How Do We Assess Liturgical Reform?

In the last fifteen years, I have encountered “liturgical reform” in a variety of ways, even though I wasn’t looking for it. As a child and young adult, I worshiped in Ukrainian Orthodox parishes and did not realize that I was raised in an environment of liturgical reform. The reform was the community’s exclusive use of vernacular Ukrainian in the Liturgy, instead of Church Slavonic. The adoption of vernacular Ukrainian was a staple feature of liturgical Ukrainization, a controversial topic in a nation of people whose Churches are mired in the tragedy of schism.

When I began worshiping in parishes of the Orthodox Church in America, I experienced other types of liturgical reform. Many of the prayers were recited aloud for the people to hear; and, of course, the most visible reform was the experience of most people coming forward to receive Holy Communion. As a young adult, I attended a weekend retreat and told the priest that he needed to hear my Confession before I could receive Communion. He challenged me on the need for Confession before every Communion, and I began to realize that the direct line between the two was no longer universal in the Orthodox Church.

The years that followed introduced more examples of liturgical reform: the rehabilitation of long-forgotten liturgical offices, new models of iconography, the addition of lessons to the Liturgy of the Word, Holy Communion in the evening, congregational singing, and many more. I began to read about liturgical reform from diverse perspectives in peer-reviewed journals. During my stay at CUA, I learned about the Catholic “liturgy wars,” and received a defense of the reforms authorized by Vatican II and an explanation on what really went wrong in the implementation of reform.

A quick review of my CV discloses my own interest in and contribution to the topic. My book on liturgical reform not only assesses the movement in Eastern Orthodoxy, but also offers an agenda of what is to be done on the agenda of liturgical reform.

I think I am going to be stuck on the question of how we assess liturgical reform for the rest of my life. Liturgy is an exacted, embodied event – it is not a collection of texts, nor is liturgy a book. Whether we know it or not, we’re constantly assessing liturgical reform in the aftermath of an enacted liturgical ritual (or a series of rituals). My own interest in assessment stems from observation and experience, and not merely the analysis of the status of the question.

Speaking from my own Orthodox silo, I have observed that liturgical leaders tend to evaluate liturgy – and liturgical reform – on the basis of performance. One of the most challenging liturgical rites in Eastern Orthodox is the hierarchical liturgy: the deacons and subdeacons must perform rituals particular to the bishop’s presidency, and they are hard to perform because most parishes host the bishop only on special occasions. The hierarchical liturgy is also tough for music directors: rehearsals and preparation are much more demanding when the bishop presides.

When the hierarchical liturgy is over, a sense of relief prevails among those who led. The deacons long for a nap, and embrace one another. The musicians express relief that it is over. I think the most common comment among singers and servers is, “we got through it!” The leaders have a sense of successfully performing the rite; it seems enough to celebrate the fact that the rite is now concluded, and the intensity of preparation has gone with it. I sense this very same sentiment for the offices of Holy Week and Easter, along with any solemnity. I honor the contribution of hard work and the gifts of music and ritual choreography for the glory of God; in this sense, completing the ritual requirements is indeed an achievement worthy of celebration. Furthermore, it is a good thing to express joy at giving one’s self to the liturgy, not to mention a very human thing to express relief following the conclusion of hard labor.

There’s one thing that nags at me: are we satisfied with exclaiming, “we got through it?”

My example is a solemnity, a special occasion, and not the prototypical liturgical experience – Sunday liturgy. In some ways, we tend to employ the same method of evaluation for Sunday liturgy, too. In my world, we compare notes on the recitation of the prayers (aloud or quietly), the number of people who received Holy Communion, our liturgical translations, and the theme of the homily. Perhaps in other parishes there is reflection on the posture and position of the celebrant, the involvement of laity in liturgical rituals, and the selection of liturgical music vis-à-vis the composition of the assembly.

This method of evaluating liturgy fits the way we tend to evaluate any other endeavor. Our mindset is oriented towards following the script: observing the order appointed by the official book will result in success. If we said we would do A, B, and C, and we did those things, then it is successful. In other words, if the priest stood in the right place and the musical selection expressed the liturgical theme and cohered with the congregation’s composition, it was a success. If the prayers were read aloud in my parish, then it was a liturgical success.

I’m not sure, though, that fulfilling the appointed order can result in a successful outcome. It is surely good to fulfill the appointed order, and I’m in favor of this approach, but I’m starting to wonder if the appointed orders representing liturgical reform are inspired by the desired outcome: for the holy people of God to have an intimate encounter with the Living God, an event that plants another seed of transformation for participants to become ever more human. Deepening Communion with God and with all of humankind is a staple feature of the liturgical reform, and this means that the liturgical event should be one that ushers the people into the kingdom, to worship God in anticipation of eternal life in God, with the communion of saints.

Creating a mechanism to evaluate whether or not liturgical reform is successful is nearly impossible. The only method that comes to mind is to create detailed profiles of liturgical participants to gain a sense of how their lives unfolded in conjunction with the liturgy. Such an endeavor would require studies of communities of diverse regions, and digging deep into the life of a community through the course of a generation.

I suspect that one would discover that transformed people hail from a variety of liturgical communities: traditional, innovative, conservative, and so on. If we left it here, we might agree to assess the elements of liturgy we can control, so that our rites, songs, and words proclaim the kingdom of God. We might be satisfied with saying, “we proclaimed the kingdom, we worshipped the crucified Christ and wept with joy at his resurrection.” We do not have the authority to assess God’s bestowing of sanctity on those who voluntarily receive or reject it. Human freedom can get in the way of liturgical reform grounded on good theology.

That said, I still think we should look at reform through the lens of participant transformation. Reciting the anaphora aloud is one of the more popular reforms among Byzantine rite clergy. The Byzantine anaphora of St. Basil is saturated with classical soteriology, a prayer of thanksgiving for everything God has done. It is good to recite this prayer aloud. But I really don’t know how many people hear this prayer because it has so many words! There could be a gap between success in following the script (reciting the prayer aloud) and the desired outcome (people were distracted and fidgety as the prayer was recited). For many years now, I have been in awe of the power of the last part of the anaphora: the community asks God to remember every human being in every imaginable state of life – sick, widowed, young, old, in distress, and even one’s enemies. This part of the prayer challenges the participant to cross their own comfort zone and pray for everyone. In other words, the participant is challenged to deepen communion with humankind. Hearing the prayer, and permitting that hearing to translate into a habit of life activity could result in a sign of the transformation that inspired the liturgical movement from the beginning.

This is one example of a potential way we might look at Liturgy in a new way: how can liturgical participation capacitate us to become children of the kingdom? The one step we can take is to bring the outcome of liturgy into an engaged dialogue with liturgical structures, rites, and texts, as long as we respect the human freedom to either receive or reject God’s outstretched hands offered to us in liturgy.

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  1. Nicholas, any idea of how we came to speak of reciting, reading, and saying prayers? In my experience praying prayers ought to go well beyond reciting and saying. In liturgical prayer all participants, all offerers of the Sacred Mysteries, ought to pray with mind, heart, and soul rather than just recite the words in the so-called sacred books. We are, after all, speaking to God in the presence oh his holy and priestly people. Do you suppose it goes back to the idea that the rites need merely be read with accuracy and the accompanying rubrics followed meticulously in order for the Sacred Mysteries to achieve their end? When I was in seminary I recall being impacted mostly by the priests who seemed clearly to be intimately addressing God in prayer rather than those who struck me as just reading them.

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