Speeding through the liturgy, by Mollie

A couple of Sundays ago, I visited a Romanian Orthodox church to witness the chrismation of some of my friends. I have been to more than a few Orthodox services, owing to my grandfather’s business partnership with an Orthodox gentleman and various other friendships.

This service was in English, which was new for me and a pleasant surprise. The icons at the small church were beautiful and I was looking forward to the liturgy.

Unfortunately, the service was run through so quickly that I felt like I was in an auction house. Even though I was following along in the prayer book, it was difficult to keep up. I asked some of my other Orthodox friends about it and they said that this is a common feature of Russian-heritage Orthodox parishes — the priests speed through the liturgy. I am uncertain why that is. It’s also possible that I never noticed the speed in other Ortho parishes because they were in a foreign or ancient language.

Since the Orthodox aren’t known for their preaching or hymn-singing so much as their liturgy, it struck me as a lost opportunity. But it has made me look anew at churches that forget to do what they do well.

Lutherans are known for preaching the Law and Gospel, administering the sacraments properly, conducting a proper liturgy and having the best hymns in the universe. They should not forsake these things.

Anyway, the real point of my post is to ask what the appropriate speed of the liturgy should be. How do pastors know how to pace themselves so that the full benefit is received?


Speeding through the liturgy, by Mollie — 18 Comments

  1. I know a pastor who says he won’t drink coffee before the service for fear he’ll race thru.

    I have also been at a service that *seemed* rushed, but it became clear after the service that the pastor was naturally a fast talker – that’s a person who speaks quickly, not a “fast-talking” pastor.

  2. Here is an irnoy on this matter. When I face a long passage in the liturgy (long reading, lengthy part of an installation liturgy, etc.) and I read it fast to get through it so as to not bore the congregation, it actually seems longer to them because they sense my uneasiness. A better approach is to read it deliberately (I don’t mean slowly) and with meaning (I don’t mean as if I were in a reader’s theatre production) and it is usually more comfortable for me and the congregation and most importantnly, meaning is grasped.

    A thought on why the priest may have done the liturgy fast. Luther spoke against the vain repetitions of the mass in his day. It was being done vainly because the monks were earning $$$ for the church for masses spoken for the dead. The faster they did the masses, the more $$$ they brought in. Luther also complained that the Roman church was not interested so much in people hearing the word as they were in getting through the mass. This is the “ex opera operata” principle, i.e. that pennace was earned by the doing of the thing being done instead of faith being worked by the administration of the word and sacraments. There is a fair amount of works righteousness theology in the Eastern church and so, the priest may have fallen into this mindless-doing-of-the-thing false theology.

    Pastor Rossow

  3. The liturgy has its value when it can be acknowledged as it is worked through: “yes, this is true,” “yes, I ascribe to this,” “what did he mean by that” and so on. If it is a race to keep up, it becomes meaningless.

    Off topic: would somebody please explain why the Lord’s prayer, which ends with “deliver us from evil,” was added onto as it has been? It concerns me that either Jesus forgot to teach us the rest, or else we improved on what he taught with “kingdom, power and glory.”

  4. As to the reason why the priest may speed through the liturgy, . . . there is a Latin phrase “ex opere operato” which means “working a work” which may explain that. The idea is that whether your heart is in it or you care or don’t care the simple act of doing a “good work” is meritorious. (Check the Lutheran Confessions on this term.) Anyway, perhaps officially or unofficially the Orthodox subscribe to Rome’s view on this subject. Thus, it would be meritorious to do the liturgy regardless of the speed or attitude while doing it.

  5. My understanding is that the ending for the Lord’s Prayer comes from 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

  6. Most every pastor has his own ideas re: the correct answer to your question, Mollie, and, to be fair, there really is no one correct answer. Different speeds may be appropriate in different rooms and situations and with different voices. But there are far more bad speeds than good speeds – and usually the mistake is for pastors to go too fast.

