"Being the Church"

Being the Church


Fr. Edward Rommen



  1. Introduction

1.1.  Extolling the Divine Liturgy

Some time ago I was extolling the beauty and power of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy at a gathering of missiologists. After my presentation one of the other participants asked, “if the Liturgy is really all that beautiful and powerful, then why aren’t the Orthodox Churches filled to overflowing?” Of course, anyone who has experienced an Orthodox Liturgy would be hard pressed to deny its overwhelming beauty. But, the questioner did make a valid point and I find myself unsettled by the apparent discrepancy between the ideal of liturgical beauty and the actual number of participants drawn to the Liturgy. I ask myself why it seems so hard to get people to come, why more don’t respond to our invitation to “come and see,” and why, even the faithful aren’t more faithful. If, as we rightly claim, the Liturgy really is beautiful and attractive, wouldn’t more people attend, and wouldn’t more flock to experience it? If they did, wouldn’t our parishes be growing, constantly increasing in membership?

1.2.  Our Desire for Church Growth

Simply asking these questions puts me in the company of thinkers who over the last half-century have explored what they call the growth of the church. Their theories, which were originally developed by Protestant missionaries in Asia, included the idea that numerical growth was the best indicator of a healthy church and that social scientific research could be used to determine existing growth patterns, predict future growth, and to develop the strategies for doing whatever it would take to facilitate growth. Driven by a desire for numerical success, these ideas caught on and were brought to North America in the middle of the 20th century where the fierce pragmatism of the market place encouraged even more aggressive activism and ever new techniques for growth, such as, marketing for the church, branding, social media and so on. Today church growth in America is a booming business replete with seminars, conferences, consultants, and, of course, publications.

I have to admit that I have as much desire for the growth of the Church as do my Protestant friends. However, I have noticed that this numerically based approach to growth does not square with the very personal nature of Orthodox theology and it does not adequately reflect our understanding of what the Church is and how it grows.

1.3.  Doing or Being the Church

According to Orthodox ecclesiology it is the being and not the doing of Church that is the one factor that actually determines the Church’s life, potential, and mission in the world. Here I am referring to the actual existence of the Church, no matter its condition, its circumstances, its place, or its time. Moreover, I am suggesting that it is the divine source of this being that determines the Church’s nature, its unity, its goodness, its beauty, its integrity, and not the conditions or structures imposed on it by the context, the market place, or, for that matter, the theoreticians of growth. The Church is not dependent on temporal circumstances for its ecclesial status. For that reason, I think that any attempt to manage the Church’s condition per church growth techniques, programs, activities, busyness, without first dealing with its existential viability, that is, the question of its very being, is an ecclesial dead end, which leaves us managing, that is doing an organization, but not being or existing as Church. Yet, some do suggest that simply attending the Liturgy and correctly going through the motions is all that is needed to qualify as Church. For the advocates of just doing Church this is the only thing that really counts, the only thing that brings blessing and understanding. So, even if we do not pay attention, even if our children are causing a disturbance, even if the choir rams the hymns through in breakneck pace, even if the prayers are said as fast as possible, even if no one can understand them, the group is still Church and can still grow. But, what is the relationship between doing, being, and the existence and growth of the Church? If it is only a Church that can grow as a Church, then we need to ask ourselves if we can do it into being.

  1. 2.     What is the difference between doing and being?

2.1.  Difficult to Understand and Explain

Even though this distinction is vital to my understanding, it is not easy to understand or explain. It is easier to understand doing, because in our finite world of time and space, that is what we experience. Actions and their effects are, if you will, the phenomenological data we generally work with. We bring something to pass, we carry out some task, or we produce some effect. Being, on other hand, is more difficult, because our language is limited to just a few words, such as, “to be,” “to exist,” “is,” “be” etc. This is made more difficult because we rarely think deliberately about “being,” as in being a human individual, being the Church, and because our experience with the concept is usually limited to our own existence which we simply take for granted as something quite secure.

The other definitional difficulty is that the two concepts are closely related. While doing does not necessarily involve being, being does involve doing. Perhaps we can clarify the relationship by using the intellect, that is the nous as an example. We know that the nous involves our rational capabilities. We use the mind to speak, formulate prayers, sing, and relate to others. However, the nous also involves the capacity to perceive the supernatural, that is, the presence of God. If the mind is actively aware of and under the control of the divine, we can say that the individual is in communion with God. This state of being (communion) can be expressed or practiced using the rational abilities of the nous. In other words, the mind in touch with God directs the rational capabilities in order to participate in communion. Of course, those rational abilities can still be used when the mind is not connected to God. In that case, we could speak of mere talking as opposed to communing, or doing as opposed to being. So being the Church does not mean that we are not doing anything.

