top of page


The Restoration of Western Rite Orthodoxy1

by Fr. Nicholas Alford
St. Gregory the Great Orthodox Church
Washington, DC

There are, today, some twenty congregations using the Western Rite within the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.2 These congregations are grateful that they are able to maintain what is good and life-giving within their own heritage while being part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East. The Church of Antioch, where the disciples were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26) is the logical home for Western Rite Orthodoxy, as St. Peter was the bishop of the Church in Antioch for seven years before traveling to Rome3 and the Church of Antioch has had a concern for missions since sending St. Paul out on his missionary journeys4.

The Western Rite is not a new thing in Orthodoxy, but a restoration of something that was lost many centuries ago. In the early church, the entire Christian world, East and West, was united in faith while utilizing a number of different liturgical forms or rites: the Liturgy of St. James (for the Church of Jerusalem and the Syriac and Armenian churches), the Liturgy of St. Mark (for the Church of Alexandria), the Celtic liturgy (in the British Isles), and the Gallican liturgy (in use in Gaul before the imposition of the Roman Rite by Charlemagne, c. 800AD), to name but a few. There were, in a sense, two families of liturgical rites, one Eastern and one Western, but each expres-sing the faith of the undivided Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. "Ortho-doxy" meant "right belief" and "right worship" and there was no thought given to the idea that there was only one possible liturgical expression within the Church. The ancient Patriarchate of Antioch is a prime example of this, in that only in the 13th century did the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom become the norm, replacing the older Syrian Liturgy. In their great missionary work to the Slavic people, Ss. Cyril and Methodius were "bi-ritual" and employed and distributed liturgical books in Eastern and Western rites. One other interesting example of the mutual acceptance of different liturgical forms between the East and the West was the Monastery of the Amalfians on Mt. Athos which used Western Benedictine liturgical forms from 950 until 1287. Gradually these two liturgical families (Eastern and Western) came to be dominated by the rites of Byzantium and Rome - the Byzantine liturgy and the Roman liturgy - two ancient and life-giving ways of worshiping and praying within the same Undivided Church.

Professor John Romanides and others have successfully argued that the schism of the 11th century was less about theological differences between the East and the West than about the political and military ambitions of the Franks5, and we remember that the Roman Popes continued to oppose the introduction of the filioque6 into the Creed for some time, while the Franks erroneously chastised Constantinople for removing the filioque from the Creed7. In many ways it was not until the complete adoption of scholasticism in the West, in the 13th century, that the Western mind departed from the Spirit of Orthodoxy. Seeds were planted at that time which were watered by the Renaissance and during the so-called "Enlightenment", some of which have only borne fruit in our own day and age. These "fruits" have led many to seek another spiritual home, concerned that the Western theological mind has departed or evolved too far from its origins. A few far-sighted individuals in the West began - as early as the Reformation - to see that things had gone awry in the Western Churches. Martin Luther and some of the other reformers exchanged correspondence with the Eastern Patriarchates but were surprised to find the Orthodox believing in some of the very things the Reformers had rejected as "Roman" innovations (such as veneration of the saints, especially the Mother of God).8 In the 18th century, both the French Jansenists and the English non-Jurors made overtures to Moscow and to Jerusalem that yielded favorable response to the idea of the use of Western liturgies within Orthodoxy. The Orthodox responded that the Church was willing to accept "corrected" Western Liturgies, but that the details of doctrine must be in complete agreement with the Ancient Faith of the Orthodox Church. The Patriarchs wrote that "it is evident from ecclesias-tical history that there both have been and now are different customs and regulations in different places and Churches, and yet the unity of Faith and doctrine is preserved the same."9 Although these negotiations broke down over doctrinal issues, this decision concerning liturgics was important for work that would occur over the next two hundred years.

In the mid-19th century there were new efforts to restore the Western Rite to Orthodoxy. Alexis Khomiakov, General Alexander Kireev, and Saint Philaret of Moscow all worked for the establishment of a Western Rite Orthodox group in England. In 1870 the Holy Synod of Moscow established a permanent commission to examine the rites of Western Christianity at the urging of far-sighted Roman Catholics and Anglicans who foresaw the continued changes of their own churches. In that same year the Holy Synod of Moscow approved a corrected order of the Latin Mass. In 1904 Archbishop Tikhon Belavin (now St. Tikhon) asked the Synod to examine the American edition of the Book of Common Prayer, used by Episcopalians. After preparing a list of corrections, things to be added and taken away to bring it into conformity with the Orthodox Faith, the Synod gave approval for its use as well.10 In America, an Old Catholic11 parish was received into Orthodoxy by Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky in 1890.

The good work that had been accomplished in America toward the establishment of a Western Rite was lost in the chaos that followed the Russian Revolution. There were clearly more important problems facing the American Orthodox Church at that time. In Europe the situation was somewhat better. Through the 1920's, former Roman Catholic parishes were received into Orthodoxy in Poland and Czechoslovakia by the Russian Church. At this time Constantinople also concurred in principal with the idea of a restored Western Rite Orthodoxy. Then in the 1930's, the Moscow Patriarchate received a Western Rite group in France (this group was later under the jurisdiction of Constantinople in 1953, the Russian Church in Exile in 1960 under the guidance of St. John Maxomovich, and then under the Romanian Church). A few small Western Rite groups in America tried to continue in isolation until a legitimate home could be provided. This happened in 1958 when Metropolitan Anthony Bashir, following approval from Patriarch Alexander III and the Holy Synod of Antioch, issued an edict establishing the Western Rite Vicariate within what is now the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. In his Edict on the Western Rite, Metropolitan Anthony stated his intent: "the use of a Western Rite in the Orthodox Church in America might serve the double purpose of facilitating the conversion of groups of non-Orthodox to the Church, and of indicating in the simplest and most direct manner to all concerned with Christian union the true basis on which the Orthodox Church is prepared and is able to consider the reunion of Christendom." In giving his patriarchal blessing to this action, Pa-triarch Alexander III sent an Arabic translation of the work of the Holy Synod of Moscow on the Western liturgies with instruction to "take the same action...", thus building on the foundation that had previously been prepared. Both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) have also had small Western Rite groups in America.


