Is a 20-minute Liturgy un-Orthodox? Why It’s Not as Laughable as You Might Think


As I attended a 20-minute mass at a Catholic cathedral (pictured above) right next to work during my lunch break with a colleague, I could not help but think of how many Orthodox Christians would scoff at the brevity of the service. But is it really that laughable? Here is why I believe it is absolutely Orthodox to allow, in certain circumstances, for a short (20-30 minute, beginning to end) liturgy in the Orthodox Church.


There are two responses people usually have when they confront the notion of a shorter liturgy:

1) Bring it on!  Many respond enthusiastically, wishing they wouldn’t have to endure long liturgies ever again! I caution those who are eager to respond this way, as it gives me pause for concern to think of the lack of spiritual stamina to pray that such individuals have, and that they seem content to remain that way. Stamina to pray sincerely for long periods of time is a virtue that is sought by God and is to be pursued. What comes to mind from Scripture is the commandment that we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and also I recall Christ’s persistent request of His disciples to stay up and pray with him instead of going to sleep:

Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter,“What! Could you not watch with Me one hour?  Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:40–41).

2) Oh the horror! Heretics! The other extreme of how many respond is one of horror and dismay, as if just the mere mention or suggestion of a shorter liturgy is to have committed some great sacrilege or heresy, as if you have brought the abomination of desolation into the Church! Okay, maybe not that extreme, but you get my point.


Let me make clear at the outset that I do NOT advocate shortening all of our standard liturgical worship on Sundays or any other services (like Great Friday, etc.). Not at all.

What I do suggest, though, is that the Orthodox Church may acceptably use shorter liturgies for specific purposes. The one that sticks out in my mind the most is related to evangelism. Who hasn’t tried themselves or seen someone else bringing a friend/co-worker/potential spouse/classmate/etc. to liturgy on Sunday in an effort to introduce Orthodoxy to them? And for the overwhelming majority of those visitors, how often did we see them return? Some will say, “Don’t have them come to the liturgy to introduce them to Orthodoxy,” but I say, “Why not have them come to a short one?”

[Comment added here 6/16/15 in brackets: I wanted to just clarify this statement I made about evangelism above. I am very aware that the liturgy was never used historically as a means of evangelizing. Actually, Catechumens who were still being instructed were allowed to attend until the sermon was finished, and afterwards the deacon would ask everyone who is not baptized to leave. That command was taken out of the Coptic Church. I take that as an indication that we no longer require it. I’ve seen the actual command that used to be said, as mention of it still exists in the ordination rite of the deaconate (I forget which order, minor or major).

I notice that today, the liturgy is commonly used to introduce others to Orthodoxy. I think there are several reasons for offering a shortened liturgy outside of evangelism though. For example, the Catholic Church I mentioned above offers liturgy during the lunch hour is AMAZING. I wish I could attend a Coptic Liturgy in the middle of my work day, be fulfilled briefly and receive the Lord’s life-giving body and blood, and then get back to work. Also, imagine a Wednesday night liturgy and Bible Study, an hour at length total, including the liturgy. Now imagine bringing some college friends to attend that Christian gathering. I remember a former parishioner-convert who brought their non-Orthodox sister to liturgy. It didn’t prove helpful. Many people today utilize the liturgy as a means of introducing Orthodoxy and I think, if that is going to remain acceptable, then why not accommodate by offering something tailored for evangelism.]


The basis for accepting a shorter liturgy is simple: that’s how they used to be. I mean, can you imagine, right when Christianity began, that they were spending 4-5 hours praying a service?

I came to this realization when I was asked to speak about the history of the liturgy and researched how the early Church worshipped. Some people think that the same (or nearly the same) exact liturgical worship (the words, the length, the everything) has been around intact since around the time of the apostles until this day, unchanged for the most part. That’s simply not historically accurate.

