Separating Liturgy from Ideology

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The liturgy is often perceived not only as an "icon" of heaven but also as a "banner" of human ideology. In the 16th century, the Reformers could not tolerate traditional liturgies, because they thought of them as symbols of medieval superstition and a departure from strict Monotheism. In the 20th century, the liturgical reformers mandated by Pope Paul VI could not tolerate the traditional Roman liturgy, because they perceived it to be the symbol of a force opposing progress and human evolution. The same intolerance reigns, whether it is a priest imprisoned in the 1860's for "ritualism" or priests removed from their parishes in the 1970's for refusing the Novus Ordo.

In reaction to these reforms, the traditional Roman liturgy has become associated with the political right-wing and conservatism. Many find it incredible that the "ritualist" priests of the 19th century were not right-wing conservatives - but Socialists. They were highly innovative in their concern for the poor and unfortunate people at the fringes of society.

We live in a society where tolerance and inclusivity are the keywords, but in which tolerance and inclusivity are hard to come by in the clash of ideologies. On the 7th July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a document in which he affirmed the right of Roman Rite priests to celebrate the liturgy of before the Pauline reform as an "extraordinary use". Fair-minded people would say that they would have no objection to that. Surely people can then choose what they prefer, just like being free to buy products of different brands in the world of trade and commerce.

Then the accusation came, sometimes from diocesan bishops, saying that the Pope had "given in" to the traditionalists, that he was something of a traditionalist himself and planned to cancel what was acquired by Vatican II and its positive teachings and aspirations in the modern world. Indeed, it is time to cast away our ideology and look at things with a fair mind. We can read the Conciliar documents, and we can read what Pope Benedict XVI has clearly written and said.

The Pope was very careful to avoid using the habitual terminology of the traditionalists, for example constrasting "traditional" and "conciliar" or "modern", or even "new" and "old". He introduced the notion of two uses of the Roman Rite. At long last, we see the key to undoing the ideological damage caused ever since the Protestant Reformation. Before the Council of Trent, and in some places, many centuries after it, there remained particular liturgical uses in local dioceses and some of the religious Orders like the Dominicans. Many modern Roman Catholics are surprised to know that the Archdiocese of Milan, the Diocese of Braga in Portugal and Lyons in France were not using the standard rite "of Pius V". The Church has always been a coloured tapestry of unity in diversity.

Is this opening a step backwards in terms of progress and modernity? Some have said that by allowing the old rite, Benedict XVI wanted to go back in time like a nostalgic old man. Nothing could be further from the truth. For him, the Church lives in our own time, and the teaching of Vatican II is yet to be received in the Church for there to be a renewal. In the immediate post-conciliar period, there was a cultural crisis that implied that in 2,000 years, Christendom had done little to improve the condition of man, and now Marxism was to be the new panacea. Later, Communism collapsed, but the response was "post-modern" scepticism and not a return to the faith. As ideologies wear down, we see more clearly and in retrospect the intentions of the Concilar Fathers. Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, who then became an Archbishop, then a Cardinal, and now Pope, was in the middle of the whole period as one of the world's greatest theologians - and his experience should be seen as the key to his decision as regards the liturgy. When we read his profound thought and theology, we see that we are not faced with a conservative or someone who lives in the past. The past affects the present and the present turns towards the future.

The motu proprio is not the expression of a step backwards, because spiritual progress is not like scientific or technological progress. None of us using Windows Vista, XP or even 98 is using Windows 3.1. We don't even have the old programmes on our hard disks. When a car is no longer roadworthy, it is taken to the scrap heap and broken up, and we buy a new car. Not so with the liturgy, because innovations do not abolish and cancel the older elements. To make another analogy, some of the English cathedral organs were redesigned and rebuilt in the 1960's according to an entirely different aesthetic ideal. They were no longer to be "stodgy" romantic English instruments, but were to sound like 18th century German and French organs. 40 years later, these radical rebuilds are often seen to be errors. Old organs are restored to be again as they were built in the first place. Perhaps an improvement can be made here and there, but the original material is respected and fostered for future generations. No one objects to new elements in the liturgy, for they show the liturgy to be as alive as the Church, but the old remains as a testimony of tradition.

Why should the liturgy be separated from conservative ideologies? Simply, the liturgy is not the property of a group of believers, the old rite no more to a group of right-wingers than the new use to a radical community. In the 1950's, as in the 1540's, there needed to be something of a shake-up. In Europe and America, the Mass was in Latin and many of the prayers were inaudible. True, people could follow the Mass with a bi-lingual missal, but a real separation was in place as when they squinted through holes in the Rood screen. As a result of this separation, people resorted to private devotions and the Rosary. When the changes came, like a "Christmas game" as the recusants complained, lay people became more active. It went to the other extreme, and in came the dialectical divide and the "hermeneutics of rupture".

With a little intelligence, we will find that lay participation is possible in the older forms of the liturgy, with appropriate pastoral guidance and priestly sensitivity. "Actual participation" is not only doing, but also praying and silence.

I listened to an interview with an independent bishop of the Liberal Catholic tradition. Like the "progressives" in the Roman Church, he was experimenting with a "circular Mass". Unlike the Protestants who do not admit an ordained Priesthood in the Apostolic Succession, he advocated opening the priesthood to all and removing its association with any kind of "clerical status". I found this bishop's thought profound and cogent in many respects. Many aspects of what he said were similar to the ideas of the "emerging church" movement - discarding traditional forms to provide a Christian platform for disconnected post-modern people. I found that I could not reject this person with the usual brush-off cynical attitude. He has walked his spiritual path and is convinced he is doing the right thing. The reflections this talk provoke in me amount to doing things a different way: separate the liturgy from ideology in order to impregnate the old with a new spirit.

