CIRCULAR LETTER: The Manner of Reading the Prayers of the Divine Liturgy

To the Honorable Metropolitans of the Church of Greece

Subject: The Manner of Reading the Prayers of the Divine Liturgy

Most Honorable brothers in Christ:

The Sacred Synod of the Church of Greece, within the framework of its constant and unchanging concern for the strengthening of the “propitious service to God” and bearing in mind the conclusions concerning this subject by the Special Synodal Commission for the Liturgical Renaissance, desires to inform you, by way of this letter and through you and to “the whole glory of our Holy Church of Greece” the following, which relates to the manner of reading the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, in order that the participation of the whole “people of God” in the action, the reading and singing, would become universal and together with that, fully realized.

The manner of reading these prayers in the past gave rise to contradictory opinions. However, inasmuch as the subject relates not only to ritual but touches upon the people’s  salvation by way of a conscious participation in the Divine Liturgy, it requires an thorough knowledge of history and the theological side of this problem, in order that correct conclusions may be made and introduced into contemporary liturgical practice.

The witness of the first eight centuries (i.e. to the first extant written Euchologia) indicates that the people heard the prayers of the Liturgy. This is indicated for example, the evidence of responding with “Amen” to the priest’s prayers (Justin, Dionysius of Alexandria, Jerome) or by the obvious indications that the prayers were “heard” by the people (Dionysius of Alexandria, Canon 19 of Laodicea, Lives of venerable Melania), or the use of the verb “to say/speak” with respect to the prayers of the prayers of the Divine Liturgy (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian), or to places in Chrysostom about the priest who “receives the voice of the people” and performs the Divine Service, as well as to the Body of the Church which proclaims prayers of thanksgiving “with one mind” and “with one voice”.  We will add here an indirect witness about reading the prayers of the Divine Liturgy with respect to hearing of them by the people which is found in a most important text of the Apostolic Traditions, indicating that the bishop prays “by himself” during the rite of vesting whereas he “proclaims” the Eucharistic prayers before the Altar.

This one tradition reflects the Pauline epistle (1 Cor. 14:16-17) that a member of the People of God (laos) cannot respond with “Amen” to the priest’s prayers if he does not understand them (consequently, if he does not hear them). The earlier cited Canon 19 of the Council of Laodicea refers to three prayers of the faithful at the Divine Liturgy: the first is recited “in silence” and refers to the worthiness of the celebrant, while the other two are recited “by exclamation”. This evidence is also unique for the first six centuries relating to a prayer recited silently although it should be pointed out that it does not constitute the central body of the Liturgy, i.e. the Holy Anaphora. Only at the time between the 6-7 centuries, does the Nestorian author Narsis writes about the reading of the Anaphora prayers”in silence”. This practice was opposed by the Orthodox Church through Justinian’s Novell 137 which affirmed the universal tradition that the liturgical prayers should be rendered “not in silence but in an audible voice for the faithful people”.

The tradition about the manner of reading the prayers aloud for the people is clear, uniform and universal. In the light of this tradition we can approach toward the theological understanding of “mystical” and “secret” which became fixed in the Eucharistic terminology of many church writers after the IV century and reached the apogee of development in the Areopagitic writings and in the Byzantine commentators on the Divine Liturgy.  This was not so much about the manner of reading the prayers in secret (as was affirmed by some) which would be contrary to the liturgical tradition of the first six centuries but an attempt to make the Liturgy a “mystical proclamation” (“mystical act” in the words of Maximus the Confessor).

The available Euchologia manuscripts for the end of VIII century affirm the preceding liturgical tradition; they affirm that “None is worthy. . .” at the Divine Liturgy, “O compassionate and merciful God. . .” in the order of Baptism, and “O Lord Jesus Christ. . .” at the Great Blessing of Water during Epiphany, are recited “secretly” (i.e. completely inaudible) , and the prayer behind the Ambo, the prayer “Great art thou, O Lord. . .” at Baptism and the Great Blessing of Water at Epiphany, as well as “O Lord, who art immaculate. . .”during the Kneeling Service are recited out loud (i.e. melodically recited with a solemn voice). With respect to almost all other prayers, the Euchologia clearly or indirectly attests that they were proclaimed in a “quiet [normal] voice” which is prescribed by a number of ritual directions.

