Mixed Messages

One of the great joys that I have experienced in my life of faith has been the ability to join with Roman Catholics and Christians of several differing traditions in occasions of worship, including ecumenical events, and to already know the words of many of the prayers and other liturgical texts.

Such common language and common worship has done much to foster the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that all “may be one” (John 17:22). The reason that this could happen is that, since the early 1970s, Christians of many different traditions-Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others-have been using not only the same prayer texts but also the same English translations of those prayer texts in their worship.

Thanks to the work of the Roman Catholic International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and the International Commission on English Texts (ICET), the translations of the “Lord, have mercy,” the “Glory to God,” the Nicene Creed, liturgical greetings and responses (“The Lord be with you/And also with you”), the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the “Lamb of God,” appearing in the 1973 (and current) Roman Missal, were used in the publication of new worship books in other Christian communities produced in the 1970s and beyond, including the most recent Evangelical Lutheran Worship in 2006.

This great ecumenical convergence in liturgical language, also fostered by Protestant adaptation of the three-year Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass, has enabled Christians of diverse traditions to worship in each other’s liturgical assemblies without the need even of a text or worship aid in front of them. Up to now, we have known each other’s liturgical responses because they were our liturgical responses as well. No longer, unfortunately, will this be the case.

Based on a more literal style of translation from the Latin called for by the 2001 Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, the now-approved new translation of the Roman Catholic Order of Mass has put an end to this common liturgical language among English-speaking Christians, with the result that much of English-speaking Protestant Christianity alone will be using what was originally Roman Catholic liturgical language. At the same time Roman Catholics will now be using a new translation of their own, one that has much more in common with the interim translations in use before 1970 than it does with those since then.

Liturgiam Authenticam itself, however, directs that in the translations of texts “a similar agreement is desirable with the particular non-Catholic Eastern churches or with the authorities of the Protestant ecclesial communities,” when those texts do not touch on a matter of doctrinal dispute. Unfortunately, I know of no ecumenical consultation that took place on this question; one must wonder why this did not and has not happened.

As a result of what has appeared to many Christians as a unilateral liturgical move, Presbyterian scholar of liturgy Horace Allen claimed that “the entire ecumenical liturgical conversation and dialogue is over-finished, dead, done.” While I find that sentiment somewhat premature, I do think its survival is not automatically assured any longer without serious attention and sustained reflection and conversation by those of us who remain committed to the liturgical implications of the pursuit of full, visible Christian unity.

How tragic it would be if, when the history of Christian liturgy in the late 20th and early 21st century is written, that this time period be described, in but an extended footnote, as one during which an ecumenical liturgical experiment was tried but was found lacking and did not last even for 50 years. I hope we can commit ourselves to making sure in our prayer and in our scholarship that this does not happen.

This article appeared in the August 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (uscatholic.org).


  1. I do not see where is the tragedy in Catholic worship being something different, something unique – indeed something out of the ordinary.

    And let’s face it: our liturgies and those of the Protestant communities might have converged, but actual unity – in terms of confessional (doctrinal) unity – is further away than ever before. Because strangely enough, the liturgical approchement has been accompanied by (if not caused?) a drift of Protestant doctrine away from its own roots, and not towards Catholicism but towards something completely different!

    The belief that unity can be reached by ‘meeting the Protestants half-way,’ toning down the specifically ‘Catholic’ parts of Catholicism, has shown itself with all possible clarity to be completely delusional. This naïve faux-ecumenism will have to give way to a more serious and upright approach.

  2. Seriously, how often is it that you have the need to know another Church’s services by heart? Appeals to ecumenism sound good, but the truth of the matter is that there’s not really all that much fluidity in boundaries. Catholics usually go to Catholic Masses, Methodists usually attend the Methodist service, and so on. And as Mr. Ertner points out, there doesn’t seem to be any harm involved in each body doing something different. Planning your own Church’s liturgy based on the occasional attendance of Protestants just seems impractical.

  3. Greetings,

    I have read a series of posts on this new board. I am excited about the discussion of liturgy. There are comparisons to the New Liturgical Movement blog. I have an observation: At NLM they spend a lot of time talking about what they love about traditional liturgy. They show pictures and talk about why they love. It is easy to get drawn into their comments because they are so postive.
    This blog so far has done nothing but complain about the direction things going, why things are bad, but I see no bragging about current liturgy. I would encourage you to tell me what you LIKE about progressive liturgy. Draw us in with your Good News. If it keeps attacking and complaining, I don’t know if I would like that. Tell me what you have that is good.

    PS: Ruff’s very large book on the Sacred Music was excellent.

