Western Rite Criticism

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The Western Rite in the Orthodox Church is not without its critics. Objections are made in regards to desire for liturgical uniformity within Orthodoxy and fears that the Western Rite would produce division within the Church. Some question the sincerity of Western Rite converts, just as some question the conversions of those within the Byzantine Rite. Finally, some complain about a lack of organic liturgical continuity, or will not attend a Western Rite Eucharist. However, no Orthodox parish may deny the Eucharist to visiting faithful of the canonical Western Rite, regardless of their feelings about the concept of Western Rite Orthodoxy. There have been no schisms within the episcopacy of the Orthodox Church regarding the issue of Western Rite parishes.


Whether the Western Rite will grow in its acceptance by Orthodox Christians who follow the Byzantine Rite remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Orthodox bishops who oversee Western Rite parishes—and many who oversee no Western Rite parishes—continue to declare their Western flocks to be true Orthodox Christians and regard them as fully in communion with the rest of the Church.

Byzantine only

Some argue that there is only the Byzantine liturgical tradition can be viable within the Church. The argument's major weakness is that it ignores the wide liturgical variety characteristic of the first millennium of the Church's history. Many Orthodox Christians currently boast of the Church's liturgical homogeneity, claiming that, no matter where one might go in the Orthodox world, the liturgy will be familiar, even if it's in another language. However, their first millennium counterparts would have been incapable of making such a claim—even if only the Eastern liturgical tradition were taken into account. It wasn't until the 13th century that the tradition of the Great Church (i.e., Hagia Sophia) became normative for the whole of Orthodoxy.


Another criticism is that the Western Rite is inherently divisive. Following different liturgical traditions than their neighboring Byzantine Rite Orthodox Christians, those using the Western Rite do not share liturgical unity with them and present an unfamiliar face to the majority of Orthodox Christians. Again, this argument is based on the relatively new notion of liturgical homogeneity. Likewise, differences exist between the various uses of the Byzantine Rite.

An Orthodox Unia?

Related to liturgical division, the question of ongoing administrative division has been raised. The situation of Western Orthodox parishes has been compared with the status of the autonomous Uniate churches under the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries, there have been hierarchical churches in full communion with and in subjection to the Vatican, but which the Pope allows to follow Byzantine liturgical customs and rules. The Uniates, despite usages that more closely resemble the majority of Orthodox Christians, share a common dogmatic belief with Latin Rite Catholics. Analogously, the Western Rite Orthodox share the same faith as their Byzantine Rite Orthodox brethren.

However, unlike the Uniates, Western Rite Orthodox congregations are not the result of large-scale ecclesiastical political machinations and schism but rather of small-scale genuine conversion to Orthodoxy by individuals and congregations. Also, Western Rite congregations all adhere to the same bishops as their Byzantine brethren; they do not constitute a separate church of their own, unlike the Byzantine Catholics ("Uniates") within Roman Catholicism. Criticism of the Western Rite based on its similarity with the Uniates has been called guilt by association—overplaying a superficial similarity of form. Because the ideas are analogous, the argument goes, they must therefore both be inauthentic developments. Yet the more firmly established criticisms of Uniatism usually have nothing to do with rite but rather with dogma, ecclesiology, and allegedly subversive missionary work.

Conversion without conversion

Another criticism often leveled against the Western Rite is based on the mainly convert makeup of most of its parishes. The argument states that such Christians want to be Orthodox but "not too Orthodox," so they keep their familiar rites under a new bishop. The unstated assumption behind this argument, however, is similar to the argument against all non-Byzantine liturgical traditions: That Orthodoxy includes only the Byzantine Rite, and so if one wants to be truly Orthodox, one must also be Eastern. Again, history shows otherwise.

Additionally, this argument also fails to take into account the longstanding history of some of these parishes. For many of them, the Western Rite with an Orthodox Christian faith (though certainly sometimes outside canonical bounds) genuinely is the faith of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The argument fails to address the question of substance—that is, it does not address whether and why the Western Rite is or is not actually Orthodox.

It is an accident of history that the Western Rite is not yet firmly established again within the Orthodox Church. That most of its adherents are converts is not germane to the question of its Orthodoxy. One might level the same accusation at predominantly convert Byzantine Rite parishes, that they need to learn to give up everything familiar in order to become Orthodox, whether it's language, culture, or some other facet of life. Oddly enough, some have argued precisely that, saying, for instance, that English is incapable of expressing the Orthodox faith.

Lack of liturgical continuity

Finally, more historically minded criticisms of the Western Rite usually center around the idea that it is untenable to try to revive a liturgical tradition which was lost centuries ago when the West fell away from the Orthodox Church. This argument essentially states that, because the Western Rite died out in the Church, and because a continuous living tradition is a necessary element of liturgical practice, the Western Rite ought to be abandoned and only developments from the Byzantine Rite ought to be pursued.

Another response to such criticisms is that the the vast majority of the rites being used by Western Rite Orthodox Christians are not new, but mainly predate the Great Schism. The ordinary of the Liturgy of St. Gregory, for example, predates the schism. (Many devotions developed after the schism with which critics take issue are in fact paraliturgical.)

Further, a number of the pre-schism texts (not simply the ordinary but the propers) have been fully restored and translated, such as the Sarum Rite, a local use of the Roman rite from the pre-schismatic period[1]. (The historicity of this claim is disputed by modern Anglican scholars, however.[2]) Translations of the Sarum rite are currently utilized in ROCOR as well as the Old Calendarist Milan Synod, the latter also having some Mozarabic rite communities. As well, the Celtic and Ambrosian rites have been used on occasion by the Moscow Patriarchate.

Further, the now fairly well-known Liturgy of St. James once fell out of use throughout most of the Church and has now been revived in many places to be celebrated on October 23.

Also special form of Roman Rite Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy Of St. Peter the Apostle was used with continuity in Holy Mount Athos, and by some Russian Old Believers.

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