The People's Faith

The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy

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Nicholas E. Denysenko
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , October
     2018.
     230 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781978704596.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The People’s Faith: The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy studies how lay members of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches in America interpret, experience, and react to the liturgical event. The author, Nicholas Denysenko, is a theology professor and deacon of one of these churches, the Orthodox Church in America. Denysenko contributes a bottom-up viewpoint to a large body of work on Orthodox liturgical theology that has mostly reflected expert perspectives (scholarly and clerical). The empirical mapping of the people’s perspective on liturgy will help academics to trace the ongoing evolution of the liturgy within these churches. It will also allow practitioners to use granular information from the pews when designing liturgical renewal efforts.

The scholarly literature that the study covers suggests that its primary target audience are theologians, church historians, and sociologists of religion, especially of popular or everyday religion. The bottom-up focus will also be of interest to ordinary members of the congregations themselves as a mirror of their own lived experience.

The book’s methodology combines information from a 2016 survey of clergy and lay leaders from four (ethnic) Orthodox parishes, focus groups with ordinary laity from the same parishes, and an ethnographic study of ritual practices in these parishes. Two parishes (in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Redondo Beach, California, respectively) belong to the dominant Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. One parish (in Boston, Massachusetts) belongs to the Orthodox Church in America. Another parish (in Las Cruces, New Mexico) is a mission of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

Denysenko structures the content in three sections. First, the author reviews the main schools of Orthodox liturgical theology in America. This section describes official, authoritative perspectives on the Orthodox liturgy and draws on a review of the available scholarly literature and on a survey of pastors and lay leaders from the four sampled parishes. The section paints a picture of significant diversity in parish liturgical practices, although there is a fundamentally similar order in the conduct of the liturgy across jurisdictions. This part also documents a tension between different official liturgical positions that range from the maintenance of the status quo to actively seeking to renew and update liturgical tradition.

The second and main empirical part presents evidence from laypeople’s views on the liturgy, based on members’ own words in small group settings. Various insights emerge that allow the author to determine areas of overlap and convergence between the official and the popular perspective, and areas of opportunity where liturgical theologians have not explored members’ preferences. One of the highlights here is the emphasis that the people place on the language in which the liturgy is conducted (English or otherwise) and on the presence of familiar cultural references in which the liturgy takes place.

The third part attempts a synthesis of the information in the first and second parts (official and laypeople’s understandings). This section presents a series of proposals for liturgical reform that take into account the people’s actual experience. This experience is not only about liturgical content per se, but concerns wider issues facing this and other religious traditions, such as women’s role in the ecclesiastical environment.  

The discussion of the empirical findings constructs a “lived” perspective on the liturgical practices of the examined parishes. Denysenko carefully acknowledges early on in the text that we should not treat findings as exact representations of Orthodox liturgical practices in America. Yet, the final part of the book generalizes from these findings to provide broad conclusions about the liturgical reality of American Orthodoxy today. The generalizability of these conclusions cannot be taken for granted. After all, the empirical observations may be specific to the particularities of the four contexts covered by the fieldwork in terms of geographical distribution and organizational coverage (e.g., Antioch or Serbian jurisdictions are not examined).

Despite this limitation, which is inherent to any in-depth examination of the people’s actual theology, The People’s Faith is a welcome contribution to the study of everyday religion in America in the context of an under-examined religious tradition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stratos Patrikios is Senior Lecturer in Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University.

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