Liturgical Dilemmas

A short while ago, I wrote The Liturgy Matters and read another fine article on Fr David Chislett’s blog Is traditional worship an impediment to evangelisation? The question is a good one. Should we cast out liturgy, sell off our churches and treasures and begin to use the same techniques as political ideologues, salesmen and television stars to get people into a building, preach at them and get them into the mood for conversion to Christianity?

I am out of touch with what goes on in Anglo-Catholic churches of the Established Church in England but the Ship of Fools thread Preserving the English Missal and Traditional Liturgy mostly from the spring of this year is interesting. One view comes out. Preserving or reviving traditional liturgies is described as “museum religion”. What of it?

Museums are not necessary places of preserving dead and outdated things, but keeping us in touch with the past and reminding us that we are not superior to or above history. There have been many changes in the way of running museums over the years. When I was a little boy, museums showed things in glass cases with a minimum of description and explanation. They were stuffy and boring places for children, who associated museums with dull history lessons at school. These days, I have visited some great museums. I particularly think about those preserving the memory of World War II and D-day here in Normandy. There is a sense of getting visitors involved so that learning becomes easier and more stimulating. There is more interaction as modern technology is used. That in churches is expressed with microphones, overhead screens and “praise bands”.

On the other hand, liturgy is not merely a memory of the past or an object for preservation. It is something to be done by human beings according to the particular Sacraments they have received in the Church. The implication of many who do trash traditional liturgy, claiming that it is an obstacle to evangelisation, is that it’s just a show put on for reasons other than strictly religious. Could that not also be said about modern expressions involving technology and the latest musical trends? Is that not also a show?

Some of those participating in the Ship of Fools thread are intolerant low-church, legalistic Anglicans saying that such-and-such is not allowed, or show a fair and positive viewpoint. A few are at the limit of trolling! That is not my concern. The cross section is interesting and shows a lack of unanimity, one cause of liturgical and pastoral problems in Church of England parishes. Perhaps this degree of diversity is a good thing, and no one is excluded, including those who want traditional liturgies for spiritual or cultural reasons or both.

Fr Chislett makes the point that the assumption that traditional worship is an obstacle to evangelism is dated. The movement for cultural relevance has not succeeded in stemming the haemorrhage of numbers of people attending church on Sundays. In some places, it has accelerated the decline. On the contrary, a number of young people are preferring their new discoveries of old-style liturgy without having been indoctrinated as children. Being sober about it, the large majority of young people in the west want nothing to do with churches at all.

We come to consider any kind of relationship between traditional liturgy and popularity of places of worship, attended presumably by those who are committed Christians. Outside Eastern Orthodoxy, there is only a small minority attracted to traditional-rite parishes in the Church of England and Continuing Churches. A more “successful” venue is traditionalist Roman Catholicism in the wake of Ecclesia Dei and Summorum Pontificium or the Society of St Pius X. The reasons, however, do not seem to be liturgical, but rather doctrinal or political.

Few people outside of “fogeys” and aesthetic eccentrics seem to be attracted to liturgy for its own sake. I surmised that the liturgy is now only of interest to communities of the totally committed – monasteries or lay communities inspired by monastic characteristics. It is obvious that more people are going to mega-churches with charismatic and extroverted ministers, praise bands and audio-visual equipment than to monasteries or Anglo-Catholic parishes locked in their “time warps”. That is a clear fact, but I and many others are simply not interested in mega-church Christianity. I would even go as far as saying that if that all there was, I would quickly turn my attention away from Christianity and consider the alternatives. Lord, to whom shall we go?

It is all full of dilemmas, and the most educated of us find it difficult to navigate in a sea full of Charybdises and Scyllas, where the ship has nowhere to sail without being wrecked or running aground. Wherever we turn, someone has a good reason to say we are wrong. We live in a very unhealthy time for faith.

We could let ourselves be blown and buffeted by the wind, or just carry on with what we are doing – knowing that it is all for nothing or for some secret plan known only to God. I prefer to believe the latter in the same way as we prefer to believe in the promises of Christ rather than enter the insanity of nihilism and negativeness.

God himself doesn’t seem to have any preferences this or that way on this question, but we have our preferences and ways to “communicate” with transcendence. One, for some people, is liturgy. Well then, we continue with what we have and treasure it – for where a tiny group is gathered in his name, there he is.

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10 Responses to Liturgical Dilemmas

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Fr. Anthony, I found your comment–“Few people outside of “fogeys” and aesthetic eccentrics seem to be attracted to liturgy for its own sake.”–most interesting. But mainly because I’d like to think we don’t “do” liturgy for its own sake but for the sake of all those attending and participating. Isn’t the point of liturgy to bring the Gospel and Christ to the worshippers? Word (both reading and preaching) and sacrament. I don’t think there is only one way to do this. And I haven’t found the one best way, either. Though, of course, I find some more appealing than others.

    I look for liturgics that bring out goodness, beauty, and truth. With dignity and reverence but also with joy and feeling. And that avoid either fetishizing the liturgy or making it appear magical, or make it feel like performance art (whether that be Shakespearean liturgics, medieval liturgics, etc.) or something to be merely seen and heard (as if it were a Christian opera). Christian liturgy must be living and vital in the lives of the worshippers. It must reach them in their very core. Change them. Mold and influence them. And that includes over time as they age and mature.

