Liturgical Change and Museum Religion

The post on the American Sarum conference got some comments that deserve a thread all their own. In many ways, this thread is a continuation of one of the long-standing themes that this blog has struggled with over its several years. Let me lay it out anew with major/axiomatic points in bold…

Liturgies change. Indeed, liturgical and ceremonial tinkering is inevitable across any significant group of folks whether there’s a set standard liturgy or not. Sometimes it’s because the liturgy needs a change, sometimes it’s because the tinkerers want a change.

No matter which way it goes, there’s no such thing as a liturgical change; rather there are theological changes that have liturgical implications. When a worshiping community of baptized Christians gather, they incarnate in a particular way the eschatological reality of the Body of Christ.  (This is most especially the case when they gather for a Eucharist where the whole intention is the making tangible and consumable the literal Body of Christ to be shared amongst them all.) You cannot separate the liturgy, the ceremonial, and the theology of such a gathering—they are inextricably bound up in one another. When the liturgy or the ceremonial gets changed, therefore, a theological change has necessarily occurred. When we say and do something different liturgically and ceremonially, we are just as surely saying and doing something different theologically as well. Sometimes these changes are minor—and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes these theological changes are intentional and conscious—and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the tinkerers are aware of what they’re doing—and sometimes they’re not.

When liturgies change, my sense is that the motivation for the change and the direction in which the change occurs relate to two different axes: contemporary culture and historical practice. That is, when liturgies change it tends to be because the tinkers are trying to make a statement to the contemporary culture; history can be leveraged in a number of different ways:

  • Sometimes historical practices are jettisoned entirely because of a perceived disconnect with contemporary culture (this would be your praise & worship/Willow Creek type response).
  • Sometimes historical practices are resurrected because they represent a perceived correction to the current deplorable state of the contemporary culture—if the historical practice is maintained, the culture will be restored. (I see this as one of the motivations behind some who call for the ’28BCP & ’40 hymnal/Traditional Latin Mass: if we return to a pre-’60s liturgy, maybe we’ll return to a pre-’60s culture as well.)
  • Sometimes historical practices are resurrected because they represent a perceived connection to the contemporary culture–if the historical practice is maintained, this culture will be better able to hear, receive,  and embody the Gospel.

I’d suggest that this last approach has been behind most of the major shifts in liturgy within the Christian Church as a whole. Most of the major liturgical changes in Western Christendom have been attempts to re-engage/re-enliven contemporary practice based on historical precedents. This is not a new thing. Most of the monastic renewal movements in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were rooted in attempts to return to the True Practice whether that be the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Benedict or a combination of the three. The Protestant Reformers attempted to return to Early Church practice. The first liturgical revival driven by the monks of Solesmes was an attempt to return to proper medieval practice. The Ritualists attempted to return to a High Medieval practice. Blessed Percy and the English Use tried to return to a Sarum standard. The most recent Liturgical Renewal encompassing Vatican II and the ’79 BCP tried to return to fourth century practice. Picking up a theme from the previous post, isolating one movement as “museum religion” is a bit disingenuous because utilizing historical precedence for contemporary practice has been a consistent habit in the West for a very long time.

Furthermore, we need to note that the exercise of identifying and utilizing historical materials is always a process thoroughly invested with contemporary meanings and limitations. The Protestant Reformers thought that they were returning to Early Church patterns of worship. Their historical reconstructions of Early Church worship didn’t have a whole lot to go on and look little like how we reconstruct Early Church worship today. We have better sources and better scholarship. (Would Luther or Calvin have used the Eucharist of the Didache had they known it?) Likewise, the work of the Ritualists and the Blessed Percy are properly understood as part of a broader English Gothic Revival rooted in English Nationalism and a political and social appropriation of the peculiarly English/British heritage over and against Continental expressions of nationalism. The work of Vatican II and attendant movements cannot be separated from the cultural and social movements of the ’60s. Historical work and even its excess—antiquarianism—are events that are contemporary in nature despite their focus on the past.