2.2.  Being and Doing: Different Types of Language

One thing that could help further explain the difference between doing and being are various ways in which language can be used. Consider, for example, the difference between performative language and participative.[1] Performative statements use language not only to describe a given reality, but also change or even create the reality they are describing. In other words, the language does something. Telling someone that you love them, for example, is a performative utterance, because the very saying of it contributes to or even creates the love being referenced. Speaking this way is, if you will, doing love.

Participative language, on the other hand, does not describe or do anything, but it allows the speaker to become a part of something, or gain a share in something. If, for example, you tell another person that you agree with them, you are participating in something the have said by affirming it, that is, you acquire a share in or ownership of the other person’s argument.

So, we could ask, what kind of language is being used when the priest says the words “and make this bread the precious body of Christ” during the Anaphora. If you think it is a kind of performative language you would be saying that the words themselves cause the bread and the wine to change. That is, the words themselves are the cause of the consecration. The words thus become an instrument with which the priest effects the change in the elements. If this were the case, then the most important aspect of the act would be saying exactly the right words, in the right sequence, at the right time.

This is, of course, not in keeping with Orthodox theology, which insists that it is the Holy Spirit who, alone, is responsible for making the change. In that case, our language is not performative, but something quite different. Perhaps we can get at the true function of the priest’s words by calling this kind of language participative. The priest does not cause the transformation of the bread and the wine just by saying the words, no matter how precisely. But, as the officially designated and duly authorized celebrant, his words express, on behalf of everyone gathered, a willingness to participate in something that is already happening, that he believes in, and that he humbly submits himself to. His words give the priest access to the infinite and supernatural aspects of the Liturgy. Put differently, the priest does not do anything, he is something, a participant, a celebrant.

The use of these different types of language can be extended to include the whole of the liturgy, even the whole life of the Church. In the case of the Liturgy, we could view everything that takes place during the Liturgy, the music, chanting, prayers, movements, the vestments as a kind of language, a meta-language. Using this liturgical language could, on the one hand, be a performative act in the sense that we believe that whatever benefits we derive from the Liturgy actually happen as a result of the speech act, that is as a result of simply saying the words. If you extend this to all liturgical movements, as I have suggested, you can see that simply doing the service is what is thought to have practical value. If that were your approach to the language of Liturgy, then you would be tempted to do as many services (and other Church related activities) as possible (the busier the better). But, at the same time you would not have to worry about how you did them, since the mere vocalization, the impassive saying of the text, simply talking is what causes the desired effects. This fundamental misunderstanding is, I believe, what causes us to try to get through the services as fast as we can (that way we can pack in more words), say the prayers (especially the long ones) as rapidly as possible (even if garbled beyond understanding).[2] This amounts to doing Church.

On the other hand, speaking the language of the Liturgy could be an act of participation by means of which we participate in the very presence of Christ, that is, we come to exist as partakers of the divine presence. It is by truly consciously engaging, not just doing all aspects of this liturgical language, that we can say we are speaking the language rather than just talking.


  1. Why do we need different types of language?

    We can answer by reminding ourselves that the direct involvement of God in the creation of human beings in His own image, the Church as His own body, and the Liturgy as the privileged place of his presence, all have a composite nature in which two different realities, the finite and the infinite, coexist. Allow me to explain.

3.1.  On the Nature of the Church?

The Church is constituted or comes into being when the people of God gather for the celebration of the Eucharist They are the body of Christ, in the midst of which Christ is present (Lk 24.35). According to Afanasiev “Participation in the ‘sacrament of the assembly’ is the revelation of the Church’s life and life in the Church… This Divine assembly of the People of God is realized each time in the Eucharist.[3]

In other words, an individual Church, when it is actualized in this world, has a composite existence in which the finite subsists within the infinite. It is characterized by the oneness of the infinite Body of Christ and by the finite unity of its human members. There exists in the Church two distinct realities, the divine and the human.

3.2.  The Nature of the Divine Liturgy

The finite/infinite nature of the Church is also characterizes the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy begins with the exclamation “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” With this appeal to the Kingdom, all ordinary time is suspended and we enter into sacred time and are given a foretaste of the Kingdom.

