In the middle of the 16th Century the Russians, aware of a growing diversity between their own Orthodox liturgical ritual and the ritual practiced in other Orthodox countries, convened an all-Russian council to determine which ritualistic practices were more ancient. In this council, which came to be known as the Stoglav or "One Hundred Chapters" Council, the hierarchs of the Russian Church determined their own practices to be more ancient and in keeping with the ritualistic practices taught them by their Greek baptizers in the tenth century.
By the middle of the 17th Century, the newly elected patriarch Nikon, still concerned with this same issue, revised the Psalter, especially the prefatory sections dealing with the making of the Sign of the Cross, prostrations during Lent, and the order of bows during services. Following these reforms the Patriarch made numerous other service book revisions and decreed that the two-fingered Sign of the Cross was to be replaced by the three-fingered Sign of the Cross. Within months, the Russian Church was engulfed in controversy and near-schism. The leaders of the opposition to the Patriarch's reforms became known as 'Old Ritualists' (Staro-obriadtsi) and/or 'Old Believers' (staro-veri). While reconciliation appeared possible when Nikon vacated the Patriarchal seat in 1658, the refusal of the opposition to accept compromise led to the Russian Council of 1666 and the Council of 1666-1667 in which the opposition to the so-called 'Nikonian' reforms were anathematized and excommunicated and even the Old Rite itself was condemned.
Many efforts were made at reconciliation over the last 300 years but success was fleeting and usually involved individuals rather than the dominant Church and the masses of Old Ritualists/Old Believers. In1974, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia issued an ukase following a sobor convened in that year which recognized the Old Rite as Orthodox and salvific. This ukase guaranteed the Old Ritualists/Old Believers full protection of the Old Rite in Old Rite churches and the ordination of priests according to the Old Rite and in order to serve the liturgical services according to the Old Rite.
In 1983, after a number of months of studying the issues involved, the parishioners of the Church of the Nativity of Christ, formerly a priestless Old Believer parish, voted by a substantial majority to accept the terms of the 1974 ukase and to come under the omophorion of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. On July 11/24, 1983 the altar and church were consecrated, Pimen Simon was ordained to the priesthood as the rector, and Akindin Alex was ordained to the diaconate during the first Liturgy ever served in the church. After chrismating over 500 people between that date and the Dormition of the Mother of God, Sunday Aug. 15/28, 1983, Father Pimen, along with Father Dimitry Alexandrow, completed this pilgrimage of the Erie Old Ritualists back to the full rites of Orthodox Christianity by communicating hundreds of the faithful on the Feast. In September of 1984 noted iconographer Father Theodore Jurewicz, Matushka Alexandra and their seven children joined the parish. Father Theodore now serves the faithful along with Father Pimen. All services are conducted in English and Slavonic according to the Old Rite of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Many people unfamiliar with the Old Rite are fearful of coming to an Old Rite church. The Old Rite is not a different rite of the Russian Orthodox Church, but instead it is a variation of the very rite familiar to those who know the rite practiced by the Russian Orthodox Church after the reforms of the Patriarch Nikon. There are, however, certain practices of the Russian Orthodox Church no longer familiar to the faithful who use the reformed rites, but still followed in Old Rite parishes. Several of these practices may be confusing to other Orthodox faithful without some explanation.
First of all, Old Rite services always begin and end with what is known as the "entrance and departure bows." (Pri-hod-ni-ye and Es-hod-ni-ye Pokloni). These "bows" or, more correctly, these prayers are:
God be merciful to us sinners. (bow)
Thou hast created us, Lord, have mercy on us. (bow)
We have sinned immeasurably, Lord, forgive us. (bow)
Then, It is truly meet... (Shine, Shine, New Jerusalem... during the Paschal season) (prostration). This is followed by Glory to the Father... (bow); Now and ever... (bow), Lord have mercy (2), Lord Bless. (bow). Finally, the Dismissal (May Christ our true God...) (prostration). Only then does the priest vest and exclaim, Blessed is our God... These prayers also follow the dismissal at the end of services, before the faithful complete the services.