Separate the liturgy from ideology in order to impregnate the old with a new spirit - I would advise the reader to stop on these words and reflect. Perhaps go for a walk or do some gardening, and then read the rest of this article on returning to your computer or printed paper. Christ talked of old wine and new bottles, the new and old things from the treasure house, and above all the spirit he did not find in the attitude of the Pharisees. The key is the Knowledge of God through personal experience. Christ's strongest reproach of these formalist and hypocritical self-righteous clerics was that they they took the key of knowledge away from the people. The people were no longer to have their own experience of God, but be guided only by verbal teaching from the clerocracy.

I am not in favour of the "circular Mass", because the Mass is pointed to God and open to Him. It is a communal celebration of immanence, but turned to the sacred and the transcendent. However, there are ways to involve the laity in an eastward-facing celebration. Allow them to sit in the choir stalls and be near the altar. The charismatics often like sitting on the floor using mats and little kneeling desks. I would have nothing against this kind of spontaneity. I often think of university lectures in the Middle-Ages: the professor had a chair, a kind of pulpit, and the students sat on the floor to listen to the lecture, ask questions or make "objections" for the professor to answer. For those who assist at Mass, there are times to be silent and adore, times to learn from the reading of Holy Scripture or the teaching by the priest, and times to witness to the power of God.

As the older form of the Roman Mass returns, at least for those who want it, I made the decision nearly a year ago to adopt the ancient Use of Sarum as the "older form" of the Anglican rite. It can be celebrated in the original Latin or according to the excellent English translations of Pearson and Canon Warren. There is no Feast of the Sacred Heart or of Saint Francis of Assisi! These are just 2 feasts among others. We English have our own, like the Five Wounds and the Holy Name of Jesus on August 7th. My vestments are of Roman shape and colour - but does this matter? There is no objection to adding feasts and celebrations from the Roman Missal to the Sarum Use, as prefeces from the "ordinary use" (Novus Ordo) can be used with the "extraordinary use". This kind of flexibility can help to find the via media between excessive purism or eclecticism. After all, Anglicans have used the Roman Missal as a supplement to the parsimonious 17th century Prayer Book for decades. Our voyage of discovery leads to a new world.

I cannot say enough for fostering a sense of wonder and awe, without which our hearts and souls are exposed to the mortal dangers of indifference and spiritual lethargy (acedia). Far from turning back the clock, whichever rite to which we are attracted, we are invited to turn away from radicalism - both right-wing and left-wing, and embrace traditional liturgical worship in an entirely new way. For many years, I have found the "conservative" spirit just as foreign as 1970's philistine brutalism. I feel the way for a new approach, the prophetic voice of the Vatican II Fathers.

We Anglicans are not Roman Catholics, though now there is a formal dialogue between the Traditional Anglican Communion and Rome, as there is also for other groups of Anglicans opposed to the "dictatorship of relativism". Our recovery of the liturgy is very similar to that in the Roman Catholic Church under Benedict XVI. Our forefathers suffered for it as we ourselves have suffered from isolation, marginalisation, ostracism, incomprehension from our own families and friends, rejection by our churches and parishes, ruined lives of former seminarians whose generosity met with the irrevocable sentence of "unstable and psychologically immature - no vocation". This treasure is too dear for us to discard along with our old Windows 3.1 and DOS 6 (anyone remember that?) and the old Ford Cortina that failed its roadworthiness test. It is a treasure for which many of have given our lives, at least morally and emotionally.

In the Roman Catholic Church, most people will continue to prefer the vernacular liturgy, as most of us Anglicans use the Prayer Book or one of the new revised services. But the presence of the ancient wealth of the Roman rite or the old diocesan uses is an invitation to a voyage of discovery in a world so far removed from the world of fast food, instant entertainment and supermarkets.

The independent liberal Catholic bishop whom I mentioned advocates new liturgies and entirely new forms for new pastoral situations. Perhaps he is right for his own flock, and I am impressed with his reasoning and candour - but I see much more potential in presenting old signs, gestures, symbols and texts for rediscovery by open-minded people in this new pastoral situation of "post-Christianity" that is rapidly becoming a new "pre-Christianity". The Orthodox Churches of the East (except one American Antiochian archbishop and a couple of open-minded bishops in the Russian Church) have missed out by their self-centred conservatism and refusal of western Christianity. At last, Rome is becoming open to the same thing we Anglicans have been working for over the past 170 years or so. We are tired of our aspirations being just "not available".

The whole point of traditional liturgy is not to be a banner of conservatism, prejudice, bigotry and anti-intellectualism, but the spiritual and Sacramental reference of the Church in a new age of openness and post-ideology. The renewal will be slow, as people still find difficulties in seeing through the ideologies, but those who persevere will have the grace and strength to lift away the curtain so that the sunlight might shine into their souls. Few will see this vision in these early days, but it will snowball in time.

I see some parallels between the beginning of this century and the beginning of the 19th. The old Establishment was largely destroyed by the French Revolution and people were tired of the terror and the fanaticism. They turned to what was good in the middle ages, even though they saw things through a distorted mirror of Romanticism. The 19th century revival was far from perfect, and it only lasted for so long, but there was something in Romanticism then as there is now. I cannot see the future, but we can but ... hope.