Friday, February 10, 2012

The Incense in Our Churches

We mentioned "the Romantic myth of repristination" a moment ago. Just another word about that, if we may.

Enthusiasts for traditional worship, not least amateurs, often have an antiquarian bent. If a practice can be historically attested, it is jumped upon with great excitement and its adoption encouraged as an expression of Tradition. Never mind that the practice in question may have dropped out of use for good reason, whether theological or practical; never mind that it may never have communicated much to the People of God, and now communicates nothing. If it's old, they cry, count us as sold.

This approach was typical of the 19th-century liturgical movement, exemplified (at its best) by the likes of Gueranger at Solesmes and the Lutheran Common Service in America. (And, okay, some English guys got in on the act too.) They typically looked back as far as they could stand -- the Middle Ages or the very early stages of the Reformation -- for their models of worship and church life. At its worst, this approach devolved into kitsch, or a sort of fussy ritualism which one still finds occasionally among Lutherans and often among Episcopalians.

Then came the 20th-century Liturgical Movement (please note the self-awarded upper case initials, which create the illusion that their grandfathers weren't liturgical, or at least weren't a movement). These guys made an effort to broaden their view of what "the liturgy" was and could be; but, when you push, you find that their arguments often boiled down to something like this: "Well, we don't have to do it the way they did in the Middle Ages; we can do it the way the Church Fathers did." Which would remain a highly speculative claim, even if it were a valuable one.

At its worst, this degenerated into a free-for-all, in which any service which looked remotely formal and could be squeezed into Justin Martyr's four-part schema was treated pari passu with the Tridentine Mass (which nobody much cared for anyway).

Consider this, from Edward Traill Horn, himself one of the makers of the Common Service:

The Service of the Church is what it is because every age has given to it its life-blood. . . . It would be false (unliturgical) to go back to the First Age, or even to the Sixteenth Century, for an absolute standard. . . . An incense fills our churches in which linger the devotions of Egypt and of Asia Minor, of Jerusalem, of the catacombs, of Roman churches when the barbarians were hovering on the borders of the Empire, of France when the Moors had swept over Spain, of the heroic age in Germany, and just as well of the Pietistic and Moravian eras, and of later days. We must expect and serve the development of the liturgy, its healthy and natural growth.
Catch the difference? For Horn -- an integral if late part of the Romantic phase --
"authentic" worship was infused with the spirit of the church's whole long, broad history. This is far more than an argument for any one historic model -- and yet it is an argument for worship shaped, even normed, by historic models. The 20th century movement got this, but so did the best of the 19th century guys. And, clearly, he understands that none of these are "the last word," because worship is not static -- it develops organically to meet the needs of every age.

Our concern at the moment is that, in the 21st century, the emphasis is migrating away from historical models, from organic development, and toward wilfully (even desperately) trying to meet the supposed needs of the age. This desperation misses the mark, because one need, in every age, is visible continuity with the past, and with the great cloud of witnesses.

Or, to use Horn's metaphor, we wish our churches had more incense these days.

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