Saturday, November 21, 2015

Liturgical Reform in the Orthodox Church

Left to right: Robert Taft SJ, Met. Kallistos Ware, and Vassa Larin
source: olconference.com
What is the most expensive war in human history? No, it was not the weapons race of the Cold War, which in some ways paid for itself by producing technological shocks that could be exported to private industry. No, it was not World War II, which, until quite late, relied on mass production on conventional weapons like guns, tanks, planes and battleships. And, no, it was a war of any of the empires of history, which, again, were fought with traditional, low cost weapons and paid for themselves by opening trade routes. The most expensive, and maybe least fruitful, war in history in the American War on Poverty, inaugurated by Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" program. Trillions of dollars have been spent on the welfare state to aid impoverished groups, usually racial minorities, in the United States. Today, the average black is really no better off than he was in 1965; perhaps he is worse off, when considering the dissolution of the family that followed the Great Society. A direct transfer of wealth from the top earners to the lowest earners would have accomplished more than this malaise, a malaise created by scholars.

John F. Kennedy insisted on hiring the "best and brightest" when he became president, a departure from the career politicians and political aristocracy of prior administrations. My father personally worked for one of Kennedy's economic advisers, who also held key positions at several international banks, affording a unique view of what transpired. Kennedy's "best and brightest" of academia created the Great Society, but the Bostonian lacked the political capital to implement it. His successor, Johnson, lacked scruples, but not political leverage. And so the most pathetic war in history, one created a priori by postmodern scholars, was put into place.

The other day, His Traddiness was listening to a lecture by Sr. Vassa Larin, a Russian Orthodox liturgiologist trained under Robert Taft, SJ. Sr. Vassa came by way of recommendation from an Orthodox friend. Her daily "Coffee with Vassa" podcasts are light and edifying presentations on basic Christian matters. Her lectures, however, leave much to be desired and much to be concerned about.

Her mentor, Robert Taft, was reared in the Society of Jesus during the liturgical revolt of the 1950s and 1960s, which he acknowledges was "an overwhelming success." Today, Sr. Vassa takes great strides to establish the necessity of scholars—liturgical specialists by any other name—in order to understand the Byzantine liturgy with an eye towards reforming it.

Much of the Byzantine liturgy, Vassa maintains, is "incomprehensible" without a scholarly background. Indeed, some parts of the liturgy have no real meaning, she expounds. One example the nun gives is the moment when the deacon waves his orarion (deacon's stole) towards the people and finishes the priest's prayer with "And unto the ages of ages" before the Trisagion. Commonly, people bow in reverence. Vassa thinks this silly; this gesture is meaningless and originated as a signal to the choir in the Hagia Sophia to begin the Thrice Holy Hymn. She also has an issue with the accusative case replacing the nominative declension in "Mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise" before the anaphora.

The liturgy is arrantly symbolic and symbols cannot be understood through veils, barriers, arbitrary customs, sacred languages and strange translations, or silent prayers. Everything, including the anaphora, should be done as it was in the primitive Church: aloud and in the vernacular. Vassa dilates at length about her concern for the disinterest of younger Orthodox faithful, who lose their intention to attend the Liturgy on Sundays when reaching their teenage years. The Liturgy is not catechetical enough, too immersed in customs that detract from focus on Christ, such as women wearing veils. "This is the state we find ourselves in," she says.

Sr. Vassa could be just one liturgiologist with views tending toward unstable reforms if not for Taft. Vassa, Taft says in his introduction, is one of the few students he met in his 46 years teaching who could be a truly great scholar. Both of them are positively exuberant that discussion of liturgical reform, impossible a century ago because uneducated people craved stability, is now possible in the Orthodox Churches. Taft himself related an invitation to a conference on reform hosted by the Greek Church. Vassa herself has lately been taking her lecture on liturgical history and the problematic nature of the Divine Liturgy on tour. Why?

Vassa recalls that a poll of Orthodox Christians in the United States revealed most believers want more money in their parishes' coffers; desire for liturgical reform only garnered 10%, to the nun's confusion. Orthodox Christians are leaving Orthodoxy just as fast as white American Catholics lapse when graduating high school. Can anyone really claim the Divine Liturgy's supposed textual inconsistencies are to blame? I have never heard of an Orthodox Christian leaving his church because he sees the priest prostrate during the anaphora without hearing the epiclesis. The Orthodox Churches are national religions removed from their home countries. Young men and women are tempted to look at their churches as ethnic associations their parents frequented and which they have outgrown. They cease to be Orthodox because they want to be modern, not because "Mercy, peace...." has mutated into "Mercy of peace...."

