The Handicapped and Orthodox Worship

By Fr Stephen Plumlee

At the 8th All-American Council, the delegates passed a resolution submitted by the Lay Ministries Task Force on Ministry to Persons Who Are Sick and Disabled.

It reads as follows:

In cooperation with the Decade of the Disabled, proclaimed by the United Nations to be 1983-1992, be it resolved that each parish in the Orthodox Church in America be encouraged to set up a committee that will examine parish facilities and evaluate their accessibility to the elderly and disabled; further, that programs be formulated to sensitize parishioners to the special needs of the home-bound, hospitalized, and disabled which foster their greater participation in the liturgical life, educational programs, and fellowship activities of the parish.

The following article frames for us the special responsibility that we as Orthodox have, to consciously welcome and include the disabled in our services and church life. Why? Because the very richness of our worship offers so much, is so inclusive of everyone. And, by witnessing the participation of the disabled, by responding to their needs, we are given the opportunity to grow in Christ.

The sensuous richness of Orthodox worship gives it the opportunity to minister to handicapped persons, not by providing them with specialized forms of worship in separate services so much as by incorporating them directly into the liturgical activities of the community. The colors, smells, and sounds of Orthodox worship are all part of the total personal experience of praising God. It is consonant with the firm insistence of the Orthodox theological tradition that people are created whole; they are not a synthetic compilation of separate systems and parts, but persons. Any analysis of the person into senses, parts or elements is only a momentary discrimination for particular purposes; and continued isolation beyond that moment is destructive to human life, especially in its relation to God.

Symbols Unite Different Worlds

When Orthodox Christians, able-bodied or disabled, are at worship they are surrounded by an ordered host of symbols. The term symbol as it is used here means something which “casts together” elements which would otherwise be separated from each other. A symbol is not voluntary or arbitrary, but flows out of the realities it links together. Since the symbol unites different worlds, it always is more than one can know it to be or understand it consciously. In this sense, the word “symbol” is parallel to its use by C.G. Jung, as for example, in the following quote from him:

Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend. [1]

In the same work Jung also says:

... a symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. Symbols, moreover, are natural and spontaneous products. No genius has ever sat down with a pen or a brush in his hand and said: “Now I am going to invent a symbol.” No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or by deliberate intent, and then give it “symbolic” form. [2]

These symbols are not presented to Orthodox worshipers; rather they, the worshipers, produce them together with the rest of the community. They light candles and install them in a candle rack where those lighted by their fellow worshipers also burn. They sign their own bodies with the sign of the cross of Christ. They prostrate themselves before the sacred icons and kiss them. They, or someone in their local community, may have painted the icons; even if they have not, the images have been created by someone who is immersed in the same life of sacrament and prayer in which they are immersed. When the doors of the altar are opened to begin the worship, they become part of a pattern of movements, gestures, and phrases that are remarkable not so much for their ritualized and ceremonialized forms as for the fact that they are the product of the experience of an entire society at worship through many generations and in many quite different cultures. It is, in a word, “catholic” worship, fitted without rationalization to the many-sided senses and sensibilities of the people.

Deprived of One Sense, Compensated by Another

It is a truism to say that a person deprived of one sense or capacity finds his others heightened to compensate for the loss. It is just this appeal to so many aspects of human nature that makes integration into Orthodox worship readily possible for handicapped persons. Those who cannot hear are still surrounded by an astonishing procession of color and light. They smell the sweetness of the incense, the “odor of spiritual fragrance” and they can know themselves rising, as the smoke rises, to meet the majesty of God. The blind cannot see any of this panoply, but they participate in all the postures and gestures that are so deeply ingrained in Orthodox worship; they join in the system of prayer and the hymnology that examines the experience of the faithful now from one prospect, now from another, utilizing both theological and musical modes. They can feel the very living heat of the other candles as they go to light their own.

