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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Orthodox Great and Holy Week Services: The Need for Reform

Every year I am asked by some faithful Orthodox why it is that we change the "traditional" times of some of our Great and Holy Week services.  Actually, the reason is that what happens elsewhere is not traditional at all and suffers from some grave defects. Why then do we have the service times as we do in Great and Holy Week?  In our parish in Manchester we do something quite extraordinary.  We celebrate Vesperal services in the evening!

(1)  We serve the Holy Thursday Vesperal Liturgy of the Last Supper (as its title suggests!) on Holy Thursday EVENING, not in the morning.

(2)  We serve the Holy Saturday Vesperal Liturgy (as its title suggests!) on Holy Saturday EVENING, not in the morning. 

The only other change is the placing of the 12 Gospel Matins of Holy Friday on Friday morning rather than on the Thursday evening.

The original Greek word is "Orthros" meaning "dawn" or "daybreak."  In monasteries this ends the Night Vigil and is served to conclude with the rising of the sun.  In parishes, since few people would attend at 4am-5am in the morning, it is either served in the evening after Vespers (Slav tradition) or in the morning before the Liturgy (Greek tradition).  Each option in the parishes is either earlier or later than it should be out of practical and pastoral necessity. 

In Great and Holy Week it is perfectly acceptable to serve the various Matins Services either in the late evening of the day before or in the early morning of the correct day.  Usually the evening before is the pattern adopted in most places.  This then is the usual schedule for Matins:

Holy Monday Bridegroom Matins is served on Sunday evening.
Holy Tuesday Bridegroom Matins is served on Monday evening
Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins is served on Tuesday evening.
Holy Thursday Matins of Divine Healing and the Blessing of the Oils is served on Wednesday evening.
Holy Friday Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels is served on Thursday evening.
Holy Saturday (Lamentation) Matins is served on Friday evening.

The one Matins service we do change at St. Aidan's is the timing of the Holy Friday Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels which is served here on Holy Friday morning.... which, as I have shown, is entirely acceptable since Matins can be served either in the evening or in the morning.  But why, you may say, do we change that?  The explanation for this lies in the need to adjust the Vesperal Liturgies - to which I referred at the beginning of this explanation. 

We therefore now consider the two vesperal services.

Clearly if the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Thursday is to be served on Thursday EVENING the 12 Gospel Matins of Holy Friday has to be moved to its alternative position on Holy Friday morning.  But why do we serve the Vesperal Liturgies in the evening not the morning?

Well the first and most important reason is that they were written as VESPERAL Liturgies, that is, evening Liturgies based on Vespers.  Nowhere else in the Church's year has it been considered correct to move Vespers to the morning! Everyone can get to Church in the evening after all and prayers that refer to the sun going down and the night are clearly not designed to be used in broad daylight!

The second reason for not serving these Liturgies in the morning is historical.

The Last Supper (Holy Thursday's Liturgy) was celebrated by Christ with His disciples in the evening.  The Eucharist is NOT simply a repetition of the Last Supper so we usually have Liturgies in the morning to celebrate the resurrection of Christ … after that is the rising of the sun with its attendant symbolism.   However the Institution of the Last Supper in Holy Week is different.  The context is the evening..... which is why the Church assigns a Vesperal Liturgy with its associated prayers of the evening.

With reference to the Holy Saturday Liturgy the reason is historical also.  Originally this Vesperal Liturgy was the actual Liturgy of Pascha.  This is difficult to believe I know, but it is true.  The clue is in the 15 Old Testament readings which were designed to be read throughout the night BEFORE THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES! 

Sometime in the Middle Ages, perhaps because some people were too lazy or indifferent to come to Church late on Saturday and into the early hours of Sunday, this Liturgy was moved onto the morning of the same day, (the same happened to the Holy Thursday Liturgy).  This really was a nonsense since it destroyed the integrity and completeness of the Paschal Vigil.  Of course the Church did not abandon the Vigil, but the removal of the Vespers part meant that it started with the Acts of the Apostles reading before the Midnight Vigil which precedes both Paschal Matins and the Paschal Liturgy.  So, here you can see that two Liturgies were unnecessarily and confusingly created out of the original one.