What is true is that the basic structure of the liturgy seems to have been around since very early on, arguably since the time of the apostles. And it is this basic structure that I was so pleased to see followed to its fullest extent in the Catholic mass I attended. And it’s easy to remember! It’s based on a response His Grace Bishop Youssef gave to a question posed by some non-Egyptian visitors to a Coptic Church. They had just attended a liturgy and wanted to understand more about what it meant. Bishop Youssef’s explanation followed along the actions that Christ took during the Mystical Supper:

  1. Took bread – Offertory (This is where wine and the Corban bread is offered, and the one bread that will be used to serve as the Eucharist is chosen; cf.“took bread” — Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19)
  2. Give thanks  Thanksgiving prayer (cf. “when He had given thanks” — 1 Cor. 11:24; Mark 14:23)
  3. Blessed it – Institution Narrative/Anamnesis (This is where we remember and reenact the Mystical Supper; The word anamnesis is the Greek word used in the Bible when Christ said to do this [the Mystical Supper) in reminiscence or memory of Him. cf. “blessed … it” — Matt. 26:26; Mark. 14:22; 1 Cor. 11:23-29)
  4. Sanctified it – Epiclesis (This is where the canonical clergyman actually requests for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and wine so that it may be changed to the Lord’s body and blood, and most of us unfortunately have no idea where in the liturgy this actually happens [In the Coptic Liturgy, it is after we sing the hymn “Amen Amen Amen, Your Death O Lord….,” followed by the deacon’s declaration that we worship before God, and then a commandment that we pay attention when the deacon says “let us attend]; cf. “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed”— John 6:55)
  5. Gave it – Distribution (cf. “gave it to them” — Matt. 26:26-27; Mark. 14:23; Luke 22:19)

In addition to this basic structure you’ll find a very early Christian element of the Liturgy (I’ve found references to this as early as the Third Century in the writings of Hippolytus), which is the Anaphora (meaning “lifting up.”) What’s astonishing is the words used in this prayer, as recorded by Hippolytus 1700 years ago are virtually identical to what we pray in every Orthodox liturgy today:

Priest: The Lord be with you!
All: And with your spirit!
Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
All: They are turned to the Lord!
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
All: It is right and just!

Moreover, in the Scriptures as well as in the early Church we find that the following other elements were part of worship:

  • Reading from Scripture (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13; 1 Th. 5:27; Col. 4:16)
  • Sermons (cf. Acts 20:17
  • Psalms and hymns (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19)
  • Kiss of peace (cf. 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Th. 5:26)
  • Saying “Amen” at the end of prayers (cf. 1 Cor. 14:16).
  • Communion for the baptized faithful only (cf. Heb 13:10)

It appears that in the early Church there was no extensive pre-set form of prayers as we have now, and that the bishop had freedom to pray within prescribed bounds and structure as shown above. One recent scholar, Fr. Dix, says:

The normal celebrant was, of course, the bishop, who certainly always had freedom to phrase the prayer as he wished within the traditional outline.

Likewise, we find Hippolytus of Rome in the Third Century offering a set of written prayers, but also noting that the bishop is not required to follow it:

Let the bishop give thanks in the manner described above. It is not, however, necessary for him to use the form of words set out there, as though he had to make the effort to say them by heart in his thanksgiving to God … only let him pray in sound orthodoxy.

And therein lies the key for why we have set pre-written liturgies today (e.g., the Liturgy of St. Basil, St. Cyril, St. John Chrysostom, etc.): priests and bishops started to introduce heresy in their prayers, and so set prayers were introduced as the norm to counteract the potential for that to occur.


Shorter liturgies do NOT mean abbreviated, rushed-through full liturgies. As one commentator (thanks @Anon) in one of my other posts puts it:

Praying shorter liturgies and rushing through liturgies are two very different things.

Shorter liturgies may be acceptable under some circumstances, but I fear that our culture’s propensity to shorten, abbreviate and reduce an organic whole to its ‘fundamental’ components is something that must be avoided. Let us remember the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms which ended in disaster. The shortening has to happen for legitimate pastoral reasons, and people being lazy is not one of those reasons.

On the other hand, rushing liturgies is NEVER acceptable! It is better to shorten the rite (appropriately) than to rush through a long rite. Liturgy is heaven on earth and we step out of chronological time and enter redeemed time (from chronos to kairos).
See this for why rushing liturgy is wrong:



History of the Liturgy – My PowerPoint presentation from which the above post was written

Christ in the Eucharist, by Fr. Tadros Malaty

An early liturgy

7 thoughts on “Is a 20-minute Liturgy un-Orthodox? Why It’s Not as Laughable as You Might Think

  1. Whereas I would normally not be very excited about having a shorter liturgy, I am a reserve chaplain with the military and we have a very limited amount of time in which to accomplish our training goals on our drill weekends. Having an approved short liturgy would enable me to provide the liturgy to the troops AND limit the amount of training time that I take away from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing! That is a great reason I would have never thought of to permit a shorter liturgy. I think that bishops, who were entitled to set the form and manner of prayer, can utilize their authority to allow shorter liturgies in such cases. Really appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.


