Judging custom

The comments on my previous post (trying to give some theoretical structure to the notion of how new customs arise in liturgical practice) mostly focused on canon law and its implications. This suggests to me that we are, as a body, much more interested in how to regulate liturgical adaptation than we are in where it comes from. Let me clarify a bit: when I wrote that post I was doing description. We may not like the fact that new elements arise within the liturgy in these ways, but we know, not only historically but also transculturally, that this is what people do with liturgy. In cultures that are dominated by oral rather than written tradition, which was true of Roman Catholicism up until the 13th century, even the “ritual experts” (those whose job it was to do the ritual and interpret it for the community) felt free to adapt rituals to the complex necessities of the moment (this is still done in certain rituals, such as reconciliation and exorcism).

One way of seeing the canon law paragraphs on the question, and similar official language (this kind of regulation exists in most cultural communities, though the form it takes and its degree of acceptance of ritual messiness is different) regarding custom, is it provides a way of handling this complex fact about human ritual practice. In other ways, the development of custom in the sphere of ritual and liturgy is a bit like a prolific vine, and the purpose of official engagement with that vine is to cut it back. We might even see them, helpfully, as opposed “sides” that together hold the ritual life of the community, preventing it from devolving either into chaos or into stasis. I often find myself thinking about my own response to such regulation as expressing, alternately, my fear of chaos or of stasis, as much as any ideological support or opposition. “Why do I feel so threatened or so supportive?” is often worth asking.

In the Christian tradition, the community engages in discourse and debate around its new customs (yes, since the New Testament). Here are a few, non-exhaustive principles for such debate:

  1. The community, together with its authorities, are involved in judging the custom. Authoritative figures like bishops are part of, but not the whole of, the community’s judgment. It is completely possible for bishops to spend several centuries arguing against a local custom, only to give in at last because the thing won’t die. This is not an abridgment of bishops’ authority but the very essence of it: they are the shepherds of the people, not absolute rulers. It is also totally possible for the more conservative party (often, but not always the authorities) to win, and a practice to die out: again, this is part of the normal discernment process of history. None of us has absolute knowledge of the tradition.
  2. The process of judging the tradition takes place in practice as well as in communication. Laypeople, historically, don’t generally have access to theological education (today there are a lot of exceptions). Their role in the development of custom has generally been in practice: they do, and evaluate, do, and evaluate (often the evaluation is implicit: some of the couples attending the wedding think, “hey, I’d like to do that at my own wedding,” while some think, “well, that was awkward”). On the other hand, ritual experts tend to evaluate with written and oral discourse (like we’re doing here). The two kinds of judgment, in the long term, operate in a complementary fashion.
  3. The community relies on the norm of scripture. Obviously interpreting scripture is a difficult task, but we can see this happening even in the comments on the last two posts. How does the practice interact with the proclamation of the Gospel in the wedding? More broadly, how does it relate to scriptural principles?
  4. The community relies on the norm of history. “We’ve never done it that way” isn’t felt to be an absolute prohibition, obviously, or nothing would ever alter, but it does go a fair way towards making people suspicious (again, this is visible in the comment threads). This in fact is one of the reasons that transferring a practice from another liturgical rite is “easier” than importing it from outside the liturgy. Reviving older historical practices is also preferred to inventing new ones, as we can see in the liturgical reforms.
  5. The community relies on the norms of theology. Every evaluation of a practice requires an interpretation: I can’t know whether this thing is good or bad until I know what it means. Theology (especially, but not only, liturgical theology) is the interpretation of practices. To take just one example, again from the comments on the wedding mandatum, one person argued that the mandatum was inappropriate because it excluded the clergy, relying on (but not stating) a particular ecclesiology that takes the clergy to be a representative of the institutional church. It’s a quite reasonable interpretation. Another commenter replied to point out that the couple themselves are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage in Roman liturgical tradition (not so with many Eastern Christianities), and so (again, implicitly) their washing one another’s feet already includes a potent (perhaps the most potent) ecclesiological symbol. Another quite reasonable interpretation; these are the sorts of discussions the community constituted by the church would take into consideration as they evaluated the rite.
  6. The practice is altered by the process of judging it. In the example just above, if the community consensus tends towards the first model (as it almost certainly would, hypothetically, if footwashing arose in an Eastern Rite), the rite might gradually begin with having a priest or deacon wash the couple’s feet. If the second one took over, perhaps the couple would end up by washing the clergy’s feet! Right now what we are seeing (judging by the video) is instead something like a “domestic church” interpretation, where the domestic church constituted by the couple and their immediate families are sanctified by mutual service. But in any case the questions being asked in the comments that run something like, “suppose this is being done: is this the best place, time, way to do it?” are making these kinds of judgment calls. (For example: “it’s domestic and personal, so it should be done privately” is an interpretation and evaluation that come with a recommended alteration; “it’s a witness to the community of Christian love, so it belongs in the rite” is another that comes with a contrary recommendation.)
  7. The process of judging the practice takes time. This should be obvious by the complexity of the principles above; I would say thirty years is an absolute minimum, probably suggested by the difficulty of documenting more than thirty years out in some mission areas. In the meantime, though, the process of evaluation, and the disputes and debates it entails, will necessarily continue, and I don’t think it’s cause for any alarm. I do think it’s important to keep the conversation civil, of course.
  8. (*new and improved!*) The process of evaluation never ends. (I am obliged to Mike Joncas for reminding me of this below.) Even after a practice has become custom – indeed, even if it has become universal liturgical law – it is still subject to the process of evaluation by the church community (although the suspicion described above will usually no longer apply). Sometimes the situation around a practice changes so much that the practice itself begins to “fail to mean,” and the community will often respond, formally or informally, by eliminating or changing the practice itself.