Now we tie these two threads together. The appropriation of historical practices always signals theological changes to the contemporary liturgy. Some of the theological changes are because of what the historical practice itself is or does. On the other hand, the very act of incorporating a certain practice from a certain time and place is a theological statement entirely apart from the content of the practice; the very selection of any time and place as an “ideal” is a major theological statement. The selections of the Early Church for the Reformers and the Fourth Century for Vatican II were attempts to achieve a purity that had been lost. The return to the High Medieval or Sarum reflected attempts to recapture a fullness that had been lost. None of these choices are theologically neutral—they all had and have an impact.

So what, what is a Renewal vs. a Revival vs. Musem Religion? Is it purely subjective or are there objective measures? When is a Renewal/Revival/Museum Moment an imposition into a contemporary practice and when does it represent a true enlivenment and enrichment?

For me the issue goes back to theology. As I’ve said before, we’re not the Christian Historical Society—we don’t do things because they’re old, we do them because they proclaim the Gospel. But some times the old ways proclaim the Gospel in new ways or media or avenues that our contemporary society needs to hear. Whenever we try to bring back an old practice, rite or time, my questions are these:

  • Why—to what end? Is it for the sake of nostalgia or fantasizing that the contemporary culture will go away and reformulate itself accord to the ideal pattern if we can sufficiently recall this past time? Or is it because we see a way here that the Gospel can be better communicated in this time and place?
  • Is there a coherence and an integrity between this historical practice and what the contemporary community is doing now? How radical or organic is this change?
  • Are the theological messages and intentions of this change in coherent relation with the theological trajectory of the community into which it is being introduced?

These are the kinds of questions that I see and here us asking about the Vatican II changes and the changes of the ’79 BCP. They’re also the questions that I will take with me to the American Sarum conference. Why a Sarum Revival? Why here—why now? Into what deep currents, culturally and theologically, is it tapping—or do we want to revive it because it seems “cool”? Why Sarum over some other time and place? As I’ve said before, I think there’s a case to be made for infusing as bit of the English early medieval monastic spirit into contemporary American Episcopalianism. Why is Sarum a better choice?

I don’t want to focus narrowly on Sarum here, though. Instead let me just say that this movement is raising for me—for us—a number of questions that I think are important now and may become even more important in the near future. Society is shifting. Technology and the evolving world situation are bring us into new opportunities and conflicts. Where, amongst the contemporary world and the faithful works of the past, is the Gospel best found and proclaimed?

12 thoughts on “Liturgical Change and Museum Religion

  1. Toni Alvarez

    I’m no scholar, but, in my honest opinion, the language of ‘museum of religion’ (or even that of revival) versus ‘living tradition’ is a rhetorical strategy to sidestep the kind of critical discernment that Derek speaks about here.

    The other problem with it is that it perpetuates an idealized version of our past where ‘liturgical change’ only occurred organically (whatever that might mean).

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  3. Derek Olsen

    Toni–yes, sometimes it can be. It also interesting to see when and where there has been the continuity of living tradition and where there has not.

    Fr. Larimer, Yes, I think there is. I’ve already hinted at a little of what I think we’d find: a bit of English nationalism, a bit of anti-Romanism, and a rather idealized appropriation that of necessity and for the sake of completeness flattens some of the oddities, irregularities, and discrepancies found in the original sources. I’d also hasten to add that examining the late Victorian implementation of the rite is only one aspect of a more complete discernment. That is, Whatever the triumphs or flaws we find in the Blessed Percy, he has raised a legitimate set of questions that require examination from our perspective.

    (Including the requisite questions about the nature and implications of a Victorian Revival in our own period…)

  4. Christopher

    In terms of what may best bring people to meeting Christ, the Gospel, in our times and context, I tend to err on the side of adaptation to practices as they have developed in the contemplative/monastic traditions. It is not an accident that Benedictine tradition is so much more friendly to our creaturely kith and kin. Psalm-praying will do that if you pay attention–so will farming.

