At odds with ourselves: the calendrical conflicts of bi-ritual ecclesial communities

Keeping time together is a means of communion and a creator of identity. Whether we observe liturgical feasts and seasons together as a worshipping community, or domestic observances such as morning and evening rituals, how we keep the feast is very much linked to when we keep the feast. In reflecting on inter-ecclesial differences such as the moveable paschal cycle between East and West, the different observances become a source of interest and conversation when noticed, raising questions and engaging others in why the ‘west’ or why the ‘east’ does it that way. These differences are not so much conflicts as they are opportunities for catechesis and identity building. But what happens when the differences are within a single ecclesial community?

I have written elsewhere about the tendency to treat the liturgical year as a commodity to be adjusted for the sake of convenience rather than an invitation to humble openness in being shaped by the church’s pattern of fast and feast (“Consuming Time” Worship 88 (2014)). But that conversation and others like it are often focused on moving saints’ days or starting Christmas in October. What of the different issue in which an ecclesial community maintains two official calendars because of history and piety? A good deal of reflection and adaptation on this issue has occurred since the promulgation of the 2007 Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI, which gave support, expansion, and simplified processes for the celebration of the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” (The 1962 missal, or so-called “Tridentine Mass”). The realities of using the extraordinary form for more than mass, however, raised many questions. What of the other sacraments? What of the lectionary? What of the seasons of the year? The 2011 document Universae Ecclesiae attempted to clarify a few of these questions, particularly with observation of the Paschal Triduum in its ‘older’ form, as well as the use of the extraordinary rite for confirmation. However, the official documents and their reception within bishops’ conferences are one thing, a stroll through online resources reveals a plethora of different combinations: RCIA in the midst of the old calendar and old patterns of Lent, the ‘new’ three-year lectionary cycle used with the 1962 missal, and more. Particularly interesting are the writings (mostly non-juried online publications) on how the two different forms are impacting each other, such as bringing back ‘sanctity’ to the post-Vatican II liturgies and new texts to the ‘fixed’ 1962 form.

This conversation has received international attention and heated responses on both sides, but there are other churches also living with very different rites – not simply in sequence through the liturgical year – but all the time, side-by-side, at the national, diocesan, and parish level. Two which come to mind are the Church of England, with the Prayer Book (1662) and Common Worship (a set of official resources spanning 2000-2017 publication dates thus far), and the Anglican Church of Canada (with the 1962 Book of Common Prayer – an altered version of the 1662 – and the 1985 Book of Alternative Services with subsequent online additions). Unlike the US Episcopal Church which has a single prayer book (1979) containing two slightly different rites (while the ethos may be quite different, the structures of the rites are very similar) and a single calendar, English and Canadian Anglicans (and many others) live with very different rites, not unlike the potential situation in Roman Catholicism. The key difference though is that both these forms of rites are very common in these Anglican circles, while the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite is proportionately a very small percentage of Sunday usage. In other words, many parishes have one Sunday liturgy using the prayer book, and the other (or several others) using the newer resources. Almost without exception what these resources represent are the peculiarities of English Anglicanism in the 17th century versus the fruits of the ecumenical liturgical movement in the newer resources (so the newer resources are the “older” traditions in that they follow the ecumenical preference for the first millennium practices of Christianity).

If the differences were confined to separate worshipping sub-groups in a parish (let’s call them the 8:00 and the 10:00), or Evensong following 1662 and Holy Eucharist following 2000, this might create separate worship groups but not raise other issues. The point of this writing though is the importance of the liturgical calendar – what happens when a parish is following two different calendars because of these different resources? This is a living issue that came to a head just a few weeks ago – what happens when the 8:00 liturgy blows out the paschal candle on the Feast of the Ascension (kept 40 days after Easter Sunday) and calls the next Sunday the “Sunday after the Ascension”, and the 10:00 comes in and re-lights it, marking the 50 days of Easter through the Feast of Pentecost? Both have historical authority, both have a narrative, both have an “official” source book, but they are following different calendars and different lectionaries. What happens when one worship service observes a pre-Lent and then Lent, focused not just on penance but on an extended passiontide, while the other group begins Lent on Ash Wednesday and accompanies catechumens through scrutinies and preparations for baptism at the Easter Vigil? About which of these does a conscientious bishop write when beginning a high season, or in a weekly pastoral letter? Because the diocese is the primary structural unit in Anglicanism, how are diocesan liturgical celebrations observed? Do they go with the majority, or alternate between the two, or combine, or ignore the differences? On both the diocesan and the parish levels, scripture readings are seen as almost adiaphora in coffee hour conversations, but not so the calendar. Perhaps because time is heard and seen in music, liturgical environment, and ritual actions, the differences are imminent catechetical and pastoral concerns. What might different ecclesial communities gain from a dialogue about separate (and somewhat equal) rites that affect not just language, posture, and ritual practice, but also the keeping of time, the lectionary, and related popular devotions in an era when basic catechesis is not to be presumed even among the baptized?

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This much-used 17th century quote from the heart of reformation fights (Rupertus Meldenius or Marco Antonio de Dominis) captures the elusive reality of disagreeing in charity, but still raises the question about the essential or non-essential nature of keeping the great feasts and seasons of the liturgical year as symbol and sacrament of unity. Within the same community, is the calendar a dimension of essential unity? For many Christians around the world, the answer is apparently still not clear (with thanks to my ongoing conversation partner on this topic, Andrew Rampton).

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