Museum Christianity?

I have no desire to speculate on the ins and outs of western Christians who decide to embrace Orthodoxy. Many do and find happiness in the eastern liturgical and spiritual tradition, especially with the Russians, a half-way house between Byzantium and Western Europe. I do not wish to discuss the doctrinal or apologetic aspects. Normally, people belong to their traditions of origin or none at all. I and many others discourage “conversion” from one church institution to another. That is not the subject of this article.

I focus in onto a notion of “museum Christianity” which may have been a characteristic of some western rite Orthodox initiatives. In forming the Ordinariates, the liturgical specialists in Rome considered the Use of Sarum – but have rejected it in favour of seeking to continue much of what is generally the practice in those circles. The problem with the notion of converting to Orthodoxy and claiming the western rite is the assumption that western Orthodoxy was extinct from 1054 until the 1970’s or any time until now.

Where is the dividing line between using the latest Novus Ordo or Book of Common Worship revised-revised rite and seeking to revive an eighth-century Gallican or pre-Gallican Roman liturgy? To solve this problem, the Antiochians opted for the Tridentine liturgy (something like our English Missal or Anglican Missal) whilst recognising its imperfections and the difficulties faces by scholars. The Byzantines would say that there is no need for either choice, since the Byzantine Liturgy (which can be celebrated in any language) is traditional and in constant uninterrupted use. The pre-Pauline Roman Catholic liturgy seemed to be the lesser of “evils” to those Orthodox bishops disposed to entertain western rite Orthodoxy in more than theory. Of course, there would have to be modifications like the insertion of an epiclesis in the Canon, the removal of the Filioque from the Creed and the removal of any words associated with scholastic theories connected with Pelagianism.

These and similar considerations have certainly influenced my own choice of the Use of Sarum in a non-Orthodox context. The “foundational myths” concerning the Use of Sarum in a Russian Orthodox context have sometimes stretched historical fact. Personally I use a nineteenth-century edition of a Sarum missal based on pre-Reformation usage in the early sixteenth century, a sort of “Sarum 1962”, a recent and fully documented rite for which no conjecture or speculation is needed. There may be some “accretions” but surely nothing that would offend faith or morals!

In my own mind, I am not far from the Antiochian or Continuing Anglican way of doing things, only with a stronger idea of diversity of western rites. The Dominicans were still celebrating their rite up to the 1960’s and 70’s, and some priests of that Order have resumed their old liturgy. There are celebrations of the Lyonnais and Ambrosian Rites, often published on New Liturgical Movement. The late Sarum Use is sufficiently close to these other local traditions to still be a living tradition, like the Norman uses and variations. I have already made the argument at length. Naturally, there is a “museum” approach and a practical / pastoral way. I don’t have any apparelled albs and amices. I use the same vestments and silverware as when I celebrated the Roman rite as I was taught at seminary. Those are secondary things that are of relative importance, because it is a question not of liturgical symbolism but artistic expression that changes from era to era.

I have always shrunk from the approach of some western Orthodox aspirants. There is in France a number of “non-canonical” offshoots of the Eglise Orthodox Catholique de France (ECOF) that have united with the Celtic Orthodox Church. They have tried to restore ancient Gallican and Celtic rites, but perhaps in reality they are new rites. Those Churches have lay people attending their liturgies and deriving spiritual benefit. Perhaps we should come to terms with perpetually-evolving and new liturgies alla Bugnini? After all, all the Churches are at it and have been for the past fifty years. The Roman Catholic liturgical reform of the 1960’s was based on extreme archaeologism (Hippolytus, etc.) and innovation according to trends in theology and perceived pastoral needs. We really have to know what we want!

Organic development? That is something that has been the buzz term since the election of Pope Benedict XVI in the Roman Catholic Church. The hermeneutic of continuity? It doesn’t seem to be the style of most conservative Eastern Orthodox. Either way, the assumption is that the Church did nothing good between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries. That period was just a big black hole of graceless heresy!

Is the Byzantine Liturgy right for westerners? Perhaps, for those interested in converting to Orthodoxy, and there are very few. So, for the rest of us, the question is academic.

I come to the conclusion that there is no satisfactory answer for all. Should we have a liturgical / sacramental notion of Christianity at all? Should we not simply be a religion of the Book and remember Christ as someone of the past who simply gave us good ideas for leading a moral and spiritual kind of life? When we do one thing and call what someone else is doing archaeologism or innovation, are we not projecting our own intellectual dishonesty.

To be perfectly frank, what is the right thing to do. How many people will see or understand the idea of diversifying liturgy according to eleventh to sixteenth century standard? Should we use the 1662 Prayer Book and pretend that is a fourth-century liturgy from the so-called pristine church? Should we go Novus Ordo or enter the competitive fray of traditionalist Roman Catholics with the 1962 liturgy?

I am open to ideas, but the situation I see at present just about everywhere I look isn’t very healthy. Am I any healthier? All I can suggest is priests and lay people spending more time together and working these things out in common.

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3 Responses to Museum Christianity?

  1. StephenUSA says:

    Priests and lay people…working these things out in common is not new. One way – but not the only – that has been in use is the mutual recognition of respect which is incorporated into the Divine Liturgy when the celebrant prays for others in communion. Data consolidation around a mean is one benchmark that has stood the test of time for validation and understanding in any community, be it stock pickers or Christians; outliers in any distribution curve are deserving of more scrutiny. Why are you out there? What makes you such that others will not commemorate you? Granted, it is not the only way – but it is a way that these break-off groups like the Celtic Orthodox Church or any like it draw deserving scrutiny.

  2. Evagrius says:

    “Should we not simply be a religion of the Book and remember Christ as someone of the past who simply gave us good ideas for leading a moral and spiritual kind of life? ”

    No. For among other things, that is not what the Book says of Him.

  3. Francis says:

    Aye, and the Book is for the Church, not the Church for the Book. It’s good to reflect how Protestantism conflates Word with Book – surely the Word,as per the last sentence of the Gospel of St John, goes beyond the boundaries of the Book.

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