  2. Hi John,

    I’m honoured to be quoted on your blog!

    I agree with much of what you’ve said but would like to urge caution, even with all the caveats you’ve made in your article.

    First of all – watch this! It’s basically a summary of everything I write below:

    Particularly when it comes to “evangelism”, this idea is wide open to abuse… I’m picturing a trendy parish with a cool-sounding acronym-name taking your idea at face value and holding the “main” liturgy in a small room on Sundays, and simultaneously holding an official “shortened” liturgy for “outreach” purposes in their large auditorium. All the “youth” (and blonde Coptic middle aged women who think that they’re youth) would – in a divine act of kenosis – sacrifice their beloved “traditional” 90 minute liturgy, and attend the “shortened” service in their capacity as “servants” to “integrate” any newcomers into the “community”. And despite the fact that the whole point of the “shortened” liturgy exercise was to get rid of the post-liturgy Charismatic services with a silly name, they’ll still hold those anyway “to give people a chance to learn something about God in a less intimidating environment”. (Not sure if the emphasis on ‘learning’ in worship is particularly Orthodox, but I digress).

    According to the OCA’s official website, which has been an evangelical Orthodox presence in North America far longer than we have:
    “I might also add that the Liturgy was never meant to be an evangelization tool, a means of interesting or attracting people. While it is true that there have indeed been countless individuals for whom their first contact with the Orthodox Church may have come through an Orthodox worship experience, it is also fact that, in the early Church, those who had yet to fully embrace the faith were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word, because the Liturgy of the Eucharist was not something that they could participate in until after they had converted.”

    Since the only real ‘compulsory’ requirement in the Church is to attend the Eucharist weekly, this could leave many card-carrying congregants in liberal parishes whose only experience of the Church is 20 mins every Sunday. These could be current and future church committee members and even priests-in-waiting specialising in “outreach”. It is a much better option to pick a liturgy other than that of the Eucharist (e.g. the Agpia/Tasbeha, or a fusion of the two) to adapt for evangelistic purposes. Then we could keep our Orthodox Eucharistic celebration intact and make those who hold post-Eucharistic Charismatic services for outreach switch to a modified Orthodox rite. Obviously this rite (and any new Orthodox rite) should not be a haphazard conglomeration of everyone’s favourite hymns (unfortunately many of our parish services these days are similarly consumer-driven), but should be put together with significant input from liturgical theologians. Radical changes should be avoided in order to maintain continuity with previous praxis, for if changes are not organic and gradual who can guarantee that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit working in the life of the Church, and not by the sinful desires of men?

    But I do understand what you’re driving at, and I completely agree. We should be trying to formalise the services our parishes are already doing at an informal level – for youth, for outreach, etc – in order to make them conform to Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. This would hopefully disabuse people of the widely held notion that we have ‘formal’ services like liturgy and tasbeha, and ‘informal’ services like youth meeting and non-litugical ‘prayer meetings’. Of course to make such a distinction is ridiculous, and only provides people with a loophole to dispense with the norms of Orthodoxy in apparently ‘informal’ settings (I also challenge the notion that the liturgy is ‘formal’). For example, some people have no issue with singing “Our God is an Awesome God” at a prayer meeting, but would be absolutely scandalised by printing new liturgy books that replace “Tai shori” with “You are my hiding place”. Why the double standard?

    And finally regarding the Roman Catholic Church, it is not arrogant (as I have heard some suggest) to emphasise that many quarters of their church are spiritually in a state of disarray (as are we to some extent), and need to return to their Catholic roots. What you experienced is a recent development in the Catholic Church, is not positive, and we should most definitely not be encouraging them:
    “…Anyway, papal primacy as currently expressed is the first obstacle to Catholic-Orthodox reunion, and one issue to resolved.