In the Antiochian Archdiocese, Western Rite Orthodoxy was given a canonical12 home by Metropolitan Anthony in 1958. Today the parishes are organized into a vicariate under the direction of a Vicar-general who serves as the representative of the current Metropolitan Philip (Saliba). The initial groups entering the vicariate were from Old Catholic and non-canonical Orthodox backgrounds; later groups (beginning in the mid-1970's) came largely from the Episcopal Church and "continuing Anglican" churches.13 In addition to the groups, individual converts have come from many other Christian backgrounds or no Christian background at all.

The liturgical services are contained in The Orthodox Missal (1995), The Orthodox Ritual (1993), and The English Office (1989).14 There are two Eucharistic liturgies available for use: the ancient Roman liturgy called The Liturgy of St. Gregory, as it was St. Gregory the Great (d. 604AD) who took the already ancient liturgy and gave it the current organization in the 6th century; and the corrected Anglican form, which has been given the name The Liturgy of St. Tikhon in commemoration of the work that Archbishop Tikhon Belavin did toward establishing a Western Rite. As the Anglican liturgy was itself a revision of the Roman liturgy15, the differences between the two liturgies, in the forms which are provided for use, are no greater to the average person in attendance than the differences noticeable between the Liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom in the Byzantine Rite. Approximately one quarter of the congregations use the Liturgy of St. Gregory, the remainder making use of the Liturgy of St. Tikhon.

The major changes made to the Liturgies are the removal of the filioque from the Creed, the addition of a clear Epiclesis, and removal of any mention of the merits of the saints or the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (which were later additions to the liturgies). The Prayer " I believe and I confess...” (From the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) has been added at the instruction of the current Patriarch, Ignatius IV. Neither the Roman nor Anglican forms for Matins and Vespers presented any theological problems but forms for Baptism and the other Sacraments have been provided, based upon the corrected ancient Roman services.

The Orthodox date for Pascha and the paschal cycle are kept, but otherwise the Western liturgical calendar is observed. For example, the Feast of All Saints is celebrated on November 1st, where it has been kept in the West since the 8th century, instead of on the Sunday following Pentecost as it is observed in the East. Leavened bread is used for the Eucharist (although normally in the form of small wafers) and the custom of distributing antidoron (blessed bread) is common in Western Rite parishes. The vestments and other appointments for worship are those of the Western Church, although the veneration of icons (generally thought of as something solely “Eastern”) has been restored as well.

These congregations also have available to them the spiritual, musical, and artistic heritage of a rich and ancient tradition. They must carefully pick through these resources, sifting the wheat from the chaff, making use of what is Orthodox and discarding what is not. This does require much work, but it is important work, both for the West and for all of Orthodoxy. The faith of St. Patrick, St. Columba, St. Martin of Tours, St. Benedict, St. Leo the Great and many, many others has been restored to the Orthodox Church and we pray that all may be enriched by our unity.


1 For more information, see “A brief History of Western Orthodoxy” by David F. Ambramstov in The Word, vol. 6, no. 4 (April, 1962): 14-27. Unfortunately much of the primary source material on the formation of Western Rite Orthodoxy does not yet exist in English translation.

2 There are additional groups in formation at this time.

3 The Church of Rome became the Patriarchate of the West and the liturgy of Rome became the dominant liturgy of the West.

4 Acts 13:1ff.

5 John Romanides, "The Fundamental Difference between East and West,” The Christian Activist 9 (Fall/Winter 1996): 8-16.

6 Filioque is the Latin word for “and the Son,” added to the Nicene Creed after the words, “who proceedeth from the Father.” This Western addition, first made in Spain in the 6th century, was a contributing factor in the schism of the 11th century. The Orthodox Church holds that the doctrine of the “double procession” of the Holy Spirit is unscriptural (cf. John 15:26) and denies that the Father is the sole source of divinity (and hence the basis of unity within the Trinity).

7 Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 46.

8 Ibid, p. 93ff.

9 Quoted in “A brief History of Western Orthodoxy” by David F. Ambramstov in The Word, vol. 6, no. 4 (April, 1962): 16.

10 Some of the preparatory work of the Russian Synod is available as Alcuin Club Tract XII, “Russian Observations upon the American Book of Common Prayer” trans. W. J. Barnes (London: A.R. Mowbray, 1917).

11 The term “Old Catholic” refers to those who separated themselves from the Roman Church: 1. in Holland in the 18th C. over the issue of Jansenism; 2. in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 19th C. over the issues of Papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction; and 3. smaller groups of Poles and other Slavs in the 19th and 20th centuries. Other independent groups, not recognized by the above, have sometimes called themselves “old catholic.”

12 The term “canonical Orthodox” refers to those in communion with the Ancient Patriarchates, as they share a common faith. There are a number of small “fringe” groups outside of canonical Orthodoxy which may hold a similar faith and maintain a typically Orthodox liturgical life, but which often lack the stability and security provided by the inter-dependance of the “official” Church.

13 The stories of some of these groups are presented in Michael Trigg, ed., An Introduction to Western Rite Orthodoxy, (Ben Lomand, CA: Conciliar Press, 1993).

14 All published by St. Luke’s Priory Press, Stanton, NJ.

15 The Liturgy of St. Tikhon is based on the English Missal, also called the Knott Missal. The Eucharistic Prayer is based on that of the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

bottom of page