Linear and Spatial Worship

Protestant worship is linear. In larger churches – and even more so in seeker oriented services – the line from start to finish, with programmatic zigs and zags here and there, can be quite complex. Such a service, if it is well-run, requires an adept worship leader. At Westminster Presbyterian, in Lincoln, for instance, it was conceivable that we might have the Nebraska Brass playing, along with the choir, a guest organist, and a special presentation by the Outreach Committee. On a week like that the Thursday worship planning meeting might take a couple of hours so that the choir director, organist, worship leader, and pastor understood the precise flow of the service and all the signals involved in moving from one segment to the next.

And as complex and intricate as those special services might be, the key phrase still remains, “from one segment to the next.”

Even when a sort of ballet was required of the worship leaders, the service itself remains linear.

In the majority of Presbyterian churches I served, the choir director hated when the choir anthem was sung during the offering. It was distracting. People don’t do more than one thing at once well. If they were getting out their wallets, they weren’t paying attention to the anthem.

In other words, Protestant worship is linear, doing one thing at a time, one after the other, from introit to benediction.

Orthodox worship, on the other hand, is more spatial than linear. At times two or three different things can be occurring simultaneously. The priest has a specific function, the deacon another, and the choir (leading the congregation) yet another. Sometimes these functions go on at the same time yet seemingly independent of each other. It can all appear and sound a bit cacophonous if one doesn’t understand the rather different dynamic occurring.

Protestant worship is linear because it is primarily aural and mental. Protestants journey to heaven in a metaphorical sense, by hearing the word proclaimed through word, song, and action, and responding in prayer and praise. And that journey is made up of one step after another.

Ironically, while it is the Orthodox that coined the idea of worship being a journey to heaven, the actual worship event – the Divine Liturgy – is less a journey and more akin to a day’s work at a specific location: the throne room of heaven. In the Divine Liturgy one can see angels and elders and the Lamb upon his throne, and people gathered around the throne, and incense, and choirs singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy …”

And like an actual throne room, the day’s activities, while coordinated, are not necessarily specifically related to each other. Each participant – bishop, priest, deacon, sub-deacon, chanter, choir, acolyte, worshipper, etc. – has their specific task to get done in order to get the day’s throne room work completed. In this case the specific work at hand is the proper praise and worship of God. But if the spatial context – the throne room – is not understood, all those different tasks done for a singular purpose might appear to be competing activities.

Do I listen to the priest or the deacon?

In the Protestant church, the priest and deacon wouldn’t be talking at the same time. At least if Thursday’s worship planning meeting had been productive.

This is not to say that Protestant worship doesn’t have spatial characteristics. The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously called worship (and Lutheran worship specifically) a dance. (In a less complimentary reference, he also compared it to a flock of quacking ducks, but that’s another story.) Conversely, there is a distinct direction with a beginning, two movements, and an end, in Orthodox worship.

So it is certainly correct to observe that pretty much the same thing is happening in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and classical Protestant Sunday worship. But the similarities can cause the observer to miss the profound difference that Protestant worship is linear while Orthodox worship is spatial.

Is that a big deal? For many people, probably not, but for converts it can be a very big deal when it comes to integrating into the flow (or entering into the space, to keep our metaphors straight) of Orthodox worship. But more about that in a later post.

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3 thoughts on “Linear and Spatial Worship

  1. You ask: Do I listen to the priest or the deacon?

    I’m not sure about what part of the Liturgy the priest and deacon are talking at the same time. In my service book it’s pretty much either one or the other. But I trust there are moments when it is the experience of the congregation to hear from them both almost simultaneously. So, …

    Since I’m the priest (well, Jesus is the Priest, I’m technically the presbyter), I say listen to the deacon, since he mainly exhorts you to wisdom, attention, and prayer. In these you can be saved.

    • I am thinking specifically of two spots: the “secret prayers” at the altar that are said while the deacon is leading the litany from in front of the iconostasis, and in vespers, another series of prayers that the priest says while the chanters are chanting the opening psalms.

      Let me be quick to note, for any readers who are not familiar with Orthodox worship, that these “secret prayers” aren’t really secret. They’re printed in the service books so one can follow what the priest says instead of praying the litany. Of course you are correct Fr. Paul, one of the people’s “tasks’ during worship is to pray the Great and Small Litanies, so the proper thing to do is to follow along with the deacon (or the chanter during vespers and orthros). But one can also try to listen very closely to the soft voice coming from the altar and follow along with the “secret prayers.”

      This is a particular tricky issue if one isn’t familiar with the services and tries to follow along in the service book. Suddenly you have to skip a couple of pages of prayers because the priest was praying those two pages simultaneously with the litany or psalms on the previous pages. In fine print the service book says something like, “While the previous psalms are being chanted, the priest says the following prayers.”

      Thank God for Esther, Gen, and a few others at church who are very faithful at keeping a close eye on visitors and showing them where we are in the service book, or the visitors would get hopelessly lost in their “linearity” while the service book jumps from here to there around the room.

  2. Yes. Now I see.

    I recall in 1975 in my “little red prayer book” my mother stapled together the pages with the “secret prayers” so my ten-year old attention would be helped to stick with the litanies. Thanks for helping me recall that dear memory.

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