I didn’t look up commenters to credit them for this post – sorry, but there were too many. I thank everyone that has contributed to unpacking and provided examples of interpretation and evaluation. We still haven’t talked about mass media, but perhaps I’ll post another thread for that.


  1. Dear Kim, I want to publicly thank you for both the earlier thread and this extremely helpful summary. As you know, insofar as historical studies can reconstruct what earlier generations did in their worship and possibly recover what they thought about such behavior, it still takes philosophical and theological insights to evaluate the behavior. Similarly social science studies can describe what present generations do in their worship and also posit what they think they are doing when they worship this way, but it will still take philosophical and theological insights to evaluate the behavior. Your seven points help us to see just how complex the application of these philosophical and theological insights are but how necessary as well. What a gift!

    1. @Mike Joncas – comment #1:
      My reaction (or response) to just having read Kim’s previous entry and the rich thread of comments it elicited, plus her further insights with this post, was not unlike Mike’s (how lucky I am to “be like Mike” in this case!): Thank you, Kim, for being such a well-educated and generously educating theologian. A fine teacher catalyzes conversations, complex and collegial. Brava! But kudos also to all commentators in the previous thread.

      For myself, I have been thinking about and publishing articles on Holy Communion, marriage, baptism and (most recently) penance/reconciliation along the lines of how various participants, as well as authorities (again, various) experience and understand power (human and divine) to be at work in the rites. Kim’s two educative posts, plus the ensuing conversation, have given me the thrill of further perspectives to ponder and resources to pursue. I do think this type of conversation constitutes the methodological “move” holding much promise for our present stage of liturgical theology, provided we take up Mike’s word of wisdom about the necessity of philosophical and theological rigor in the work of interpretation.

  2. Thanks to all of you. Mike, I am much obliged to you for pointing out something I wish I had mentioned in the points above (in fact, I’m going to go back and do it), that the church never stops the process of evaluation, even long after customs have been established and written into liturgical law. Bruce, I look forward to your future posts!

  3. Considering that change is a process, what should be the size of the community that establishes the custom/tradition? Diocese? Church? One weekly service at one church?

    By way of example, at our cathedral, an announcement is made prior to communion that the USCCB has decreed the norm for reception in the US is standing, in the hand. A few miles away the Latin Mass is said, where the norm is kneeling, on the tongue. At most parishes, the norm is never mentioned but is clearly standing, in the hand; a few people elect to kneel and/or receive on the tongue.

    Similarly, we have one “Catholic community” where there are no kneelers in the church, and people sit or stand throughout Mass. If there’s a rotation of pastors could the new pastor order kneelers and kneeling? Could the departing pastor remove them at his new church?

    1. @Sean Keeler – comment #5:
      FWIW, what I’ve seen on the subject indicates that a diocese can establish a custom, but that there’s is not a consensus that a parish can do so. (Even at the parish level, many American urban and suburban parishes act as a cluster of coexisting Mass-time-attendees who share the same building.)

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #6:
        That’s my impression as well. Parishes don’t receive law. They’re subject to the laws of the diocese. That doesn’t mean the entire diocese has to practice the custom. It would have to be the prevailing practice though.

