On the Role of the Canonarch in Orthodox Worship

by Nikita Simmons, Woodburn, Oregon, January 2005
(adapted from a presentation on the OrthodoxPSALM Yahoo Group)

What do you know about canonarchs? I mean, how did they evolve and why has that function undergone such attrition in parish singing? Are they a species of reader?

The office of Canonarch is mostly extinct in today's Orthodox churches, but it was a significant role in former centuries. (In my Russian Old Believer parish we still preserve the office with most of its responsibilities.) If you were to read the Typicon (especially older texts of the Typicon), you would find enough information to be able to get an understanding of what the responsibilities are. However, since most people don't have access to the full Typicon, and since the "job description" is not really discussed in books which we can easily read, a lot of misunderstandings have arisen about what the Canonarch actually does. In addition, since modern Orthodox churches frequently do not have antiphonal choirs and therefore do not observe all the liturgical movement (the coming and going from the choirs to the middle of the nave at appointed times), this office has simply passed out of common use (and common knowledge).

The Typicon is quite clear that a Canonarch is higher in rank than a reader, and he is tonsured. He is, however, lower than the diaconate, so this puts him on the same level as a subdeacon. (One could consider him as an "Arch-reader" if there were such an office.) In fact, in the Old Rite a subdeacon always doubles as a Canonarch, so it is possible that the tonsure covers both positions, much like the offices of taper-bearer, chanter and reader share the same tonsure. As far as requirements, a Canonarch needs to have a strong voice that can project and a good measure of musical talent, and he must also be of good moral character, since he has to periodically enter the altar and he is one of the leaders of public worship.

How does the Canonarch perform his duties?

He must always receive a blessing to perform his responsibilities, and he must be vested in a sticharion when he does his duties. Canonarchs, in the Typicon, almost always stand in the front of the church, either right under the rotunda or chandelier, or in front of the Royal Gates (but not real close, like a deacon). If there is an ambon or raised platform, he is to ascend the ambon at the appointed times. (Generally he does not stand on the same level as the nave.) The Typicon mentions that when he finishes his duties, on each occasion he is to bow to the bishop or priest serving, then to the chanters and then to the people. The Typicon also mentions that a monastic Canonarch generally performs his duties with covered head (i.e. wearing his klobuk).

According to the Typicon he recites a number of responsorial portions of the services, including Prokeimena, Alleluia, "God is the Lord", "Let every breath...", Kontakia and Oikoi (final phrases sung by the chanters), and "Holy is the Lord our God". Everything he does is a solo exclamation that interacts with the people or chanters. In the traditional role of the Canonarch, he performs a Responsory role in the services, and we do not always repeat what he just said.

What exactly are the traditional duties of the Canonarch?

The pre-Nikonian Typikon (Oko tserkovnoe) discusses the duties of the Canonarch in chapters 14 and 15. He usually is a member of one of the choirs, and before he does his duties he has to enter the altar to obtain a blessing and put on the sticharion. He then goes out to his place in the middle of the church at the appointed time. His duties are as follows:

At Vespers: (The Prokeimenon at Vespers is usually done by the deacon or priest.) If there are Parables, the canonarch may be requested to read these. At the Aposticha the chanters always come together in the middle of the church, no matter the rank of the service or if there is only one choir; the canonarch announces the Tones and Prosomia/Podobny melodies, and the Glory..., both now...

At Matins: He intones the verses on "God is the Lord". If it is not a feast and the Troparion is appointed to be read, he also intones the Troparion and Theotokion, with the chanters repeating the last phrases using the Prokeimenon melody. (Notice that the use of Troparia following "God is the Lord" is restricted, and we don't use all the available Troparia like we do at the Liturgy. I hypothesize that this is intentional, because it would be too difficult for the canonarch to hold more than one book at a time.) At Feasts when we sing the Troparia, he just goes back into the altar and removes the sticharion. He also participates in the Gospel Sequence: The Prokeimenon and "Let every breath praise the Lord". After the Canon he intones the verses on "Holy is the Lord our God."

