only one alteration of traditional worship), many traditional catholic Christians of both the Roman and the Anglican Churches are turning to the Orthodox Church. In fact, a goodly number of those who are doing so, have joined congregations that employ the Western Rite.

By doing so, these Christians have retained familiar forms of worship and at the same time insured themselves of remaining within an ecclesiastical communion, and under Godly, Orthodox bishops, who attempt to teach and practice the ancient Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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