147. More Questions you’ve always intended to ask about Orthodox worship but never got around to – Part Two

Today: Why do we sing so much? Why only males in the Altar? Why no pipe organs?

Why do we sing so much?

It’s hard to find anything in Orthodox worship which isn’t sung. This is because traditional Jewish services were (and are) sung. The Apostles were

Jewish, and that’s how they grew up worshipping, so naturally that’s how early Christians worshiped. Orthodox Byzantine chant must have developed out of Hebrew chant. (The notion that the early Christians had simple free-form services is made up out of “whole cloth”. Where does it say that in the Bible?) Orthodox worship was naturally simplified when services were held secretly during persecution, but as soon as Christians were free again they returned to normal.

So far as we know, no ancient religion had “simple said services”. It never occurred to anyone to just stand before God or the gods and talk as to an ordinary person. God is holy. God is wonderful. God is awesome. Music expresses the mystery, the wonder, the holy fear, the joy of being in his presence.

Maybe I shouldn’t add this, but I think it’s worth saying. Once I attended a contemporary “Bible church” service where the pastor delivered a superb sermon about the holiness of God – only to be followed by a sentimental “twang twang twang” guitar song. I wanted to cry out “Ichabod!”, “the glory has departed!”  But I didn’t.

Here is a video about the significance of Orthodox Church music. It refers to Byzantine chant – which may seem strange to non-Orthodox, and maybe even to some Orthodox, as it did to me at the beginning, but now I love it. The video could just as easily be about Russian or Serbian or Romanian or some other Orthodox music. I just think this is a particularly good explanation. At the conclusion, use your return arrow above to get back to the Post.


In the Apostolic Church and up till at least the Fourth Century, the people did much of the singing. The parts of our Liturgy books which direct the “choir” to sing originally belonged to the people. This changed after the “establishment” of the Church, when music was allowed to develop and it became more complicated – it’s the nature of everything to get more complex as time goes on – but very hard for ordinary folks to sing, so the choir or cantors took over.

Much of Orthodox choir music is very lovely – as above which I think is the very best of it. Continue on to the next video – Saint Nektarios’ popular hymn which many Orthodox people love to sing. It troubles me in Greece when people now stand there totally silent during worship.

In recent times, the ancient tradition of congregational singing is being revived in some places, especially in the New World. Our late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip promoted it. We at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, followed his direction. Our people sing well, even some simple basic Byzantine chant. I think this is good: “How we worship is what we believe.” And so the teachings of the Church enter not only into our ears and souls but also into our minds – for if you sing something you easily remember the words.

Why only male clergy? Why only males in the Altar? *

  • The “Altar” in Orthodox terminology means the entire area behind the iconostasis. The Holy Table itself is also often called the Altar. Is everything clear now?! 

Should I get into this subject? Oh, why not? Nobody can shoot me through the computer. Were I in a Western denomination I would worry somebody might try, or send a hit man (hit woman?) after me! There people feel so very strongly about this issue. In the Episcopal Church we fought like cats and dogs about it, before “we” lost. Roman Catholics are still divided about it, with many clergy and laypeople all for it, and Pope Francis sounds as if he might like to be, but dare not.

So I was amazed that women’s ordination doesn’t seem to be an issue in the Orthodox Church. Or maybe people just don’t try because they know nothing ever changes here?! Anyway in thirty years I had two people ask me about it. In both cases I gave a very inadequate answer, and they said, Oh, I understand, and that was the end of that. (But I don’t understand…!)

Not many years after I became Orthodox, I was our Milwaukee clergy fellowship’s “chaplain” to the Milwaukee Orthodox Christian Women’s Association’s board. Their leaders were, I think, the most competent, organized, intelligent, “put together” group of people I have ever dealt with. At that time, our Metropolitan had just (wickedly!) appointed me to represent him at the national Convention of the Episcopal Church, and I knew I would be asked why we Orthodox chauvinist pigs oppress women. So I asked the OCWA board if women’s ordination was an issue with them. Almost before I could get the words out of my mouth, I heard a resounding “No!” Rather taken aback, I asked why not. They said, variously: Why would we want that? It’s against the Tradition. But we already run the Church!

But Why?

Why is this not an issue in Orthodoxy?

Is there a canon law forbidding it? Not that I know of. (Correct me if I’m wrong. But in any event, Orthodox don’t pay much attention to canon law.) The Orthodox Church does not have a clear theology about it. Like many things Orthodox, it just “is”, and continues without controversy – even among our people who in other respects are political and social liberals. (Shall I tell you that includes me? No.) This is one of the many ways we Orthodox remain about as counter-cultural as can be – in all directions.

A book by Father Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory), Women and the Priesthood, published in 1983 but recently re-issued, is enlightening on the subject but not definitive. One point he makes is that ordination in the West seems to be mostly a “power” issue. In the East, it’s not. Explain that as you will.

