Translation of church services and congregational participation in chanting

An interview with Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), the well-known translator of church services into English — on the significance of the liturgy, the unacceptability of the symbolic interpretation of church services, and on the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Excerpt: “I say, “join in” and they look at me and they like it! ‘Cause some of our singers, if the people try to join in they go – [the archimandrite gives a delightful shake of his Dumbledore-like head] “brrrrh!”. They don’t like the people joining in to their “concert”. If it becomes a concert, where the clergy are the actors and the chorus is provided by the singers, this is not what the Eucharist is about. I think this is a great misapprehension of what it’s really all about.”

At St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where our Metropolitan often serves or presides over services, the choir loft, while lovely and facilitating our magnificent acoustics, contributes to the congregation’s reluctance to participate in the chanting along with the choir. I think in Russian and Slavic-style cathedrals or large churches with choir lofts, the problem thus can also be exacerbated by the layout of the cathedral interior which enables the choir to be heard beautifully by the con-celebrants as well as the worshipers below, but can often make the people feel like they should not sing for fear of disrupting or offending those “non-singers” around them.

St Nicholas Cathedral Choir Loft

If several members of the choir could go down and sing among the worshipers at parts of the services, more people would feel comfortable joining in at different parts. We have tried this a few times, and it has produced positive results. During Holy Week the choir always sings on the main level of the cathedral with the people, and the Metropolitan always enjoins the people to join in at different parts! At Pascha and the most solemn liturgies of Holy Week, especially the Bridegroom services, matins of Holy Thursday and Great and Holy Friday, and the epitaphios/Lamentations of Holy Friday, worshipers always participate in some of the chants, as service books are always provided and many know them from memory.

It is self-evident that the congregation would not sing every single part of the Liturgy, of course, but we must avoid any “concert”-like atmosphere wherein the Liturgy becomes something the people stand through and passively observe. As I learned at Liturgy during my time as a catechumen signing the “Lord have mercy!” and “To Thee, O Lord!” responsorials, Psalm 102 “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” in the First Antiphon, Psalm 145 “Praise the Lord, O My Soul” in the Second, the Beatitudes in the Third (from St. Matthew 5:1-12), the Symbol of Faith, Lord’s Prayer, etc., I noticed these were different parts which many people would sing.

Yet even the most musically trained and knowledgeable members of the congregation left certain parts to the choir. People obviously never sang the priest or deacon’s parts, and never the choir’s part of the Sanctus or the Cherubic Hymn! (This could conceivably be done, but only if you wanted to transform what is meant to be the most ethereal, other-worldly part of the Liturgy into the most poorly-done, unintelligible part!) People should participate when they are moved to do so, as long as they know the correct words and can sing well.

One thing my cathedral has begun doing, with the priest’s blessing and choir director’s enthusiasm, is printing up the music and text of the chants for the vigil and Liturgy and distributing it to members of the congregation before the services. This only started during my time abroad, so I look forward to seeing whether or not it has made a difference in increasing some degree of congregational participation in some of the chanting. I think we could definitely start classes once every week or so to teach members of the congregation how to read music as well, we would just need to find someone with the time and commitment to do so!


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