Does the Liturgy ever Exist in a Natural State?

On reading Dale’s comment in my previous posting asking me whether I would develop my response to Rubricarius as a full posting, I gave the matter thought. The question is really how the liturgy “lives” in the life of the Church in history, and what are its fundamental principles:

  • whether it grows “accretions” and has to be pruned back by acts of authority,
  • whether it is a mere “decoration” to help people assimilate doctrines and in their devotional practices,
  • whether there is a “natural” life of the liturgy which is “self-regulating” if left alone.

I gave these matters a considerable amount of thought when I was at university in the late 1980’s doing my Licentiate mémoire with Fr Jakob Baumgartner. At the time, my intellectual life was still considerably influenced by the ambient ideology of Roman Catholic traditionalism, and I felt I had a cause to defend. This still may be the case now, but I have to admit I find the alternatives to be bleak.

My university work (The Tridentine Mass and Liturgical Reform: A Study of the History of the Codification of the the Roman Mass Liturgy by Saint Pius V and the Principles of its Development in the Tradition of the Church) attracted the attention of Dom Alcuin Reid in his book The Organic Development of the Liturgy (Farnborough 2004). Dom Alcuin’s book in its turn attracted the attention of Cardinal Ratzinger who was promoting his notion of a hermeneutic of continuity. I suppose it was like Newman as an Anglican trying to draw an orthodox Catholic interpretation out of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

My mind is not to defend the Roman Catholic system put in place by the Council of Trent, the Congregation of Rites, the Popes and, finally, Vatican II and the reforms that followed under the aegis of Bugnini and Paul VI. To try to get somewhere in these questions, we have to try to clear our minds of institutional loyalties and “orthodoxies” to uphold. That is probably the most difficult thing, unless you are simply an academic with no ecclesial loyalties. I have no duty to defend the Magisterium or prerogatives of canon law or authority over tradition and custom. Belonging to a marginal Anglican Catholic community, I just don’t have these axes to grind.

Perhaps I can start by the negatives, the Scylla and Charybdis of arbitrary pastorally-motivated liturgical re-invention and the back-to-the-sources movement. There is a third point of view of considering everything – doctrine and liturgy – to be frozen in amber and to be preserved, but it is really a part of the back-to-the-sources movement characteristic of Protestantism and Jansenism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Very often, the serpent ate its own tail as the opposing mythical sea monsters converged in a conjunctio oppositorum. Distinctions really can only be made for the purpose of our trying to figure things out or explain them to other people. Analogies can only be imperfect as we labour to rationalise something that even the great brains of our time like Ratzinger find difficult to explain convincingly.

Another mind in our little Internet circle is Fr John Hunwicke. He is one of the more traditionalist divines of the English Ordinariate and has sometimes sailed too close to the wind, something which delayed his re-ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. He obviously feels a lot freer now with the frankness of his writing. ‘Organic Development’ yet again shows his critical attitude of the conservative attitude which consists of considering acts of Papal authority as milestones of tradition and organic development. This criticism is refreshing. Fr Hunwicke emphasises the slow and gradual characteristic of a liturgy in the life of the Church. It didn’t come down ready-made from the Pope, but grew in the local community.

In the centuries before printing, the authority in Liturgy was very generally a combination of Tradition, Sensus Fidelium, and Subsidiarity – with the emphasis very strongly upon the first of this troika.

Putting it in his down-to-earth way, he puts it in this way:

If you can continue to use your old Altar Book, while from time to time gumming a new Mass or preface in here or making a marginal alteration there or crossing out this bit or remembering to do that bit differently, then evolution is probably happening organically. If, on the other hand, you have no choice but to abandon that book to gather dust lying useless on the top shelf in your sacristy … while you go out to the shop and pay big money for a new book … then the changes are certainly not organic. You’ve got on your hands, not evolution, but revolution.

I have to admit that in my use of the Sarum liturgy that has only been in marginal use since the mid sixteenth century, I have added the additional prefaces of the Rouen and Parisian missals together with some modern feasts of particular significance and celebrated by the rest of my Diocese in England. I avoid eclecticism but have allowed these conservative developments in for the sake of coherence. I also use the fiddleback vestments I had when using the Roman rite, and I also use the Gregorian calendar and electric lighting in the chapel. So there is some kind of development there, but in a concern to preserve the essential integrity of the rite I use.

Back to our “negatives”, since I digressed for the sake of Fr Hunwicke. I quote from my university work:

Any period in the history of the Church in which a tendency arises to simplify and logically re-order the eucharistic liturgy is shown by this very fact to be a period of decay, preparing only for future corruption.

