Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Black Is Beautiful

Or:  The Decline of the Liturgical Consensus

The other day, Shawn Tribe posted a picture of a beautiful, and very unusual, antique chasuble.  It is black, and decorated with a skull, a cross, and -- most interesting of all -- a moth known as the Death's Head Hawkmoth, emerging from its chrysalis.  The images might seem macabre to modern sensibilities, but they conveyed a familiar sentiment: life and death, entwined, inseparable, until at last by God's grace the victory belongs to life.

Naturally, we wanted one.  Sadly, they are out of stock at Almy.

Although, of course, he has nothing remotely so elegant in his sacristy cupboard, it so happens that Fr. A. does own a few black vestments -- a pair of stoles, inherited long ago.  And never worn, not once, because we don't wear black vestments anymore.  That's what they said in seminary; that's what it says in the rubrics of the service-book, and so that's just how we roll these days.  Right?

Not exactly.  Although long out of fashion, black continues to be a licit color in the Roman Rite, both in the ordinary and extraordinary forms.  (Here is some intelligent background on the subject).  Despite this, its use in the US is so rare that many Catholics belief it has been officially expunged.  It hasn't, and it indeed black has one very high-profile advocate, pictured to your right.

Meanwhile, deep blue -- a liturgical color with a slight and sketchy history -- has become so widespread during Advent that many Catholics believe it to be licit in their rite, and many Lutherans and Episcopalians believe it to be obligatory in theirs.  Neither of these is correct; except for the lighter blue allowed for some Marian celebrations, blue is not an approved color in the Roman Rite, and both Lutheran and Episcopal formularies accept it pari passu with purple (defined here!) for Advent.

None of this matters much of itself, to be sure.  Liturgical colors have varied a great deal throughout history, and among different church bodies, and nobody has ever suggested that they were a sign of Christian unity.  They're just a neat little symbolic shorthand, useful in some circumstances to communicate something about the church's life and faith.

You could say the same thing about virtually the whole field of liturgical practice. Leavened or unleavened?  Chalice or shot glasses (or spoons or straws)?  Music, language, gesture -- none of it constitutes a moral law.  It is important because, and insofar as, it communicates the holy things to the holy people.  So we differ, we have always differed, and vive la difference.  (And like most people with strong convictions in the matter, we say that only grudgingly).

Still, this business of black vestments opens a window onto the deep change that has begun to be evident in the worship of the so-called "liturgical" churches (a meaningless term, but let's run with it for convenience).  Roman Catholics often speak of "the reform of the reform," with particular reference to their own history, but in an ecumenical perspective this change may also be identified as the breakdown of a liturgical consensus -- or at least convergence -- which defined worship in the west for the last few generations.

 In response to the spiritual desert of the Enlightenment, a Romantic revival took root in several churches at once during the early 19th century.  It probably began in Berlin, and spread at differing paces among Lutherans (e.g., Lohe), Anglicans (Pusey) and Roman Catholics (Gueranger). In both theology and in worship, it sought historical models, and typically found them in the period between 1100 and 1600.  Of course, these models were adapted to changing times; liturgical colors, to stay with that example, could be standardized more easily in the age of mass-produced textiles.

The results of this revival were gradually, and perhaps only partially, internalized by the churches.  By the mid-20th century, though, a new wave came crashing in:  the self-styled "Liturgical Movement," exemplified by Orate, Fratres and virtually everything else to come out of Collegeville, Minnesota.  Like its predecessor, it made free use of historical models, but preferred to seek them in the Patristic era.

The signal success of the (Modern) Liturgical Movement is probably the recovery of the catechumenate, a truly astonishing work of practical theology.  But the outward marks of the MLM can be seen everywhere today:  free-standing altars, albs for assisting ministers, an overly athletic pax, a sniggering contempt for Gothic architecture.  And, to be sure, the eager -- even dogmatic -- embrace of white vestments over black.  

Where the Romantic phase of the liturgical movement was often archly confessional, the MLM was eirenic and ecumenical.
 Where Johann Adam Mohler and Wilhelm Lohe had combatively held up the elements of their respective traditions that they considered distinctive and superior, the shapers of the MLM put the emphasis upon a common heritage.  Roman Catholics and Protestants adopted nearly identical translations into English of the standard liturgical texts, as well a series of common lectionaries.  Their services, at least in "advanced" circles, came to look and sound ever more similar.*   In the years after Vatican II, it became common to speak of "liturgical convergence" among the "separated brethren."  Typical complaints, of course, were that Catholic services became "too Protestant" and vice-versa, but these missed the point.  Participants on all sides re-made the worship lives of their communities by drawing on the same historical materials and a shared interpretive framework.

