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Introduction to Eastern Christian Liturgies by Stefanos Alexopoulos and Maxwell E. Johnson

10 June 2022

Hugh Wybrew reviews an introduction to the services of the East

WRITTEN by two well-known scholars and published for the Alcuin Club, this is the first one-volume introduction to Eastern Christian liturgies for many years, and embodies the fruits of modern liturgical scholarship.

While Western Christians might have some acquaintance with the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, fewer are familiar with the non-Chalcedonian Churches, those traditionally, though misleadingly, referred to as Monophysite or Nestorian. The authors distinguish seven liturgical families, or “rites”, as they are known in contemporary scholarly terminology: Armenian, Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian, East Syrian, West Syrian, and Maronite. The term “rite” in this sense includes all the individual rites and liturgical practices of a particular Christian tradition. A short introduction gives an outline of the geographical spread and historical evolution of each “rite”.

Five chapters then examine in detail the liturgical contents of these liturgical traditions: Christian initiation and reconciliation; the eucharistic liturgies; the liturgical year and the liturgy of the Hours; marriage and Holy Orders; and anointing of the sick and Christian burial. Each chapter includes useful tables enabling the reader to see the structure of the services, their similarities and differences. Frequent quotations of liturgical texts convey something of the flavour of the various rites, and the biblical and poetical imagery that they employ. The chapter on eucharistic rites includes several complete texts of eucharistic prayers, or anaphoras, as they are called in Eastern rites.

In the concluding chapter, “The Ethos of Eastern Christian Worship and Liturgical Spirituality”, the authors emphasise the highly liturgical character of Eastern Christianity. While each of the “rites” has its own characteristics, shaped by its history, culture, and theology, they all share a common liturgical ethos and spirituality that unite them in the same faith even when their doctrinal formulae differ.

Because Eastern Christians have lived for so long under non-Christian rule, liturgical worship has become the principal means of passing on the Christian tradition from one generation to another. Hymnology and the scriptures are at the heart of their liturgical life, to which the cross and resurrection are inseparably central. The custom of standing in church is understood as a sign of the resurrection, the theme of every Sunday’s liturgical celebration. Monasticism has played a significant part in Eastern Christian life, leaving a profound mark on its liturgical worship. Liturgical space is sacred space, to which iconography makes an essential contribution.

In conclusion. the authors write of the challenges facing the Eastern Christian Churches. First among them is the question of the relation between religion and nation. In all its forms. Eastern Christianity has become ethnic and national in character, and Churches have become a means of preserving national identity. While this may be understandable in the light of history, it can be an obstacle in the way of proclaiming the gospel. While some Eastern church leaders are aware of this problem, this is not true of all of them.

This book is an excellent introduction to the rich liturgical traditions of Eastern Christianity, too little known to Western Christians.

Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford.


Introduction to Eastern Christian Liturgies
Stefanos Alexopoulos and Maxwell E. Johnson
Liturgical Press £47.99
Church Times Bookshop £43.19

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