By Calvin Lane
The genius of the Liturgical Movement, whose history I traced in last week’s post, was a healthy, mostly unromantic primitivism. Even when major figures within the movement were wrong about certain historical details, the posture was ressourcement, an instinct to draw not simply from old wells but from significant wells long forgotten. This orientation is to be admired and ought to continue to guide Christian bodies like the Episcopal Church that make claims to catholicity and apostolicity.
In light of discussions about prayer book revision, the Liturgical Movement still presents important questions for us. Do we want our liturgies today to be guided by certain passionately held convictions, or are we open to the strangeness of an ancient apostolic tradition, one that jars, strains, and challenges even those who think they have orthodoxy all figured out? How do we really understand tradition and the claims of catholicity? What drives our liturgical considerations?
From the Maurists of the 17th century to the development of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, scholars of the Liturgical Movement were interested in the worship life of the early Church — but they were also pastors. Granted, at certain points there could be some romantic slippage, even playing medieval, but over time many streams of thought were continually critiqued and refined, particularly in favor of finding the earliest and best models for contemporary liturgy. What was desired was a clearer sense of the practices of the early Church, as well as a recognition that these practices might critique and reshape worship today. By the 20th century theologians spoke openly of ressourcement, that is, reviving elements of the apostolic Church but not as historical re-enactment. Rather, among Nouvelle theologians like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, tradition came alive as the inheritance of a living community, something enriching yet challenging.
The faith we have at this very moment did not spring from an independent personal intellectual exercise but was formed and continues to be formed in community. And the community — the Church — has this faith because others handed it over (tradere). When we open our eyes to this tangible reality, voices from the past — strange voices — become familial. This doesn’t lead to Colonial Williamsburg worship or British Museum religion; the Liturgical Movement wasn’t about living in the past, but about the past living with us, just as the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounds us (Heb. 12:1). The thinking was (and remains to this day) that the early Church is our Church, and its voices can make claims on our common life today.
To borrow from Rowan Williams, there is a risk here: When we look at the apostolic Church it may be strange, but our task is to greet the strange elements in early Christianity not as objects or specimens to be manipulated but as aspects of our family’s common life. We approach the early Church, however strange, as our family in Christ, as people with something to teach us.
Is that our ethos now in approaching liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church? Is that healthy appreciation for tradition as the living inheritance of an apostolic Church operating among us today? If not, why not?
For a closer view of the Liturgical Movement’s theology of tradition, consider two important figures: Odo Casel and Gregory Dix. Casel (1886-1948) was a key part of the Benedictine community of Maria Laach, one of the powerhouses of the Liturgical Movement — in its scholarship and in the abbey’s commitment to including lay people in worship. He argued for the mystery of Christian worship: The whole of Christ’s life — along with the whole history of redemption — is made present again in the Eucharist in a mysterious way. We stand at once in the power of the Creation, the sorrow of the Fall, the wonder of the Incarnation, the silence of the cross and the tomb, the joy of the resurrection, the awe of the Ascension, and the glory of the Second Coming.
Not only did this reframe post-Reformation discussions about Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and the nature of eucharistic sacrifice; it made the Eucharist about more than the crucifixion (but certainly not about less). There is a story attributed to Queen Victoria that she did not like receiving communion on Easter Sunday because she felt the sad memorial of Christ’s death didn’t fit with the joy of Easter. For Victoria (and so many other Christians), the Eucharist was limited to Christ’s atoning death and no more. Casel and others reached into patristic thinking and produced eucharistic prayers that speak of the whole arc of God’s mighty work of salvation ¾deeds of the past that operate today and make claims on our future.
But notice what else this achieves: Time functions differently for the Church. Just as Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice is present through anamnesis (along with the rest of God’s work in Christ, including his future return), so too the cloud of witnesses surrounds us with greater degrees of intimacy and intensity than mere figures of the past. Would that imply a servile re-enacting of ancient liturgies, an injunction to repeat some ancient text from a culture foreign not only in space but also time? Hardly. And the work of the Anglican Benedictine Gregory Dix makes the point.
Dix’s Shape of the Liturgy (1945) put an end to the fruitless search for an authentic single eucharistic prayer, an Ur prayer against which all other forms of Christian worship could be measured. As some readers of Covenant will know, Dix argued instead for a fourfold structure or action found in early Christian eucharistic practice: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. (See Andrew McGowan’s excellent essay “Prayer Books, Ancient and Modern.”) Although many of Dix’s assumptions and arguments have been challenged, his premise — that there is no Ur liturgy — has stood up to scholarship for the past 70 years. But Dix wasn’t simply tearing down. His goal was to present an authentic apostolic shape of Christian worship. Note well the method: he was retrieving what was best from the storehouse of the early Church, not out of slavish historicism, but because the early Church is our Church. We have a living relationship with those early mothers and fathers.
That posture toward tradition led to many things: a decluttered central altar, engagement of all the baptized faithful both in ritual action and spoken elements, emphasis on the Lord’s Day and the connection between baptism and the Paschal Mystery, expectations that preaching be at once catechetical and expository, insistence on the vernacular (with attention to inculturation), and of course a sacramental framework using Casel’s emphasis on mystery, that is, understanding that liturgy makes the historical events of redemption present once again. Considering the significance and depth of these changes, it is amazing that less than 40 years after the triumph of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer — a project centuries in the making — some in our church find these patterns passé.
If we are poised to change our liturgy, what is our method? What are our sensibilities about the prospect of revision? Are we open to the challenge of the past, a living inheritance that makes demands on us much as any relationship does? Or do we wish to ritualize certain sociocultural agendas that may or may not be all that related to the Nicene faith of the Church?
Moreover, what of all the elements we still have in the 1979 book, a text not 40 years old? To what degree have we realized its promise? That has been a subject discussed by some of our most important liturgists, Neil Alexander and Louis Weil for example, and both have been dubious about the Episcopal Church’s full immersion in the ethos of the ’79 book. For example, how regularly do parishioners reaffirm their baptismal vows? Are our baptisms rites of the converted or, to borrow from Andrew McGowan, the “culturally Episcopal”? Can we say that most of our congregations celebrate the Easter Vigil? Do we affirm the ministry of all the baptized?
There are many questions we must ask of any liturgical revision. But the most important, stemming from the ethos of the Liturgical Movement, are these: What is our underlying philosophy of liturgy? (Indeed, do we have one?) And are we about to make our patterns of worship reflections of contemporary axes we wish to grind, or are we oriented toward an ancient, apostolic faith that will perpetually challenge, unsettle, and reform us?