Does Christianity need Liturgy?

The question has been in my mind since I read Mosebach’s book and gave some general comments in Mosebach’s Heresy of Formlessness. What kind of Church would there be if there were no liturgy? Mosebach has a captivating anecdotal style, describing Mass in a chapel in a remote place and the simple things the priest did to transform a neglected place into a church worthy of the Holy Mystery. It takes practical sense to convert something dead into something living and which gives life, but also it takes vision and faith to answer the question of why we should bother going to all the trouble. He gives an answer to that question by going through the Mass in slow motion, savouring the spiritual meaning of every text, gesture and symbol.

Mosebach’s technique is quite stunning by the use of contrast, building up the reader through his description of the spiritual experience, and then presenting the case of an “authentic” Christianity without a liturgy. Surely, Jesus was as the Protestants and the 1960’s reformers portrayed him. The Gospel shows little sign of any ritualism on the part of Christ. If anything, he seemed to oppose such an obstacle to simplicity, innocence and authenticity judging by the way he blasted the Scribes and Pharisees. It looks as if Christ not only intended to sweep away Judaism with its Law and traditions, but all formal religion. We seem to be reading about the ultimate anarchist!

From the beginning of church history, we find reforming movements laying waste churches, images, monasteries and priests and all the paraphernalia of liturgical worship. The same movement springs up again and again, in the Franciscan movement – not only in the order approved by Rome but also the marginal movements like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Fraticelli and the brothers of Fra Dolcino. We have the Lollards in England and the Hussites, and then finally the Reform movement exploded in the sixteenth century. Within Catholicism, it resurfaced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with Jansenism and in the wake of Vatican II. This mindset obviously has very deep roots in Christianity itself, and we can only ask ourselves if it represents true Christianity.

Mosebach then brings this anti-ritualist movement into the events of his own life, his Protestant father devoutly reading the Bible and his mother holding to a minimalist understanding of Catholic religious practice. After this, he asks the very question of whether ritual is alien to true Christianity and the Gospel. The key is asking the question of knowing why Christianity came into being, and who for – the Jewish people or the Gentiles, the people of all other faiths and cultures. Most of us reading this blog are certainly not of Jewish origin. Go back a thousand or fifteen hundred years and we were pagans. Why did Christianity get so mixed up with Odin, Zeus, Dionysius, Mithra, Isis and Osiris and Plato’s philosophy? As I mentioned in my earlier article, Christianity has two-stepped between the Jewish Old Testament and the Mystery Religions of antiquity.  Ever since, the two pillars of Christianity have played tug of war against each other.

What does we know of Christ’s intention? We could pore through the Gospels, as that is just about all we have outside of a notion of an esoteric tradition. There are also the Gnostic Gospels for those who are ready for a challenge. There is evidence that Jesus spent parts of his life outside the Jewish world, and indeed Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus lived in Egypt when they took refuge from Herod. What really makes Christianity unique is that it is not simply a book or a set of doctrines, but a person – a divine Person who fulfilled everything that was prefigured, not only by the Old Testament prophecies, but also by the Mystery religions of Greece and Egypt. Thus the Gospel writers did not plagiarise the old stories of Horus and tales of virgin births, but related what they saw and experienced. The antique Mysteries prefigured and prepared the ultimate Mystery, and mythology became historical fact. This is the Incarnation of the Mystery, of the true God.

This is about the finest and most profound chapter in Mosebach’s book, and I have already been familiarised with these notions through reading Dom Casel and Louis Bouyer among others. Without the incarnate Mystery, Christianity could no longer be a person, but simply a message, an ideology, a political or revolutionary ideology. Mosebach and I are on the same page here.

St Paul described the Church as the body of Christ. Theologians speak of the mystical body, a sacramental reality, something much higher and beyond the materialistic notion of a human institution. The humanity of the Church is only a symbol or an image of her divinity. Bodies grow and develop from conception, birth, childhood, adolescence and ripening adulthood – and then decline towards death and resurrection. Apologists of the traditional liturgy talk of organic development in the same way as Newman formulated his theory of doctrinal development – and the difference between developments and heresies. Pope Benedict XVI made much of this notion in his writings and his attempts to foster a quiet and prayerful revival of liturgical tradition. I have given careful thought to the “immobilist” notions held by Protestants, many Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholics and reformers in Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism – the back to the “pristine” sources ideology. I can never been able to become convinced even though I did not go through with the Ordinariate movement. Now, Benedict XVI is in retirement, no longer the Pope… The notion of development justifies a rite and tradition that did not exist in the early centuries, but which contain all the seeds from those forgotten times. The big problem with this is considering the future of the liturgy. Should it decline and die like a human person who has grown old and is singing his Nunc dimittis? Should it be reinvented or done away with altogether in order to restore pure Mosaic Monotheism? These are questions anyone will ask, and our answers are often woefully inadequate.