“The new element in Christianity is not its conception of time or the world living in time, but in the fact that the event which... constituted the “center’ of time and which defined its meaning has already begun... The Eucharist is therefore the manifestation of the Church as the new aeon; it is participation in the Kingdom as parousia, as the presence of the Resurrected and Resurrecting Lord... This is a conquest of time not in the sense of rendering it empty and valueless, but rather in the sense of creating the possibility of being made partakers of or participants in the ‘coming aeon’... while still living in “this world.”[4]

The presence of these two realities coexisting in the Liturgy is affirmed by the Great Prayer of Eucharistic Thanksgiving. We pray “Thou didst bring us from nonexistence into being, and when we had fallen away, didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst bestowed upon us thy kingdom, which is to come.”[5] In other words, something of that which is not yet, that which is still to come, has already been given to us now. It is another reality of which we are being made aware during the Liturgy.

3.3.  Liturgy as Happening, as Meta-Reality

So, every time Orthodox believers gather to celebrate the Eucharist, they are initiating a unique, one-time, non-repeatable event that, for lack of a better term, I will call a “happening.”  So, this week’s Liturgy is not simply repeated the following Sunday. In fact, that is not even possible since each event is a completely separate occurrence or instance of the Liturgy. Now what is happening during the Liturgy is that ordinary time is being suspended and the participants enter into the temporal space of the eternal Kingdom of God. When we speak of God’s Kingdom, we are not referring to some specific geographic space, but rather the space, any space, where God’s absolute authority or dominion reigns completely. That this is the case during the Divine Liturgy is guaranteed by the very real presence of Christ, our King and our Lord, in the Eucharist. The other thing that is occurring is that those finite participants who truly speak the language of the liturgy and partake of the sacred mysteries are being offered access to or the opportunity to enter and exist in another, infinite reality.

3.4.  Different Realities

Sadly, the co-existence of these two realities in the Liturgy makes many uncomfortable, mainly because we cannot control the infinite realm. So, we sometimes seek to homogenize the unique composite nature of the Church by ignoring or neglecting the infinite dimension and focusing on the finite aspects of our own time and space. That, of course, gives us the feeling that we are in control and thus responsible for what takes place and the conviction that we actually can or do, effect, accomplish what needs to be done: we end up doing Church.

Nevertheless, we somehow know that the infinite does not disappear just because we ignore it. Moreover, we know that eliminating it will cause the Church to cease being the Church. So, we are, almost in spite of ourselves, forced to face multiple and distinct realities. This idea should not be too difficult for us since we can easily understand that the reality of the New Jerusalem described in the book of Revelation is something very different from the reality in the present-day city, both real, but very different. Or we can see that the reality of the days of creation described in Genesis is a different reality than our current state in time and space.

Another reason that we are tempted to ignore this other reality is that it almost defies access. We may understand that there is a difference, but we can hardly find the words to even speak about it. Russian theologian Bulgakov affirms this difficulty by saying…

“This reality, which differs from the present reality, cannot be expressed or described in the same language of "history." There is in the life of the world, alongside the present history, much that does not fit into this history, although it is connected with and concerns it.”[6]

So, these different forms of "historical" being are mutually closed off from each other because the language of empirical history cannot be used to access these other realities. You cannot use the language of science and mathematics to access the creation accounts in Genesis. Likewise, you cannot access the reality of the new Jerusalem with our time/space bound language. This does not mean that these other realities do not exist, are not real, but, it does mean that what we need is another kind of language to gain access to those other, infinite realms.

Bulgakov suggests, what we call this other language a mythical language. “The language of symbols or "myths" is the appropriate one… A myth, in the positive sense of this concept, is a story, expressed in a language not proper to the empirical domain, about what lies beyond this domain, about what belongs to the meta-empirical domain and meta-history. In essence, this being can be conveyed only in the language of myth and symbol.”[7]

I am not satisfied with the designation “mythical” because in English it conveys something of unreality. So, I want to propose that the language of the Liturgy, which I take to include everything we do during the Divine Liturgy, the hymns, the prayers, the scriptures, the vestments, the icons, etc. be seen as a symbolic language, every aspect of which points us to that other reality and gives us access to it.

When that happens we are actually raised above the separate domains into the realm of meta-history where all realities exist and open onto each other. It is here that the finite and the infinite are joined. It is here that the human and the divine are united thus realizing, if only for a few moments, the full potential of human being, its theosis. It is the place where we are granted the sanctification we have been asking for during the Liturgy: “Attend, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, from thy holy dwelling place and from the glorious throne of thy kingdom, and come to sanctify us, O thou that sittest with the Father above, and that art invisibly present here with us.”[8] This is a place of transformation that allows us to enter into communion with God, and become, or be, his children. Because the dual, finite/infinite, nature characterizes, not only of the Liturgy, but also the Church as a whole, and the life of the individual believer, the effects of accessing the divine reality and having the finite joined to the infinite during the Liturgy will persist across the other two domains in what we could call the ongoing “Liturgy after the Liturgy.”[9] The Church as a whole will be enlivened, that is, it will be the Body of Christ. The faithful will not be reduced to doing Christian things, but will be (exist as) followers of Christ.