… … OK. If you won’t try to explain it, I’ll take a couple of guesses.

Why is women’s ordination not a “power” issue here?

1  Maybe it’s because our bishops don’t need much of a  top-down authority/power structure. They certainly have the authority to step in when parishes have major problems or when priests go off a deep end. But the decisions of Orthodox bishops in council are accepted only if the people agree. We’ve had plenty of councils which Orthodox people rejected. Our bishops and priests don’t rule in an authoritarian way – and those who try to do so are laughed at and/or ignored. This is very unlike Roman Catholics and even Anglicans. When I was Episcopalian, it was taken for granted that when some measure was passed at the national General Convention, that was that! so obey it.

Nor do Orthodox people need to be bullied by the clergy into believing the Faith, because we all agree about that – no problem. Let me tell you (for the third time?) my favorite story of the time when the Church of England had just ordained as bishop a man who had denied the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and God only knows what all else. A C of E layman asked a visitor from Orthodox Eastern Europe whether this could happen in his country. The Orthodox man said “No”. The Anglican asked, “Why not?”, wondering what sort of ecclesiastical court system or whatever would deal with it. The Orthodox visitor said, “In my country, if a bishop denied the Resurrection, the people would take him and throw him in the river.” (That’s why I take particular care not to go heretical during Wisconsin winter.)

Here, I think, is an outward sign of the Orthodox “way”: In the Divine Liturgy the Orthodox priest stands most of the time with his back to his people, with them as Christ was, facing towards the Father. While in the Western Mass or Eucharistic service, the priest now stands facing the people, looking like he’s with God, not with them. I know that wasn’t the intention of the new Mass, but really, doesn’t it “come off” that way? While I was an Episcopalian priest, one Sunday right in the middle of Mass I suddenly thought “What ever am I doing back here?” and never celebrated Mass facing the people again.

2  There is also the argument that because Christ was (and is) male, priests serving as his “icons” at the Divine Liturgy must also be male. I think there may be something to that. But all Christians are icons of Christ. He lives in all of us. All of us present him to the world. So I’m not quite convinced by this. I’ll welcome any comments on this explanation.

3  I have another unformed thought: Over my 54 years as a pastor (there and  here) I believe that on the whole women are better pastors than men – with many exceptions, of course. Women have many and great gifts, and I dearly wish the Orthodox Church would make more use of them. However I have also observed that when women are ordained as priests, theology tends to turn away from the supernatural revelation from on high in Jesus Christ, and moves towards natural earthly human reason and feeling. I think that deep down this has something to do with pagan sky gods and earth mothers, but I’m not sure quite what.

For a while the Episcopalian Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York had a “female” crucifix, “Christa”. I’m sorry to show you this – I hope I don’t get kicked off Ancient Faith! but I think you really should see what’s going on, God help us all. As time went on some Episcopalians began to baptize “In the name of the [impersonal] Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” and a few even “In the Name of the Mother, the Daughter and the Spirit”! This is why my Antiochian Archdiocese has directed that when people come desiring Christmation into Orthodoxy, we should not automatically accept Baptisms from the Episcopal Church, and also from the United Church of Christ. In the preceding I don’t mean to pick on the Anglicans. It’s just that I knew them well for a quarter century. So in order to be fair, let me also mention that about twenty years ago some RC nuns in Milwaukee were actually worshiping the mother goddess.

But to sum it all up: I don’t know why only male priests and bishops. If you do, I’d love to hear it in a comment below.

Male Acolytes

Acolytes are men and boys (“altar boys”) who assist at the Divine Liturgy.

We should note first that in New Testament times and later, the Church had Deaconesses who were “set apart” to minister to women in a society where men and women did not mix freely, certainly not alone. It seems very unlikely that they served in the Altar. Deaconessee officiated at women’s Baptisms, since those baptized were immersed naked (sorry, I’m not going to show you any more racy pictures) in “living water” – outdoors at Pascha – brrr! The order of Deaconesses is canonical and could be revived, if need be. I heard somewhere that Saint Nektarios the Wonderworker ordained a couple of Deaconesses. Does anybody know if it’s true?

But why only male acolytes and altar boys? Here, too, I have heard some explanations, but I don’t think they make much sense. However, I don’t think it’s chauvinism, for women have been accepted without controversy in every other role in Orthodoxy, including Parish Councils or Boards – and chairing them.

I have seen nuns assisting in the Altar at Liturgy, and girls as acolytes carrying candles, so long as it was outside the Altar area. All I know is that when I was a new Orthodox priest I once invited some women into the Altar to say the post-liturgical prayers as I consumed the Holy Gifts. They refused, horrified at the very idea! And so I learned “what was what”.

