I’m working on a book on liturgical reform in the Orthodox Church, in dialogue with Vatican II. Among Orthodox, there is a perception that Vatican II unleashed an avalanche of innovation in the implementation of liturgical reform with the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Missal of Paul VI, and the restoration of the RCIA. The prevailing perception is in desperate need of scholarly treatment, which is one of my many tasks in developing this monograph. Unfortunately, the perception of Vatican II’s reforms is also quite negative. Those familiar with the essays of Alexander Schmemann likely paused at his tepid responses to liturgical reform and refusal to proclaim the Orthodox Church ready for such a reform. A more recent and equally prestigious Orthodox scholar, Ioannis Fountoulis, also depicts the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms as models to be avoided by Orthodox. My own sense is that many Orthodox theologians have not read the primary documents on Catholic reform with sufficient care and have consequently rushed to judgment. Perhaps their perceptions of Catholic liturgical reform would differ if they were present with us today.
How do Orthodox theologians approach liturgical reform? I’ve been reading a diverse collection of articles on liturgical and ecclesial reform by Greek and Russian theologians, ranging from the late-nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries. The proposals for liturgical reform are plurivocal and are responding to diagnoses of problems in the Church. On the one hand, theologians recognize the inseparability of liturgy and ecclesiology in thinking that liturgical reform has the capacity to reinvigorate ecclesial participation. I’m guessing this sounds familiar to the Catholic reader. On the other hand, theologians are equally fearful of reform, concerned that a haphazard reform of the liturgy will foment schism and decline. Again, this sentiment probably sounds familiar.
One of the theologians I have been reading is Metropolitan Antonii Krapovitskii, who was a proponent of restoring the Patriarchate of Moscow in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the Church leader who established the Russian Church Abroad after the October Revolution. The Russian Church deliberated the question of liturgical reform at some length in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Metropolitan Antonii consistently questioned the need for liturgical reform. In an article on the possibility of removing or lowering the iconostasis of the Church for the purpose of providing the laity with greater visual access to the sanctuary, presumably enhancing their participation, Metropolitan Antonii responded that such an action would tempt the presider to shift his focus from praying to God to offering an aesthetically pleasing ritual performance for the people. After blaming Protestants and Catholics for creating this phenomenon of pleasing the people in liturgy, he stated that the current liturgy offered everything an Orthodox believer needs for salvation.
I suspect that such an argument might sound familiar to readers of Pray, Tell, but I ask you to consider this: does Metropolitan Antonii offer us material for reflection? Is liturgical reform a divine act, an outpouring of the Spirit that vivifies the body of Christ? Is liturgical reform a creation of elite liturgists and artists deigned to glorify God? Is it some combination of these, or perhaps a distortion, where innovators propose actions to glorify themselves?
History teaches us that some of the most resilient and beautiful liturgical traditions emerged in the aftermath of catastrophe. Robert Taft’s scholarship on liturgical history refers to two central points in the composition of Byzantine hymnography: the recovery of Palestinian monastic life after the Arab invasions of 638 CE and the importation of hymnographers into the Constantinopolitan Studite monasteries to enrich their liturgical life during the city’s adjustments to the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. These reforms occurred in an environment of adjustment to societal turbulence, and hymnography eventually became one of the chief fixtures of the Byzantine rite, admired and praised for its theological texture almost universally. In retrospect, these reforms are gifts from God, the Church’s response to God’s initiative in the Spirit. But it is very convenient to arrive at such a conclusion some 1,300 years later, when the one thing one can count on experiencing in a given Byzantine rite Church is the singing of numerous hymns. Our perception of these reforms today might well differ from those views held at the time of the reforms.
The challenges confronting the contemporary Church are well-known. Scandals, war, poverty, poor leadership, and the growing phenomenon of addiction challenge pastors in every corner of the globe. The time for responding with creativity is at hand: implementation of liturgical reform has the capacity to form Christians who can remain faithful as they negotiate these times of troubles. My recent reading has taught me that Christians are obliged to treat the liturgy with great care, so that each instance of change, reform, or fine-tuning is for the glory of God. Certainly, no one will refute this statement. The task of discerning whether or not a proposal for liturgy will do what we hope it does—build up Christ’s body—requires care, humility, prayer, and fasting. That said, I also believe that the Lord is inviting us to act, to respond with a Spirit-laden creativity in the liturgy God gives us. However we respond, whether through new reforms or by faithfulness within our current traditions, we must respond to the divine invitation. If the work we do in creating initiatives for liturgical reform occurs in response to the outpouring of the Spirit, we can hope that the ultimate perception of our work will occur in a spirit of thanksgiving, received by future generations as a product of creative fidelity.