If this does not happen, that is, if we keep these two realities separated, or worse yet, simply ignore the infinite because we are uncomfortable with it, can’t control it, or refuse to speak the language that gives us access to it, then we will be reduced to simply doing Church, mindlessly, heartlessly, going through the motions. Moreover, because, in that case, the doing of things is what is important, we will want to make sure we do them in exactly the right way. So, we will develop an exaggerated commitment to the rules and the rubrics, saying the right words, in the right sequence convinced that right doing is the sufficient cause of spiritual and ecclesial growth. However, if everything depends on our doing and our talking then what place is left for the “operation and the descent” of the Holy Spirit? But, if there is no room for the movement of the Holy Spirit nothing can or will happen, so, how can we even talk about being given access to the infinite reality? Is what we are doing even a sacrament, Church, or life in Christ? As you can see this doing/being distinction is no mere intellectual construct. It is of vital importance to the very life of the Church.


  1. How can we truly speak this Participative Meta-Language of the Liturgy?

    By now it must be obvious to you that I do not think we can do, manage, or accomplish the Liturgy or any other program in the Church and have them grow.  Growth is not achieved by keeping the congregation as busy as possible. The Liturgy will not lead to spiritual growth if its language is mindlessly recited, no matter how many of them we do. I believe that the only way forward is to learn how to “speak” the meta-language of the Liturgy (and the Church) and thus gain access to the transformative reality of the infinite, that is, to learn how to and be willing to be (exist as Believers, as the Church) in that sacred space. To the extent that we are able to speak the language of the Liturgy, that is to make the Liturgy an occasion for an expression of genuine faith rather than a dry and dusty “going-through-the motions” event, we will be transformed, energized, and we will be contributing to the spiritual growth of all the participants. If the individual attendee has substituted the mere repetition of ritual for conscious participation in the whole language of the Liturgy, he or she will not have access to the infinite presence of Christ. So how do we learn how to speak this language?

4.1.  Purposeful Preparation

We all know the basic rules, but how deliberately do we follow them. I am, of course, referring to fasting and confession and, even more importantly, to the reading of the pre-communion prayers. How many of our people are doing this? When we do, it transforms and gives life to the Liturgy. So, we need to encourage, teach, and practice this ourselves. When was the last time you talked to your people about proper preparation for Liturgy?

4.2.  Initial Orientation or Initialization

In today’s computer dominated context, we sometimes talk about the need for a machine, a program to be initialized. That generally means getting resources, variables, and the like established before the program actually runs. In a somewhat analogous way, the believer entering into the Church to celebrate the Liturgy needs to initialize, that is, intentionally establish the language that is going to be used, switching, as it were, from the rational language of our commercialized world to the transforming language of the Liturgy. This could involve “greeting” the principle icons, attentively listening to the pre-communion prayers (the hours), and focusing on the icons of the iconostasis.  Sadly, I have experienced the hours being read while those preparing for worship or even to serve engaging in any number of other, sometimes frivolous activities, ignoring the prayers and thus depriving themselves of the initialization needed for worship.

4.3.  Intentional Involvement of the Clergy

Obviously, we are all involved in the Liturgy, after all we celebrate it?  Priests, other clergy, servers are a necessary component. But what I am calling intentional involvement means several things:  Knowledge: I am talking about the clergy and the servers knowing why we are doing what we are doing and what difference that makes. Have we taught the servers, the clergy, for that matter, more than the mechanics of the services? Have we shown them how this is to be seen as a spiritual exercise, and expression of our faith? Have we insisted on a correspondence between their lives and serving? Should they be serving if they are openly sinning? (This implies knowing the servers, being involved in their lives as priest and mentor).?Here I am also talking about the clergy consciously experiencing, tasting each and every line of the liturgy. Every petition, every exclamation, every blessing. Making every petition a real, deliberate, and genuine request to the Lord. Making every blessing an intense wish for the well-being of the people, and so on. Is this level of engagement even possible? Yes, it is, but it takes effort, practice and time. But more than that, it takes an intentional and deliberate determination to live, to speak and not just say the Liturgy.

