Address by Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe to the inaugural Pan-European Orthodox Church Music Conference, delivered on 25th January 2020 in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God, London.

Tradition as a Living Inheritance

The Life in Christ is a Mystery. As Orthodox Christians, we are the inheritors of that Mystery — that theological experience — in its only full and complete manifestation. Christ has revealed Himself to His world, and in so doing has manifested the Holy Trinity (as we have been reminded in the presently ongoing Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Theophany); and He has imparted the fulness of theological life to His creation. He has ‘clothed us’ in His truth — as we sang on the feastday itself: ‘As many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ’ — He has united us to Himself, and handed to us all that is necessary for our salvation and sanctification.

This we have received, and we do receive, as a living inheritance. That which we believe, live and practice is something received ‘alive’ from living individuals. It is not an amalgam of theological history or liturgical archaeology; it is a living receipt, handed down from one generation to the next, from one life to another (and this is the literal meaning of ‘tradition’, from the Latin traditio, ‘to hand along’). Christ first handed it to His Apostles and disciples; they handed it to their spiritual sons and daughters and successors; and they to theirs — even to us, weak and sinful as we are.

It is therefore something that, as its inheritors, we embrace, are transformed by, and pass on in turn to the next generation. We believe what our Fathers have taught us, we do as the Saints have shown us — and these are the words, beliefs and practices that we convey to our children: unadulterated, unchanged, perfectly received and transmitted, like the Gospel itself.

Church Music as an Embodiment of Theological Tradition

Within this broad inheritance that is the Life in Christ, which draws us into His Life, the heritage of our Church’s musical culture is an integral part of such tradition. It is, in a certain sense, an embodiment of it; music is the ‘incarnation’ of our belief, the ‘flesh and bones’ by which it is encountered and experienced by the faithful. Despite their readier availability in this generation than in any before, most Christians will not closely read the sacred writings of the Church Fathers in detail; they will not know closely the dogmas of the Councils or the Holy Canons that preserve them. But they will encounter the musical life of the Church; indeed, for most it will be the principal conduit of experience of our dogma — not just in the words it conveys but in the tone and manner in which it conveys them: the spirit it evokes in those present at different Divine Services; the way it conveys theological principles in sound — rejoicing in proper measure, sorrow without despair, awe without romanticism, piety without superfluity, etc. Not only what we believe, but how we engage with it — that is to say, the spirit in which we enter into worship, by which we interact intimately with God — is conveyed to the faithful through the sacredness of our musical tradition.

The parish choir sings at the Diocese’s parish in Luxembourg.

For this reason, the Church treats her musical heritage in the same way that it treats of all other dimensions of her theological-liturgical life. Firstly, with the understanding that it is the Holy Spirit Himself, Who guides the Church always and actively, Who has led her through the various developments of history in a manner that has produced the heritage we now inherit and possess. That is to say, we understand our musical heritage to be ‘divinely inspired’ in the same way we do every other aspect of the Church’s life: not that the Spirit has ‘set pen to paper’ and written down the music and ustav, of course, any more than the Spirit put pen to paper and wrote the Gospels; rather — more properly, more precisely — that the Spirit has guided the Church, which, throughout the centuries, has taken the tool of musical creativity and fashioned it into precisely the means needed to convey the Gospel of Life to the suffering world.

This means that, with regard to our musical practices, there is nothing arbitrary, nothing accidental, in the traditions we maintain. Just as within the Altar, servers and clergy are rightly taught that every dimension of their liturgical service, however small, has meaning and purpose, so too with the musical heritage of the Church. Absolutely nothing in our musical life is done without meaning; everything has significance — even down to the seemingly smallest of minutiae. This is not to say that everything is ‘set in stone’ in musical practice, any more than it is in the broader liturgical context of which it is a part; but it is to say that we have received the practices we have received for a reason and we maintain the same attitude of diligence towards preserving and passing it along as with all other aspects of our theological life.

Examples of This Living Tradition

I wish to explain this point, within the confines of my short time with you this morning, by making reference to a few examples of this ‘living tradition’ in Church music, and the way that our attentiveness to maintaining properly the musical inheritance we have received forms an integral part of the Church’s ‘preaching’ — that is, her ministration to the faithful who come to her for salvation.

a. Fixed Modes of Vocal Performance

Perhaps the most obvious, and most basic of these inherited customs is that of the fixed ‘modes’ of vocal performance we maintain in liturgical Church music. Here I am not speaking of the four musical modes that eventually became our Eight Tones; rather, of the manner in which music of whatever tone is interpreted by the singer (whether as a Reader, who is ‘musical’ even in his reading; or a whole parish choir) and delivered to the faithful.

The basic principle is that Church music aims to be universal in providing theological experience, precisely by eliminating individual ‘personality’ in its creation. This extends to composers, of course, who do not ‘free wheel’ about with all and sundry musical styles but inherit and follow a tradition of form, style and modes; but perhaps for most people it is the delivery (rather than ‘performance’) of Church music where this is the most relevant. Unlike secular music, Church music is not only not designed to showcase individual talent or a specific choir’s ‘style’ or ‘approach’, but in fact actively to minimise or even obliterate these things.

