Before I continue, I draw attention to this bit of news I read today. The rumors are true. Please pray that the Lord will forgive and grant eternal rest to him.
Yesterday was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. On that occasion, the rector at the RC parish wherein I serve wore a red chasuble, which was a rarity for him. He didn’t want to embarrass the apostles, he said. And he delivered a sermon which would, in a sense, be the total opposite of, say, what a priest appearing on EWTN would say. He said that it was meaningless to demand that for instance communion should be received kneeling and in the tongue, and that women should be wearing veils in church. He was unhappy that people in church organizations were imposing standards of worthiness for membership. Only Christ makes us worthy, he said, and emphasized that mere church attendance was not enough to show one’s true Christianity.
I was half-expecting him to say, “How can we have Holy Hour with the Blessed Sacrament if we cannot spend an hour serving at the clinic?”
After that liturgy, my father and I had a discussion over dinner. He is a person who in Anglican ecclesiological leanings is low church. We have had disagreements over the question of liturgy, and last night was no exception. Our priest had managed to strike a nerve—I tended to agree with him half the time, but the other half infuriated me. He was on his way to arguing that liturgy was unimportant. My father on the other hand agreed with much of it.
My journey as a Christian has led me to the conclusion that, much like my mentors from the Episcopal Church, I am conservative on some things but not on others. And by conservative, I mean the kind that would not be branded as “reactionary,” a resistance to necessary change. I have recently come to adopt as my own a statement by the late Jaroslav Pelikan that I read on the wall of the Facebook group, “I want to be banned from GAFCON too!”:
“Tradition is the living faith of dead people to which we must add our chapter while we have the gift of life. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people who fear that if anything changes, the whole enterprise will crumble.”
This of course is my position on the question of liturgy. I do think there is room for us to reappropriate the old, but we must not lose sight of why we do it. Liturgy is “useless” insofar as it does not serve a utilitarian purpose for us, but it ultimately matters because all life in a sense is supposed to be a life of praise and service to God in others, a God who calls us in spite of our frailties and unworthiness. If we cannot see that, then our liturgy indeed becomes problematic.
But if liturgy is the source and summit of Christian life, as the Second Vatican Council rightly teaches, can we not give it our best? Can we not allow a bit of transcendence, of a “break from the everyday,” to intrude into that time of worship? And I suspect that liturgy celebrated without a sense of gravitas means that everything that flows from it will be sloppy, whether in what is done or what is said. So if for instance one dumps the consistent use of incense in the liturgy, one dumps a powerful piece of intercessory symbolism in the Bible (Rev 8:1-4), which in the Eastern liturgy, for example, has always been connected with prayer for (and subsequent action on behalf of) those in need.
In fact, if Frank Weston were alive today, he would join me and my parish priest in chastising our bishops for paying more attention to the sexual orientation of those taking part in the Santacruzan than on whether the Church is doing right by the poor who are watching the Santacruzan walk by. And he would join me in asking whether dumbing down the liturgy is demeaning to both God and the poor in whom we see God’s face.
Good liturgy should lead into good social action. And vice versa. That is why I am proud to adopt as my own the tradition of those pastors in inner-city London who not only worked for the improvement of people’s lives in the slums, but also helped them see beauty and transcendence in their lives.