Actually nobody is allowed in the Altar without a blessing. And almost anybody can be allowed in on business, with a blessing. Once a guy visiting from another parish came charging in without a blessing and began to talk with me while I was still consuming the Holy Gifts. I chased him out. He was upset. Good. He should have known better. He never came back to visit again. Tough.

Many people today have absolutely have no appreciation of “holy places”. I once hired a repair man to do something necessary in the Altar, gave him a blessing, and before I knew. he had put his tool box on the Holy Table! What has gone wrong in our society? Have people lost all sense of propriety, of the holy? I was gentle with him, simply explaining that we Orthodox don’t do that.  But still…

So in all the above have I really explained anything? Again, no. Like many things Orthodox, they are as they are because that’s the way they are. “It’s a mystery!” At least to me.

However, and this is important, something has kept the Orthodox Church completely solid in the Faith for all these centuries, while everybody else seems to be slithering around. Whatever our “system”, let’s not mess around with it.

Why no pipe organs in Orthodox churches? 

Actually, I have seen a couple of Orthodox churches with little Hammond organs, about which the less said the better. Their purpose is to support the choir in singing multi-part harmony. I don’t think choirs need it. And it’s certainly not much help with traditional Orthodox music, whether Byzantine or the more modern Russian. They had simple pipe organs in ancient Greece, but they were never used in Orthodox church. In the West they soon were used in worship.

Let’s ask it positively: Why only a cappella singing in the Orthodox Church? My theory is that this reflects the Orthodox understanding of Church authority. (Who would have guessed?) In Western Christianity, the Faith is generally “imposed” externally – whether from the Papacy or from the Scriptures – and is something to be obeyed and followed. In the East the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us Acts 1:14-17 so there is no need for the Faith to be imposed from outside.

So it is natural in the West to sing following an external “control”, the organ.

While we Orthodox naturally sing a cappella, from within us, all of us “tuning” to each other. This is the only explanation I can imagine.


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Do any of you have more questions? Write in, folks! I promise to give you more long speculations, but no clear answers.

Next Week: Saint Luke the Evangelist on his feast day, with lots more music

Week after next: II Corinthians 11:31-12:9 Why do hardly any Orthodox teach from Saint Paul?


11 thoughts on “147. More Questions you’ve always intended to ask about Orthodox worship but never got around to – Part Two

  1. In this article “Women Priests: History & Theology, A Response to Thomas F. Torrance” by Patrick Henry Reardon in Touchstone Magazine
    Fr. Patrick Reardon offers at least a theological basis for male-only ordination:
    “Can a Christian man icon or represent Christ in a way that is not possible for a Christian woman? If the answer to this question is yes, then perhaps there may be a doctrinal basis for ordaining men and not ordaining women….
    We are taught in the New Testament that the husband in the Christian family, precisely as husband, can represent Christ in some way that his wife is not able to duplicate (Ephesians 5:21—33), and that this representation has to do with his specific sex. This representation involves his being masculine and not feminine. This representation is further described as one of headship: “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church.” The text here is something of a hard saying in our contemporary setting precisely because it is so clear and so irreducible. It says that the Christian husband, as head of the family, represents Christ who is head of the Church. This representation of Christ in headship pertains to the husband’s specific sex (see also 1 Corinthians 11:3). … “

    1. Yes, so long as the husband rememberers that he is to exercise his headship as Christ did – by loving, by laying down his life for his wife and family.

  2. Father:
    You wrote:
    “But to sum it all up: I don’t know why only male priests and bishops. If you do, I’d love to hear it in a comment below.”
    Why do you ignore the obvious? Even most conservative Evangelicals and Reformed folk can remind you why: I Timothy 2:12 and 3:2. No mention of women bishops.
    You look only to Tradition and canons. Have you reacted so much to the West’s sola scriptura that you’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water? Isn’t Scripture (with or without its transformation into tradition) enough for you? You make my head spin! (But I love you anyway.)

    1. Thanks for writing, Shannon. But the Holy Scriptures never stand alone. They were written from within the Tradition (the whole life of the Church) and are always interpreted from within that Tradition. 1) I Timothy 2:12 “Women are to keep quiet”, could be interpreted to mean that women should never open their mouths during worship (no female chanters, or choir or Deaconesses! or even saying “Amen”!) but the Church has never understood it that way. So I don’t think this explains why no female bishops or priests. 2) “Women should be submissive” to men. I don’t see the connection to ordination. Also: Once a woman from a “Bible church” came to me. Her husband had been abusing her and the kids, both mentally and physically. Her pastor quoted this passage to her and told her to submit to it. Standing alone, it could be understood that way. I told her to take the kids and get out of there as fast as she could. Was I wrong?