This means that the highest ideals of Church music are found not in operatic or dramatic performance, but in the theological concept of ‘apatheia’ — passionless passion, emotionless emotiveness, etc. This is a broad theological principle that affects every dimension of Church music, but in practical terms it means that operatics are avoided at all costs; vibrato is controlled and, ideally, eliminated (it is a negative in Church music, not a positive — it draws attention to the individual, and conveys instability rather than stability); and indeed ‘solos’ of a single voice, singing over a choir as ‘background’ are to be avoided wherever possible (since theologically this conveys individual aggrandisement, rather than incorporation of the individual life into the one Body of Christ). Similarly, we avoid at all costs ‘flourishes’ that have only musical, but no theological, merit. For example, dramatic switches from minor key signatures into major at the conclusion of dramatic phrases or pieces, which are part-and-parcel of western musical customs, do not figure at all into our Orthodox musical heritage — for they convey no theological truth or experience, only an emotional moment of sensual gratification. Similarly, the doubling of singers on an octave, which again is far from unheard of in many western musical traditions, is not a part of our tradition, not because it fails to make a theological point but because it in fact makes a wrong one: rather than unity it conveys duplicity, a spiritual principle the Church teaches the faithful to avoid, not embrace!

This same sensitivity means that the Church’s musical tradition, as a living reality, is led by the Spirit through different ages of development in expression, as the human race itself develops and grows from infancy into adulthood. There have been practices and customs in the past that are no longer maintained; not because they have been ‘forgotten’, but because the Church has determined that pastoral needs have required a different development of expression. In this way, the Church’s musical tradition is very much alive. But it also means that we are required to be aware of this pastoral approach and the work of the Spirit: we live not in the past, but in this moment that the Spirit sanctifies. For this reason, overt ‘historical interpretation’ has an interesting and revealing place in concerts and symposia, but not in our liturgical musical life. The over-use of old-style monophonic chant, for example, in contemporary parish settings, can be theologically and spiritually counter-productive, as to the modern ear it often sounds harsh, even unpleasant, and can pose distraction to the faithful. At another time these were not the commonplace reactions to such singing; but we live not then, but now. We experience, in the Divine Services, a living tradition — not an archival one. (This is not to say that elements of such musical traditions can never be used in contemporary liturgical settings; rather, it is to point out that this must be done in moderation and with clear pastoral sensitivity.)

b. Familiarity and Universality of Central Textual Interpretations

As a second broad example of the receipt of our living tradition, let us look briefly at the familiarity and universality of central hymnographical-textual interpretations. Certain prayers and hymns are chanted throughout our Church universally — the same in every parish, in every nation, amongst every people. This is an important part of our musical heritage, for it conveys the spiritual reality of the Church’s universality, rather than each parish as a kind of automaton existing and living in its own right and identity. The power of this custom to convey a sense of universal identity in the Church as a whole cannot be overstated.

This is manifest not only in common musical styles for certain elements of the Divine Services (for example, the ‘Our Father’ and Creed, which should never be ‘set pieces’ for performance, but should be sung in the familiar tones known to all the faithful — for these are amongst the prayers that they all know by heart, and which therefore in a unique way are ‘theirs’), but also in terms of precise musical stress and emphasis. The antiphons of a daily Liturgy here are a fitting example: in our musical heritage of the Church Abroad, we sing these most often in the familiar Tone One melody; but not only that, we maintain a very clear tradition of attaching this tone to the Slavonic text itself in a standardised way (or to the text in other languages). Which words are attached to which parts of the tone are not at the discretion of the choir director, but a part of the tradition itself — and this seemingly minuscule thing has a profound effect on the ability of the faithful to feel the hymns as ‘their own’, familiar and ‘part of their blood’ — which is central to our liturgical life.

This is similar when it comes to the form of certain services. Many singers, as with some clergy, do not fully understand that what is printed, for example, in the Trebnik is a compendium of all possible parts of given Divine Services, but that knowing which amongst the hymns provided there are actually prayed and sung on a specific occasion is a pastoral-liturgical responsibility — and, indeed, this knowledge is precisely part of the liturgical-musical heritage that is handed down to us from our forebears. It is not something that can be learned from the books themselves! One has to receive this. Thus, for example, in the Church Abroad we have a set form of a general moleben, which does not include many of the introductory prayers in the Trebnik except on certain occasions; and a general pannikhida is never in ordinary circumstances served with all the irmosi sung, but only the third, sixth and ninth — again, this is something that cannot be ‘read out of the books’, but which is passed down in a living way, and which is a critical part of our liturgical-theological heritage.

C. Connection of the ‘Routine’ with the Particular

The same is true with our musical tradition of connecting the familiar with the particular — the ‘routine’ texts of the Divine Services with the special hymnography of a given day.