As attendance drops, both in the old world and in the Orthodox "diaspora", the leaders of that communion may be drawn towards the apparent fix of liturgical reform, which intellectual and spiritual successors of Taft will be eager to eventuate. Orthodox Christians should be very cautious of this, given that the first suggestion of a reform is never the last.

The early Liturgical Movement in France did not seek to replace the existing Roman rite, but to practice the existing rite to its full potential. France saw a resurgence in high Mass, public celebrations of the Divine Office, and the innovation of readings in the vernacular. The 20th century liturgical reforms found no stronger opposition than in France, which produced the Fraternity of St. Pius X, Opus Sacerdotale, and one-off dissidents like Quintin Montgomery-Wright. The early Liturgical Movement's legacy is more honestly found in St. Nicolas du Chardonnet than in the average parish, which is the point. True reforms do not restore the liturgy to an imaginary state of pristine order or refashion it according to contemporary needs. It cleans the liturgical lens so that people may peer more easily at God through it.

Does the Byzantine liturgy need an overhaul? Perhaps a scrub, but not a general reform. The Greek rite does not know rubrics in the Latin sense, which might be a good thing, but some unified guidelines would be helpful. A suggestion for a unified Slavic or Greek ritual would not harm the Eastern Orthodox, but this small reform group does not stop there. There is the ringing insistence that the liturgy has textual problems that only they, as scholars, recognize, which is disconcerting.

Do not believe for a minute that Vassa Larin, or those who think like her, is a "modernist" who knows better and who is hell bent on destroying the Byzantine tradition. If a reform movement accumulates, it will be because specialists with little to no parochial experience have convinced the hierarchy that amending perceived defects is the last option to restore church attendance and usher in a revival of Eastern Christian practice. Scholars rarely see past their own desks, and those bowing at the deacon's orarion should keep their heads low, lest well intentioned reformers accidently sever them when trimming excesses.

Ethnocentricism, political relations, a skewed view of the Latin Church's history, and poor catechesis are all legitimate criticisms of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Divine Liturgy is one thing is clearly not wrong in the Orthodox Church.

14 comments:

  1. Ethnocentrism is what has killed or stagnated many Eastern churches. If there was more emphasis on spreading the word of God rather than maintenance or culture (Greek, Slavic, Romanian, etc.), Eastern Christianity could step up to fill a great spiritual void. So far the only Orthodox church in the US that seems to attempt this in any moderately successful way is the Antiochian Church. The Eastern Catholic churches tend to be very welcoming to any outsiders who do come, but are hard to come by and are little known.

    "O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and weak, with neither the organization nor the culture of the West, staying afloat as if by a miracle in the face of so many trials, tribulations and struggles; a Church of contrasts, both so traditional and so free, so archaic and so alive, so ritualist and so personally involved, a Church where the priceless pearl of the Gospel is assiduously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust; a Church which in shadows and silence maintains above all the eternal values of purity, poverty, asceticism, humility and forgiveness; a Church which has often not known how to act, but which can sing of the joy of Pascha like no other!"
    -Lev Gillet

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The American Carpatho-Russian Diocese is the least ethnic jurisdiction in the US in my experience.

      Anthony

      Delete
    2. Really? Aren't they basically descended from those Ruthenians who followed Alexis Toth?

      Delete
    3. That would be the OCA which is descended from Toth's Ruthenians. ACROD was formed after Rome prohibited the Eastern Catholic Churches from ordaining married men to the priesthood in the diaspora. I'm not agreeing with the politics involved that led to their formation, just stating that I found ACROD most welcoming of outsiders of any Orthodox parish I have visited. They also aren't obsessed with bashing Catholics at coffee hour as I've heard many Orthodox do in parishes of other jurisdictions. At least the ACROD parish near me doesn't.

      Anthony

      Delete
    4. Eh... I think it's one of those "In their position I'd have done the same thing" incidents. The Orthodox back then seem to have been ok with more a fluid diaspora and didn't go down the rabbit hole of childish "jurisdiction" poo-flinging.