    1. Tom;

      I had noted this since the start but couldn’t quite get it into words as eloquently as you. At NLM, they admire and promote Traditional liturgy and all that surrounds it. Here they criticize those who admire and promote Traditional liturgy and everything that surrounds it.

      I have yet to see an article here on the latest “commissioning ceremony” for Eucharistic Ministers. Maybe a photo journal highlighting new Church construction and how the worship space facilitates participation? I would like to see why this particular collection of individuals here loves the liturgy and customs that we have now, not why they are going to hate the one that they think we’re going to have.

      1. At NLM, they are also intolerant of dissent. Disagree too much there, and you’ll quickly find yourself unwelcome. The comparison with this site doesn’t really follow. Here, people are free to tackle the weighty theological issues, and even–gasp!–disagree with the bloggers.

        I don’t know that I would use the “latest commissioning ceremony” as much as the appropriate text from the Book of Blessings. That you would assume such a thing would be of interest, and not the Church’s heritage of liturgy probably shows something of the lack of information circulating in NLM circles.

        That said, I would welcome image/video/ and audio of new Churches, of the principle of participation, and the fruitful ministry going on in the wide Catholic world. Y’all can do that here, right?

  4. “…much of English-speaking Protestant Christianity alone will be using what was originally Roman Catholic liturgical language.”

    As a minister of another church, I find this deeply and sadly ironic.

    (By the way: ICET no longer exists; the body is now ELLC, the English Language Liturgical Consultation.)

  5. If other Christian communities are so broken up about this, are they not free to adopt our texts? Why is it our obligation to conform to them?

    In agreement with Bill above…who are these Catholics that regularly worship together with other denominations? I am heavily involved in liturgies of all sorts celebrated throughout our Diocese, and the last time I was involved in an “ecumenical event” was immediately after 9/11, and that was a created service that didn’t use any regular liturgical texts anyway. On the other hand, if the effort is to draw Christians of other faiths into communion with the Catholic Church, it would seem to be an unmitigated failure as the flow seems to move decidedly in the other direction.

  6. But will our translations for the mass be the only ones that Catholics can use in ecumenical settings? Even the Vatican still okays a version of the creed without the Filioque that can be used in ecumenical settings but not in the mass. As a Catholic, I’ve learned to look for cues at the end of the Our Father to see whether I should be ready to say, “For thine is…” I’ve said it at ecumenical services. There’s nothing in those words that contradicts my Caholic faith. I guess I don’t see a problem here either.

    1. I don’t understand your point. Are you saying that we should use a different Catholic Mass in ecumenical settings? Just what “ecumenical settings” do you foresee using a Catholic Mass. The Catholic Mass is the Catholic Mass, no matter who is present. If you are talking about some other type of ecumenical service, then you wouldn’t use the Mass anyway.

  7. I don’t know that I would use the “latest commissioning ceremony” as much as the appropriate text from the Book of Blessings.

    OK…I didn’t make myself clear. By “latest” I meant the “most recent”, as in perhaps a commissioning ceremony that took place last week. I would hope that they would use the appropriate texts. One of the enjoyable aspects of NLM is the coverage of events that incorporate many of the things discussed as pertain to traditional liturgy.

    Most of what seems to be going on here is editorial articles by the contributors with comments. There is nothing wrong with that…but it is quite different from the format of NLM, which focuses more on actual liturgical events.

  8. I’m glad that other Christian communities have found our texts useful. But when we alter the Mass to draw the faithful more deeply into the mystery being celebrated, we really don’t need to go to other Christian communities for approval.

  9. tony: i think they know that. “We really don’t need to go to other Christian communities for approval.” Nor will they ask that they be consulted. But I think, the beautiful thing expressed in the article is that at least once upon a time, it happened that in worship, we were able to be united, for we focussed on what unites us, not so much on what divides us.
    Max: Thank you for sharing with us your reflection based on your experience and appreciation of the Vatican II liturgy. I am humbled (if there is such a word) by your sharing, because it shows much of your attitude towards us. I wish we could reciprocate your catholic spirit.

  10. Protestant churches should be encouraged to develop their liturgies as an authentic expression of their distinctive ethos and experience. The progressive loss of this authenticity in favour of some ecumenical lowest common denominator (eg the ICET Gloria) does them no favours.

  11. I fully agree with you, Ian. But I believe that as they have tried to develop their liturgies as an authentic expression of their distinctive ethos and experience, they have found out that their experience and ethos are not really that distinct and far from our liturgy. They recognize this what you call “ecumenical lowest common denominator” as something to be happy about. For you, this may seem a progressive loss of authenticity, but for them, it is their expression of authenticity, hence, they appreciate it. I think, for them, it seems, to be authentic is not so much to be distinct nor to be different.

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