In the most dramatic and obvious sense, this is done by the maintaining of the ‘special melodies’ which off-set certain key hymns from the ‘ordinary’ hymnography of a given day by special melodic emphasis. It is a pity that more choirs do not learn these special melodies, as only a Divine Service that includes them amongst the ordinary tones fully conveys the Church’s theological expression of the present commemoration.

But perhaps this concept is nowhere more clearly manifest than in the tradition of our Church to ‘lead in’ to all hymns, even those in the regular Eight Tones, with musical phrasing imposed upon the preceding verses which are standard to the service — for example the verses between the hymns on ‘Lord, I have cried…’ or the Aposticha of Vespers or Matins, etc. It is not our custom for a Reader simply to chant these on a single note; rather, the Reader sings the first half of such phrases and the choir then sings the second half on the special ‘lead-in’ melody that connects that ‘ordinary’ verse to the particular hymn that follows it. This is a profoundly powerful way to convey the spiritual reality of the integration of the hymnography of the day into the universal words that fill every day — conveying in our music the theological truth that what is timeless and unchanging is united to that which is incarnate and present in a specific moment.

d. Maintaining Inherited Practices in the Church Abroad

Finally, I would say something about our maintenance of certain specific musical practices that are part of our heritage as the Church Abroad, and which we maintain as part of that living inheritance received from our forefathers, despite the fact that variant practices exist in other parts of the Church — including other parts of the Russian Church. Such variation need not necessarily be assessed as either good nor bad, it is simply different; but it is important that we know what is our own, why it is ours, and that we maintain it in humility and piety into the future.

For example, we have a different ‘practical ustav’ in the Church Abroad than in the parishes in the diaspora of the Moscow Patriarchate, when it comes to certain liturgical-musical customs. In Matins on a Sunday (that is, Saturday evening), for example, we do not sing the Polyelei at every Sunday as is now the common practice in the Patriarchate. We have, rather, always maintained the liturgical distinction between a Vigil with a polyelei and one without: the Vigil itself does not contain a polyelei except when it is a Vigil of a Feast with a megalynarion, or in Great Lent where appointed, or in the season from Pokrov through Nativity (on account of the longer nights during this season, the custom of ‘elongating’ the Vigil was thus adopted); but apart from these, the hymns following the reading of the kathisma at Matins proceed directly into the Evloghitaria of the Resurrection, precisely as stated in the ustav. By this, we maintain a distinction of types of service, which is important in maintaining the spiritual distinction between different types of joy and commemoration in our liturgical life.

Similarly, we have certain unique customs in the Church Abroad regarding what is sung (i.e. by the choir) versus chanted (i.e. by a Reader). In proper ROCOR practice, for example, the hymn ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…’ in Vespers is never sung, but always chanted by a Reader on a single note — precisely to off-set it from the musical ensemble of the broader service, to make it the ‘startlingly different’ deliverance of a hymn that is read rather than sung, just as St Symeon himself was delivering a ‘startlingly different’ prophecy than any could have expected to come at the steps of the Temple.

In the same vein, but in the opposite manner, the custom of singing the vesperal prayer ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this night without sin…’ has become overused, by choirs not knowing that this custom is maintained in our Church only on Great Feasts (more traditionally still, only during Bright Week) — never on normal Sundays or other vigils. This is precisely in order to maintain a distinction in dignity and grandeur between the Church’s many festal celebrations: they are not all meant to be the same! (In point of fact, this custom originally was maintained only in Bright Week, since during the week nothing is read / chanted, but everything is sung; but otherwise there is no liturgical reason for this prayer to be sung musically).


These are but a few examples of what could easily be a long litany of observations on our musical legacy in the Church Abroad. Indeed, one of the joys of being involved in this important ministry of the Church to her faithful is precisely that there is always so much more for us to learn than we can possibly claim to know — for this is a tradition that has its ultimate focal point not in man but in God, and God always has something to teach us.

The most important point with which I can leave you therefore, is that with which I began: with the reminder that the Life in Christ is a Mystery. I do not say this to imply it is ‘mysterious’ in a secular sense, as in ‘esoteric’ or confusing; but in a theological sense: it is a life that goes beyond itself, that points to, leads to, and is incorporated into the Life of another — even God Himself. Our musical heritage is part of that life, and therefore it is something that has the potential to lead to Eternal Life, but only if we approach it properly. Everything we do is important, from the great to the small. Everything can be holy. Everything can be transformative — and that transformative power can lead broken men and women out of despair and into the hope of the Life in Christ, into His Kingdom. But by the same token, we can, if we are lax or thoughtless, distract the faithful from prayer, even from God.

All of you, as Church musicians in one form or another, have this responsibility in your hands. It is a grave one, no less than that of a priest or a deacon. Take it seriously. Receive everything you can from our forefathers and the living tradition of our Church. Be humble enough to receive correction. Be strong enough to learn and work and strive always to be better tomorrow than you were today — and God will bless you, and, through you, His beloved flock.