V2-50th Anniversary III: “A Reflection on the Ecumenical Impact of Sacrosanctum Concilium

Moderator’s note: Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, was promulgated on December 4, 1963. In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of this revolutionary document, Pray Tell is running a series of daily posts this week. The first post in the series, on the liturgical movement by Katherine Harmon, was on Sunday. The second post in the series, on full, conscious, and active participation by Kimberly Belcher, was yesterday.

by Bryan D. Spinks

As a teenager I lived in the village of Black Notley in Essex,  England. I was an altar server at a church in the next village, All Saints’ Cressing, but sometimes I helped out at the parish Church of SS. Peter and Paul Black Notley. Both Churches were high Anglican – they both used Eucharistic vestments and incense. But there was a difference. Fr. Alastair Sandeman of Cressing had little interest in Rome, and wore Gothic chasubles and talked of the ‘English use’ associated with Percy Dearmer. In contrast Fr.Hugh Sherlock was a Rome watcher, and Black Notley used Fiddle-back chasubles some prayers from the Roman Missal, and he wore a biretta during the service.

I recall in around 1964 or 1965 helping out, and suddenly, apparently because of things going on in Rome, a portable lectern appeared, and parts of the Mass previously said facing east, were now said at the South side from this portable lectern, and the biretta disappeared. Only later did I come to understand why.

If Lumen Gentium and  Unitatis Redintegratio are to be regarded as the consciously ecumenical documents that issued from Vatican II, the document that has probably had the widest unintended  ecumenical influence in Western Churches is Sacrosanctum Concilium. This document  both summed up, and brought to fruition the ideas promoted by the exponents of the Liturgical Movement, and it set in motion an unprecedented liturgical revision in the Roman Catholic Church.

However, many of the insights and scholarly principles that lay behind it were ones shared by liturgical scholars and practitioners in many protestant Churches. Already in its 1951 report, the Faith and Order Commission under the auspices of the World Council of Churches had stated, ‘In the course of this enquiry we have been struck by the extent to which a ‘liturgical movement’ is to be found in churches of widely differing traditions’.

Just as some trace the origins of the Liturgical Movement to Dom Prosper Guéranger, nineteenth century parallels can be found in the Church of England with the Oxford Movement, the German Reformed Church in the USA with the Mercersburg Movement, and in the Church of Scotland with the Church Service Society. However, it is clear that the insights of the later Liturgical Movement, associated with such names as Beauduin, Herwegen and Casel were avidly imbibed by those of other Churches, as evidenced by Anglicans such as Henry de Candole, Gabriel Hebert and Massey Shepherd.

By the 1960s, the growing enthusiasm and (misplaced) optimism of the Ecumenical Movement and the international shared approach to liturgical scholarship all paved the way for a fertile reception for Sacrosanctum Concilium. In its work of practical implementation, the Consilium included observers from other churches such as Ronald Jasper, Raymond George and Max Thurian. These in turn would influence other scholars and church leaders.

One of first important influences in the English speaking world, but also elsewhere, was the decision to allow the vernacular. English-speaking churches, influenced directly or directly by the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, had long used the vernacular, but it was the vernacular of the seventeenth century. New prayers were crafted in the mock Tudor/Stuart language, with God addressed as Thee, Thou and Thy, as well as use of vocabulary that had long been superseded in the English language (‘manifold’ for most people was something to do with car engines, not ‘many’!). In the early 1960s, for example in the Church of England, experimental services Series 1 and series 2 were in the thee/thou style, but after 1967 all newer experimental services were in recognizably modern English. A similar pattern can be found elsewhere.

Far more important, though, were the prayers for the Ordinary of the Mass which came from ICEL and then found endorsement through ICET. It meant that there was in the English-speaking world, across the main denominations, a common text for the Gloria in excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and, with only minor differences, the Lord’s Prayer. Unintentionally, Rome had influenced the liturgical world of the separated brethren in a way unintended and almost unthinkable.

This remarkable achievement has now been somewhat undermined in the wake of Liturgiam Authenticam, and the new English texts. It was certainly true that many of the original ICEL prayers were not absolute translations of the Latin, and some of the English was thin. The new English texts may be a more faithful translation, but this has been bought at a great price. Much of the new English translation is highly artificial and in places quite infelicitous. It has also been bought at great ecumenical cost, since it has left main line protestant English-speaking churches with the original ICEL/ICET texts, while English-speaking Roman Catholics now use a different text. A happier solution might have been to leave the common texts, and revise only the prayers that are specifically used by the Roman Catholic Church, such as the collects and Eucharistic Prayers.