I don’t think all the questions can be perfectly answered to complete satisfaction. They need further thought, and we are always haunted about whether Jesus should continue to live among us in signs, symbols and veils – or allowed to die in order that the pure message of love and generosity between humans may be proclaimed in a new secular world purged from superstition and fanaticism. Jesus himself could be advanced as the ensign of the new atheism!

I think we need to ask a question. If all churches disappeared and we were persuaded to believe that the Christian priesthood is worthless, the notion of mystery no more than an illusion, would we continue to be Christians? If Evangelical groups were all that remained after a successful purge of all liturgical and sacramental Christianity, would we go to their services? I think most of us have been to the Baptists to accompany our siblings and friends in their prayer and commitment to the Christian way of life in terms of being good and eschewing evil and sin. I have prayed with Baptists, but I have never been inclined to join them or affirm them to be the true church. In my thought over the years, if such a thing happened, I would see no need to join a defined church community and would certainly prefer to take my place in secular life. Certainly, I would continue to make the Gospel message my rule of life to be good with other humans, kind, compassionate and self-sacrificing – but invisibly without trying to persuade others to adopt the same philosophy of life. Perhaps I might be inclined to study the old Pagan ways and spiritualities, seeking spirit in nature and the life of this world. Perhaps sacramental Christianity could be found in another form, in another pre-Christian prefiguration, the cycle beginning anew as we wait for the Redeemer.

Such an extinction has not happened, and Catholic Christianity continues in its various manifestations and ecclesial communities, from the great Patriarchates of Moscow, Rome, Antioch, Constantinople and others to the small Churches like our own going by an ecclesiology akin to that of local Orthodox Churches. In our communities, we may not understand things in the same way, but we all seek to continue to have our beloved Saviour with us, not only in memory, but in Mystery and Sacrament.

I am deeply edified by the devotion and sincerity and a-liturgical Christians like in my sister’s Baptist community. Those are solid people like the Jewish people of old and the Reformers themselves who endured dungeon, fire and sword for their beliefs. Fr Dolcino, Wycliffe, Cranmer, Luther and Calvin were passionate men who sought the truth and who denounced the evils of institutional corruption and popular religion gone wrong (or adapted for clerical business profitability). They share this solidity with the Fathers of the Church and with generations of monks, prophets and saints. At the same time, one who has seen the sun is unwilling to go back to living in a cave! Those of us who have eaten meat cannot be satisfied with milk alone.

I can only think a moment and remember what brought me to Christianity. We are all different, and our experience is not the same. I cannot help but think that what really makes the difference is our experience and inner knowing and not listening to a barrage of words and more ideologies and information.

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6 Responses to Does Christianity need Liturgy?

  1. Fr. Lawrence B. Wheeler says:

    A brilliant article. Well done, father.

    Your words remind me of the liberal protestant (UCC) church where I am not on staff, but have a particular ministry. Since Hawai`i has passed a law to legalize “marriage equity”, this congregation has just voted, by a two-to-one ratio, to permit the performance of weddings for homosexuals in their sanctuary. The interim senior minister, a retired DMin., justifies to me the vote, saying that the deliberation was conducted thus: “The discussion was civil, it was faith and biblically based and grounded in the love of God which does not fail.” Since I am not a member, I was not present at the parish meeting, so I cannot speak as to its tone, but I am highly suspicious of a shrewd old minister who can promote this heresy with the spurious argument that the discussion was “faith and biblically based” can arrive at the conclusion at which they arrived.

