Worship in the Workshop: Providing Opportunities to Raise the Bar

By Richard Barrett on September 20, 2019

The joke is at times heard that in the chapels of some of our seminaries, they “don’t worship but workshop.” The sense of this witticism is that what happens in their services is experimentation with rubrics, texts, service order, with an impulse towards “reform.”

Over the course of this last summer, however, I was blessed to participate in two events where the sense of the “liturgical workshop” was less “reform” than “rekindling.” The intent of the services at these gatherings was not to tinker; rather, the point was to provide participants a glimpse of what services could be like if we tinkered less than we currently do.

For the first of these, AGES Initiatives sponsored a liturgical symposium titled “Words That Burn Like A Lamp” at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church Family Life Center in St. Louis, Missouri for three days in July. (I serve as the Executive Director of AGES Initiatives.) Inspired by an event in Detroit earlier this year, centered around an All-Night Vigil for The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, the symposium brought together a slate of speakers and clinicians that included AGES principal and founder Fr. Seraphim Dedes, Protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco John Michael Boyer, Notre Dame Ph. D. candidate Sarah Roumas, and myself. For the first two days, men and women from across the country learned what made festal services festal, worked on the types of hymns that use model melodies, and developed a sense of the fullness of what can be done for feasts and important commemorations within our liturgical tradition. The participants then implemented what they learned for Vespers, Orthros, and Divine Liturgy for the Prophet Elias, with the services entirely in English, with metered prosomoia and canons, and with newly-composed idiomela by Fr. Seraphim, John, and me. We were fortunate enough to hold these services in the Family Life Center’s lovely, resonant chapel; there we celebrated full, uncut service orders, and in addition, we sang everything with antiphonal choirs.

A month later, sixty men and women assembled at the Diakonia Retreat Center of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta in Salem, South Carolina for The Liturgical Arts Academy, a weeklong retreat offering intensive learning opportunities for iconography, ecclesiastical textiles, and Byzantine music. The thirty attendees on the chant track sang daily services in the stunning katholikon that is under construction on the grounds, led by instructors John Michael Boyer, Samuel Herron of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Gabriel Cremeens of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. While these services were not entirely uncut, they included several elements that are often suppressed or abbreviated in everyday parish practice; they were served with the assumption of the luxury of time. Also, as was the case in St. Louis, they were sung with right and left choirs in a wonderfully live acoustic.

The agenda of these liturgical workshops was not to innovate or normalize idiosyncrasies, as some perceive the reform efforts outside Orthodox Christianity as doing. At no point, for example, was there ever any suggestion that instead of the Praises at the end of Orthros, perhaps we could try a different group of psalms that would be the centerpiece for newly-composed hymnography. Nor was the agenda liturgical reduction. There was never a proposal to cut entirely a section of the service, such as the Great Entrance, on the grounds that it was no longer relevant given today’s context and church architecture.

If “reform” was not the point, perhaps it would be better to say that the aim of this workshop environment was renovation. These events allowed dedicated men and women to come together in exceptional settings with the blessing of time and resources set aside for no other purpose than to learn to worship fully and well. Such a context provided the opportunity to experience and learn what our services can be when there are not external burdens competing for attention. It also allowed everybody to participate together across skill and experience levels, giving a chance to learn from each other that might not always be possible in a parish situation where few who serve at the analogion.

The time, resources, and focus made the workshop environment a rare chance for us to make choices about what to do within the prescribed liturgical order that would have been difficult at a typical parish. A key example common to both events was the sung canon. This is deserving of its own article, but instead of the brief passing nod at the canon that singing the katavasies alone represents, in St. Louis we sang the entire order of the canon in full, we did so entirely in English with metered translations, and with a two-choir format. At the Liturgical Arts Academy, we would sing four odes of the canon in full — first, third, and ninth, for example — and there again we sang them with antiphonal choirs (although not always in English, and not always with metered translations). When sung this way, one begins to understand why this hymnographic genre became so popular: it is fun. When one has the resources to sing the troparia metered to the proper heirmoi as a choir (or choirs), the canon is a long ‘hymn sing’ dropped into the middle of Orthros. The entire order can take up to an hour, but when one has the luxury of singable texts and people who can sing them together, it feels like it is over before it began. It was a taste of liturgical joy that one does not often get to experience in the parish.