Well, we could just accept what happened and leave this orphaned Vesperal Liturgy hanging there out of place in the morning OR we could at least restore it to the early evening, especially since in parish practice the 15 readings have often been shortened to 3.  This is what we do at St. Aidan's.  It has the merit of being a conservative change in the timing and not the content of the service.  This, however, can only be a transitional temporary change on the way to restoring the integrity of the original single complete Paschal Vigil.  That would require the removal of the Eucharistic content of the present Vesperal Liturgy thereby allowing Vespers to rejoin the EXISTING Paschal Vigil.  The Old Testament readings would then immediately precede the reading of the Acts of the Apostles before the Night Office and Matins followed on.  This is the true liturgical reform that we actually need from our bishops and it is long, long overdue.  In the meantime we do what we can at St. Aidan's to respect the original integrity of the Paschal celebration.

For more information about the historical development of the services of Great and Holy Week and Pascha please consult this by the late great Orthodox liturgical scholar, Fr. Gregory Woolfenden, especially his final paragraph entitled: "An Afterthought" which contains this amusing reference:

"I do not think that it might be heresy to suggest that Matins be served in the morning and Vespers in the evening."  Quite so!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why the Arabs themselves must resist Islamic Fundamentalism

Well, we are now on the brink of a third Gulf War with no end in sight. Political and military commentators will be working overtime and acres of print will be written contesting the question: “will Western intervention work or not?”  Important though this is for the West and global security there are other issues here of primary importance which are rarely discussed.

The West will no doubt face acts of terrorism on an ongoing basis but these will not destroy our culture and civilisation. However, unchecked ISIS will destroy Arab civilisation. Arab peoples and other ethnicities in the Middle East now need to ask some deep and searching questions of themselves. Do they want to preserve and defend the legacy of medieval Islamic culture in the arts and sciences through the turbulence of this era and into the third millennium or are they going to surrender passively, or indeed actively to religious barbarism?

The high point of Islam in global terms was not the bloody expansion of the Arab tribes into the Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century but rather what the descendants of those tribes achieved in more peaceful times in subsequent centuries. If once again Arab, and specifically Islamic Arab culture, is to become a blessing rather than a curse for humankind then its leaders and peoples have some hard choices to make, which initially will lead to severe internal conflicts.

These choices are severely practical in nature. They involve Muslims fighting against Muslims, sadly, not only and necessarily in tanks and bombers and with guns and grenades, but also at some point with councils and dialogue, with open hands and peaceful hearts, a more costly jihad   In this cultural “war” between resurgent Islamic fundamentalism and the more cultured, peaceful expressions of Islam, (which the world would rightly welcome), the West needs to gain new friends and new partners.

At the moment we have a more immediate problem, “who is fighting whom?” We hear much of the new coalition of the willing but decent, peaceful Arab Islamic peoples need now to stand up and be counted. The West cannot allow a situation to develop whereby it fights their war against barbarism, not only for them but also instead of them. Yes, this will draw the snipers crosshairs onto the House of Saud and the Gulf States themselves, but this will happen soon enough anyway.

We need to see in the West that these countries are indeed pulling their weight in the military war and in the cultural war. If not, we should pull out while there is still time. What is at stake here is the survival of Arab civilisation and culture and in the end only Arabs can both address and defend that for themselves.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Guilty Little Secret

I grew up at a time when anything to do with Russia was inherently suspect and dangerous.  Anyone who read the "Morning Star" (a Marxist newspaper) was suspected of treachery.  Covert surveillance of the hard left in Britain was (and probably still is) commonplace.   If you were Labour then you read the Mirror; Tory? the Times or the Telegraph for you; Liberal? the Guardian of course.  This was a time when there were just 3 TV channels ... BBC 1, BBC2 and ITV.  Then there were "D" notices ... the State denying publication under the Official Secrets Act (a sort of Wikileaks before Wikileaks).  Public opinion was sustained by very limited media input and options.  All that changed with Cable TV and the Internet.

There were of course losses as well as gains.  The reliability of news on line was and is questionable.  In some ways opportunities for propaganda distortion and just plain dotty fancifulness have grown exponentially. However, the real game changers have been choice and access.  Today mostly everyone (except perhaps in China and Iran) can read whatever they want to read by way of news content and comment.

