Times change. People change. Churches change. Liturgy changes. But usually not all at once. And not easily, not without growing pains.
As an Episcopalian, I live and work in a church that has tried to deal accommodatingly with liturgical change—and has done so for some time. Episcopal parishes describe themselves variously as “high,” “low,” and “broad,” terms that reflect both preferences in liturgical style, and degrees of theological commitment to principles articulated during the reforms of the sixteenth century. And in spite of all the headline-grabbing difficulties in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion, there remains a lot of room for positive, healthy diversity in expression, especially on the level of parish life.
During the twentieth century, Episcopalians produced two liturgical revisions, one in 1928 and one in 1979. Although the revision process that produced the 1979 Book of Common Prayer began in 1946, its last stages were completed with one eye unabashedly looking over Rome’s shoulder. Like many Christian churches that produced new liturgical books and embraced new liturgical styles in the 1970s, the Episcopal Church was the beneficiary of the scholarship and energy engendered by the Liturgical Movement and fed by Vatican II.
But not everybody was ready for change, something that became very evident in during the period of the trial liturgies (roughly 1950-1976). The 1971 draft, Services for Trial Use was particularly contentious, and took many people by surprise. We survived, but not without compromise. When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer appeared, it included two series of services: “Rite I” in traditional (though faux) Tudor-Stuart English, and“Rite II” in contemporary English. Some parishes adopted one, some the other, and some made use of both. Likewise, some parishes adopted a versus populum style of liturgy, with the celebrant facing the congregation over the altar, while some retained ad orientem or eastward-facing worship.
The parish I serve, in a suburb of New York City, makes use of a mix of these styles every Sunday: the early Eucharist is eastward-facing and uses Rite I texts. The principal celebration is also eastward-facing, but uses the modern language of Rite II. And at the evening Eucharist, celebrated in contemporary English, the the congregation gathers closely around all four sides of the freestanding altar. Each of these styles, each of these approaches has historical precedent, and can be justified by sound theology. Moreover, each approach has been adopted for significant and carefully considered pastoral reasons. Taken together, our three regularly scheduled Sunday liturgies represent a large cross-section of American Episcopal worship. Noticeably absent, however, is the divisive acrimony that often attends communities with multiple liturgical styles. Everybody knows that they are part of one parish, one church, one body.
This is not the case in every Episcopal parish, and I won’t pretend that either the church as a whole or the parish doesn’t have fissures around some significant issues. But regarding the parish, I suspect that when it comes to worship, we’ve simply refused to buy into the posturing that so often seems to go along with issues of liturgical difference, and becomes so evident in conversations about liturgical reform. We refuse to suggest that one style is more “authentic” or more pleasing to God than another. Rather, we stress the point that all liturgy is about offering to God grateful praise and worship for the grace and salvation that we have received in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we make the best use of the various options open to us in our liturgical books to assist and equip as many people as possible to enter into that movement of thanksgiving and praise.
Again, I know that such is not the case everywhere. Parishes and even dioceses in The Episcopal Church are often sorely divided over liturgical questions, and easy answers are rarely forthcoming. Having done the bulk of my liturgical scholarship in Roman Catholic institutions, I’m regularly reminded of the debates that swirl and the painful divisions that sometimes exist among Catholics over matters of liturgical style, rite or use. And, like many non-Roman Catholic Christians in “liturgical” churches, I believe we all have something to gain, and something to lose, in the promulgation of new translations of the Roman Missal—the implementation of which I pray is slow, and accompanied by much catechesis!
By relating the experience of my own parish here, I hope to suggest that unity with liturgical diversity is a real possibility (the necessary pieces for which are in place in most Christian bodies, including the Roman Catholic Church.) But such cannot come about except through depolarization. That necessarily will involve refusing to inflate the claims we make for our preferred liturgical styles, and refusing to project our own agendas into intemperate readings of history. But above all, it demands a spirit of charity in dealing with those who week-by-week worship with us and those with whom we dialogue.