The last issue of Liturgy in 2015 deals with the topic “Worship and the Divided Church.” We find ourselves urged toward being “one,” yet are not unified. We divide ourselves into factions that emphasize widely divergent theological positions yielding also divergent political, sociological, and economic policy ideas. To those outside the church we look dreadfully un-unified.
The essays on this problem cover a range of territoy, and I commend all readers to delve into them.
Here is the concluding portion of liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop's response to the slowing-down or even abandonment of liturgical renewal that brought about much encouraging liturgical unity after the Second Vatican Council. Please see the website entry for September 4, 2015 to read his analysis of the gains made in recent decades toward liturgical unity.
I do not think that we should abandon hope for either the liturgical movement or the ecumenical movement. But speaking of both now requires some nuance and some measure of humility. The insights of the particular liturgical reformer can no longer be equated to the practice of the early church. And the ecumenical movement cannot be construed as other churches becoming more like my own.
Nonetheless, there are signs of a refreshed liturgical movement that conceives of its goals as intimately involved with deepened Christian unity. The question of the relationship of worship reform and Christian unity has not stopped being asked. And there are some common answers to that question. For me, those common answers include the emergence of calls to a liturgical ecclesiology, the usefulness of mutual affirmation and admonition as an ecumenical tool, and the scriptures themselves as carrying reforming intentions.
Sacramental theology in all of the churches—or, at least, in the churches that practice sacraments!—has come to be marked by a certain convergence. Instead of reflecting on sacraments as static objects, more and more theologians, across confessional boundaries, consider them as communal processes. God’s participation and gift in the sacraments is seen as a participation under and through those processes, as an active gift to that community. . . .
Perhaps the key insight of the Second Vatican Council. . . was that church is primarily encountered in an assembly gathered around the mystery of Christ present in word and sacraments. Such an insight, such an essentially liturgical ecclesiology, has huge ecumenical implications. While not every Christian community seeks to be an assembly around word and sacraments, very, very many communities do. They are by no means all Roman Catholic. And the very Vatican II proposal can be seen as creatively engaging with a word-and-sacrament definition of church that had already existed in many other places: in the Lutheran confessions, in Wesleyan hymnody, in local Orthodox practice, in Anglican parish renewal, and on and on. Against all the obstacles that still remain, those communities gathered around the signs of Christ in word and sacrament can recognize and support each other and can find in church so defined the grounds for a refreshed ecumenical movement.
. . . [T]he primary goals of a renewed liturgical movement could be these: the recovery of the centrality of word and sacrament in a participating assembly. Not the recovery of particular styles of music or celebration. Not more or less ceremonial intensity. Not romantic historical retrieval. Not trying to make communities look like each other. But the hope to find, in every place, an open and participating assembly gathered on the Lord’s Day, in song and prayer around the scriptures read and preached, around the baptismal washing, enacted or remembered, around the holy supper, and around the sending to a needy world. I believe that a liturgical movement with such goals will continue to contribute to Christian unity.
Gordon W. Lathrop, a Lutheran pastor, retired professor of liturgy, and former president of both Societas Liturgica and the North American Academy of Liturgy, lives in Arlington, Virginia.
Gordon W. Lathrop, “A Renewed Liturgical Movement and the Unity of the Churches: Questions for Our Time,” Liturgy 30, no. 4 (2015), 3-9.