  3. Hi Father. I also had grown up Anglican (i was baptised and confirmed in the Greek Orthodox rite) high church so I know first hand this debate about women’s ordination. I am now a parishioner of the Antionchian rite. Why women are not chosen to be priests and bishops may have to be who is more responsible as first cause. I learned this while reading one of Father Anthony Conarias books. He said while commenting on a story by St. John Chrysostom that a man was explaining to the saint how his wife is not returning his love. John told him do you love your wife. He said yes. John said love her again and again until she will respond. John said to the man you are to initiate this love. Don’t give up. This got me thinking about Adam and Eve. Who loved Adam first but God. It was God’s initiative like a first cause. Adam was responding to God. When Eve was created who exited the scene but God. God was teaching Adam to be for the woman as God was for Adam. This is first cause or initiation. The man now must learn to love the woman. The woman than learns to be responsive. In the orders of human nature, male and female we need to look at the theology of what makes male and female. For me the woman is respentative of what is important to the Laity. In other words more like the Holy Mother of God, Mary. All laity are seen in the role which the Holy Mother enjoys. What I am trying to say is we need a theology that reveals the importance the Laity enjoys to the whole concept of priesthood. While the ordained priesthood resembles the Lord Jesus in that Jesus is first cause, initiator the lay priesthood resembles more the Holy Mother. A woman cannot be a priest or bishop for the simple fact she represents the important role of laity the lay priesthood if one can say. The problem with the Church is this lack of teaching and theology on the important role which the Laity is involve in. Once this theology is better spelled out than the roles which are given for us either the ordained priesthood and lay priesthood will be more accepted. If Adam is the ordained priest than Eve represents the lay priest. The two have their roles given to them by God just as the Lord Jesus (ordained priest0 is to the whole Church (the lay priesthood) just as the parish priest (ordained) is to his parish (lay priesthood). These are roles given to us by God. We cannot change but we should define them better. The ordained priest is not more important than the Laity. The ordained priest and Laity are both important. Once the new Saint of the Church John Henry Newman was asked how important are the Laity are to the ordained priesthood and he mentioned we (the ordained ones) would be silly without them. We need a theology to know how important the Laity are to the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    1. Yes! I had not thought of this. Our problem is in not emphasizing the priestly work of our laity. Thanks for writing.

    2. Brilliant! David, you’ve got my mind going! I have heard Holy Baptism described as “First Ordination”. Now using the popular terms: Granted, we Clergy are part of the “Laos”, the holy people of God, with our special role therein. However 99% of the work of the Church is carried out by the Laity outside the walls of the church building. I remember in a seminary class, a student said he wished the Church would get more involved in the political issues of the day. The professor responded, “Do you think the president is not a member of the Church?” We Clergy naturally tend to emphasize and talk about what we know. We don’t know much about the work of the Laity from the inside. Somehow the Laity need to tell us about it, write about it, give it its proper emphasis.

      1. Fr. Bill,

        Father bless.

        Echoing what David says above, I would suggest that there’s a close relationship of women to holy space (the temple and altar), and a close relationship of men to what inhabits holy space (priest and sacrifice). Adam’s role of “till and keep” was seen as priestly in ancient Judaism and the early Church, while Eve is described as being “built” from his side (the same word for making a city or temple). This pattern continues everywhere in Scripture, culminating in Christ (obviously the Great High Priest) and the Theotokos (“the power of the Most High will overshadow you” – resembling the glory of God filling the temple or resting on the ark). I note the prayers of preparation for communion beautifully call her “table of the bread of life” and “august tabernacle of the sweet Fragrance.” And in Polycarp and some other texts from the ancient Church we see the idea that “the widows… are the altar of God…” (Epist. 4.3).

        So what I tell my Sunday school students when they ask why women can’t be priests is that just as you can’t have a Eucharist some sort of altar, you can’t have a priest without the laity surrounding Him to give the “Amen”. The whole Church (laity) is the feminine holy space where the sacrifice occurs and is received, so we misunderstand things when we think the laity are second-class or unnecessary.

  4. Please would you explain to me why /how some Orthodox Christians pray to Virgin Mary, mother of God? I pray to Jesus and God the Father, and I do not understand the whole idea of praying To Mary. I am raised Orthodox, in the church, with a Godmother who gently and lovingly mentored me, also is my Grandmother. I dont recall her teaching me to pray to Mary. Thank you so much.

    1. Good question. The word “pray” here does not mean as we pray to God. In English usage not so long ago “pray” meant only to “ask”, as in “I pray thee” to give me something. Since we believe people are alive and well on the other side of death, we are simply asking their prayers and help, just as you would do the same of your dear Grandmother and Godmother. Simple as that. Saints are especially holy people who are close to God and who know best what we need. Why don’t we just go directly to God for help? We do! All the time. But often God works through people. I mean, you could have gone directly to God for the answer to your question, but instead you asked me! And I guess God has waited for me who am no saint to try to answer it.

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