When prostrations are made, Old Rite Orthodox use a small cloth pad known as a podruchnik which is placed on the floor. The reason for this is that the hands, used to make the Sign of the Cross in an external expression of a dogmatic belief in the two natures of Christ and the unity of the Holy Trinity, should not be soiled in prayer.
Prostrations are made at times and at prayers that are often different than for other Orthodox accustomed to the diminution of prostrations made by and after the Patriarch Nikon. A study needs to be made to determine exactly what the canons of the Church meant when they prohibited prayer "on bended knees" at certain times. For example, the service books used in the Old Rite, and used by all Russian Orthodox prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, specifically direct prostrations at the Kissing of the Gospel at Sunday Matins, or at It is truly Meet... at the end of Liturgy, and even at the end of Shine, Shine, New Jerusalem... all during the Paschal season. While one might argue the propriety of making these prostrations, it must be understood the service books directing these prostrations are hundreds of years old and pre-date the schism in the Russian Church by many decades, if not centuries. Thus, these prostrations are not "Old Believer oddities" but the semi-ancient if not ancient practice of the Russian Orthodox Church.
While on the subject of the Sign of the Cross and bows, it is appropriate to mention that these external expressions of the inner faith constitute part of what might be be best described as a love of uniformity and order that is pravalent among the Old Ritualists. The prefatory section of the Psalter, mentioned earlier, specifies exactly when the Sign of the Cross and accompanying bows to the waist or prostrations are to be made. Thus, all of the worshipping faithful will be found making the Sign of the Cross at exactly the same time and places. In the Old Rite, one does not make the Sign of the Cross, nor prostrations, nor kneel when one feels moved to do so but at the appointed times in unison. This may cause some confusion to other Orthodox, since the Sign of the Cross is not necessarily made at each invocation of the Trinity or entreaty to Christ, while at other places, such as the end of More Honorable than the Cherubim... the Sign of the Cross and any accompanying bow are always made by all of the faithful.
Likewise, even motion is discouraged during certain parts of the services. Entrance or exit or even fixing of candles is not expected during the reading of the beginning prayers (Heavenly King through Come, let us Worship) or during the reading of the Six Psalms in Matins, or during the reading or recitation of the Creed, or during the reading of the Gospel. Even apart from these more solemn parts of the services, Old Rite Orthodox do not wander around the church in order to venerate icons or to light candles. While the warden or "altar boys" may fill the oil lamps or replace candles, the other faithful who enter the church after the beginning of services do not wander through the church, but find a place to stand and enter with as little disruption as possible. If one entering the late would like a candle lit, they may ask the warden to place to place a candle at an icon in front of the church. Once one has found a place to stand, it is general practice to stay at that place unless one must leave the church because of sickness or some other need. Otherwise it is not common to walk in and out of the church.
Most Old Rite faithful try to arrive on time for the services. The benches located in the Church of the Nativity are placed there because the faithful usually arrive several minutes before services begin, thus, allowing them a place to sit before services commence. Also, it is still the practice of the Old Rite to read the liturgically-appointed homilies during Matins and/or Vigils. During the reading of these homilies the faithful sit and listened attentively. When the services do begin, the faithful stand with arms folded with as little shifting of feet and body as necessary. It has always been custom in the Old Rite to stand at any time of prayer with arms folded much like the instructions given before the readings of the Six Psalms.
Proper attire is always expected in church. It is a general custom in the Old Rite to have special church clothes that are simple and appropriate for prayer which is accompanied with bows and prostrations. While many other Orthodox confuse this custom with the desire to preserve an ethnic vestige of the past, the real reason is to avoid a "fashion show" in the church, to maintain clean clothes unsullied by cigarette smoke or other uses associated with the worldly places often frequented by all of us in this secular world, and to insure comfortable, modest dress for prayer. Females of all ages must have their heads covered with a scarf while in church. Such items as hats and napkin-like coverings are considered to be inappropriate and insufficient as head coverings for females.