I have a feeling that I paraphrased this quote, probably from Bouyer, without footnoting a source – bad of me. The book of Bouyer I most used was Life and Liturgy, so you will probably find it there. Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was a French Lutheran convert to Roman Catholicism, joined the Oratory of Cardinal de Bérulle and made his mark as a major theologian specialising in biblical studies, ecclesiology and liturgy. He had an ironic and satirical touch to his writing, and was highly critical of the ideological trend that entered the scene after Vatican II. This is clearly seen in his Decomposition of Catholicism, a polemical work he wrote in 1968. Indeed, during my university days, I sought to avoid relying on material from traditionalist authors like Michael Davies or Fr Didier Bonneterre of the Socety of St Puis X, but rather to find opinions among the ressourcement theologians.

Fundamental theology and theories of tradition and development are a young science, essentially developed in the nineteenth century in the midst of theories of evolution. This gave rise to a desire to develop theology and equip it for dialogue with the new theories of history and natural science, and this moved towards the so-called “modernism” that clashed with neo-scholasticism in the period between the very end of the nineteenth century up to World War I. This movement brought a refreshing change from stick-in-the-mud conservatism and the reaction it engendered – revolution.

Reading Bouyer and others, we become more critical of the Protestant liturgies as well as the Roman Catholic novus ordo. They were artificially fabricated rites without any real basis in history. We discover that the Protestants actually discarded the most ancient parts of the liturgy and kept the apocryphal medieval accretions under the pretext of getting rid of accretions and restoring something pure. In our own age, the ideology consists of making the liturgy culturally relevant for a post World War II civilisation that has largely rejected its classical culture. The new forms of worship would be arbitrary but justified by the superficial notion of returning to sources. We find these two notions represented by the words archaeologism and “pastoralism”.

Pastoralism usually describes a method of farming, which is clearly inappropriate for this subject, but used by some French liturgical scholars. In our context, pastoralism would mean the modification of the liturgy for the sake of pastoral needs. Pastoralism isn’t “all bad“. The use of languages that ordinary people can understand for the liturgy and the Bible is something clearly desirable, and has made it possible for people to take an interest in the liturgy rather than “switch off” and fill the vacuum with lay devotions like the rosary. Making it possible to see through the choir screen is another positive concession to pastoral needs. However, it can go to extremes when the liturgy loses its integrity and is re-invented according to whims and fancies.

Archaeologism is the ideology consisting of wanting to restore a form of the liturgy deemed to be purer and “free from accretions”. As Bouyer observed that some of the Protestant reformers either lacked intellectual integrity or historical information, Dom Gregory Dix made similar observations in his The Shape of the Liturgy written just after World War II. It is also possible to exaggerate their limits of scholarship, since some of the Reformers were dragging up old oriental liturgies. Restoring rites in relatively recent use are one thing, if the documentation has been perfectly preserved and there is still a comparative tradition (for example in the case of Sarum, the existence of Norman customs until the 1980’s in a few places and the Dominican rite). It is another to want to restore an ancient rite of which only a few fragments are extant, and thus requiring reconstruction on the basis of conjecture.

Coming back to nineteenth-century theology of those who tried to present something new and refreshing, like Newman and his theory of development, we also have Dom Prosper Guéranger and his anti-liturgical heresy theory. This theory features in his monumental work Institutions Liturgiques from the 1840’s, and introduces an element of anti-Protestant polemics. Guéranger’s real target was Jansenism, which he opposed by his increasing adhesion to the Liberal-inspired Ultramontanist movement. The main Jansenist tendency was really that of baroque culture, the emphasis on reason and “enlightenment” together with a pessimistic view of humanity. This would entail the loss of “unction” and “mystery” in the liturgy. Newman was working on the  equivalent in the field of theology, how Protestant novelty was wrong and how some developments could be right. Such matters had to be determined, however imperfectly, by the use of lists of criteria.

After this discussion of pastoralism and archaeologism, we ask ourselves whether it is possible for liturgy to exist in a “natural state” for any length of time. I see the question in relation to the simple question of humanity. Can we humans aspire to holiness, or do we need to be policed and coerced, tortured into compliance and orthodoxy? Are we naturally corrupt or do we seek the good, true and beautiful in spite of sin and weakness? Liturgy didn’t drop out of heaven, but was a part of tradition as you will find in other spiritual and religious traditions in the world like Hinduism, various types of Confucianism and Buddhism and Gnosticism in the Middle-East. Civilisations have been destroyed by the use of Christian evangelisation for purposes of imperial conquest. These seem to be the real questions to think about.

We need an anthropological and sociological approach. Most studies show the present state of western civilisation to be unfavourable for Christian tradition and the notion of “liturgy in the wild”. Through having been mutilated for the sake of ideology and other reasons, the liturgy is rendered impotent as a binding force of humanity and the Church. Without the liturgy, the Church has to rely on authority and political power to coerce and force compliance.

If that is so, then the liturgy can only be a political banner, a symbol of some other reality. French Roman Catholic traditionalism in reality often symbolises conservative right-wing politics, and the priest wearing a cassock and celebrating Mass in Latin becomes a banner of the National Front! This is no longer a spiritual or even a cultural tradition. Conversely, many of the manifestations of modern liturgy symbolise socialist and left-wing politics.