Thus the opinion that the prayers are read either secretly or are “loudly proclaimed”, as it is commonly stated, is erroneous. What is correct, from the review of traditions found in Euchologian manuscripts, is that there are obviously just a few prayers which are read secretly or are “loudly proclaimed” and that most of them are read “in a quiet voice” but “aloud” for the people, i.e. in such a manner that the people could hear them. This is the Church’s liturgical tradition which the present liturgical practice is called upon to adopt. Except for the Cherubic prayer which the celebrant must read for himself but audible to the co-celebrants, and the prayer behind the ambo, which must be read loudly, all other prayers must be read by the celebrant in a quiet voice which preserves the sense of the Mystery or “Liturgy”‘ and strengthens the reverence of the one who is praying and finally, “mystically represents.”

The manner of reading aloud in a quiet voice at the same time preserves the post-baptismal concern for the “mystical enlightenment”, Inasmuch as all the faithful following Baptism are guided by the Mysteries, they are no longer “unenlightened”. For the baptized, earthly life is a continuous “Bright Week”, the celebration of baptismal white garments until the coming of “The New Day of the Lord” and the meeting of the coming Lord. As “mystically enlightened”, they must be informed by the Mystery of Divine services and this process occurs, except through other aspects, through the hearing  of the prayers by the faithful. It follows that the manner of rendering the prayers must not be governed by rubrical rules but must be a method of instruction (“mystical enlightenment”) on the part of pastors and teachers of the Church.

On the basis of this liturgical and historical and canonical evidence we can come to certain conclusions and on that basis state:

a) Everything in the Divine Liturgy has its fundamental purpose and nothing should depend upon a religious or emotional or an esthetical disposition of the presiding celebrant.

b) The actions which take place during the Divine Liturgy, have an eschatological character and are received not so much through the mind or thought but by way of the “heart”, as this term is understood in the patristic theology of rightful temperance.

c) In addition, the faithful must receive a benefit from this and be conscious that they do not “perform” the Mystery during the Divine liturgy along with the celebrant, but participate in it. The first point of view as a belief and concept, is purely a Protestant understanding and practice which diminishes the “hierarchal nature” and the “hierarchy” of the Church, as well as the distinction of  the charismatic gifts. Precisely this can occur unconsciously and become fixed within the People of God as a result of an unreasonable reading of the prayers “audibly” or “loudly”.

d) The reading of prayers “in a quiet [normal] voice” rather than in a whisper as they are commonly read in today’s practice, permits the faithful the opportunity to follow and be aware of the sequential variations of the prayers and the exclamations and the canonical structure of the Divine liturgy which frequently “displaces’ the prayer from its place in connection with the read and sung context. (Circular Letter of the Sacred Synod N 2683 of 8.11.1999).

e) This directive for the “quiet [normal]” reading of the prayers, in addition to everything stated above, would protect the priests from carelessness or an inattentive reading of the prayers, or a mechanical recitation, or a scanning of them “with the eyes”. The faithful would be helped to understand that during the Divine liturgy the priest is not reciting certain magical phrases but performs and offers on their behalf  “prayers, petitions and bloodless offerings” for the fulness of the whole Church.

f) Finally, it is characteristic that the publishing organization “Apostolic Service” pf the Greek Church, following the approval of our Sacred Synod and the recent report of His Beatitude Metropolitan Dionisius of Servion and Kozani, has , in the recent past, published the prayers and exclamations in the appropriate liturgical editions, in accordance with the ancient and correct tradition of the Church (Hierarch’s Ordinal and Priest’s Service Book), omitting the term “secretly” and substituting “quiet [normal] voice”.

Having this in mind we call upon you to recommend to the presbyters in your Metropolis to serve  “In the fear of God and faith” and special reverence, and to encourage the conscious participation of the faithful in the services, as well as by reading the prayers “in a quiet [normal] voice”, dispensing with all formalism and pietistic expressions and  structures as well as any kind of sacramentalistic manifestations and signs of “theatrics”, making the effort primarily, to point to the Eschatological Table of God’s Kingdom, that is, to the “Divine Communion”.

† Archbishop of Athens CHRISTODOULOS, the Head

† of Didimotychos and Orestiada Nicephorus

† of Mitilena, Eressos and Plomarios Iakovos

† of Limnos and Agios Eustratios Ieropheos

† of Humenissa, Axiopolis and Polikastr Demetrios

† of Beria and Nausa Panteleimon.

† of Driynupolis, Pogoniana and Konitsa Andreas

† of Hytios and Ytilos Chrisostomos

† of Demetriada and Almiros Ignatios

† of Cephira Cyrill

† of Thessaliotida and Phanariofersal Theokletos

† of Cesariana, Beron and Ymitos Daniel

† of Hydra, Spetson and Aegina Ephrem

Secretary † Archim. Chrisostomos Skliphas

Translated from the Russian of a Greek original appearing on This is a Circular Letter of the Synod of the Church of Greece, Athens, March 31 2004, N. 2784

Залишити відповідь