The only reasons for which we come to church are for the glorification and praise of God. Thus, the manner of services in the Old Rite are structured to accomplish these goals. The singing or chanting is a non-polyphonic plainchant known as Znamenny Chant. Loosely translated, this is "chanting by the signs." To a person familiar with the part-singing found in many Orthodox services, this Znamenny chant may at first seem strange or without variatian. In fact, however, there are the Eight Tones and a broad variety of "melodies" within the chant. The more simple "GIasovoye Pyenie" or "singing by the tones" is easily converted to English, while the more intricate "Krukovye Pyenie" or "singing by the hooks" or "signs" is much more difficult to convert into English. It is the latter form of singing that is still to a great extent sung in Slavonic in our church.
Finally, a couple of comments should be made on the Mysteries most commonly practiced by Orthodox Christians. Confession is a Holy Mystery not appropriately squeezed in during the celebration of other services. In fact, Confession in the Old Rite practice is a service itself with the reading of prayers, Psalms, a sermon for those making confessions, and review of sins recited by them.
Those who partake of Communion are expected to make a Confession within a reasonable time beforehand. They must not partake without Confession, if they have committed grave sins or disregarded the rules of the church in regards to the fasts, attendance at Church on Sundays and feasts, or especially if they have borne a grudge against their neighbor. They must attend Divine Services the before the liturgy at which they will partake of the Eucharist, and they must prepare themselves by reading the pre-Communion canon and prayers. Communion is given to the laity in the form of three spoonfuls of the precious and most honorable Body and Blood of Christ.
While Orthodox Christians not practicing the Old Rite are not required or even expected to practice all of the above ritualistic procedures that are unique to the Old Rite (such as making the two-fingered Sign of the Cross, or making the Sign of the Cross at exact times and places during the services, or making prostrations at times not comfortable to non-Old Rite Orthodox), they are expected to abide by the practices and procedures which are universally Orthodox, even if not always abided by in some Orthodox churches. Among these practices which we request that you respect are:
All people entering our church must be dressed modestly. Males should wear long sleeved shirts and females long-sleeved blouses or dresses. Both males and females should avoid sheer "see-through" clothing which is inappropriate anywhere, but especially in church. All females (except infants in their mother's arms) MUST cover their head with a scarf. Hats, lace mantillas, and napkin-like head coverings are inappropriate. Any female entering the church without having a proper hair covering will be offered a scarf if she is without one. Any female refusing to wear a scarf in church will not be permitted to enter the church proper. Females should also refrain from wearing makeup and lipstick, particularly to church services.
Entrance Into Church
If you arrive before services begin, which we hope you will in order to avoid disruption, you may venerate the icons of Our Lord's Nativity and of the Most Holy Mother of God located immediately inside the entrance way. You may also venerate a feast day icon in the middle of the church, if one is placed there. Although it is not normally the practice in the Old Rite to venerate other icons when entering the church, you may do so if you feel the love for a particular icon. But it should be understood that it is completely inappropriate for the laity to venerate icons on the iconostasis. Also, the icons at the choir area are considered part of the iconostasis. You may also, of course, light a candle and place it before one of the icons which provide candle holders.
If you arrive late for services, you are requested to venerate only the two icons located immediately inside the entrance way and to place candles before them alone. If you see another icon located in the church proper for which you would like a candle lit, ask the warden or one of the members of the warden' s committee to take the candle and have it placed before that icon for you. After your arrival, please find a place to stand and take your place as quietly as you can.
Once you have entered the church we ask that you stand in a manner respectful to Almighty God whom you worship in church. Try to avoid leaning against walls or benches, and please do not stand with hands in your pockets or behind your back. If you are physically impaired, or simply tired, you may sit during services, but again do so in a respectful manner without crossing your legs which is inappropriate in church. If you need to leave the church, feel free to do so, but please try to avoid running in and out of the church frequently. We ask that you particularly pay attention to any children you may have brought to church to make sure they behave decently. And while, like our Lord, we welcome and rejoice at the presence of the little children who have come to grace the church with their innocence and love for Christ, please take infants out of the church if their crying and/or screaming continues to the point of disrupting the course of the services and the concentration of the faithful in the church.