This is the sort of liturgical thinking which most of the clergy now serving -- virtually all those educated since the late 1970s -- have been taught to think of as normal, and even normative
.  If you have benefited (as we at the Egg certainly have) from writers and teachers like Aidan Kavanagh, Gordon Lathrop, or Marion Hatchett, then the MLM surely provides a baseline for the way you think about worship.  Although there were always holdouts and defectors -- high or low-church hardliners -- this has been the dominant philosophy for a long time.

And now it's going away.

Under Benedict XVI, Roman Catholicism has begun a major liturgical course correction, exemplified by a loosening of the rules around use of Latin and, specifically, the extraordinary form of the Mass, as well as .the new English translation of the Roman Missal.  Not to mention his red shoes and black chasubles.  For their part, liberal Protestants have also abandoned the common liturgical language of the 1970s, in favor of a revised idiom which reflects a strong feminist critique. (More conservative branches of mainline Protestantism haven't gone there; but then, neither were they as swept up in the talk of "convergence.")  The faculty of Luther Seminary has introduced a new "Narrative Lectionary," not a bad idea in itself -- but one more way of fragmenting the fragile MLM consensus.

Historic models, whether patristic or medieval, seem to mean less than they have in centuries.  So too does unanimity.  The old emphasis on confessional distinctiveness is returning as well.  If John Paul II dampened some of the ecumenical enthusiasm of the early 1970s, the Ordinariates have banished it to Atlantis.

It is natural for one generation to re-evaluate the work of the last.  But where the last generation of liturgical reformers worked across confessional boundaries, the next generation looks as though it may be confined within them.  Even within a confessional family, the air is chillier now.  The LC-MS was a vocal participant in the work that created the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship; there was no serious talk of collaboration on the work that produced ELW and its Missourian equivalent.

Now, no matter what the rigorists on either side may say, this is not a case of good vs. evil.  The MLM was a fine thing, filled not only with good intentions but with good scholarship.  So was the Romantic revival which preceded it.  Both promoted styles of worship capable of speaking eloquently about the faith, and both sometimes looked a little self-righteous and self-important.  Surely, we'll say the same thing about the current generation in a few decades.  The difference is that now, after half a century, the heavy lifting is no longer being done together.  Scholarship is still communal, but parish liturgies are now shaped by teams with fiercely different agendas.

A friend mentions that, for thirty years, if you were praying before a mixed crowd and began by saying, "The Lord be with you," both Protestants and Roman Catholics would answer, "And also with you."  He did that the other day, though, and half the room started to say "And with your spirit," before the response collapsed into embarrassed awkwardness.  The divergence is already that far along; it will soon be much further.

For our part, we find this liberating.  We have always felt mischievous when we broke out the rose vestments on Gaudete and Laetare, two Sundays that don't even exist under the (introit-deprived) MLM regime.  But if the consensus is gone -- if the faculty of one seminary can create its own lectionary, despite the denomination's "official" use of another -- then there is no more mischief.  We may as well indulge our own eccentricities, which are many.  Over the years, we've gotten sick of presiding westward, as though we were the host at a party instead of a Christian at prayer; we've longed for a more purple (and penitential) Advent.  We've wondered whether the old one-year lectionary was as bad as everybody says.   And we're certainly tired of pretending, for the sake of politeness, that "and also with you" somehow translates "et cum spiritu tuo."

No worries.  We are free now, because the consensus is dying.  So we can dig into the cabinet, and crack out those black stoles at last.

* One highly visible difference to emerge during this period, of course, was the leadership of ordained women, a distinctive charism of the liberal Protestants.  But among Roman Catholics in the US, a shortage of priests sometimes led to an enhanced leadership role for women religious -- so even there,  we can discern a parallel movement.


Pastor Joelle said...

Whatever. ELCA pastors do whatever the hell they want because it's all adiaphora. Popcorn and rootbeer for communion I say.

Father Anonymous said...

And, as I'm discovering, a surprising number of our colleagues think that's a creative new idea for ministry.

Anonymous said...

I have only once presided westward in my 20 year first call. web

Father Anonymous said...

Seriously? As I've said before, I let myself be guided by architecture and local custom. This means that it has usually been westward; the last few years have been a very pleasant exception. (Now if I could only have convinced the Hungarians to spring for a burse, veil and some decent linens!)