It is perhaps the mentally retarded among the handicapped who find the most to respond to in this spiritual sensuality. If there is a group who must rely on its senses for understanding and comprehension, surely it is the retarded who have a limited ability to make abstract connections between words, ideas, and experiences. Here one is surrounded by the postures of humility, the liveliness that is afforded by color and flame, the embrace and kiss of love that occur periodically in Orthodox worship. But one should not believe that the Orthodox liturgy is sufficient by itself to give understanding and incorporation into the Kingdom. All Orthodox, espeically those who are physically handicapped, must be educated in the Church’s perception of Christ if they are to participate fully in the liturgy and to receive all they can from it.

Pedagogy for the retarded requires the use of such devices as methodical repetition, concrete descriptive materials, and a considerable amount of personal physical contact between the teacher and the student. These qualities inhabit Orthodox worship. Time after time appear the same litanies and prayers, simple in their concepts, but profound in their expression of the experience of God and majestic in their approach to Him; the same processional movements of the faithful and of the offerings of bread and wine, which symbolize their very lives, approach the altar, the throne of God, again and again. One cannot escape recognizing Jesus Christ, “the same, yesterday, today, and forever;” even the person who cannot fathom the measured reason of the Fathers of the Church or the fundamental concepts of St. Paul, can know the living closeness and warmth of Christ in the company and through the actions of the believers gathered to offer liturgy to Him.

Thus the handicapped are included in the worship of the Orthodox Church not by the creation of special forms for them, but through their own utilization of and attention to the forms that make up Orthodox worship. By their inclusion in the society of the faithful and their appropriation of the elements of its worship that are perceptible to them, they are part of what the Church does at its adoration of God.

Exposure to the Bible in Worship Services

The Bible is, of course, the verbal revelation par excellence of God’s grace, and the importance of Scripture in Orthodox worship provides another opportunity for handicapped persons to be included in ways that deepen their sense of communion with the Lord. Orthodox who attend Saturday vespers and matins, and Sunday Divine Liturgy hear sung or chanted twenty-three psalms, either in whole or in part, and verses from numerous others that are employed to highlight the themes of portions of the services. The psalms vary widely in content, from those which celebrate the glory of God’s creation (Ps. 104) to psalms of beseeching (Ps 141, 129, 37), to psalms of praise (Ps 102 & 150). One New Testament lesson is read at matins (always an account of the resurrection from one of the Gospels) and two at the Divine Liturgy. Those who attend services on feasts are exposed to even more Scripture, for on the eves of those days, three appropriate lessons are read.

It is not simply that this exposure to biblical literature provides Orthodox worshipers, both the handicapped and the non-handicapped, with a considerable indoctrination in Scripture, but it is also the very foundation on which every other element of Orthodox worship is based. Indeed many of the most eloquent prayers of the Divine Liturgy are in fact passages from the Bible. This is especially true of those prayers which center around the eucharistic canon. It is safe to say, in fact, that nothing is done liturgically in the Orthodox Church without its raison d’etre being made clear through Scripture during the service.

Those who rely on heightening of some sense to compensate for underdeveloped capabilities stand to benefit from so much exposure to the Bible. This is especially true for the retarded, for while many of the important messages of Scripture may not be perceivable to them, they are remarkably responsive to such concrete expressions of the creativity, love, and sustenance of God as occur in the psalms and the parables of the Gospels.

It is not unheard of either for blind persons to contribute to the worship of their parishes as lay readers. This is not an insignificant contribution since, with the exception of the two matin and liturgy Gospel lessons, all the readings from Scripture are invariably read by lay persons.

The main point of this type of contribution is not, however, that the handicapped can feel themselves to be part of the worship of the rest of the faithful: it enables them to realize themselves as part of something that is greater than they are. It is not the gratification of the worshipers, of their own sense of worth, that lies at the root of their function in Orthodox worship. Rather it is their knowledge that they take part in actions which are God’s way, through concrete symbolic and Scriptural tools, to make them belong to that community which is the precursor of the Kingdom.

The Community of Worship

Another way in which Orthodoxy includes handicapped people in its liturgy is through the community of worship that has already been alluded to. Orthodox worship is above all the family of faith. By very ancient tradition the Divine Liturgy, the service of holy communion, cannot be served unless there is at least one other person present besides the priest to constitute a community. Furthermore the other services of the Church are structured in such a way that it is almost impossible for a priest to serve them without the presence of other persons to take responsibility for the readings and responses. To be at worship is for the Orthodox a time when they are with other people who are doing the same thing they are, together with them. This is not to imply that every person present performs every one of the acts of the liturgy, for in each service there is the office of the priest, the office of the reader, and the office of the congregation, with its solemn Amen of affirmation. Without one of these offerings something of the essential wholeness would disappear from the Church’s offering.

