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Western Rite in the Nineteenth Century


In 1864, 44-year-old Joseph Julian Overbeck, a former German Catholic priest who had left the priesthood, become Lutheran and later married, was chrismated into the Orthodox Church at the Russian Embassy Chapel in London. Overbeck was a Syriac scholar and professor in Bonn who had become disillusioned with the papal claims of supremacy. Two years after his chrismation, he published Catholic Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism, in which he developed the schema with which he was about to begin his work for the next twenty years. In 1867, he published the first issue of the Orthodox Catholic Review, a periodical which "aimed at setting forth the truth of Catholic Orthodoxy as opposed to Popery and Protestantism, clearing its way through the heap of rubbish stored up by both parties for centuries past." Overbeck regarded both the Papacy and the Church of England to be on the verge of collapse.

"We are Westerns"

In March of 1867, Overbeck circulated a petition to the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia explaining his designs and requesting the establishment of a Western Rite church in full communion with the Eastern Rite of the Orthodox Church, saying, "we are Westerns...and must plead an inalienable right to remain Westerns." In September of 1867 the petition, with some 122 signatures—mainly Tractarian clerics (the "Oxford Movement")—was sent to the Russian synod. Upon receipt, a synodal commission was formed, comprising seven members under the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg, inviting Overbeck to attend the deliberations. Accompanying him was Fr. Eugene Popoff (chaplain of the Russian embassy in London), and the two were present in January of 1870 when the scheme was approved. Overbeck was then requested to submit a draft of the Western liturgy for examination.

The liturgy which Dr. Overbeck developed for the Russians was based on the 1570 Roman rite of Pope Pius V, but also included a brief epiclesis and the Trisagion hymn after the Gloria, "in remembrance of our union with the Orthodox Church." Returning to Russia in January of 1871, Overbeck submitted the rite. In two long sessions of the commission, the liturgy was examined and then approved for use.


Over the next few years, Overbeck mainly focused on the development of the Old Catholic movement in Europe (which had gone into schism from Rome over the new dogma of Papal Infallibility promulgated at the First Vatican Council), probably hoping to find fertile ground for the establishment of his liturgical use, a Western liturgical rite within the Orthodox Church. In his magazine, he engaged in polemics with both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, as well as Orthodox converts who used the Byzantine Rite.

In 1876, he reiterated his design and issued an Appeal to the Patriarchs and Holy Synods of the Orthodox Catholic Church. Three years later, he travelled to Constantinople to meet the Ecumenical Patriarch, Ioachim III, who gave him authorization for delivering sermons and addresses in defense of Orthodoxy. In August of 1881, the Church of Constantinople appointed a commission to examine the scheme and made the announcement that "an agreement on certain points has already been reached," recognizing the right of the West to have a Western church and rite as had existed before the Great Schism.


Much to Overbeck's disappointment, no further developments occurred. He had hoped to be a priest within the Orthodox Church, but his marriage after his Roman Catholic ordination was seen as an impediment, rendering him ineligible. He became somewhat paranoid in his later years, especially regarding the Greeks in London as hostile toward him. The Orthodox Catholic Review ended its run in 1885, and seven years later he admitted that his project had failed, saying that he had had "Hopes entertained with joy by all the truly Orthodox, recommended and pushed forward by the Holy Synods of Russia, Romania, and Serbia, approved by Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, but finally crushed and destroyed by the veto of the Greek Synod!" He died in 1905, his dream unfulfilled.

Fr. Georges Florovsky wrote: "it was not just a fantastic dream. The question raised by Overbeck was pertinent, even if his own answer to it was confusedly conceived. And probably the vision of Overbeck was greater than his personal interpretation."