Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Byzantine Ressourcement? Liturgical Reform in the Orthodox Churches as a Model for the Roman Rite

You would have to be a liturgical ostrich not to be aware that the Roman Rite has been a battleground for the last 70 years or so. At times I have been tempted to look wistfully over the garden fence at the Eastern Rite churches, and wish we had it like them. They have been sailing along steadily and peacefully, as far as I was aware, in an unchanging bubble of serene mysticism, apparently untouched by any of the controversy that is ripping the institutional Roman Church apart. Ever since St John Chrysostom and St Basil put stylus to diptych and composed their liturgies, all has been sweetness and uncreated light. I thought.

Now I am not so sure.

I have recently been working my way through some books on the liturgy by the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World; Of Water and Spirit - A Liturgical Study of Baptism, An Introduction to Liturgical Theology, and Great Lent - Journey to Pascha.

These books paint a beautiful picture of how our worship ought to relate to the Christian life, which is also applicable in general terms, I would say, to participation in Roman Rite. What is surprising to me, however, is how critical he is of the Eastern Rite that he saw in his day, and the reforms he suggests to counter problems within it. It became apparent to me that the Eastern liturgies I had been attending, and assumed had been unchanged since their inception, were in fact recently reformed. And, what was even more surprising to me, that reform was in accordance with the principles by which the Roman Liturgical Reform movement of the 19th and 20th centuries had proposed to change the Latin Mass, and for the most part, failed.
A Melkite liturgy in the USA
Alexander Schmemann was born of Russian parents in Estonia in 1921, and grew up primarily in France as part of the thriving Russian expatriate community of Paris. In 1951, he moved to the United States, where he was a member of the Orthodox Church of America. The books named above were written in the period between the mid-1960s and his death in 1983.

In his writing, he makes the occasional passing reference to the Roman Rite (which for him is just beyond the pale) and then addresses his concerns with the Orthodox liturgy of his day. As mentioned, these criticisms of the Divine Liturgy are strikingly similar to those that the liturgical reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries made of the Tridentine Mass. Indeed, Schmemann cites the familiar names of this movement as authorities, and like them, looks to the early Church for a model of how the liturgy ought to be. He quotes, for example, Dom Gregory Dix, Oscar Cullmann, Joachim Jeremias, Jean Danielou, Romano Guardini, Louis Bouyer, and even Yves Congar.

His specific worries about the Orthodox liturgy will sound familiar to us even if some of the specifics are different: the laity have become detached from the clergy in their worship, and so are not participating actively, and they are more likely to be engaged in devotional prayer than in the worship of God; the detachment has occurred in part because the profusion of secret prayers said by the clergy and the physical barrier of the iconostasis which all but hides the activity of the priest. This detachment has led also to clericalism, in which the importance of the role of the laity in worship is diminished, while that of the priest is exaggerated relative to it.
A iconostasis in Moscow, dating from 1693
He tells us that the chanting of the propers has become too ornate and melismatic so that it cannot be understood by those who hear and is too difficult for the laity to sing. And he complains of the profusion of an artificial symbolism that hides the true meaning of the liturgy, “not the symbolism as the sacramentality of all God’s creation,” he says, “but that allegorical symbolism that confers on each part of the sacred rite a special meaning, making it a representation of something that is not.”
Furthermore, somehow Eastern Rite Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, have managed to varying degrees, to implement his recommended changes. I say this based upon personal experience of attending Divine Liturgy in the UK and the US and so, admittedly, it is anecdotal.
Contrast this to what has happened in the Roman Rite. If I was to characterize the broad pattern of the response to the impetus for reform in the Roman Rite, it is characterized by two poles - complete resistance to any change on the part of those who attend the Traditional Latin Mass on the one hand, and radical and misdirected change in the Novus Ordo on the other.

When we look at Eastern Churches we see something different. The liturgies have been translated into the vernacular; in the ones I have attended, into understandable but elegant English. The laity sing the chants along with the ordained ministers. The iconostases are open and lower than the ‘traditional’ ‘image-wall’ iconostasis seen above - sometimes more like an English medieval rood screen, and the Royal Doors at least are made in such a way as to to allow the altar to be seen during the whole Liturgy. The prayers of the clergy can be heard and understood. The “spirit” of these changes, if I can use that phrase, is therefore closer to those which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council hoped for in the Roman Mass. Furthermore, these have been implemented by Orthodox Churches that do not consider themselves bound by the Council (and very likely in most cases by people who have never read it or even thought about doing so).
A modern Greek Orthodox church in Shrewsbury, England.
A modern iconostasis at the Russian Orthodox church of St Nicholas in Amsterdam.
The effect of Schmemann on the Eastern Catholic Churches is just as notable. I am told that if you had gone into a Byzantine Catholic church in the 1950s, you would have seen something different from the Orthodox liturgies that Schmemann was criticizing. It would most likely have been a highly Romanized version of the Divine Liturgy, very close in style and content to a Roman Mass. Now, you are more likely to see a reformed Divine Liturgy which is purged of its Roman influence and reflects the ‘Eastern Ressourcement’ influence of Schmemann. These Churches do recognize Vatican II, but in this case the Council had very little to say about them (although what was said was very positive). The changes in the liturgy conform to an instruction that was part of a single sentence in Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the decree of the Council, promulgated in 1964 to the Eastern Church. It declared:
...it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place. (2).
The fact that a single sentence of instruction can bear such fruit undermines the argument of some critics of the Council, that it was deliberately written in a tone of aggressive ambiguity in order to sow confusion. It suggests, on the contrary, that there was more than sufficient detail addressed to the Roman Church, if one accepts and genuinely takes the trouble to try to understand what was said. No matter how clearly articulated, and detailed the language of the Constitutions, if on the other hand, people are disposed willfully to misinterpret or ignore the text, they will do so. And this, I suggest, is what has happened.

A number of thoughts arise from this. First, Schmemann was part of the expatriate community in Paris in the mid-20th century that included the great figures that re-established the traditional forms of the iconographic tradition, such as Ouspensky, Kroug, Lossky, and Evdokimov. It strikes me as no accident that a reform of the liturgy and a reform of the culture of faith go hand in hand. The approach to tradition and its relation to modernity is driven by the same principle, which is exactly what I learned in my icon painting classes with Aidan Hart. There has been a similar flourishing of Orthodox architecture and music. All of this is still largely absent in the Western Church, where we swing between the poles of historicism and liberalism. If we are to evangelize the culture of the West, we still need, I believe, that liturgical reform. Neither the Tridentine Mass circa 1955 nor the standard suburban rite, circa 1970 can drive it, in my opinion.

Second, it does beg the question: why have Eastern Churches reformed their liturgies successfully with little or no input from the Council, while the Roman Church, to which most of what the Council had to say was directed, has failed so spectacularly?
I have some thoughts on this, which I will address in a future blog post. (However, I would say that one factor is the difference in governance as highlighted in Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed, Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power by Adam DeVille, published by Angelico Press.)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: