Instruments in the Liturgy

“The main problem is we have a wrong idea of different kinds of worship. We think the Liturgy is one worship, and gathering like evangelicals to sing ‘praise’ songs is another kind. This shows we do not understand our tradition, or appreciate what the Liturgy is.”

Instruments in the Liturgy

One hotly debated topic concerning cultural accommodation is the use of instruments in worship. Nearly a decade ago, I visited a large Coptic Church in a nearby city at a time when I expected to find Vespers (Asheya), instead I saw a “praise and worship team” standing in the chancel, with electric guitar and piano, jumping up and down, and leading the people in Evangelical Protestant “worship” songs. At the less extreme, we find people advocating the introduction of organs, as a traditional part of Western worship, or perhaps flutes or other classical instruments in the place of the cymbal and triangle. So the question arises, is this appropriate western cultural accommodation, or unbefitting?

The use of instruments was the norm in both Jewish and Pagan worship, and yet the early Church broke from this norm, and did not make use of instruments. It was not merely to be different from Pagans, as some say. The fathers saw Christian worship as true worship in spirit and truth, and saw only the instrument made by God, the human voice, as befitting that, as opposed to instruments made by human hands. St. John Chrysostom says “[David] had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings.” St. Clement of Alexandria gives a spiritual meaning to every verse in Ps 150, explaining how it is fulfilled in the New Testament, and no longer instructs us to use instruments. St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “God dismisses the praise given on instruments, disqualifying lifeless matter from offering praise, and transferring participation in such splendid commendation instead to those who give expression with pure minds, since such fine hymns of praise are pleasing to the Lord of all.”

The fact is that using instruments in the Church is not an authentic Western tradition. When the West was Orthodox, the voice was used, as elsewhere. Even when the West became Protestant, the voice was used, with instruments relegated to a few radical groups, like the Salvation Army. In fact, mainline Protestant groups rejected the organ as a Roman Catholic innovation of the dark ages, with even Aquinas stating as an obvious fact that they are not used.

Fr. Athanasius Iskander has compiled some quotations that can be viewed here.

Does this mean that instruments are haram, and we sin against God by bringing them in the Church? No, there is no haram in Christianity, all things are lawful, but not all things are expedient. Anyone who constructs an argument based on a mentality of haram is missing the point. In fact, we have already changed by introducing the cymbal and triangle among the Copts. Greeks used organs for a time in America, though thankfully this has mostly passed away now. We could choose to use instruments. The question is not is it haram or halal, the question is it good, fitting, and profitable to do so? Does it befit the Liturgy.

The main problem is we have a wrong idea of different kinds of worship. We think the Liturgy is one worship, and gathering like evangelicals to sing ‘praise’ songs is another kind. This shows we do not understand our tradition, or appreciate what the Liturgy is. Some have pointed out that some fathers spoke in praise of talent with instruments as a good and spiritual thing. This is true. Every spiritual act is an offering to God. Good, beautiful music, for example of the classical style is an example of this. Appreciation for beauty is spiritual, just as St. Antony saw God’s words written in all of nature. But being good and spiritual does not mean it is worship, or anything to do with the Liturgy. the Liturgy transcends nature and elevates us to the heavenly worship, leaving behind the things that are good, but do not belong in the exalted setting. Just because excelling at and using beautiful music to exalt the souls of an audience is a good and spiritual thing, does not mean it has anything in common with what we do at the Liturgy, where there is no performance, but only the common work of the people.

What is most fitting in the Liturgy is all of the people singing calm, simple, spiritual hymns together with one voice, as one. Experts work hard to learn hymns so that they may lead, but the goal is to facilitate leading everyone to sing together with one voice, because the Liturgy is the work of all the people. It is not a performance by professional choir members to move the people like a classical music recital. In monasteries, this may mean very long, intricate tunes, since all the fathers are praying together all the time, and can learn them. In parishes, sometimes there are groups of people who come together for Praise (tasbeha) who all know the long hymns, or pick them up. But when the whole congregation is gathered together, the normative character of Orthodox hymnology is that it is simple, an act of the whole assembled people, and never a performance. Nether excessively long tunes, nor instruments fit into this.

The cymbal and the triangle were introduced later in the Coptic rite, and not as musical instruments, but as time keeping. Their playing should be simple, and quiet, in the background rather than the foreground. This is often not the case today, when one may hear practicing ‘deacons’ playing secular songs on the triangles, and when during the Liturgy the cymbals are overpowering and migraine inducing. They often also have a profound effect on the emotions, stirring one up to excitement.

When I was exploring evangelical Protestantism before discovering Orthodoxy, one group beat huge drums during “worship”, to work the people into a frenzy, when they would fall down and scream, or howl like wolves. This type of beat has a profound effect on the emotional state if one allows it. I’m afraid, while less extreme, this is the same type of thing we see in our Churches today. When we see leaders bouncing up and down, banging the cymbals emphatically, and hear people talking about how much they enjoyed such-and-such’s tasbeha, we are in the realm of emotional enjoyment, not spiritual work or worship. When one experiences the quiet tasbeha of a small group, for example in a monastic setting, without loud cymbals, or cymbals at all, one can experience a spiritual elevation and beauty that is of an entirely different character. Orthodox worship involves the whole person, including the body. But it should elevate one to a greater spiritual focus, rather than exciting the bodily passions.

The verses of the cymbals in the Raising of Incense are a quite late development, replacing the Psalter and Psalmody that were part of the Evening and Morning services, but were stripped out into separate Agpeya prayers and tasbeha. Now that Agpeya Prime is neglected before Prime Raising of Incense, and Agpeya Vespers and Vespers Praise is said by a few before the Raising of Incense, if said at all, perhaps it makes sense to explore restoring the older practice so that the psalter and psalmody is not completely neglected. But that is another topic.

In the case of a large group of Western Christians coming to Orthodoxy together, for example an entire Anglican parish, it may make sense for them to retain their organ and way of worship, minimally and gradually adapting it to Orthodoxy. This is œconomy.

It does not, however, make sense to introduce instruments in an attempt to artificially create a western rite. If the Coptic rite is adapted to gradually become an American rite, and expression of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox Liturgy in North American culture, it should be an expression of Orthodoxy, not a mixture of Coptic culture and American culture. There is no reason to deviate from the Orthodox norm of not using instruments. In fact, the cymbal and triangle should be removed, as they are completely foreign to the Western ear, and their current mode of usage is at best dubious as orthopraxis.

The Eastern Orthodox have been here far longer than the Copts. One may find a Greek parish using an organ. One may find whole congregations of people who know no culture except American or Canadian, who worship in spirit and truth with no instruments. One need only contrast these, and especially the novel Coptic usage of Evangelical praise and worship, especially with bands leading them, and discern the spirit of each usage. I can understand how people have naively gone down the path of thinking that these modes of worship, wrongly so called, are cultural accommodation, rather than deviations from Orthodoxy. But all it takes is seeing Orthodoxy done in the culture here and contrasting it to this path to see how far it is from an expression of Orthodoxy. Taste and see.