Growing up Orthodox in a small city that had a number of different ethnic Orthodox parishes, it was easy to be aware that though there was a common belief in the unchanging nature of Orthodoxy there was a great deal of variation in liturgical and pious practice among the different Orthodox communities. Local custom was not always distinguished from what was more properly called the Tradition of the Orthodox. Russian Orthodox did things differently than Carpatho-Russians, or Serbs, or Romanians or Greeks or Arabs. What I never heard about early on in my life in Orthodoxy was the Typikon, the book of liturgical rules that officially guides how services are to be done.
When I went to seminary the variety of liturgical experience and pious practice was even more pronounced – more traditions and variations within different ethnic traditions. At seminary typikonchiks were those few folks fascinated by all of the minutiae of the Typikon’s rules and sometimes they became rabidly fanatical about following the rules – but disagreements among them indicated there were more than one Typikon to which one could appeal as authoritative. One could for example see that for the most part the books governing a baptism in Greek and Russian tradition reflected a similarity in services, but the actual parish practices varied greatly.
After seminary I came to appreciate that whatever the Typikon might prescribe for liturgical practice, the reality was parishes followed practices which they had inherited, or based on texts available, or what the choir could do or the ethnic tradition typically did. Different traditions and pastors followed different ideas as to how to ‘edit’ the services when the parish was not able to follow the complete monastic Typikon. Small mission parishes offered challenges for what to do liturgically when one doesn’t even have a regular church building. The Typikon was not designed for mission situation, nor for how to be evangelical or introduce new peoples to salvation through Orthodox teaching. The Typikon was designed for monks who are committed to living as full an Orthodox liturgical life as possible, not for thinking how to proclaim the Gospel in an Orthodox manner to those not acquainted with Orthodoxy.
Archimandrite Job Getcha’s new book THE TYPIKON DECODED offers some historical insight into the development of the Typikon but also contains the basic descriptions for the liturgical services as they are prescribed in current Orthodox practice. I personally have never been that attracted to the mechanics of liturgical practice (what at seminary long ago was referred to as liturgics), but was far more inspired by liturgical theology especially as taught by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. So, no doubt, I read the book through that same lens. I was more intrigued by his historical comments than the formulae for doing liturgical services. There is in Orthodoxy often a strong push for a monolithic interpretation of everything, but that effort to homogenize all things liturgical does not completely correspond to the reality of a variety of liturgical practices and typikons which have been Orthodoxy’s history.
In the rest of this blog, I will point out some of the aspects of the book which attracted my attention. First is an understanding of the liturgical books of Orthodox Tradition.
“These ancient books contained in generally rough fashion liturgical material that could be sung, rather than what had to be sung.” (p 35)
While today some want the liturgical tradition to be without variation or change, historically this wasn’t always true. The liturgical tradition offered hymns and practices that could be done but were not perceived of as laws that must be obeyed. A more rigidly fixed and monolithic idea of tradition is oddly enough the innovation.
“As we know, before the invention of the printing press each monastery or church had its own Typikon (ordo) and resolved liturgical issues in its own way. While differences between the various typika were not that numerous, liturgical scholars have discerned three large families of typika: Constantinople (of the Great Church), Studite, and Sabaite (or Hagiopolite).” (p 40)
“… there were in Constantinople and throughout the empire, and even among the Slavs, two different types of daily offices: one used in secular churches and following the Typikon of the Great Church, the other used by the monks, which followed either the Studite or Sabaite ordo.” (p 54)
So we learn from history that the liturgical books of the church underwent many changes through the centuries, and the liturgical practices were varied throughout the Orthodox world – even though on a grand scale there appears to have been commonality between the typikons. Monasteries and parish churches used different typikons up until about the 14th Century when the monastic practices became predominant throughout the churches of the Orthodox world.
And the Typikon itself as a book is the most recent development of all in Orthodox liturgical books.
“… the Typikon is the most recent among the liturgical books , because it implies the existence of all the other books it seek to regulate.” (p 40)
So the Typikon is part of that evolving tradition of the Church.