    One thing I will say, though, is that the people should be left to say their parts of the liturgy w/o being “paced” or “led” by the pastor. They can say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and the responses and versicles without the presiding minister saying their parts for them.

    In many churches, pastors say these parts into their microphones, in effect dominating the service and obliterating the dialog of the liturgy. Usually these pastors say these parts too fast and don’t allow the congregation to find its voice. I’ve talked to some pastors about this who defend this practice by saying that the people will not particiapte unless “led”. They don’t understand how such “leadership” actually discourages participation.

    But when congregations are encouraged to find their voice and take ownership of the liturgy, they do a wondeful job. I’ve seen this happen in services with attendnace around 50 and in services with attendance around 300. Though some pastors refuse to believe it, people can learn and do the liturgy.

    Ironically, pastors who step all over the people’s lines and cause congregations to lose their voice are often the same guys who want congregations to be “vocal” and “get into it.” Pity they don’t understand that to do that they need to be receivers of sound.

    Just like choir directors who listen to their choirs always get more out of them than those who sing over them!

  7. Pacing often depends on the size of the assembly. It almost seems that Newton’s Laws also apply to the liturgy, and that the larger the assembly, the more momentum they have (thus the slower they go). I have heard of congregations (not LCMS) that have parallel services being conducted at the same time. Same liturgy, etc., but the smaller assembly is always done first. It is not rushed, it doesn’t matter which pastor is leading the liturgy. The smaller assembly can go at a quicker pace but not seem rushed.

    My experience is that whatever pace I lead, the congregation would prefer a pace that gets us out 5-10 minutes faster. (Or, at least those who talk to me about the pace would like to get out 5-10 minutes earlier.)

    My only conjecture about why the Orthodox liturgy went so quickly is that I have never attended an Orthodox service that didn’t last nearly two hours. Maybe with the “additions” of the Chrismation, the priest was trying to keep the service within a certain timeframe. Rather than cutting out portions of the liturgy (gasp!), just do it faster.

  8. I am not sure if this is actually the genesis of how the Lutheran Ending (as my Catholic friends call it) came to pass but:

    If you look at older settings of the Divine Service you will see that the Lord’s Prayer was canted by the pastor and the response of the congregation was “For thine is the Kingdom…” and this response was sung. It represented an elongated AMEN! In newer settings the Lord’s Prayer is spoken by all in unison and the response is included as part of the spoken prayer.

  9. If I am understanding your question about the Lord’s prayer, then:

    It came from Matthew 6:13. If you look in your Bible, you should have a bolded footnote explaining that some “late” manuscripts contain the ending.

  10. Maybe they are just being seeker sensitive. If the liturgy is done fast, you can get in and get out faster.

  11. To Bubbles, Rev. Thompson and Joe, re. the ending of the Lord’s Prayer-

    In Matthew 6:9-13, some manuscripts add “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.” This is footnoted in translations like the NIV and ESV; I believe the King James just included the longer ending in the body of the text. In Luke 11:2-4, it simply ends with “And lead us not into temptation.”

  12. P.S.- Luther’s 1545 German translation also includes the longer ending for the Matthew text.

  13. I think we sometimes confuse chanting with ‘not singing’. Chants are seen as different from hymns, musically, so they’re treated differently. No meter, ergo, no rhythm.
    That’s an error, I think.
    In reality, chanting offers the opportunity to give words and phrases their inherent rhythm; much the same rhythm as would be applied when speaking words and phrases. Some phrases suggest triplet patterns, or even dotted rhythms.
    Really, time has to be taken when singing/chanting, to get a feel for the music that’s being used, and to get a feel for the blend of word and music.
    It should be done slower most times that it is, for the purpose of letting the music and words do their blended work; we sholdn’t run thru the notes to get all the words in by the end.
    Somehow, though, we’ve gotten a feeling (a bad feeling) that chanting is to be treated as if it’s not music–not song or meoldy, but just lots of words set to notes. Too bad.