It is this very unity of work and purpose in worship that reveals to the faithful the unity of the Trinity, the unity of life together in the Kingdom of God, and the unity with each person that Christ gives. It is that same unity which makes the handicapped know that their limitations, disabilities, and incapacities are surpassed in their true uniqueness of being loved and saved by Christ for themselves, as they are, in the community of the saved. The very need for this community is itself a witness to the spiritual handicap of each person, for before God’s awesome criteria all are retarded and incapable. However, in Christ all are sealed together in the kingdom of healing love.

Disabilities and the Priesthood

There is a restriction on entrance into the priesthood of the Orthodox Church that is related to disabilities. It finds its earliest expression among the disciplinary canons of the Church; i.e. those devised to protect the good order of the life of the Church and not pronouncing doctrines in themselves. The specific canons involved belong to the list of the Apostolic Canons. Their exact origin is unknown, but they are thought to have been compiled by the middle of the fourth century, and they were confirmed by the Council of Trullo (AD 692) as being of canonical authority. The canons in question are Canon 77:

If anyone be deprived of an eye, or lame of leg, but in other respects be worthy of a bishopric, he may be ordained, for the defect of the body does not defile a man, but the pollution of the soul. [3]

and Canon 78:

But if a man be deaf or blind, he may not be made a bishop, not indeed as if he were thus defiled, but that the affairs of the Church may not be hindered.

The purpose of these two canons is to protect the liturgical and pastoral services of the Church from being improperly or inadequately conducted. Canon 78 suggests that physical disabilities which would make it difficult for a man to function liturgically or to minister to the pastoral needs of those under his care are to be seen as impediments to ordination, and as both canons make clear, there is no imputation of his being personally unworthy. As Canon 77 says, it is spiritual failure that defiles a man, and not physical disabilities. However, an Orthodox priest is foremost a minister; his primary responsibility is to lead the faithful in liturgical prayer, and although individual pastoral duties and the development of his own spiritual life are also incumbent upon him, they devolve from his role as leader of sacramental worship. Any personal disability which interferes with that liturgical function makes it impossible for a man to be ordained a priest. To ordain a handicapped man who would, for example, be able only to teach or only to counsel would be a dismemberment of the priestly vocation.

The major impediment to the integration of handicapped persons into the life of the Orthodox Church is, then, certainly not in worship, but in an unfortunate lack of educational materials. It is undoubtedly true that mentally retarded persons, for example, could understand much more clearly what they are doing when they are at worship if their religious education presented studies of the liturgical life in modes and at levels appropriate for their limited comprehension. Another serious need is for both educational and liturgical texts in braille and on tape. At the present time the blind can follow the words of liturgy orally, but aside from the services of people who can read to them, they have no access to the written word. Unfortunately, such materials have not been developed yet anywhere in the Orthodox world.

The Task Force on Ministry to Persons Who Are Sick and Disabled will continue to explore and present, in future articles, specific measures that can assist in developing the resolution on the disabled into an active program in the parish. For articles already in the Resource Handbook that offer practical suggestions in this area, see:

Matuisak, “The Accessible Church” (‘84,2)

Plumlee, “Some Practical Suggestions For Parish Ministry To People With Special Needs” (‘85,2)

Rossi, Rossi, and Armour, “No Small Change” (‘86,1)


  1. Carl G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols (NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1964), p. 3.
  2. Ibid., p. 41.
  3. Although the office of bishop is the one specifically mentioned in these canons, the requirements of the disciplinary canons are applied to the ranks of priest and deacon too, unless the canon states otherwise.

At the time this article was written in 1986, Fr Stephen Plumlee, a psychotherapist in practice, was Dean of Residents at the Blanton-Peale Graduate Institute in Manhattan. He is a member of the OCA Department of Lay Ministries.