Saturday, November 19, 2016

Teaching Liturgy in Sunday School

Liturgy was not a part of our Sunday School curriculum until recently. Now our children in all classes learn liturgy. This change was instigated by the work of one person -- Prof. Cherian Thomas. He conducted a study to evaluate the then liturgical awareness, and found it to be very poor. He sought a solution to this problem discussing with some experts both within and without the church. Finally he submitted the findings of his study before the Sunday School curriculum committee, which wholeheartedly welcomed it, and took steps to include liturgy lessons in the curriculum. Prof. Thomas did this research as a part of his doctoral study in the Serampore University under the guidance of Fr. Dr. Reji Mathew. Now we shall see the same story in some detail. 

Prof. Cherian Thomas states the purpose of worship as our deification (theosis). Our church fathers formulated our liturgy, including in it the basic affirmations of our faith, as an opportunity for climbing up the ladder of theosis. However, a mere attendance in the worship will not effect theosis; one has to participate consciously with the hymns and prayers rising from the heart and not just from the lips. If theosis does not happen in them, their participation is mechanical, and it is a waste of time. It seems that for about 90% of the participants in our Syrian Christian communities, worship is a mechanical activity. The prayers and hymns rise only from their lips and not from their hearts. Many of them assume that worship is done by the priests and altar assistants, and the people are mere spectators. They merely “see” the Qurbana.  

The primary reason for this pathetic situation, according to Prof. Thomas, is that the hymns in our liturgy, originally written in Syriac, were translated to Malayalam in such a way that the tune remains the same. Thus vocabulary was so selected to suit music. Moreover, no attempt is made to update the translation to match with the current language. As a result, our hymns are filled with archaic expressions. The unfamiliar words and complicated expressions in the liturgy prevent the people from meaningfully participating in the worship. 

Prof. Thomas quotes Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios,
    ‘Our most significant form of religious education may be in enabling believers to understand the true meaning of worship, especially of the Eucharist and other sacramental mysteries of the Church. The structure, the symbolism and theology of Eucharistic worship have to be taught again and again to our people, and we have to train them to participate much more consciously and actively in the worship of the Church. Our people have to be taught why they worship and that worship is an act of the whole Church and not just the priest and the choir’. Paulose Mar Gregorios, Worship in a Secular Age (Thiruvalla: CSS, 2002),19.

Fr. B. Varghese argues that our church fathers who originally wrote our liturgy in Syriac did so to make it intelligible to the people. Even though the worship in urban areas like Jerusalem and Antioch was in Greek, the prayers were translated into Aramaic for the benefit of people coming from rural areas. Even though Greek was the liturgical language of Antioch in the early period, it was later replaced by Syriac. B.Varghese,., Athmavilum Sathyathilum (Malayalam)(Kottayam: Divyabodhanam Publications, 1987),16.

In order to measure the present awareness level of the liturgy, Prof. Thomas conducted a survey by distributing a questionnaire of forty questions regarding our liturgy to about 200 people, which included students as well as adults. About one third of the students and half of the adults claimed to understand the liturgy very well, but proved to have very poor knowledge. They don’t even know that they are ignorant of liturgy. Only about 5% of them got 80% of the questions correct. Half of them scored less than 40%. The adult women from rural area are far above all the others in liturgical awareness due to the reason that they have the opportunity to learn liturgy in Martha Mariam Samajam. Even Sunday school students from higher classes exhibit very poor knowledge of liturgy. Even those who have completed Divyabodhanan did not score much, for it does not give much emphasis to liturgy. The altar boys are not up to the mark in liturgical awareness either.

 This empirical study revealed that the knowledge of the people on liturgy is very poor. All categories of the people are almost at the same level. Most of them do not know the meaning of the Syriac words they frequently use in the worship. But at the same time it is evident that if they are given the opportunity, they shall study liturgy. This is evident from the response of the members of Martha Mariam Samajam in which there is some provision to study liturgy.

Prof. Thomas met a few church leaders, both clergy and laity, and asked their suggestions regarding the question of liturgy. All the ten persons interviewed were unanimously of the opinion that liturgy shall be taught to the laity and they said that Sunday School is the most effective instrument for this purpose.
Prof. Thomas also interviewed a few people from other churches involved in Sunday school activities:
Prof. Shaji Sebastian, of the Catholic Church, said that they consider Sunday School as a continuation of Holy Qurbana. This means that without teaching, Qurbana becomes meaningless. The whole Qurbana is taught in the class taking each prayer and reading separately. The whole ninth class is allotted to teach the details of the whole Qurbana. Study of sacraments is also included in the curriculum.

Kuriakose Moolayil Cor Episcopa of the Syrian Jacobite Church said that if people do not understand the liturgy it is similar to the gift of tongues. The Church does not encourage gift of tongues in public worship because the participants do not understand what is said. He suggested two options to solve this problem. One is to modify the liturgy so that it becomes comprehensible to the people. The other one is to teach liturgy through the Sunday School. Cor Episcopa says that the whole liturgy shall be included in the Sunday School curriculum. He also said that the liturgy was not inaccessible to the participants in its original Syriac version; but the inaccessibility happened when it was translated to other languages keeping the tunes the same. He also said that when we worship, the whole person, that is, the spirit, body and mind, shall worship together. Intelligence is a part of the mind. So if we do not understand the liturgy that means mind is not participating in worship, which makes it incomplete.

Rev. M.A.Jacob, the General Secretary of C.S.I. Sunday schools, said that it is essential that liturgy be taught to the participants for an effective worship. In the present Sunday school curriculum of the C.S.I. Church they give only a general notion about the liturgy of the Holy Qurbana, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. Rev. Jacob says the Church is planning for a new curriculum in which a detailed study of liturgy is incorporated.

Rev. Ninu Chandy, the General Secretary of the Marthoma Sunday School Samajam, said that Marthoma church has already identified the importance of teaching liturgy, and so they have started revising their Sunday school curriculum accordingly. As the first step they have revised the text of the sixth level with lessons on sacraments and with explanation of hymns and prayers. The Biblical lessons read in the service, meaning of the rituals, and theology in the sacrament are also taught. They are preparing a Sunday school curriculum in which lessons are Christocentric, Bible-based, liturgically-focused and historically-rooted. In addition to this, they conduct study camps for teenagers to teach liturgy.
Thus the leaders from the various churches strongly supported the idea of teaching liturgy by incorporating it in the Sunday School curriculum.

The findings of the empirical research and suggestions of the church leaders were submitted by Prof. Thomas before the Sunday School curriculum committee as follows:
  1. The laity of the Orthodox Church is ignorant about most of the prayers and hymns they use during worship.
  2. As a result, their worship becomes mechanical and lack the enjoyment expected from worship.
  3. It is essential that the faithful understands what they recite.
  4. So effective steps shall be taken to teach liturgy to the laity.
  5. The most effective method to teach liturgy to the laity is to include such lessons in the Sunday school curriculum. 
The findings and the suggestions were welcomed by the committee, and liturgy lessons began to be included in the curriculum. Today all students in our Sunday School learn liturgy in their Sunday School classes.

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