One of the most appealing aspects of SC was the call to use more Scripture, and the three year lectionary that resulted from the reforms caught the imagination and attention of the many main line Western Churches. The irony here was that protestant Churches had identified themselves as the communities that highly valued Scripture, but often in public worship read very little Scripture. Where lectionaries were used, no one strayed from an annual cycle. Now that the Catholic Church was reading more Scripture, and treating the Gospels almost in a Redaction-Criticism manner, others were prompted to do the same. It was unfortunate that the Revised Common Lectionary of the English-speaking world came into being after the urgency of ecumenism had faded, and the Roman Catholic Church could not be persuaded to adopt it. Even so, the RCL would not have existed without the Catholic response to SC’s call for more Scripture.

Although Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists amongst others, had revised their liturgical forms once or more in the early twentieth century, the Reformation paradigm of the single Roman Canon missae had meant that no one seriously proposed more than one prayer of consecration or consecration formula in the Mass; even Lutheran variations only reflected Luther’s Formula missae and the Deusche messe. When the Consilium authored three new Eucharistic Prayers, and subsequently Prayers for Reconciliation and Children, it became a catalyst for other Churches to provide alternative Eucharistic Prayers. For example, the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America 1976/9, and the Church of England Alternative Service Book, 1980, each had four Eucharistic Prayers. Common Order of the Church of Scotland ,1994 provided three in its first order of communion, and the Book of Common Worship 1993 of Presbyterian Church USA had 24. Once again, it was SC and its implementation that set a standard that spurred on other liturgical revisers.

SC highlighted the need to adapt to culture. Although back in the 1920s, in an Indian context, Anglicans had called their own Church to adopt an Eastern-style rite as more authentic for India than importing a seventeenth century British rite, such calls went unheeded. By the 1960s the so-called ‘developing’ countries were pressing for independence- not only from foreign colonial rule, but also foreign cultural norms. The recognition that all Western rites were a foreign import has been slow to be recognized, but with the encouragement (sometimes with apparent reluctance and procrastination) of endorsing the Zaire rite as well as an Aboriginal Eucharistic prayer, this was a catalyst for other missionary churches to encourage a localization. This is reflected in such books as This Far by Faith, a Lutheran book for African American contexts, as well as Our Modern Services of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

Perhaps not least has been liturgical style. The simplification of rubrics in celebrating the Mass has been embraced in a number of different ways in mainline protestant Churches. The adoption of the alb and stole is now common. More obvious is the westward facing celebration of the Eucharist. Never actually mandated by SC or the Vatican, it has become the norm. High Church Anglicans who had fought hard in the nineteenth century to celebrate Eastward instead of at the North End now gave up East for West, and pulled their altars away from the wall. Others who had always celebrated facing the congregation felt affirmed and vindicated.

Last perhaps, has been active participation. The precise meaning of this term has been debated in recent times, and in protestant circles it has tended to result in finding a special part for everyone! At a less extreme interpretation, it has led members of the congregation reading lessons, leading intercessions, and helping with the administration of communion. Although never foreseen, SC has changed the face of Western main line worship.

What of the future? There are debates within the Roman Catholic Church as to whether the Liturgical Movement has ended, or whether it still has many goals to achieve with the current rites. While on the one hand there are those who speak of a Reform of the Reform, others have drawn attention to the fact that the new Roman services appeared at the tail end of Modernity, and were expressions of Modernity. We have now passed into Postmodernity, and therefore a new reform is needed to equip the Church for a Postmodern world. Other denominations are already wrestling with the influence of the Praise and Worship music and the huge industry that surrounds its commercial production, as well exploring new forms of liturgical styles, with Blended worship, alt.worship, and Liquid worship to name but a few.

The great strength of SC is that it actually might point towards a number of these things if active participation, intelligibility, and inculturation are taken seriously.  Back in 1964 J. D. Crichton wrote of SC, ‘The findings and experiences of the liturgical movement of the last sixty years form the underlying basis of the document and a window is opened on to a future the end of which no man can see’.  Unless someone wants to close the window, SC remains a seminal document not only for future Roman Catholic liturgical renewal, but provides a fruitful theological base for other churches too.

Bryan D. Spinks is the Bishop F. Percy Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at the Yale Divinity School. In his most recent book, The Worship Mall: Contemporary Responses to Contemporary Culture, Spinks looks at worship trends in today’s post modern context.

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