In my last post I pointed out several things which were problematic about the current Western Rite used in the Orthodox Church, including its artificiality and lack of organic growth within the flow of history. Today I would like to meditate a little more on how liturgical traditions grow organically.
One of the arguments often used in promoting the Western Rite within Orthodoxy is the observation that the Orthodox Church is not simply the eastern branch of the universal Church, but is the universal Church spoken of in the creeds, so that describing it as “the eastern church” tends to obscure Orthodoxy’s universality. Since Orthodoxy is not simply eastern, the argument goes, its liturgy should not be exclusively eastern either, but should include western liturgies also. The Orthodox Church is the true Church in the West as well as the East, and therefore its liturgical tradition should include a western liturgy as well as an eastern one.
This is an interesting argument, and one that contains an important truth—viz. that Orthodoxy is not simply “the eastern church”, but the Church, offering the fullness of salvation and truth to those throughout the world, east, west, north, and south. Nonetheless, the argument glosses over rather a lot of history, including the history of how liturgies actually grew and functioned.
As mentioned in my previous post, the early church included a tremendous liturgical diversity, with each local bishop/ congregation having its own anaphora and liturgical tradition (as well as its own version of the New Testament canon). This period of liturgical diversity and pluralism did not last, and eventually (to make a very long story very short) at length two liturgies came to dominate the field and largely supplant all the other liturgies—the Roman rite and the Constantinopolitan rite. These became the main liturgies of the pre-schism western church and the pre-schism eastern church respectively.
The Eucharist as practiced in the West and the East continued to develop from those early times. Today the liturgy of the West bears scant resemblance to the original Roman liturgy actually used by St. Gregory the Great/ Dialogus, just as the liturgy of the East bears fainter resemblance to the original liturgy as served by St. John Chrysostom. Uninformed Orthodox triumphalism aside, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy did not descend to us unchanged through the centuries, any more than the Roman rite did in the West. Since both traditions were alive, they continued to change, develop, and experience enrichment (and, dare we say, sometimes some decline and decadence too). Things were added, and things were subtracted, not by decrees from ecumenical councils but simply through local imitation. Some bishop added something to a liturgy and his neighbours thought it a good idea and copied it. That was how liturgical variation spread.
Of course liturgy included more than simply the texts of the anaphora (or canon of the Mass) and other parts of the Eucharist. They included things like calendar and feasts, para-liturgical devotions and blessings and—more importantly—their stated significance. For example, the western tradition included the practice of multiplying Masses to aid the souls in Purgatory, as well as the practice of saying certain prayers as indulgences to minimize one’s own time in Purgatory.
Thus, liturgical traditions and praxis cannot be divorced from the dogmas and life of the church which practised them. In the case of the West, the churches there gradually grew apart from churches of the East to the point where they were effectively in schism. This schism brought with it some unfortunate things to the West, at least from the eastern point of view. I mention only a few of them, since this is a blog piece and not a book: the role allowed to personal creativity in iconography, the use of statues as devotional objects, the use of the Eucharistic bread as a focus of devotion and prayer, the focus on gore and suffering in Christ’s crucifixion, the effective commodification of grace, and the preoccupation with justice, guilt, and suffering. One can debate the legitimacy of these post-schism developments. Here I simply note that they are post-schism developments and have no real precedents in the east or west before the schism. They are also intimately tied to a theology that developed in the West that is different from that of the East or the early pre-schism West. In a word, they are western, not patristic.
As mentioned in the last blog post, the Western Rite does not just reflect the catholicity of the ancient church’s liturgy, but also the liturgical mutations that developed in the West after the schism—including the mutations found in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It is true that the early church knew a variety of liturgies, but this pluralism has ceased to exist for many centuries. No one in the West now serves the Mass and does liturgy in general the way they did in the time of St. Gregory the Great, just as no one serves the Divine Liturgy today the way that St. John Chrysostom served Liturgy. Both the churches of the West and the East have moved on and developed their liturgical traditions—and to the Orthodox mind, the West has embraced unfortunate practices since it fell into schism (though of course not all the mutations and practices were equally damaging).