      The worst Catholic bashers I've seen are the OCA in my neck of the woods. They are primarily composed of convertodox bubba-dox from baptist/pentecostal backgrounds who bring their anti-Catholicism into their new home.

      Delete
  2. To offer some balance to your remarks, RT, I proffer for your consideration the liturgical renewal going on in a little OCA parish in Virginia, outside Washington, DC. Fr Robert Taft spoke there a few years ago; his short speech was recorded: https://vimeo.com/27406618. I direct you to their website: http://www.holytrinityvirginia.org/. Their tagline is "Drawn to Father Alexander Schmemann's vision, Holy Trinity works for that 'rebirth of the liturgical life of the Church,' he called for
    in Liturgy and Life, 'its better understanding by the faithful, a more responsible attitude to it, a more active participation in it.'" Perhaps what they're doing at Holy Trinity is what authentic liturgical reform among the Orthodox should and will look like.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is quite possible, but again, that might be something more easily accomplished in more fungible, small communities. What troubles me is the emphasis that the static nature of the Greek Liturgy is problematic, not the popular level of interest.

      Taft made a remark on peasants' need for stability in prior times; Sr Vassa remarked on the issue of people going to Confession or lighting candles rather than listening to anaphora. It reminded me of the 20th century Roman reformers, who complained about Confession during Sunday Masses and old women praying their rosaries; while the situation wasn't ideal, was the reformed Mass really the solution, or was the original, gradual praxis of the Liturgical Movement the solution?

      Delete
  3. Already in the 1970s the Byzantinist Christopher Walker adviced the Orthodox Churches to get rid of iconostasis and embrace a new rite similar to the Pauline Mass. I also remember a discussion in an Argentinian blog on the Holy Saturday demolition by Pius XII: while both me and my opponent drew parallels between the (traditional) Roman and Byzantine Vesperal liturgies, he cited a Byzantine (I don't remember if he was Greek or Russian) clerck who promoted a similar destruction on the Byzantine Holy Saturday rites.

    It seems that, since liturgical scolarship arose in the last 150 years, "reforming" the ancient liturgies is something like a temptation. And this is probably maximized by the common arrogancy of academic circles.

    On the other hand, my knowledge of the Orthodox world is almost inexistent, but it seems to me that these lines of thinking are still minoritary. Perhaps they still have the chance not to become infested and not to repeat the errors we committed decades ago.

    K. e.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am only speaking from the perspective of a Roman but why do so many want change, change, change? Why can't we simply worship the same way that our Fathers in Faith did?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Is it not a similar view to that expressed about the Roman liturgy by men such as Bishop, Fortescue, Thurston etc? They looked at what they perceived as peculiarities and wanted to rationalise them. Jungmann was one of the later ones with a very precise yet coldly clinical view of its odd then reform it. I must say I have never seen 'Super K' in civvies before.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oops! Read oddities for 'odd'.

      Delete
    2. Children must want to sit on Super K's lap and tell him what they want for Christmas!

      The danger with the aforementioned "coldly clinical" view is that once one discovers the origin of something in the liturgy, one is tempted to say it is an unnecessary accretion that can be done away with, as was done with the Roman liturgy at three stages in the 20th century.

      Delete
  6. If Father Robert Taft had his way, the Byzantine Rite Churches, Catholic and Orthodox would undergo the same "reform" as the Latin Church in the late 60's. I believe he had a hand in the Revised Divine Liturgy of the Ruthenian Catholic Church. He must not of had too much input, as it wasn't as great anoverhaul as he probably would have liked. He is comes across as very obnoxious and acts like a complete know it all in all his interviews.

    Anthony.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The $64,000 ecumenical question about the only ecumenism that really matters to us Catholics, that of bringing these estranged Catholics home: will they hold their first ecumenical council in centuries (they count our first seven as theirs plus some count two more) and if they do, would they imitate Vatican II by modernizing their services? That's easy to scoff at given Orthodox cultures' famous conservatism but 1) their fundamental flaw is they confuse the church with their tribe; the church goes along with the tribe's values; and 2) they've already sold out on divorce and remarriage (their theology here is illogical: sometimes adultery is OK), centuries ago, and, more recently, on contraception.

    ReplyDelete