    A second is scarcely less important—that of liturgical phronema, or mindset. The issue here is not, let me stress, the difference between eastern and western rites, and the question of which one is preferable. In fact the Orthodox have long protested the reduction of differences between east and west to matters of rite and ritual. The model of Unia (I avoid the term “Uniate”, since it is now considered derogatory), and the idea that Orthodoxy could happily fit into the Roman Catholic world if allowed to retain its liturgical tradition and its married priests, is indeed problematic, but it is not the problem I addressing here. I am not now referring to the question of the Unia model for unity, but of what may be described as liturgical minimalism.

    For there to be true unity between Orthodox and Catholics, there does not necessarily need be a common Eucharistic rite. In a reunited Church, we acknowledge the room for and legitimacy of a plurality of rites. But Orthodox and Catholics do need a common liturgical approach, so that Orthodox visiting Catholic churches or Catholics visiting Orthodox ones feel they are still living in the same church and are sharing the same approach to liturgy and life. Currently it seems that our approaches to liturgy are very different and largely incompatible.

    One difference of approach can be found in the matter of fasting. Orthodoxy requires its faithful to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy every Wednesday and Friday, and throughout the four fasting seasons of the Church year. As well as this, Orthodox must fast entirely from midnight before receiving Holy Communion the next morning. Such a mindset finds incomprehensible making the Lenten fast optional (as I am told is sometimes done), or reducing the Eucharistic fast to one hour before the Mass. This latter seems to us a lot like not fasting at all, and more akin to not eating in between meals. This is not to suggest that all who call themselves Orthodox keep the fast as prescribed, but they know that if they don’t, they are cheating and colouring outside the lines.

    Another difference can be found in the current state of the Novus Ordo Mass, which can be served quite casually in about half an hour or so. In my local experience one often finds no chanting, no incense, casual ceremonial, and (to Orthodox eyes) inappropriate liturgical use of the laity. This change from the more historic and stately High Mass strikes most Orthodox as essentially the Protestantization of the Mass, and indeed it is sometimes difficult to know whether one is listening to a modern Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran service. The only sure way to know whether or not it is a Mass is to listen to see whether or not the celebrant prays for the Pope. One could mention the famous Clown Masses that sometimes show up on Youtube. Granted that Clown Masses and their liturgical kin are abuses, their existence seems to witness to a different underlying phronema, a different approach to history and tradition.

    My intention in all this is not polemics. After all, my own Orthodox house has more than enough glass in it, and we Orthodox are in no position to throw any stones. My sole purpose in mentioning these things is to identify which things are the real and grass-root obstacles to restoring Eucharistic communion. If we are going to honour the past by making progress in the future, these difficult issues will have to be faced. Most Orthodox laity (let’s be honest) do not understand the issues of filioque and would not care much even if they did. The insertion of the filioque into the Creed would not scandalize most of them so much as would a half hour Liturgy without incense, or the abolition of a fast. It is good for theologians to talk together, and to produce papers, and to meet together for conferences. But for a really interesting time, bring together a devout Catholic grandma and a devout Orthodox yaya, and let them talk about their differences. That would be a dialogue worth recording. And it would highlight as nothing else could the path to unity we need to tread…”
    – Fr Lawrence Farley,


  3. Hi John,

    Some great thoughts. But I have to agree that the Liturgy is not for evangelism. In the early Church, non Orthodox left after the Liturgy of the Word. If you look at the Liturgy of the Word in our rite, the Lords Prayer and the Creed are not said. This is because catechisms could not say them before they were illumined in Baptism. The Alexandrian fathers took great care that the part of the Liturgy for catechumens did not include these things. The idea of inquirers attending the Liturgy comes from the idea that the Priest does the Liturgy. It is the people, including the priest, who do the Liturgy. Only those offering and receiving are able to do the Liturgy, catechumens can’t. If we are not offering and receiving, we should leave after the 3 long prayers, because we cannot do the Liturgy. If there are no people to do it, the priest cannot go on. If the community is not at peace, but is fighting, then the Liturgy must not continue as well.

    What I think is needed is a Reader’s Service. The EO have this, if the priest is not available, the community still gather and pray the Liturgy of the Word, lead by a Reader (who is blessed to do so by the bishop). If there is an event for inquirers, for example a weekend retreat with inquirers classes. of course there can be no Liturgy. But the Liturgy of the catechumens could still be done very appropriately. Rather than making a laisized version of the Liturgy of the Word as the EO do, the readings could simply be inserted into the Agpeya. The hours are versatile enough for this, as many of the hours in Holy Week have, for example, a pauline and a Gospel. You can put the structure of those hours beside the structure of the Agpeya and see that they are the same thing.