At Liturgy: He intones the Prokeimena and Alleluia. (The Typicon does not mention reading the Epistle, but if he's out there in the middle of the church, we can assume that there is not going to be a switch of roles at such an awkward moment, so naturally he would read the Epistle.)

There are a few extra things a Canonarch does in monasteries, particularly in the Refectory (Trapeza).

So the chanters sing responses to what the Canonarch announces. Are there particular melodies which we use?

The hymns which we sing according to the 8 Tones are categorized as belonging to different melodic genres, and there are complete sets of melodies for each genre. These genres are 1) stichera melodies (and refrain melodies) as well as stichera Prosomoia/Podobny, 2) melodies for "Lord, I have cried" (and for the Praises in some traditions), 3) melodies for Troparia, Sessional Hymns and Kontakia (and corresponding Prosomoia/Podobny), and 4) Prokeimenon/Responsorial melodies (God is the Lord, Prokeimena, Alleluia, Let every breath, Holy is the Lord our God, etc.) (Exaposteilaria are generally a class apart from the 8 Tone system, but they usually have sticheraric melodies.)

In all the official responsibilities of the canonarch, the hymnody that the choirs respond with is exclusively in the Prokeimenon/Responsorial genre of hymns. It is interesting to see the close connection between the duties of the canonarch and this genre of hymnody.

I'm used to hearing about Canonarchs announcing lines of text (or "lining out the text") which the choir repeats with a chanted melody. Is this a traditional practice?

During the course of time, the Canonarch took on additional responsibilities, such as what we are now slightly familiar with: the Canonarch recites a line of text of a sticheron or troparion (etc.), and the chanters repeat it with a melody.

In order to understand how this practice evolved, we need to understand why it evolved. In earlier times, most churches could not afford to have multiple copies of service books. One complete set for each kleros was often a luxury that small churches seldom had. (This is still true among some Old Rite communities.) Thus it was the custom to have only one book per kleros, and everyone had to look on. (This is still a chronic problem in Old Believer churches, where sometimes 20-30 people have to chant text from a single printed book elevated on a tall stand. On great feasts there are usually too many chanters to allow everyone to see the text of the book.) Furthermore, when the chanters come down off the kleroses and everyone is standing on the main floor in the middle of the church, there is no way that everyone in the combined choirs can possibly see the text or notated music from a single book. Thus, singing in "canonarchal style" became a necessity in very big communities. Smaller communities did not need to use this technique.

Now that we have the luxury of multiple copies of service books, and now that the original responsibilities are all but forgotten in modern times, all that we are left with is the questionable tradition of singing hymns in "canonarchal style" (which does not require a tonsured and vested canonarch).

So the popular OCA way of singing "O House of Epratha" with a canonarch is actually incorrect?

Singing stichera "in canonarchal style" is a later innovation to the office, and the Typicon actually does not appoint stichera to be sung this way. While this later tradition is actually a "spin-off" from the earlier canonarchal tradition, it serves no purpose to say that it is absolutely incorrect. Whatever the circumstances behind this tradition, it developed out of a genuine need at some point in time, although that need is now obsolete in today's world with its many copies of church books and high literacy rate. Whether we keep this tradition or not is all relative.

Quite frankly, I don't like this tradition of singing stichera "in canonarchal style". I find that dividing the phrases up in this manner breaks the smoothness of the melodies and distracts me from absorbing and understanding the text. But to throw it out altogether is unnecessary. It's a vestige from times past which no longer serves a genuine need, but I admit that this tradition does add some diversity, solemnity and pageantry to our services (which is NOT necessarily a bad thing, considering the impoverished liturgical life of modern Orthodoxy).

Is it possible to restore the original office of the Canonarch in today's modern churches?

In truth, it would not be a difficult task to restore the full office of the Canonarch to most parishes, and it is a fairly easy role because there are fewer things to do than a deacon (and he does not have to serve in the altar except for hierarchical liturgies). The problem is learning all the details about how he is to do his duties. This would also require restoring some of the liturgical actions which choirs used to do in the earlier centuries of the Church, such as antiphonal singing, with the choirs coming together in the nave for certain "highlights" of the services (such as the Dogmatica, the Entrances, the Katavasii and the Great Doxology, etc.).