[L]et me enunciate a liturgical principle: ritual…, a certain stability in the déroulement of worship, far from precluding spontaneity and congregational participation, is its conditio sine qua non, as is indeed true of any social event. Italian crowds spontaneously shout “brava” to divas at the opera – but not in the middle of a an aria, because the conventions of civility dictate that there is a time and place for everything.
When liturgy professionals talk about spontaneity, they mean their spontaneity, not the community’s. The only way to secure the congregation’s appropriation of worship is to celebrate the order of worship that is theirs, and not lay on their already weary shoulders a spontaneity trip in which they have had no part. So variety must be limited, and the spontaneity of the congregation, not that of the celebrant, given pride of place.
This sounds rather like a call to order – which was no doubt needed back in the 1980s, when creativity and downright silliness were the done thing in many quarters. Taft appeals, an anthropological grounds, to the necessity that rituals be stable so that congregations can make the rituals their own.
But in yesterday’s Gospel reading, Jesus is critical of the Pharisees who “keep the tradition of the elders” and carefully follow the rules of ritual purification. Jesus quotes Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” Jesus says of the legalistic Pharisees: “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”
I think Fr. Taft gets it right about stability and spontaneity. He rightly criticizes celebrants and others who disregard the ltiurgical books and impose their spontaneity upon congregations. This doesn’t preclude spontaneity, but makes it possible. (It’d be interesting to hear more about how this spontaneity evolves and what it looks like, but Taft didn’t go into that in his speech.)
Let me ask: what is the greater danger today, over 25 years later, to the Church’s liturgical life? Is it disregard of the books, imposition of private agendas, and loss of a common ritual vocabulary? Or is it Pharasaic legalism, idolatrous divinizing of merely human social constructions?
On anthropological grounds, stability is necessary. On evangelical grounds, human aspects of organized religion must not be absolutized.
What needs reassertion today? Stability or flexibility? Do we need to respect the nature of the rite? Or take a deep breath and relax?