The Silent Prayers Of The Divine Liturgy
By Father Andrew Harrison
Question: Should the "Priest"or "inaudible"
prayers of the Divine Liturgy be prayed silently or aloud?
For the past ten years, Saint Luke parishioners have been hearing the
"priest" prayers as they are intoned aloud. The "priest" prayers are those prayers
which appear in italic script in the service books. The worshipper will see these
prayers at the end of most of the litanies that our deacons chant. They also appear
during the Anaphora and include the prayers of consecration that are invoked over the
offered bread and wine.
Until the 20th century these prayers were called "silent or inaudible"
prayers and read by the priest while the choir sung hymns. If the priest was not able
to complete them by the time the choir finished singing, there would be moments of
silence. If he were rushed and lagged behind the choir, the prayers were simply skipped.
After all, who would know?
During the 1960's under the leadership of Father Alexander
Schmemann (of blessed memory), the Orthodox Church underwent liturgical renewal.
The Divine Liturgy was celebrated in English instead of old Slavonic and frequent
communion was encouraged. This opened the doors for worshippers to not only understand
the liturgy, but participate as well. With this deeper understanding came a need to make
the liturgy more meaningful. Priests then began to read the silent prayers aloud,
especially the Anaphora prayers.
This practice is now under attack in certain sectors of the Orthodox
Church in America. In some dioceses priests are given strict instructions
(under the threat of suspension) not to read the prayers aloud. Opponents to this
practice consider it a departure from Orthodox Tradition. So is reading the "priest"
prayers aloud a departure from Orthodox Tradition? As the rector of Saint Luke I
certainly consider it my responsibility to follow Orthodox Tradition. I have been
questioned about the practice and told that reading the prayers breaks the rhythm
of the liturgy.
In writing this article I sent an e-mail to Dr. Paul Meyendorff,
Professor of Church History at St. Vladimir's Seminary, requesting his expertise. This
was his response:
"In ancient culture all reading was done aloud, even by individuals in
their private homes. It was the practice in the early church to read the anaphora prayers
aloud. In the 5th century, Emperor Justinian issued a law mandating reading prayers aloud
and blaming silent reading on the laziness of the priests. The law had little effect, and
by the 8th century the practice of silent reading was widespread. The issue did not come
up again until the 19th century and the liturgical movement in both East and West that
called for a return to ancient practice of reading prayers aloud and involving the laity
more in the liturgy. Archbishop Tikhon of North America and several other Russian bishops
called for prayers to be read aloud in their 1905 responses to Pobedonostsev. In this
country, Fr Schmemann was the big promoter, and by 1990 about 70% of OCA priests were
reading all or part of the Anaphora aloud. The practice also has been catching on
elsewhere, including Greece and Russia. Even Patriarch Alexy reads them aloud. I saw
In addition to Greece and Russia, it is also catching on in the Greek
Orthodox Metropolitanate of Australia. I have a CD of the Divine Liturgy in Byzantine
chant sung in English recorded by Fr. Miltiades Chryssavgis in which he reads the silent
It is disturbing that 70% of OCA priests were reading the Anaphora
prayers aloud in 1990 and today there is a movement to ban the practice. At a time when
our Church should focus on mission in America, we are hung up on a practice directly
apposed to mission.
I have discussed this issue with other priests and asked where the
words "born again" appear in the baptismal service. Those clergy who do not read the
silent prayers were unable to answer the question.
I have strong feelings about the need to read the prayers aloud - not
just the Anaphora prayers. After thirty eight years of celebrating the Divine Liturgy, I
have come to believe that the "silent prayers" are the core of the liturgy. When I first
came to Saint Luke, I read only the Anaphora prayers aloud. It was not until we were given
permission by Archbishop Job to use modern English that I discovered the impact of these
prayers. I had read them silently over the years. I did them by rote. Sometimes I skipped
them when I was rushed or if the choir finished before I finished. I was just going
through the motions. If the word "liturgy" means work of the people, then for me it was
becoming a dead work. I was like a Pharisee following the letter of the law without the
content or meaning.
As I became more accustomed to the modern English, I found that I was
really praying the prayers. Since I don't normally speak to God in my personal prayers
using "Thee" or "Thou", the silent prayers began to match my personal prayers. I found I
could no longer pray the prayers without listening to them. I had returned to the practice
of the ancient Church of reading the prayers aloud for myself and for the worshipper. I
found that I could concentrate on them without my mind drifting. Each word came alive with
meaning. I was praying in the spirit. This experience continues to this day as I pray the
prayers aloud each Sunday.
One question raised regards the content of the prayers. Some prayers
are for the "people standing here present" while others are for the priest's strength to
celebrate the liturgy. One could argue that the prayers for the priest should be recited
silently by the priest since they are for him. I disagree. My stand is supported by the
prayers of our Lord Jesus Christ found in the scripture. Jesus gave us the "Lord's
Prayer." He directed us to say this prayer secretly but he did not say silently. We have
There is a second prayer which is the real "Lord's Prayer". It appears
in the Gospel of John chapter 17. It is that long prayer that the priest reads aloud on
Holy Thursday. It is a personal prayer by Jesus Christ to his Father. In the prayer he
prayed about His relationship to His Father that He has done His work and will return to
Him. He also prayed for us to be as one as He is with his Father. There are other times
when He prayed aloud. In the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed to His Father "to take this
cup from me" and on the Cross when he cried out "my God, my God" as he was reciting Psalm
21. If Jesus said these prayers silently, we would never know that He prayed for Himself
and that He prayed for us.
The silent prayers are rich in theological content. They teach us about
the Holy Trinity and the Theotokos. It has been said that in the Orthodox Church a
theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian. Theology has never been
removed from liturgy. As Orthodox Christians we pray our theology. It is not an opera on
the life of Christ which is concerned about rhythm. The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of
Heaven made present. The Divine Liturgy has been one of the most effective evangelistic
tools. It was because of the Divine Liturgy that the Church survived under Ottoman and
Communist rule. How can we witness to the world? How can we fulfill the Great Commission
to preach and teach if we keep silent?
I am not an expert on liturgical theology. This is certainly not the
last word on this subject. I invite comments and criticism of this editorial.