4.4.  Active Participation

This active participation also assumes a responsibility shared by the whole Eucharistic assembly. This is something we all engage in “with one mouth and one heart.” It is not just a matter of attending or observing, but deliberately participating, owning, and approving every act performed by the presider in the midst of the people. For every petition of a liturgical litany the people all respond with the affirmation “Lord, have mercy” or “grant it O Lord.” The faithful repeatedly express their agreement with the Church’s teaching on the Trinity by making the sign of the cross at every mention of the Holy Trinity. They affirm their assent to the Creed by all singing it together. They actively share in the blessings offered by the presider responding to his words “peace be unto all” with their own “and to thy spirit.” When asked to “bow their heads” they do so. At the beginning of the Anaphora the presider calls out to the people “Let us stand aright, Let us stand with fear, Let us attend, that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace” and the people affirm that what we are about to do is indeed “A mercy of peace A sacrifice of praise ” They are then directed to “lift up their hearts” and the people assent to that action with the words “we lift them up to the Lord.” The presider follows with the call to “give thanks to the Lord” and the people proclaim that “it is meet and right to worship the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided.” The people participate in elevating and offering the gifts by responding to the presider’s “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all” by singing “We praise Thee, We bless Thee. We give thanks unto Thee. O Lord and we pray unto Thee O our God.” And all the people approve of the consecration of the Holy Gifts with a firm Amen. There is then no place for observers or spectators among the faithful. They are to concelebrate, watch, affirm, approve, and live into every move made, every word uttered.

4.5.  Expanding Understanding??

I would also suggest that speaking this language of the Liturgy requires extensive knowledge of the symbolism being used. Those participating need to know what is being done and why. How can a people speak a language that they do not know or understand it? When I was first learning German, it was easy to vocalize words. I had no idea what I was saying. So, I was able to talk but not speak the language. I fear that many of our attendees are merely talking and not actually speaking the language of the Liturgy. So, facilitating spiritual maturity and growth in the parish involves teaching the people about the structure, the scriptures, the prayers, the symbolism of the service. The more they know the more intentional their participation will become. In other word the people need to know the meaning of the symbolism in order to participate in the language, in that other reality


  • Conclusion: Doing, Being, and the Growth of the Church

    So, what happens if a local group of believers focuses on simply doing Church? What if we were all convinced that all you have to do is be there. That just doing the services is what counts. What happens to a congregation if it does not actually speak the Language of the Liturgy, but simply talks, that is, just verbalizes certain words according to the rubrics? It seems to me that in that case, they are deprived of access to the reality of divine presence and are stuck in the present, very limited reality of time and space. Put differently, you could say that a group confined to one reality cannot have, or is, at least not aware of having, a composite nature. In that case you could also say that it is not a Church. And if that is true, then it simply cannot grow as a Church. Sure, it could increase its membership, its income, and build a bigger and better building. But, any organization, any business can grow in that way.

    It is only a group of people who are speaking the Language of the Liturgy, being or existing in that meta-historical union of the finite and the infinite, who can rightly call themselves Church. It is only a group of faithful who are Church who can speak “the truth in love… grow up in all things into Him who is the head” (Eph. 4.15).

    And only if we are being the Church can we rest from all of our frenetic doing and know that God himself will “look down from heaven and behold, and visit, and cultivate [the] vineyard which [His] right hand has planted.”[10]



[1] Austin, How to do things with Words.

[2] I say this because “the texts and their theology are of primary importance to Orthodox liturgical practice, and basically “drive” the music. Therefore, the words must be pronounced carefully with great attention to diction, so the words are understandable. If the tempo is too fast, clear diction disappears, and there are simply sounds, not words. Much of our magnificent Orthodox theology is contained in the beautiful poetry of the hymns of the Divine Services, which is lost if not sung and chanted in an understandable way (and of course, in an understandable language).”Jane M. deVyver, "Time and Eternity in Orthodox Worship."  http://frjohnpeck.com/time-and-eternity-in-orthodox-worship/. 

[3] Nikolai Afanasiev and Michael Plekon, The Church of the Holy Spirit, English language ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 9.

[4] Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 3rd ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), 71-73.

[5]  The Priest's Service Book, trans. Archbishop Dmitri (Dallas: Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the South, 2003).

[6] Sergius Bulgakov. The Bride of the Lamb (Kindle Locations 2607-2608). Kindle Edition.

[7] Sergius Bulgakov. The Bride of the Lamb (Kindle Locations 2616-2619). Kindle Edition.

[8] The Priest's Service Book.

[9] Ion Bria, The Liturgy after the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective (Geneva: WCC, 1996).