This means that the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church is not so much an “eastern” liturgy as it is the last surviving liturgy of the true/ unschismatic Church. To recap: after the collapse of liturgical pluralism, the last two main liturgies standing were those of the Roman rite and of Constantinople. The Roman rite and the western tradition as a whole underwent unfortunate developments throughout the years as the West fell deeper into schism. That means, if we connect the dots, that the rite of Constantinople is the last liturgy standing in the Church in the same way as the Orthodox Church is the last church standing that did not split and fall into schism.
To confess that the Orthodox Church is the one true church therefore brings with it the obligation of confessing that its liturgical tradition is the one untainted liturgical tradition. It is not so much “the eastern rite” any more than the Orthodox Church is the “the eastern church”. Like the Church, the “eastern Liturgy” is simply “the Liturgy”—or, if one prefers, “the unschismatic Liturgy” (though this title seems to me unduly provocative). One sometimes gets the idea from some Western Rite advocates that everything in the West except for the Filioque was unproblematic, so that apart from the presence of the Filioque and the absence of the Eucharistic Epiclesis, the liturgical tradition of the West was genuinely Orthodox throughout. I suggest that this view unduly severs liturgy from doctrine and spirituality.
The Orthodox Church could, I suppose, create a new western Liturgy if it wanted to. But if it did, three cautions would be in order.
First of all, if the Church wanted to create a western rite, it would need to take care to avoid the heterodox developments that arose in the West during the time of schism and after the Reformation, remembering the principle lex orandi lex credendi. The resultant new rite would therefore avoid such things as Stations of the Cross, devotional use of statues, use of the Monstrance and Benediction, Protestant hymns/ use of a Hymnal, western style art, and kneeling on Sunday. The services would all include the use of incense and would be chanted from top to bottom, as things were in the pre-schism West. If one also excludes pews (sadly found in some Eastern Rite churches as well!) the resultant rite would be dramatically different than the rites currently in use in the West. And since this new western rite would be more like the Byzantine Liturgy than it would be like the current western rites of Novus Ordo Roman Catholicism and mainstream Anglicanism, one wonders why undertake the project at all.
Secondly, the creation of a new rite always comes with certain dangers. In all the other centuries liturgies grew incrementally and gradually. Committees did not sit down with pen and paper and write new liturgies; they tinkered here and there with the traditions they already had. When committees were allowed to produce new liturgies more or less de novo (such as in the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic church and in Anglicanism) the results were often unfortunate. Part of this stems from the modern unstated presupposition that personal creativity is needed in producing liturgy. But a good liturgy is not so much a product of modern creativity as it is the result of incremental changes which let a past inheritance shine through in the present. That is why liturgical development took place within the flow of history. The Church did not create new liturgies, either by borrowing from other traditions or by creating out of whole cloth. It simply added a bit or subtracted from what it already had.
Thirdly, whether one likes it or not, liturgy is the glue which holds Orthodox identity together. If we returned to a state of liturgical pluralism such as existed in the early church, the result would be a radical theological pluralism as well—i.e. heresy. Orthodox people continue to hold to the same beliefs as one another because they regard themselves as belonging to the same ecclesiastical tribe, and inclusion in this tribe is almost entirely liturgically expressed—the minor differences between jurisdictions and differences of language notwithstanding. It is true that our unity is based upon a common fidelity to the apostolic tradition; it is also true that this fidelity is expressed and preserved liturgically. Creating a variant rite would almost inevitably produce, in time, a variant theology. This does not mean, may I stress, that those currently in the Western Rite have a variant or heretical theology, or that such variance will develop by next month. But I suggest that eventually, given time and the comparative liturgical isolation inherent in using a different rite, a differing theology will eventually develop. A rite dramatically different from the rite used universally elsewhere cannot help but impact upon unity and therefore, eventually, doctrine.
For these reasons, I submit that the dangers of producing a new western Liturgy shorn of its historically heterodox components are not worth the risk.