    2. Good questions, Sean. From a descriptive, not canon law perspective, what’s necessary to establish a custom within a community is a reasonable amount of experience with similar ritual practice. So most parishes would constitute such a community, assuming that there’s reasonable consistency between the different celebrations at the parish and there’s reasonable consistency in the assembly attending from week to week. The practice you mention at the cathedral assumes there isn’t such consistency in assembly or that the authorities at the cathedral disapprove of the “local” (if there are a lot of visitors, maybe it isn’t local) variant posture (kneeling). So that’s #1 in action.

      Sean Keeler : Similarly, we have one “Catholic community” where there are no kneelers in the church, and people sit or stand throughout Mass. If there’s a rotation of pastors could the new pastor order kneelers and kneeling? Could the departing pastor remove them at his new church?

      The new pastor could – that is, I don’t think anyone would stop him. However, here’s where the permeability of culture comes in. Since there are plenty of places in the US where standing and sitting are the customary postures, and especially since there’s been no authoritative gesture to say one must kneel, the new pastor might damage his relationship as an authority over his local community. If there are people in the community who value the current setup, he would probably lose some of them; some of those who are neutral would probably become less invested in the community’s life. If, on the other hand, a consensus already existed in most of the community that kneeling would be beneficial, this would work. One way of generating a consensus is through the reception of official statements – not just making them but having them received. The statement has to fit with the experience of those…

  4. I am also, grateful for your posts, Kim. I’m seeing many of the same patterns you discuss above appear in my research on liturgical “reform” in Orthodoxy. I like the sociological dimension you integrate into the discussion here. In assessing instances of restoration, reform, or resistance to reform, Orthodox tend to refer to the community’s role of assessment of judgment as reception (akin to our ecclesiological nomenclature on teaching), as you mention in your comment above. I have heard reports of laity berating clergy who attempt to introduce reform in the spirit of promoting active and conscious participation in the liturgy. Some bishops and monastic communities are also quite aware that the introduction of a given practice with a solid historical and theological rationale will be ridiculed by visitors and outside observers (which requires additional unpacking of ‘local community’). Here’s an example of a dilemma I have encountered in research. A priest receives sophisticated formation in liturgical renewal at seminary (particularly the generation that learned from Father Alexander Schmemann). In his parish, his ability to implement liturgical renewal depends on the elasticity of parish traditions. For example, he might be able to encourage people to commune more frequently (while enduring their murmuring), but his desire to promote chant-based music over baroque or rococo-inspired compositions would result in fierce tumult. So the implementation itself is limited and depends on the receptivity of the community. In some instances, the priest may very well give up on the enterprise or be converted to a perception of the liturgy as unchangeable held by a critical mass of people in his parish or deanery. I may have complicated this discussion (and if so, sorry!), but was inspired by your iteration of principles that help the reader understand the internal dynamics of ritual development.

  5. John Mann : @Karl Liam Saur – comment #6: That’s my impression as well. Parishes don’t receive law. They’re subject to the laws of the diocese. That doesn’t mean the entire diocese has to practice the custom. It would have to be the prevailing practice though.

    Is that your basis for disregarding the activity in the Church?

  6. Karl Liam Saur : @Sean Keeler – comment #5:(Even at the parish level, many American urban and suburban parishes act as a cluster of coexisting Mass-time-attendees who share the same building.)

    From my observation, a lot of our parishioners decide which Mass to attend based on:

    1) What time does the game start?
    2) Which music do we get to enjoy / have to put up with?
    3) What’s the weather?
    4) Who’s the homilist?

    This is definitely one of those unwritten Church customs! Fortunately, Christ shows up at all of them.

  7. Practice and its evaluation in a given parish will also depend on the talents available.
    Chant may well be the ideal that is held up for us, but if St Gasworks on the Bridge doesn’t have members with the skills and training to do chant justice, different kinds of music might well become the tradition there.
    Here in the UK parishes are being closed and combined because of falling numbers. Pastors have a very tricky job to preserve the best of the old while forging ahead with something new. Not honouring tradition(s) can be the source of a great deal of pain.

  8. In the Christian tradition, the community engages in discourse and debate around its new customs (yes, since the New Testament).

    Once upon a time, churches celebrated Christmas without singing “Silent Night.”

    Once upon a time, Bach got into all kinds of trouble over the new stuff he was doing.

    Once upon a time, Gregorian chant was a cutting-edge innovation.

    A fine list of principles for discussing and evaluating practices new and old. One I’d add is this:

    The process of evaluation is not optional. When the church ceases to look at what is happening in the world, and how the might best bring God’s word of good news into conversation with those things, it ceases to be the church.

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