Shall I share with you my guilty secret?  It amuses me that today I tend to trust RT (Russia Today) more than I trust SKY and even the BBC.  Of course there is spin on RT just as much as there is spin anywhere else.  It's just that their take on the news is a healthy corrective to what would otherwise be a very unbalanced monochrome western perspective on home and world events.

Interestingly, when I talk to my friends I discover that they also watch RT.  It hugely amuses me that what the Politburo in Moscow could never achieve through Pravda after the War is now much more easily achieved (influence in the west that is) through the application of a little modern technology.  No wonder totaliltarian regimes everywhere try and control and even throttle information exchange on the internet.  The satellite dish has become the great democratic leveller.  The people really are in charge now.  It's just the politicians that need to catch up.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A lesson from history ....

The Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War, a sectarian religious conflict that ravaged Europe in the mid seventeenth century. It  established a principle of international law persisting to this day that Mr. Hague would do well to revisit.  A sovereign state may not suffer military intervention from another state on account of internal domestic conflicts.  It was the lack of such a tempering principle that spread sectarian violence throughout Europe at the time.  
So, no matter how horrific the events inside Syria, proxy wars on behalf of combatants always spill over into regional conflicts (don't feed the terrorists) and can even lead to wider international conflicts.  Remember that we declared war on Germany only when it invaded Poland.  However, I am NOT saying that we shouldn't have done so if Nazism had confined itself to internal German affairs rather than try to build the Third Empire.  Systematic mass killing and genocide must always be resisted BUT (and we should take lessons from Iraq and WMD) only with due authority (one of the priniciples of a "just war.")  
Once again the US and the UK are beginning to act alone.  Short of a UN declaration, the Syrian government is the legitimate authority in Syria.  If there is a credible alternative to the present regime, colluding with armed insurrection and risking military hardware falling into the hands of jihadists is not the way to provide it.  
Yes, it's horrible to see so much suffering in Syria but the choice is whether we want to see yet more suffering by external as well as internal escalation.  The west needs to work with Russia in bringing the combatants to the peace table.  If Russia is arming the government rather than the militias, however unpalatable that might be to some, it has international law on its side.  This is not about sentiment but rather a hard nosed assessment of what will lead to a cessation of the violence and, thereafter, contribute to the long and hard business of healing wounds and building peace.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sleep Walking toward the Abyss

A fire is raging. What do you do? Well, you get some petrol (gasoline) and you simply chuck it onto the flames.  Absurd isn't it?  And yet that is what many non-Syrian nations with their own agendas have been doing for the last 3 years.  America is simply late to the infernal party.

Desperate to see the "rebels" prevail with the Syrian government now pushing back into the "rebel" held north there are some in Washington and London who think that Assad can be eased out by threats and pea shooters. Maybe it's just for show; who knows.  What I do know is that "rebels" linked to Al Quaeda were apprehended at the end of May by Turkey in possession of a 2 Kg cannister of the sarin nerve agent that the west is now saying has been deployed by Syrian government forces, (WMD anyone?).  The Al Nusra linked faction was apparently planning to export its terror campaign into southern Turkey. Oh yes, and then there was that park in Istanbul.

Shouldn't we be more alert to what is going on here?  Terrorists always try and use violence to radicalise and divide otherwise peaceful movements so that the poison of their terror can spread by fear and loathing.  It matters little what the antagonists believe or what the colour of their politics or religion happens to be ... just exploit it.  Terrorism is always both parasitic and manipulative.  That's what they always want ... war; war on the streets, war between the nations ... war so they might prevail.

The Syrian conflict, aided and abetted by these demonic forces now has all the essential ingredients of an international conflict, seeded by a self righteous proxy war between the "not-so-great" world powers.  We may yet see a Third World War breaking out from this orchestrated nesting of evil.  The First World War started from an arguably much less contentious situation.  And what does the west do?  Divide the world up into goodies (the "rebels") and the baddies (the Syrian government). In this the hawks can always rely on the impressionable consciences of the liberal left.  Some American politicians are now actually talking about a "fair fight."  How on earth is this at all helpful in reducing tension, brokering peace and bringing the amenable to the table?  Arming one side against the other is just going to exacerbate and spread the conflict.  Israel is getting nervous, as is Turkey and Lebanon is already being dragged into the dark vortex of sectarian violence.