There are other examples of choices we could make besides the sung canon. In St. Louis, at Vespers, we sang some of the prosomoia with the appointed “slow” versions of melodies appropriate for a more elevated commemoration. For Divine Liturgy, we chose to sing the Typika and Beatitudes instead of the stational antiphons. At both St. Louis and the Academy, we were able to restore some of the sung psalmody that is usually cut from the offices, such as the Stichologia (psalm verses) before the stichera at “Lord I have cried” and at the Praises. We also celebrated daily Orthros without Divine Liturgy a number of times at the Academy, which afforded a rare chance (outside of Holy Week, at least) to sing the Aposticha after the Praises. For Divine Liturgy at the Academy, we also restored the sung Prokeimenon and Alleluia with verses, allowing the censing of the Gospel to occur at its intended place.

Another significant element was English. Away from the pastoral concerns of language at the parish level, these events were free to demonstrate how far English has come in Orthodox liturgical use, especially in the context of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. St. Louis, as noted earlier, was completely in English, with some texts and scores commissioned specifically for that event so that we could do everything in English with metered texts where needed. The Liturgical Arts Academy used some Greek, but was predominantly in English. Both workshops showed that English-language worship in the musical idiom of Byzantine chant is elegant, dignified, and beautiful when it is translated, metered, set, and sung well.

The physical layout of both the St. Nicholas Family Life Center Chapel and the Diakonia Retreat Center allowed ample space for antiphonal choirs on the right and left. There is a cruciform dance of altar, choirs, and people that our services do within this arrangement. Right and left choirs have a traditional division of labor when these rubrics are executed; this shared workload helps make our longer, more complex services possible. All the same, the arrangement is largely unknown in most of our parishes. We were able to bring that dance to life in St. Louis and at the Academy and allow many of the participants to experience it for the first time.

Within the antiphonal choir arrangement, at St. Louis and at the Academy had a range of options with respect to who would be on the right and the left. In St. Louis, we had men as the right choir and women as the left choir. At the Diakonia Retreat Center, we rotated mixed choirs with men’s and women’s choirs, sometimes with women on the right and men on the left. We had an amazing group of women at the Academy with a glorious choral sound, and it was a blessing for all of us present for them to be able to sing together.

The churches themselves were also “workshops” of a sort — the St. Nicholas Family Life Center Chapel and the Diakonia Retreat Center’s katholikon are both still very much works in progress. St. Nicholas has bare walls and floors, with icons on easels for its iconostasis; the katholikon is still an active construction site, also with bare walls and floor but also still with no indoor plumbing, incomplete electrical wiring and air conditioning systems, and crews would be working and hammering outside while we were finishing Orthros. Even in these unfinished settings, however, enough provision had been in the design made for liturgical needs that they were wonderful churches in which to worship — and this was accomplished simply by adhering to traditional design principles of Byzantine churches. For example, the celebrant needed no microphone at the Academy, even when facing the same direction as the people; the curved apse wall in the sanctuary served as an amplifier, and the stone construction, plaster finish, and different levels of non-parallel surfaces in the katholikon did the rest of the work. Acoustically, both buildings were tremendous, perhaps especially because they weren’t yet complete; voices rang, bounced, and blended effortlessly in those naves, much as light and color will eventually do when all work is done.

These “workshop” environments were a real blessing for all involved; we were able to participate to a degree in “heaven on earth” in ways that are often challenging for parishes. The charge for us after such opportunities, then, is always to find ways to take these experiences back out into the world for our parishes. As more people attend events like these, let us encourage them to plant seeds upon their return home that will blossom into a greater liturgical fullness for the American faithful.

If you would like to experience a workshop like this for yourself, follow AGES Initiatives’ website (www.agesinitiatives.org/seminars) and Facebook page for future announcements, and save the date for the next Liturgical Arts Academy: 24-30 May 2020.

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