    While certainly the incarnational of Sarum is astounding, in an age facing different realities in response to Christ, that emphasis needs adaptation. I think of ecology and poverty for example. Not issues ignored by our Medieval kin, but not enough developed for our time. How is it, for example, that the deep devotion to Our Lady in Sarum is to be adapted to our time in relation to the coherence of practices of prayer and practices of daily life?

    And why just Sarum? Not the only English rite.

    Questions of ceremonial and clutter come to mind. We are a cluttered age, overly-stimulated with too much information. Simple and beautiful ceremonial in a monastic spareness need not be at odds. I associate revival of Sarum with a cluttered ceremonial, beautiful but somehow removed from life here and now. Will there be animals running about the sanctuary?

    Another issue is that how does it relate to our own several American Reformations in relation to liturgy? It’s not really different than the over-fascination with ApTrad that ran the reforms of the 1960s and 1970s before we discovered that that tradition is one of several that could be considered models.

    I guess this all comes down to what is the purposes of this want to adapt Sarum to our times? And, is it the only possible model in a context of multicultures and adaptations without roots?

  5. Christopher

    I will say this, the incarnational/nativity emphasis of Sarum is an English and Anglican emphasis that sometimes got swallowed up by the Liturgical Movement craze that all must be about the Resurrection and Pascha, somehow ignoring the emphasis on Transfiguration in the East or Nativity in Armenia as central to those traditions.

  6. Isaac

    I think, Dr. Olson, you’re right here. My question is whether or not, right now in the life of the Episcopal Church, we have a clear enough handle on the Gospel to communicate it effectively. What are we communicating if we’re not sure what it is we’re supposed to be communicating? The revival ritual of the Church was preceded by a revival of theology in the Church… And I don’t see that happening, as yet.

  7. Paul Goings

    I wish that I had something more useful to say, as my parish certainly fits into the “museum religion” paradigm according to many outsiders, but I will certainly agree with Derek that anything we import into a 21st century liturgy, whether it’s one or two elements from a historical liturgy, right up to and including almost an entire rite, will have a 21st century context. That’s not a bad thing by any means, but we do have to think about how it will be received.

    That said, I think that as Christians in a post-Christian society we are going to have to accept that much of what we say and do is going to be counter-cultural, and we should embrace and not shrink from this aspect of our faith, even if it will offend some people. I have no interest in high ritual with minimal doctrinal or ethical components.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Christopher—I’d certainly second you on Sarum not being the only English rite…

    Isaac—On the content of the Gospel, I’m not sure I agree. i get really uncomfortable when people start suggesting that the Episcopal Church doesn’t know what the Gospel is—I think there are plenty of people of all orders who have a firm grasp on it (and, granted, some of all orders who could use some pointed refreshers…). I do think that we need to explore how to *communicate* the Gospel to our society, as knowing it and communicating it effectively can be different things.

    Paul & YF—I agree, especially on the counter-cultural point. Sometimes I don’t think we hit this hard enough. The Gospel is intrinsically counter to ALL cultures as all cultures are fundamentally human expressions of society, and its relationships with itself, other societies and the natural world. The Gospel has words of challenge (and comfort) to all but these words are, of course, not the same in all times and places. Again, even within our culture, the Gospel has words of challenge all across the socio-political spectrum. All sides fall short of the Gospel. The line between where the church offers a liberating word rooted in the Gospel to the culture or parts of it and where the church capitulates to the culture or parts of it is constantly a topic of debate, of course…

  9. Isaac

    Dr. Olson,

    I think that’s a fair enough distinction. I didn’t mean to imply that the Episcopal church lacked the Gospel entirely, merely that we’ve been focusing on our works and not making a clear link to the faith that undergirds them. Why do we support blessing same-sex relationships, women priests, etc? Because the Gospel tells us to, not because of ‘rights’ language or because society is moving forward. That’s what I’d like to see supporting a new Catholic movement in TEC, and see its expression in our liturgy/ritual.

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