    Now, as for shorter Liturgies, there is a place for that, but it is not for evangelism, it is for the rushed pace of life today. At my Church we have weekday liturgy from 11:30-1 pm so that people can make it from the Gospel to Communion on a lunch hour from work, or at 6:30-8 am to make it before work. Half of this is the raising of incense and the Agpeya, then the actual Liturgy is incredibly rushed. In this case, it would be much better to omit the hours and begin the Liturgy directly. The Raising of Morning incense was originally the morning service done on days when there was no Liturgy. It is just the communal version of Agpeya Prime. The idea of requiring parishes to complete all the monastic hours before the Liturgy is very new, less than 200 years. It would be much better to pray the Liturgy respectfully in the time allowed, rather than racing through the hours to check a box that we’ve done it, without really paying attention, and then have to race through the Liturgy.

    Finally, the push towards having daily Liturgy and towards making the hours the thing that comes before the Liturgy really detracts from the hours. On a saint’s feast day, it might be better to just say the hours, including the raising of incense and some part of tasbeha (all of which are part of the hours), and have a sermon, rather than fitting in a Liturgy. The early Church only had the Liturgy on Sundays, and later Saturdays as well. If we restore the hours to their previous dignity rather that something a couple people and Abouna do before the Liturgy, then we would have the perfect services for outsiders to join and see, and to use in place of the “informal ‘worship'” after a Protestant style that is so popular in meetings.

    When we had meetings in my house, we would spend 20 minutes praying Vespers Praise, then have a talk from a priest, then have some snack food and visit. I like that much better than using evangelical songs that are at best, highly skewed in their spirituality, presenting only a slice of truth out of context, and more often, contain subtle and not so subtle heresies, and having people thing that that is another kind of worship besides the Liturgy. People really liked it. I think over the course of a year a half dozen daily and seasonal psalis came up, and people had never been exposed to that before.

    Unfortunately, the psaltar and psalmody have been stripped out of our raising of incense, and are often done in a very marginalized way, with the raising of incense as the main thing. But there’s very little in that service left to tie it to the time of day or the season, so we just do the same thing ever week, and we do it twice, evening and morning, and we never even learn about the rich cycle of the hours that is part of our tradition.

    St. Pope Kyrillos prayed the Liturgy daily. But he did so without marginalizing the hours. We have emulated one part of his spirituality, in a skewed way that does not match his style. One person told me that Pope Kyrillos told them to stop praying the Agpepa, because for them it was dry and repetitive, they were not ready for it. Instead he told them to pray only the daily Psali. Another person told me a Macarian monk recently gave them the same rule. Both of these people love and benefit from the Agpeya, but were given rules appropriate to their stage of life in order to make them love it and not hate it. Today, how many people know the daily and seasonal Psalis exist? How many thing the Agpeya is the prayer for laity, the only way Copts pray (besides of course hillsong)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Jonathan, thanks for the comment. I haven’t read it thoroughly but just wanted to immediately respond to the main import of your comment, which is that liturgy is not for evangelism. I agree with you wholeheartedly, and I do absolutely understand the place of the Liturgy of the Catechumens in the history of the Church. But today the Liturgy IS a means employed by so many and often people bring their friends to liturgy. What I meant was that instead of having someone come to a 3 hour liturgy, why not provide something shorter, and include a sermon, etc. That’s all I meant. I believe today’s environment and circumstances allow it to be so though.


    • Just read more thoroughly through your comment. Wow! What wealth of helpful information. Love the idea of a Reader’s service. Wow. That would work so well for evangelism purposes, better than an entire liturgy, and more in conformity with the early Church!

      As for your church’s lunch liturgy, it’s awesome, but I hate that it is a rushed liturgy rather than an abbreviated liturgy tailored for a shorter time, within the structure permitted historically.

      I do love the way that you have people over and have a small prayer service. It’s great! I do think that a liturgical service, even just like the Reader’s service, gives people a greater sense of the mystical aspect of Orthodoxy. It just looks so cool!

      And as for your last comments and the Agpeya and Psalis, totally feel you!


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