I recently quit the choir, primarily because I realized that I was having trouble praying while singing. It took me a long time to make this decision since I couldn’t understand how it is that I could sing the liturgy and not be praying. I am not sure I have ever regularly attended a church and not been in the choir. Any number of factors probably contributed to the problem: concentrating on timing, the music, singing in a language I do not actually speak. All of these things can distract from actually praying rather than just mouthing the words I sing in (thought not always) tune. At other times in my life, these elements were not distracting, but they were now for whatever reason. It was just time for a break.
My first Sunday standing in the congregation was, well, surprising. I must admit, I sang virtually everything I would have sung had I been in the choir. I am not sure I am able to participate in liturgy without singing. At various points though, I didn’t sing. Sometimes, I read the translation (if it was in Greek). A number of times, I read the prayers along with the priest. And it was wonderful, reading these prayers.
There is something lost in the liturgy when these prayers are not made available to all the faithful, preferably by being read aloud. I have always thought this, but for some reason it struck me this past Holy Week when one of our priests chose to read all of the “Prayers of the Faithful” aloud during the weekday services. Often, these prayers, despite being “of the Faithful” are read silently, unheard by the faithful. This is the common practice of many of our Sunday liturgical prayers, especially the Eucharistic prayers, a practice encoded in the red rubric ink of our liturgy books: “the priest prays silently….” These rubrics are quite new. There was a time when no prayers were said silently, all prayers were “of the faithful,” spoken by the liturgical leader(s) on behalf of the people of God. The liturgy was a completely shared and participatory event.
I once said something along these lines in a group, and someone responded that all this insistence on reading prayers aloud and participation in liturgy reflected a misunderstanding of the special function of the priest, who is praying his prayers. Yet the priest, or originally simply the one who presided at the Eucharist, the bishop, led all the people in prayers. The leader of the assembly speaks the prayers of all of us. Even in our contemporary liturgy, the only prayers that are specific to the priest are the few right before the preparation of the Eucharist, when the priest asks to be made worthy to offer the gifts. In all other case, the first person plural is used. “We” and “us” does not include only the clergy present, but all the holy women and men present, “holy things for the holy people of God.” What my respondent believes is the misunderstanding, one that permeates our contemporary liturgical practice.
We miss so much when we do not even hear the prayers of our liturgy. The Eucharistic prayers sum up the whole of our theology each liturgy, reminding us and thanking God for the entire spectrum of divine activity: creation, grace, redemption, resurrection, all the ways in which God initiates and makes possible divine-human communion. It is a tragedy to lose these prayers. It is even more a tragedy to lose the prayers that have regularly been shared so that one person (a chanter, alter server or clergy-member) reads them alone. I was quite disturbed in a recent set of services to notice that the set of prayers which together make up the beginning of Orthodox morning and evening prayers were being read by a single person and congregational reading was actively being discouraged. It is one thing to reserve variable and special hymns for chanters and choir members. It is another to take prayers that every Orthodox Christian knows and prays on a regular (perhaps daily) basis and make them the privilege of a select group within the congregation.
I am grateful that one of our priests chose to read Holy Week prayers aloud, even if it did lengthen the service. Even better was that my first Sunday out of the choir, he also read all the anaphora prayers aloud, at a volume which could be heard over the choir’s singing. These are beautiful prayers, and they are the prayers of the people. It is wonderful to hear them.