  14. Similar memories of attending RC Mass over the past four decades, Latin and Engish. Very few congregants seemed devotional, most were looking around while reciting the words. (As was this visitor….well, the looking-around part, anyway…)

  15. Bubbles:

    Regarding the ending to the Lord’s Prayer, no one else has mentioned this so I’ll throw it out there, for what it may be worth. I was told by a Pastor that the “Power, Wisdom and Glory” ending was a common form of ending prayers in the Jewish tradition, and it was inferred that it kind of “goes without saying” that Christ intended for the Prayer to be ended that way. I don’t know if that is true or not, or if we should make inferences about what Christ meant, but that’s what I’ve been told.

    To all:

    I’ve noticed that I have a natural tendancy to push the tempo of the liturgy during the divine service and usually end up just a bit sooner than the other congregants. It’s not a deliberate thing, I just enjoy chanting/singing it, and I don’t think we need to be funereal about it to be reverent. I do like to mix up the emphasises during the spoken parts from time to time, just to keep from falling into rote patterns, and to make sure I’m thinking about what the liturgy is saying. I do it in a way that would draw much attention from the others around me, but sometinmes I wonder if it might throw them off, or distract them. Is it O.K. to do this, or should I try to confor to the rest of the congregation?

  16. I remember reading a story once of a convert who was just aghast and offended at the speed with which an obviously careless priest raced through the Liturgy. He made an off-handed comment later that brought the priest to tears who quickly apologized and pleaded with the man to understand that he was used to serving alone and knew the service so well that he simply raced through not thinking about his guest.

    Part of the issue may be that a Liturgy, in particular, is the almost always the same. There are few variable parts in a typical Liturgy. (This is unlike other services such as Vespers and Matins that are almost all changeable depending on the season, day of the week, week, and feast(s) or saint(s) being celebrated that day, and their rank.) So, what is quick to one who is unfamiliar with the Liturgy, is simply the difference between conversational English by native speakers and the English of an ESL class. We tend to think (and pray) faster than is often allowed for.

    As a Reader and chanter in the Orthodox Church, I will also note that my priest has warned against ‘performing’ the service as if we are adding anything of substance to it. The service is meant to be done at a decent clip without being either rushed or ‘milked’. The services are also meant to be a little more like how Robert Pinsky likened poetry to popular music – you take and remember what you can and let the rest go by until the next time you hear the poem.

    It could also simply be that they didn’t want people (especially if there were a lot of guests) standing for an extra long time. Not the best reason, but practical and perhaps even pastoral.

    There is a new recording of the Old Believer church of Erie, PA performing the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete with Matins during Lent. There will be an example for you of not rushing – and they’re Russian (rushin’).

  17. Whether done too fast or too slowly–which I have yet to hear, btw (though perhaps Ive played it too slowly…God forbid), seems to me that’s what’s being lost–being forgotten–is that there is music involved, and, though we’re rightly warned against getting too expressive or emotive with the liturgy, music has other components that needn’t be overlooked or thrown out: rhythm, accents, melody, even ways of beginning and of ending. There’s much for an individual to mine in a liturgical service, and many ways to be moved, evoked by the music in tandem with the Word, that isn’t necessarily phony or mere passing emotionalism, and that sets liturgical chant apart from the spoken word.
    There’s a reason it’s sung, and not said.
    As we hillbillies say, when guests makes a move to leave before we’ve offered every nth of our hospitality: What’s your hurry?

  18. Have you considered that perhaps it wasn’t that the liturgy was rushed, but it was more that you were unfamiliar with it and the liturgy book, and that that is the correct “speed”? There are several sections in the liturgy book that aren’t used every week, which make it difficult to get used to using–it’s very different from LSB, LW and TLH.

    The liturgy was performed at the same speed it always is; the only difference was that there was a new choir director, and she was a bit nervous. Her timing was a little off, but not the priest’s. I guess you could always visit again and give it another listen.

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