Again—just a quick thought, but one that I’ve been rolling around for a while in relation to my Prayer Book Spirituality project.
Liturgists, clergy, and those who teach the faith need to be careful when they make claims about the meaning and function of parts of our liturgy based on history.
The reason why things were put in long ago are not necessarily the reasons why they are useful and valuable now. The function that a certain liturgical element had may no longer be the same based on what else has shifted around it.
Liturgies are not just texts—they are always and should be approached fundamentally as enacted practices. However, we do encounter them (particularly historical liturgies) preeminently as texts and we apply principles of textual interpretation to them as we read them and make sense of them.
I’m going to caricature a little bit now… I see some people using historical criticism as a base reading paradigm. As in biblical scholarship, this perspective believes that identifying when an element came in, where it came from, and why it was added is determinative for what that element means. I wouldn’t agree. I think the history is important to know, but that it operates on the role of being a supplementary fact that may or may not have any real impact on the use and function of an element now.
I prefer to take a reader-response approach as a primary tool among others in my interpretive toolkit. The question I ask, then, is “How have and how do people encounter what’s there largely apart from the original intentions of the authors, editors, and compilers?” This is one of the reasons that I love looking at the late medieval devotional guides for the Mass: they show the wide diversity of actual concrete readings of the liturgy operating from a radical ignorance of liturgical history and development. These texts discover, locate, and/or impose meaning on the liturgy in a variety of ways. Each of these teach us about how meaning can be found in the liturgy. Each of these gives us options to weigh when we start considering how meaning should be found in the liturgy. Some provide very interesting insights worth being recovered. Others—really deserve to be forgotten. But in the act of discovering and winnowing, I think we learn a lot about the process as a whole.