While we know that most Orthodox are not smokers, we want to remind any who do smoke, or any non-Orthodox who smoke, that this habit has always been extremely foreign to those of the Old Rite. Smoking on any church property would be scandalous to the faithful, and we strongly request that you do not smoke while on any church property.
The Holy Mysteries or Sacraments may only be given to Orthodox Christians who are in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Confessions in the Old Rite are a separate service made up of prayers, Psalms, a sermon, individual confessions, general review of sins and absolution. Confessions are never heard during the course of other Divine Services. Both of the priests of our church will hear confessions at scheduled times or special times, if necessary, but not during the time when Vespers, Matins, Hours and Liturgy are being served in the church. Absolution of one's sins is incumbent upon completion of the penance, which is always given in the Old Rite. This penance is not a punishment, but a gift to enable the confessing person to reconcile oneself to Christ. If you have a spiritual father who has placed a continuing penance upon you for your spiritual benefit, you should advise the priest in our parish to whom you confess of this penance if it prohibits your partaking of Communion.
Again, we remind you that you may only partake of the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord if you are a member of a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia or in Communion with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Furthermore, if you have not made a confession to God before one of our priests, we assume that you have made a recent confession to your own spiritual father who is an ordained priest or hierarch within the circumstances outlined above. If you have done neither, we strongly remind you that all of the patristic writings admonish the faithful not to partake of Communion without having properly prepared themselves for the Mystery of Mysteries. This preparation includes the need for confession of sins. We remind you that to approach Communion without proper preparation may bring condemnation upon you rather than cleansing and sanctification. As in all Orthodox churches, preparation also includes attendance at the church services preceding Liturgy and obedience to the fasting roles of the Church.
When the clergy are partaking of Communion, the laity may begin to venerate the selected icons and to come up in the line awaiting the partaking of Communion. It is not the practice in the Old Rite even at this point to wander throughout the church venerating icons in preparation for partaking of Communion. The faithful laity proceed in an orderly procession to the back of the church where they venerate the icons of Our Lord's Nativity and of the Mother of God. Then they proceed to the middle of the church to venerate the Cross of Our Lord and the Feast day icon, if one is placed in the middle of the church. Thereafter, the faithful should stand quietly and reverently with arms folded across their breasts and heads bowed in humility while awaiting their opportunity to partake of Communion.
While the clergy are communicating or while the laity communicate, it is inappropriate to be sitting, unless one is ill, elderly, or infirmed. There should be no talking among those awaiting the opportunity to partake or those who simply await the completion of Communion to others. The time Communion in the Liturgy is a very reverent and holy part of the service – not a rest period or "break" in the service.
When one approaches the chalice, one should be aware of the Old Rite practice of receiving three spoonfuls of the precious Body and Blood of Christ. After receiving the third spoonful and having his mouth wiped by those assisting the priest giving Communion, the faithful should kiss the chalice itself, not the base of it, since the chalice is to be seen as the very side of Christ from which flowed His blood and water. Having done this, the faithful should step away from the chalice and only then make the Sign of the Cross with an accompanying bow, so as to avoid accidentally hitting the chalice and spilling the precious Body and Blood of Christ. Those who have communicated should remain in church after the Liturgy for the Rite of Post Communion Prayers in order to give prayerful thanks to God for the Gift He has given us.
While none of the faithful are prohibited from receiving the dora and kissing the blessing Cross at the end of Liturgy, it should be understood that those who have communicated have already venerated the Cross and have already partaken of the precious Body and Blood of Christ. The kissing of the blessing cross and the receiving of dora is done in lieu of the veneration at the time of Communion and in lieu of the gift of Holy Communion itself. The dora, if received, may be received only by Orthodox Christians and should, like Communion itself, be received on an empty stomach.
We rejoice that you have joined us to worship God. We hope that this informational pamphlet has helped you to better understand our customs so that you will be comfortable while being with us. We hope you will return soon and often.
From the Church of the Nativity (Erie, Pennsylvania), by Rev. Pimen Simon
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