Should Silent Prayers Be Read Aloud?

Should Silent Prayers Be Read Aloud? 20May

In today's post, we will address the question from one of our readers about the silent prayers during the Divine Liturgy. Specifically, we were asked about reading these prayers aloud in the presence of the worshippers.

Here, we speak mainly about the dogmatic prayers of the anaphora (Μυστική προσευχή), and several others that the priest reads silently or in a low voice before the altar, while the choir is singing a hymn, or the deacon is chanting a litany. Traditionally, only the final words of these prayers are audible to the people at the liturgy. They hear them as exclamations.

prayers of the anaphora

Proponents of reading these prayers aloud argue that, like ancient Christians, parishioners should take in the entire prayer as a treasure, so that they would perceive and understand the liturgy most fully, and participate consciously in this central mystery of the Church.

Their conservative opponents defend a centuries-old tradition – which no one would call flawed or sterile; they believe - rightly - that silent prayers are not a crucial moment for a worshipper and not a panacea for the spiritual growth of an individual believer and the congregation.

Discussions on this matter have a fairly long history. They have been on and off periodically, while their roots go back to the early centuries of Christianity. Certainly, one can imagine the volumes of information on the background and arguments of the sides that have accumulated over time, and it would be difficult to cover it in a single post in any meaningful way.

However, if you are interested in the broader picture, then we could dedicate a separate article to the subject, in response to your reactions and feedback. In the meantime, we wish to share with you a few relevant thoughts from the discussion on the future of this practice in the parishes among the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As an example of a short answer, here is a balanced opinion of Bishop Panteleimon (Shatov):

Bishop Panteleimon of Vereya, vicar of Moscow dioceseBishop Panteleimon of Vereya, vicar of Moscow diocese

"On the one hand, silent prayers were read aloud from the beginning, on the other, if we imagined ourselves in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, where they were read aloud, I am not sure that they were audible for all the people. Nowadays, some archpriests will read them into a microphone, so that everyone would hear. It is very important, perhaps, that the priest is praying. Not just reading the text aloud or silently, but praying. I sometimes read these prayers aloud, and sometimes silently depending on which is most comfortable for prayer.

But I think that forcing people to read one way or the other is not the right thing in our time, perhaps. Everyone gets to choose what is right for them. Fortunately, in our time one can read the prayers as they find most convenient for themselves, and probably for the congregation at the church. If they are all educated people and wish to hear these prayers, you can read them aloud, but it is not a requirement, because even though prayer has a spoken dimension, it surely can be said silently. And the people who know the content of these prayers can also pray silently, in their own words."

In the past

It is true, that the prayers of a priest in the first centuries of Christianity could be heard by every member of the congregation. However, starting from the fourth century, a new trend emerged: churches began to move away from reading silent prayers aloud during the liturgy.

Several factors gave rise to it, such as the legalisation of the faith, larger congregations and churches, the archaisation of the language of the liturgy, and growing numbers of 'nominal' Christians. Even the famous Justinian’s the Great Novella 137 could not stop the trend, and by the eighth century, this practice became predominant in the East.

At the present-day time

Admittedly, despite the tradition that has evolved, there at present no canonical prohibition against reading, studying or listening to these prayers by the laity. The prayer texts are widely accessible, and people are even encouraged to learn them.

Nor is there a total ban on reading silent prayers aloud during the liturgy. Individual parishes seek an appropriate archpastoral blessing.

Frequently, hierarchal liturgies, including those celebrated by Patriarch Kirill, are liturgies of this type, if the sound and mastering equipment is available, and many people like it.

Because Church-wide permission is still missing, the most reasonable course of action is to make a balanced decision in each particular case.

To summarise Vladyka Panteleimon's words, prayer is entirely an individual phenomenon. It is a matter for the individual parishioner, congregation, and priest. And, depending on the circumstances, the decision on the matter may be different.

The traditional liturgy, as one priest describes it, is a somewhat easier but shared journey of the weak and the strong. Reading the prayers aloud enriches this journey, but also makes it more difficult, and that requires an amount of consensus among the travelers.

In finding this consensus the following things should be considered:

Many people are conservative and do not take lightly the incursions in the habitual rhythm of the liturgy; to them, the texts of the chants and their musical form are sufficient for the prayer.

The liturgy is the highest point in the daily cycle of worship, and it is no coincidence that nearly the entire liturgy is built on hymns, alternating only with the readings from the New Testament and priest`s exclamations. As such, reading the prayers aloud in the background considerably changes this picture, so the position of the conservatives is understandable.

How does that happen in practice? First, the choir sings the hymn, then the priest reads the prayer. Only on rare occasions it is possible to do both synchronously and harmoniously.

Reading the silent prayers aloud extends the service by 15-20 minutes. For some parishes, this will not matter much, but for others, it may be critical. Some consider the prayers of the liturgy of St Basil the Great to be too verbose to read aloud.

Not every priest will be able to read the prayers in a way that meets certain criteria (loudness, intelligibility, prayerfulness, harmony with the choir), and it will not always be for health reasons. The longest prayers can be particularly problematic: instinctively, many people will speed up as they read them. On the other hand, reading aloud prevents many from concentrating on the words of the prayer and absorbing it deep in their hearts – all of it is very individual.

If the room does not have sound equipment, making sense of the text of the prayer will be an even bigger challenge than hearing an individual exclamation.

If a consensus has not yet been reached:

Take comfort in knowing that the great pastors (Saint John of Kronstadt and Saint Alexei Mechev, Archpriest Valentin Amfiteatrov and others) have served liturgy with grace-filled inspiration without changing the ritual, and have enlivened the spirits of tens of thousands.

The question of whether to read the prayers aloud can be decided at an individual level. Any willing parishioner can familiarize themselves with the prayer text and read it from a book. It is possible to organise study sessions dedicated to these prayers, and thus balance the needs of those members of the congregation who wish to participate in these prayers and those who are opposed to changing the habitual rhythm of the liturgy.

Familiarity with silent prayers should not be seen as an insignificant factor in spiritual life, nor should we view it as decisive. The altar servers hear these prayers more often and more fully than the parishioners, but not all of them benefit from them. It would be premature to expect this practice to bring qualitative and quantitative progress in the life of the congregation, as it is not the only key to success.

As many priests will say, our prayerful attention is far more important. When a person prays with attention and opens their heart to God, then it becomes irrelevant whether he or is reading his prayer aloud or silently (or, for a layman, whether he hears the prayers of a priest or not). Conversely, if our mind is struggling with multiple competing thoughts, everything else is of little importance.

The green pointer indicates a microphone - a part of the church's sound equipmentThe green pointer indicates a microphone - a part of the church's sound equipment

As for the practices at our Convent

We have a consensus in favour of the traditional liturgy - the question of reading the prayers aloud is not raised by either the clergy or the parishioners. On the other hand, most of our churches have sound equipment, and some priests read the silent prayers aloud, without making it their utmost priority.

Sometimes, they do it for the choir, to signal that the prayer is not over, and they should resume singing to avoid an extended pause. All of this is becoming especially relevant as the liturgy of Saint Basil is being served throughout these Lenten weeks.

Prayerfully, we wish our readers spiritual wisdom and sensitivity in making decisions affecting the lives of your congregations and plentiful blessings from the Lord.