Gelsinger on Sunday Schools, Part 2: The Sunday School Session

Fr. Michael Gelsinger

Editor’s note: In 1938, Fr. Michael Gelsinger, with his wife Mary, published a Handbook for Orthodox Sunday Schools. Gelsinger was one of the most influential convert clergymen in American Orthodox history. He served in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and this book was published with the blessing of Metropolitan Antony Bashir. Last week, we published the first of a four-part series, taken from the introduction to Gelsinger’s book. Today, we’re running Part 2, on “The Sunday School Session.” Gelsinger begins by talking, in minute detail, about how a Sunday School session should take place. He then allows himself to meander into topics of more general interest — language and music. We’ll run Part 3 of this mini-series next Thursday. 

The law of our Orthodox Church requires every Orthodox Christian to attend all the Services on Sundays and on other holy days. Therefore, the members of a Sunday School cannot be excused from attendance at the Divine Liturgy, the most important of all Services. And since the work of the Sunday School cannot be done well if the pupils are tired and restless, it is better to have the Sunday School meet before the Liturgy rather than after it. 

There is still another reason why the Sunday School should meet before the Liturgy. The Service of the Orthros (Matins) is much neglected among us, in spite of the fact that in importance it ranks next to the Liturgy itself. It is in the Orthros that we find the special meaning of any Feast most fully and elaborately expressed; and it is in the Orthros that we find the greatest variety of hymns by the Church’s most inspired poets and musicians. This Service is neglected in America mainly because many of our people are so lazy and slack that they cannot endure to spend more time in Church than is required for the Liturgy; and some of them complain that even the Liturgy is too long. Under present conditions the only hope of bringing the Orthros back into use is for the Sunday Schools to take over the responsibility for singing it, — a responsibility that possibly could be shared with organizations of young people beyond Sunday School age, such as the Orthodox Frontier Club. But the chief responsibility for the Orthros should be laid upon the Sunday Schools; and as the Orthros precedes the Liturgy, it is highly desirable that all our Sunday Schools at once begin to have their sessions before the Liturgy if such is not their custom already. 

The following Schedule is suggested as a guide in planning the Sunday School Session: 

  • 9:45 — Secretary of the School must be in his place.
  • 9:45-9:50 — Teachers get their Class Roll Books and other supplies from the Secretary of the School.
  • 9:50 — Teachers must be in their classrooms.
  • 10:00 — Pupils must be in their classrooms.
  • 10:05-10:10 — The Secretary of the School visits each class to collect the Class Roll Books and the offerings, and then returns to his place to make out his report for the whole School. At the First Warning Bell messengers from the classes will bring him the offerings and the names of pupils who came in after roll call; at that time he will change the Absence marks for those pupils in the Class Roll Books to Tardiness marks, correct the entries for offerings, and bring the report into final form.
  • 10:05 — Instruction begins in each class.
  • 10:35 — First Warning Bell. Instruction ends, and each Teacher sends a messenger to the Secretary of the School with the names and the offerings of the pupils who have come in since Roll Call. The messenger may go from the Secretary to the place reserved for his class in the Assembly Hall.
  • 10:40 — Second Warning Bell. All classes march to Assembly, each class going quietly to the seats reserved for it in the Assembly Hall.
  • 10:43-11:00 — Assenbly, directed by the Superintendent (or by the Priest).
  • 11:00 — Procession of the whole School, class by class, into the Temple for the Liturgy.

The following program is suggested for the Assembly: 

  1. Song.
  2. The Trisagion Prayers, recited by some pupil appointed by the Superintendent. The School should join in for the Lord’s Prayer at the end.
  3. Recitation by members of different classes. (Memory Passages for which prizes are offered, summary of the Lesson taught in a class, quizzing of pupils by the Superintendent, or any other drill that is truly helpful and not contrived merely for display.)
  4. Secretary’s Report.
  5. Birthday Greetings. (Pupils who have had birthdays recently may drop into the Birthday Treasury as many pennies as they are years old. While they put in their pennies the School congratulates them by singing the Many Years for them.)
  6. Comments and announcements by the Superintendent.
  7. The Trisagion Prayers recited by the whole School in unison.
  8. Song.
  9. Procession of the whole School, by classes, into the Temple for the Liturgy. Each class is led by its Teacher, and the Teachers are required to stay with their classes until after the dismissal of the Liturgy.

Whenever possible, the Sunday School should enter the Temple in time to sing the Great Doxology and its Troparion (“This day salvation for the world is come”); after which the Priest begins the Liturgy of the Catechumens). 

The Trisagion Prayers and the Memory Passages referred to in the program suggested for the Assembly are printed in another part of this book. We are printing also a separate book of music so that our Sunday Schools may have something to sing; for the time has come when we must get rid of every book, every hymn, and every influence of any kind that is not Orthodox absolutely and exclusively. 

Until a Service Book with music appears, the Parish Priest should teach the young people as many hymns as possible in the language of the Parish (Arabic, Greek, Slavic, or whatever the language may be). It is very bad indeed for the different Parishes to sing different English translations instead of waiting for a standard English text approved for permanent use. Anyone who has even a slight understanding of our Orthodox Church must know that our Church Services cannot go on without the original languages, and must realize that a Parish will surely die if its young people are not taught to sing in the language of their parents. A standard English translation, prepared at the University of Buffalo and accompanied by the necessary music, is ready for publication; but even when it appears many things will still need to be done in the original languages. To translate all our Service Books into English suitable for public worship, and suitable for singing, will take years of work. Meanwhile our young people must learn to sing in the original languages as well as in English. They should learn to sing in English only such things as have been approved by proper authority as suitable to remain in permanent use everywhere. 

The program for Sunday School leaves little time for instruction in singing. Occasionally the Assembly period may be so used, but singing is so important in our Orthodox Church that it really deserves and requires to be developed in a program of its own entirely separate from that of the Sunday School. Accordingly, in every Parish at least one evening a week regularly should be set aside for instruction in music. 

We must not forget that our Orthodox Tradition forbids the use of musical instruments in Church Services. This is a rule which we should be very glad to obey, for obedience to it brings rich reward. No Parish that uses an organ or any other musical instruments in its services can ever have good singing. The use of a piano or organ to help people learn to sing something that is new to them is often good, and sometimes is even necessary. But it is one thing to use the piano for teaching, and quite another thing to get people into the habit of depending upon the piano so much that they cannot sing without it. Far better to teach without a piano or organ at all than to develop a habit of dependence upon an accompanying instrument. One of the greatest glories of our Orthodox Church is our music, all of it composed for singing and none of it intended for any musical instrument. Our children inherit with their Orthodox Catholic religion the grandest music ever heard on earth; and they should begin to know the delights of that inheritance as early in life as possible.