Liturgical Reform, Human and Divine

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.

6 comments

  1. The Orthodox are wise to be cautious about liturgical reforms given the experience of the west. They at least have the benefit of seeing that radical changes in the liturgy do not stem decline in the number of faithful participating in them, nor do they attract youth. The simple fact is that whatever the mitigating circumstances were (e.g. shifts in cultural attitudes), the liturgical reforms in the west did not do what they were meant to do (I.e. Increase participation of the faithful, stop the hemorrhage of faithful), at least as far as the first world is concerned.

    1. @Stanislavsky Kosala – comment #1:
      I don’t see how you can so easily dismiss the reform by saying it failed to increase the participation of the faithful. I’d say it succeeded in that goal in many significant ways. Though it clearly did not prevent the falling away of many of the faithful from regular Mass attendance, how this compares to what would have happened without the reform is impossible to say.

      1. @Barry Hudock – comment #3:
        It’s not my intention to dismiss the reform, but rather a key motivation for it that is no longer tenable. Sure, it’s impossible to know what would have happened without the reform of the liturgy but rates of mass attendence in traditionally Catholic countries are not radically higher (it at all) than rates of attendance at divine liturgy in traditionally Orthodox countries (despite their unreformed liturgies).

  2. @ Nicholas Denysenko
    ‘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.’

    I totally echo that thought.

    It’s interesting to consider how some Byzantine rite Orthodox communities have ‘adapted’ how they celebrate the Liturgy within their cultural contexts. I have in mind experience of certain Orthodox communities in France, Europe where the ‘vernacular’ (French) is used, the Royal Doors are kept open for most if not all of the Liturgy (with the occasional exception of at the time of Epiclesis), the Iconostases are often lower than what is generally found elsewhere. I realise that elements of these practices occur in other Byzantine ecclesial communities; what distinguishes the French expressions seems to be a more developed sense of indigenous adaptation, mostly devoid of the ‘originating’ distinctive linguistic and cultural influences which characterise the ‘nationality distinctive’ Orthodox Churches (Serb, Cypriot, Rumanian, Russian and so on) that have arisen in the British Isles during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  3. @ Barry Huddock and Stanislavsky Kosala

    Barry Hudock : @Stanislavsky Kosala – comment #1: I don’t see how you can so easily dismiss the reform by saying it failed to increase the participation of the faithful. I’d say it succeeded in that goal in many significant ways. Though it clearly did not prevent the falling away of many of the faithful from regular Mass attendance, how this compares to what would have happened without the reform is impossible to say.

    I agree that although the ‘active’ participation of the faithful appears to have increased post Vatican II, the extent to which engagement with Faith formation through the Liturgy has issued in general personal Christian discipleship is a more challenging aspect to assess.

    What I suspect distinguishes the Eastern approach underlying this project from what the West has experienced liturgically since the early years of the 20th century (via The Liturgical Movement and its ecumenical aftermath through much of the ‘Western Rite’ world) is the absence of a fundamental consensus among Orthodox liturgical theologians that the Liturgies of the Orthodox Churches NEED to undergo reform and revision.

    That may make this a more specifically and locally/particularly applied ‘reform’ than what was experienced more generally among the Western ‘Rites’ (Catholic and Reformed) as it were.

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