    Whether a church that worships using a liturgy is likely to be more faithful to the Bible and Tradition is subject to debate. Witness the apostasy of the Episcopal Church in the USA. However, a liberal protestant church that has no liturgy, or has a liturgy that has been massaged and manipulated, is in greater danger of a similar apostasy. This is especially true for Protestant polity that actually expects that lay people can meet in plenary session and, by dint of political force, change time-honored doctrine and policy by majority rule on matters of faith and morals.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, I love the way you are able to present what are complex questions in easily digestible summaries. I think you and Mosebach are correct. I don’t think particular ritualised liturgy is per se integral to Christianity. I think the scriptural evidence shows that Christianity is all about imitating the attitude Jesus appears to have had and exhorts his listeners to. I am inclined to formalised liturgy rather than to the charismatic or evangelical forms of community prayer and worship, but I don’t deceive myself by thinking that I have a more correct insight, or anything more than just a personality preference. The real challenge of Christianity to me is how I serve out the demands of love and justice to my fellow human beings, especially those to whom my conscience tells me I have moral obligation. The number of swings of the thurible doesn’t count to me of any significance.

    If all ritualised Christianity – aka restorationist or traditionalist Catholicism or Orthodoxy etc. – were to disappear, I would not attend the Baptist or non-ritualised forms, but this would make little or no difference because I don’t see Christianity as hanging on that thread. I’d still be a frail mortal with moral and ethical challenges, framed for the most part by the Gospel narrative .

    • What I have been doing in these articles on the liturgy is to get down to the theology of the liturgy and the sacramental meaning of the Church. The tendency among many of us liturgical Christians is then to get caught up in details about ceremonies such as, as you mentioned, the correct way of incensing. I remember the old quote from Adrian Fortescue – “Such increased definiteness was bound to come in, after all, you must incense an altar somehow; it does not hurt to be told how to do so“.

      I suppose I could use the analogy of a surgeon explaining what he is going to do. He is going to explain it all very differently to his surgical team, and every last detail of the procedure will be gone into using the appropriate technical language. Most patients don’t know anything about surgery or medicine, so he has to explain things differently. The last time I had an operation, I wanted to know everything in detail, and made the effort to understand some of the terms my surgeon used. Similarly, seminarians and priests learning the liturgy need to get it right and not just do things on a whim. At the same time, it is important for these things to take on an importance isolated from the whole of the liturgy.

      This sometimes happens in seminaries, and details take an abnormal importance. First year seminarians who wear the cassock in public for the first time can get carried away with it all, flirting around with hat, feraiolo and buckled shoes. I remember this kind of behaviour during my days at Gricigliano. Conversations about clerical dress and vestments for months on end can become very boring!

      The important thing is to avoid going to the opposite reaction and giving way to the “dictatorship of the arbitrary”. Things should be done correctly but in the context of the whole. Many things are done differently in the Sarum liturgy I use than in the Roman rite, but each rite needs to have its integrity. Neither rite is “better” than the other, or for that matter than the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Churches or for example the Ambrosian rite or the austere Carthusian rite. Rites are important, but in the context of the wider whole.

      Personally, I don’t discuss ceremonial details very much, because I assume that those involved in the liturgy read the instructions in the books and organise rehearsals to learn what to do. That is not the purpose of my blog. I don’t think most of my readers who are not priests are particularly concerned with ceremonial details. I try to go from the universal to the particular to keep this wholeness of vision.

  3. ed pacht says:

    I have a bit of a problem with this debate in itself, in that I am at a loss to imagine what could be signified by ‘nonliturgical Christianity’ or nonliturgical religion of any kind for that matter. Ones practice (or praxis) says as much, or probably more, about ones religion as does ones teaching, or ones morality for that matter. If religion is, in part or as a whole, a matter of contact with the transcendent, then it cannot be contained in ones rational thought and how one worships is at least as important as how one formulates doctrine. Those Protestant groups who claim to be nonliturgical are fooling themselves as they are fully as concerned with ‘how to’ worship God as any high church traditionalist. I speak as one who was a Pentecostal and Evangelical minister for a quarter of a century. Just try to change the worship patterns of a congregation in those circles. It doesn’t work, unless the thought and belief pattern is changed at least as radically. How God is worshiped says a great deal about who one perceives God to be. It was a disconnect between the way my various fellowships worshiped and the way I was coming to see God Himself that ultimately led me out of that environment and back to a very traditional Christianity. The same disconnect is the reason I was not drawn to the Episcopal Church or to the Roman Church. In both of those fellowships, as in the Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal milieu and indeed in the ‘liberal’ Protestant groups, liturgy, the form of worship, is guided by the assumption that God and spirituality are comprehensible. Traditional liturgy, on the other hand, with it connection with a history we do not entirely know and its accretion of features that challenge logical thinking, rests on a transcendent, incomprehensible God, who chooses to grant such revelation as we can receive, who chooses to be approachable, but can never be confined within our logical thinking.