    At least in America over the past 100 years the general knowledge and appreciation of “good” historically-derived liturgics has waxed and waned. The zenith was in the late 1950s. The nadir in the mid-to-late 1970s. The Lutherans are the textbook example. They work hard for a decade to create their magnificent 1958 liturgy (I think the single best one done in modern English–see Luther Reeds magisterial book, The Lutheran Liturgy, detailing it (1959)) only to scrap it a decade later after the wreckage induced by 1960s thinking and Vatican II. By 1978 they’ve gutted it and emulated Rome. Our Episcopalians did the same thing with their 1979 BCP. The recent Lutheran revisions of the 2000s, both ELCA and LCMS, have, fortunately, moved away from the worst excesses of the 1970s. And Rome, too, has followed suit with its recent updatings. I suspect ECUSA will do same eventually.

    • For its own sake.

      You seem to have effectively nailed down the difference between some of the less healthy aspects of Anglo-Catholicism in some London and Brighton parishes on one hand and the way the liturgy is celebrated by Roman Catholic traditionalists, communities of monks and presumably Western Orthodox too. I have lived in parishes where the liturgy was at the basis of piety and not doctrinal obsessions or political ideologies.

      England is about the only country where one can get one-off liturgical reconstructions done in a spirit of a theatrical performance and getting everything absolutely right. I have never been involved in one.

      Traditional liturgies, done as the “normal fare” as I do with Sarum, will only make a difference to those who are predisposed. Very few are, and we live in an age of philistinism after a brief ray of sunshine in the ideas of a man like Pope Benedict XVI. The most positive experiences I have had of liturgy have been in two French parishes, Chamblac in the days of Fr Montgomery Wright and Bouloire in the days of Fr Jacques Pecha – 1570 Roman Rite with some local variations and a genuine “parish feel”.

      Of course there is the Society of St Pius X, and they are the way they are. I don’t like them!

      Will there be a turnaround in the big “official” Churches? There is only so much time before they lose grip on the buildings and the churches are destroyed or irreversibly mutilated in their conversion to other uses. I wish the Americans the best of luck. For Europeans the game seems to be over. We “eccentrics” just carry on until we die, and then others will wonder what was all the “junk” we had accumulated! On the other hand, Continuing Anglican communities might provide a viable foundation, and Bishop Damian Mead is doing a great job in England – but it isn’t “mass religion”.

      • Michael Frost says:

        I should say, I absolutely love the beauty that comes with the simplicy of the “low” liturgy. A great gift to the Church from the West.

        As for “higher” liturgies, of whatever background, for myself and so many others music can be a critical component. A good organist, a great tune, and lively singing by the congregation can cover a multitude of liturical “sins”. As I’ve periodically told the local good Anglican Archbishop and my now geographically distant former parish priest over the years, give me my favorites out of the 1940 Hymnal and I’m happy as a clam. I could sing wonderful songs like #276 (Now Thank We All Our God) and #279 (Praise to the Lord the Almighty) every Sunday. And I wouldn’t care too much about vestments, candles, incense, and liturgical colors. (Though God forbid a priestess.)

        Now if you give me modern musical claptrap and horrible 1960s folk songs, you could “do” the “best” litury and I’d be thoroughly miserable. Hold the Powerpoint presentations, drums, and guitars for a different service.

      • I absolutely love the beauty that comes with the simplicity of the “low” liturgy.

        I haven’t celebrated a high liturgy since the early 2000’s, not because I didn’t want to, but I have had to “single-hand” (celebrate without crew) the “boat” since then. I often have a few people attending Mass, but who have never served, so I “single-hand” at the altar. The result is a low Mass with the cruets on the altar. For big feasts, I set up the thurible on its stand to the side of the altar to put in the incense. If there are people at the Mass, we usually sing the Ordinary to a simple tune or plainsong. The lovely thing about Sarum is the lack of “all or nothing” rubrics, so we celebrate Mass “even if there is no …“.

        During the week, it is like the solitary masses monk-priests celebrate at the side altars early each morning. There is something to be said for this simplicity and quietness. It has become very much “my way”.

  2. bgpery says:

    Interesting. It seems to me that it is the wrong question all together. Liturgy is for the already converted. Liturgy fundamentally speaking is prayer, of a believer to his God.

    To evangelize we must reach people where they are. The results of dumbing down liturgy to reach people ‘where they are’ (besides implying something about the God being worshiped) are that it looks tacky, is pedestrian and results in further loss of people in the pews as the logical conclusion is that religion is a joke.

    Evangelization must take place outside the church building, inside the believers must be built up and strengthened.

    Just for the context of my point of view, I’m a 34 year old Roman Catholic, American male. Involved in the traditional liturgy movement (also I was a Pentecostal until age 20)

    • That sounds very plausible to me.

    • Michael Frost says:

      Liturgy isn’t only about the Eucharist. I would argue the Eucharist is for “the already converted”. But Liturgy is also about the Word, Holy Scripture and godly preaching of the Gospel. One things we desperately need are better preachers. Those who can truly bring the Word to those listening. Of course, that is grace from the Holy Spirit. (I like how the PNCC treats the Word as their 8th sacrament.) Would be interesting to see what might happen if we conducted liturgy like they did in the earliest centuries. Outsiders and catechumens hearing songs, psalms, scripture readings, preaching, and creed before exiting, with the Eucharist reserved for the baptized, confirmed.

  3. Dale Crakes says:

    A question off topic. Fr I have a question on your post of the Sarum Lectionary in 2009. Do you recall to what degree it was different from the lectionary of Trent. I’ve been trying to find the when, and if possible, why of the Roman changes in Advent and around the Pentecost/Trinity span which also resulted in the Pentecost/Trinity seasons readings being basically the same but one Sunday off.

  4. Dale Crakes says:

    Thanks. No one seems to know the “why” other than placing it among the Franciscan influence (van Dijk “Origin of the Modern Roman Liturgy”) and the northern European rise of the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

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