Can liturgy exist in a “natural state”? It certainly doesn’t nowadays, except perhaps in monasteries. As a bedrock of our civilisation, it is totally destroyed. Either a new form of Christianity without it has to be invented, a notion of Christianity without religion as suggested in Dietrich Bonhöffer’s thought, secular Christianity which can be used for little more than “internal forum policing” – or the liturgical basis has to be recovered on a limited basis in monasteries and communities of those who take an interest in the question.

We are up against a heresy of formlessness, which is an idea we need to study. Does Christianity need any kind of liturgy? This is a question that was getting serious attention in the Roman Catholic Church under Benedict XVI, but those thinking about it now seem to have missed the bus under the Franciscan pontificate. Doubtless, those of the New Liturgical Movement tendency will continue along this theme and keep it alive into the future and more favourable circumstances in their Church.

The idea that the liturgy has no form and can be reinvented according to perceived pastoral needs has grown over most of the twentieth century, and colluded with older Protestant reforms, is still current. My own feeling is that if this is true, like the question of ordaining women, why not do away with everything altogether? Just tell people that Christianity is just getting on with life and being kind to people! No need for churches, prayers, priests or anything. It is only logical. It is partly to do with our ideological culture and our having been influenced by dialectic philosophy, of the kind that gave rise to Marxism and the “critical theory“. It would seem that Christianity cannot be culturally relevant, but counter cultural – by retreating in some analogical way to the Catacombs.

Perhaps the most positive thing I can suggest is small communities like the ACC and some of the less political traditionalist groups assuming the role of laboratories and conservatories of parallel culture and notions of tradition. For the rest, it only blends with themes I have already amply discussed on this blog.

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3 Responses to Does the Liturgy ever Exist in a Natural State?

  1. Michael Frost says:

    When I try to think of “the natural state of the liturgy”, I tend to think of the NT accounts of the institution of the Eucharistic liturgy in the upper room. And then I project outward across history and culture in time, witnessing what various peoples have done over the ages to re-create, re-actualize, re-member, re-present, re-commemorate, re-…

    I’m usually struck by the similarity of action in the core of the Eucharistic liturgy. That which seems to happen in all such liturgies, regardless of time, place, or culture. Thus, we sing, we read the Holy Scriptures, we listen to instruction, we say the Creed, and we celebrate the Eucharist, (almost always) using the words of institution and some form of address to the Holy Ghost in regard to the awesome mystery that is. And it is amazing how the same elements are used so often in so many different settings: the Gloria, Sanctus, Kyrie, Agnes Dei, Sursum Corda, etc. There seems to be something “natural” here in how we present ourselves to God the Father in worship, using the words of our Lord and invoking the Holy Ghost?

    Of course, the specifics differ across time, place, and culture. But the basics remain. From the most simple and “newest” to the most complex and “oldest”. Two recent works that focus on and call us to remember and, most importantly, use all these basics are: Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (IVP, 2006) and Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Baker Academic, 2009). Chan, who received his PhD at Cambridge, is a professor in Singapore; Chapell is a pastor and seminary president.

    Now whether this liturgical action has an meaning and purpose to the greater life of the people or surrounding culture, either now or in the past, that is a different question indeed. I like what Chan says in his introduction: “Ecclesial renewal, however, cannot be achieved simply through theological arguments and reflection. There must also be an adequate knowldege of appropriate liturgical practices. … Sound liturgical practices may not have an immediate effect on worshippers, but if we know that they are right practices, then the absence of any obvious immediate effects should not prompt a quest for alternatives with greater crowd appeal. … We persevere in them because they are true; and the truth ont only sets us free from the pressure of false demands that the world imposes on the church but also makes us into the people we know God wants us to be.” (p. 16)

  2. bgpery says:

    Can liturgy exist in a “natural state”?

    I think so but only in a stable culture, or sub culture, which we don’t have.

    • We must not think of the future. The prospects for a liturgical Christianity are poor. From today’s perspective, the future model of the Christian religion seems to be that of a North American sect–the most frightful form religion has ever adopted in the world. But the future is of no concern to the Christian.

      Quoted from Does Christianity Need a Liturgy?

      So there is no future? We humans are hard-wired to build and plan for the future, for our posterity. In this, religious man seems to be no different from the industrialists who pollute and pillage our planet. End of history. Check mate. Dystopia.

      The quote goes on to say:

      He is responsible for his own life; it is up to him to decide whether he can turn away from the gaze of the liturgical Christ–as long as this Christ is still shown to us.

      All that sounds pessimistic on a general level. The bottom line seems to be that we can’t count on “official” institutions that have gone for the “modern” style. Our future is in our own hands and in the subcultures and communities we get together ourselves. No one else will do that for us.

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