    We all practice liturgy. It’s as essential to religion as the scientific method is to science. The question is one as to how well liturgy draws us into the reality we seek to know. Our morality is subject to the same consideration. In Christianity we do not have a legal system of do’s and do not’s, but rather an application of what God has revealed of His own nature. Jesus does not give us a law code, but (see Mat. 25 for instance) demands that we recognize Him in those who have needs or would be otherwise affected by our actions, and that we act accordingly. We simply cannot ever have a full knowledge of God, or of His will, but in liturgy and in morality — in the things we do, we find a guide and an expression of the direction of our search for God.

    I hope I’ve said something that makes some kind of sense, rather than muddying the waters.

  4. James Morgan says:

    I think Ed Pacht nails it here!

    If we do not have a liturgy given us by ‘tradition’, we have to make one up, if we want to worship with others of like mind. Now this may be as complex as Byzantine worship, or as humble and ‘uncontrived’ as that of the Quakers, but it is still ordered and understood by the congregation, as the ‘way things are done here, by us’. I think that is the essence of ‘liturgy’, the so-called ‘work of the people’. It may have a hierarchical basis, or it may not, but it will represent the community’s understanding that this is the manner in which they approach God in their common worship.

    I can understand Fr. Anthony’s, and others’, realization that the institutional church is rather passee, and that we might well see the demise of Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the future, reverting to quiet ‘house church’ worship in many cases. In the US there are quite a number of ‘house churches’, mostly Evangelical, that persist under the radar. There are also a number of cases where isolated Traditional Catholics and Orthodox serve lay-led services as they are without the means to get a priest to celebrate.

    But the formal liturgical worship is dead unless there is a ministry to the community, whether it be with helping with the local homeless shelter, or sponsoring a self help group, or doing other works of mercy without recompense or angling for praise. I’m concerned that I don’t seem to have a ministry in this area, except helping my local food co-op several days a week. I think I need to find more focus in the neighborhood, rather than wasting time looking at blogs (except for Fr. Anthony’s, of course!)

    Music is also a question. No organ? No Palestrina Masses? No Bortniansky? I would miss all these, if I had only a tiny house church to attend.

  5. Stephen K says:

    To conclude there was not underlying agreement here between us would be possible only with a superficial reading: in fact we all seem to be accepting that no one particular form of liturgy is essential to Christianity, though in the absence of one, Christians will inevitably create a form that best expresses their worship and their particular theology. As both James and ed point out, liturgy takes many forms. Thus we might be said to all agree that a demise of solemn pontifical rituals does not, contrary to several kinds of traditionalist, presage the end of Christian faith or the church per se, but represents simply the loss of only one avenue among many for those Christians who prefer them, to utilise.

    The point I was making, further, was that were my preferences to be thwarted in the public arena, I would still see cogency in the Christian way of life and no excuse to spend my time denouncing others as philistine or diabolical, at the expense of time spent reciting psalms and trying to meet my moral challenges domestically. We may be entering an epoch (i.e. a really long period of time) where the notion of the visible authoritative Church will be permanently or substantially discarded in favour of small group “churches” – even for those who see themselves as orthodox or catholic. Perhaps the assumption that being “Catholic” implies or necessitates membership of a monolithic institution has exhausted its truth-value. Worship – aka liturgy – must be perhaps designed at the private and local levels.

    Mmmm. Sounds primitive, primaeval, direct, immediate, in touch with one’s surroundings, in tune with Nature, even. Talk about coming full circle! But I think it is not unsympathetic to the spiritual kingdom Jesus preached. It’s only an opinion of mine, of course, and I know my co-readers will not agree with me, but I do not think Jesus founded an institution of which one claimed abiding membership, but an ekklesia of action, which existed when one simply acted.

    Perhaps the lesson is, however unpalatable it might be to those of us who have been drawn to the aesthetics of religion, that a liturgy of whatever style, including the grandiose, can be ultimately a seductive idol, anathema to the ideal Christian life.

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