What we need now is less propaganda, less pulling at heart strings to justify violent intervention and more hard nosed, even handed diplomacy, eschewing self interest, intimidation and threats.  But who now has clean hands?  Everyone (just about) whiffs of petrol and most are standing far, far too close to the fire.  It does not look good.  It does not look good at all but there may as yet be enough time to stop this one spinning out of control.

Wake up!  Stop sleep walking toward the abyss!  Shut up ... stop performing to the media and your electorate and work hard, damned hard, for peace.  You know whom I'm talking to!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What to do about Syria

Western politicians mean well ... they are just naive.
Western politicians are duplicitous.  They manipulate events to their own advantage.

I have heard both comments from Christians in and from the Middle East.  The recent expiry of the arms embargo in the European Union means that the UK Government will soon be arming the anti-Government forces ... but WHICH anti-Government forces?  How will our Government ensure that its arms do not fall into the hands of jihadists?  Is there such a thing as a "good rebel" .... committed to freedom, democracy and a truly pluralistic Syria after Assad?

I personally believe that any military intervention by the west in Syria is at best unwise and potentially, disastrous.  This is rapidly becoming a proxy war between Arab States in the Middle East and their oil hungry western backers and a Russian-Iranian axis concerned to protect its own interests in the region.  It may may be a civil war at the moment but it has all the ingredients and precedents from history to become a regional then international conflict, even, God forbid, a Third World War.

Bashar in Damascus is not going to back down and his control of the south and readiness to retake the north is building momentum.  Iran is not going to walk away from the Middle East and Hezbollah will continue to mobilise with fellow Shiites and derivative sects against Sunni insurgencies in traditionally Shiite controlled areas from Baghdad to Beirut.  Western involvement in this mess is only going to make things worse ... and certainly for religious minorities such as Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

It is very easy of course to get people emoting on 24/7 western news channels about the truly terrible suffering in Syria and then use that as a mandate for military intervention. But, the "cure" must not be worse than the disease.  The so called rebels will never take Damascus and with the regime digging in and pushing back north to recoup their losses the straight choice is between the Balkanisation of Syria and attempting to foster its evolution towards an inclusive political settlement.

Only those with "clean hands" will be able to play a role in the second option, (the first is too terrible to contemplate).  Today the UK stands at the crossroads.  Will it genuinely become even handed and work with a coalition of the willing in Syria or will it tragically take sides - even more starkly than it has already done - and arguably make both the local and international situation much worse?

Thursday, November 22, 2012


The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (outgoing), Dr. Rowan Williams commented recently that the Church of England had "lost a measure of credibility" by rejecting women bishops.  It is not for me to comment on the internal affairs of another Christian body.  However, the issue of "credibility" is a good deal more complex than might be suggested by a rather superficial test of "acceptability" in the eyes of secular society.

The Church (and by that reference here I mean the ORTHODOX Church - western and eastern) prevailed over a persecuting Roman class in the 4th century not by being credible in this sense of "acceptable" but by the blood of the martyrs - as Tertullian characterised this, "the seed of the Church."  "Credibility" has much more to do with faithfulness even unto death than with being acceptable to the mores of unbelievers. 

If the Orthodox Church was ever to have women bishops it would not be because it felt that it needed to conform to a secular world view, perhaps that shared by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who later opined in the House of Commons that the Church of England needed to "get with the programme."  No, it would do so because quite independently it believed it to be God's will to do so in conformity with Scripture and Tradition and in the unity of the Church.  There are many in the Anglican Communion who honestly hold to that position (albeit that Orthodoxy respectfully disagrees with their conclusions). 

The lesson I take away with me from this sad affair is that Christians generally should seek credibility from the gospel rather than court respectability and acceptance in the eyes of the world.  I don't expect that position to be popular or to make it easier for people in the short term to receive the gospel.  But, will I sacrifice the gospel for a substitute secular standard of belief and witness?  No, I will not.

So my argument is not with those who support women bishops on theological grounds (however much I might disagree with that position, and I do) but with those who believe that such issues should be addressed from outside the Church and according to contrary, extrinsic principles. Therein lies the authentic question of "credibility."

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