In his crucial essay in Liturgy on the topic “Worship and the Divided Church” – assessing the state of liturgical renewal in our churches – liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop recounts the accomplishments that have brought our worship practices closer together.
Lathrop first names some of the good fruit of the last several decades of liturgical change.
. . . As a direct result of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, a three-year Sunday and festival lectionary was adopted in that church. Ecumenical discussion and study of that lectionary brought about the Revised Common Lectionary. . . and this RCL is increasingly used by many different churches. A very large number of Christians throughout the world thus now hear and consider the same readings, Sunday after Sunday, in their assemblies. Lectionary resources from one church are easily usable in another. And local ecumenical clergy groups can concretely reflect on the task of preaching together. This shared lectionary use may well be the most striking ecumenical reality of our time.Lathrop notes, as well, the wide use of common English language texts, greater emphasis on the sacraments of baptism and eucharist as a result of ecumenical agreements such as the World Council of Churches 1982 document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, and “cross-confessional friendships” that have emerged between denominations and traditions.
But there is more: an ecumenical liturgical consensus, found especially in the churches that have made continuing use of the classic Western Christian liturgical sources for the celebration of Eucharist and daily prayer, has had significant influence. The accents of this consensus on a participating assembly, on the whole worship event as musical, on architecture shaped to the purpose of the assembly, on intercessions for the real needs of the world, on the liturgy sending us toward the needs of our neighbors, on many leadership roles—cantors and lectors and leaders of prayer and ministers of communion, as well as presiders—and on all of these roles as serving roles: all of these notes can be founded widely among Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and in many other churches. Unlike an earlier time when we were strangers to each other, our assemblies and their best practices have actually influenced each other.
Despite these many movements toward greater unity, Lathrop sees a slowing of progress.
The shared lectionary is still there, though there have been increasing proposals to abandon it in favor of locally proposed alternatives or in a return to an old Protestant practice: the preacher chooses the text, and there is only one. These proposals have barely given a thought to the ecumenical loss implied. The Roman Catholic Church. . . has stopped using the common texts, yielding rather to the arguments that liturgical texts in Catholic use should be more Latin-like and. . . not suggestive of a wider Christian unity. And, for all of the common proposals of converging liturgical movements, full-communion agreements are relatively rarely enacted. It is as if the regionalisms and nationalisms that mark current world politics—the emergence of narrowed identities—have come to mark the life of the churches as well.
Acknowledging the concern for institutional survival that has pervaded congregations (and we might add, larger judicatories, seminaries, and even denominational offices), Lathrop notes that this reality has gripped Christian communities and led to a time that some now refer to as an “ecumenical winter.” For them, the liturgical movement is dead; reforms have ceased if not reverted.
The previous notion that unity would come through an embrace of a “golden age” of liturgical purity is clearly gone. The authority of tradition is no longer a believable basis for determining worship practices. How are we to move toward greater liturgical unity?
A liturgical practice needs now to be proposed on other grounds—on grounds of theological and biblical depth, symbolic force, communal inclusion, or evangelical vigor—not simply on grounds of precedence. Even tradition itself can no longer be considered simply as continuity with the past. In a more profound sense, tradition has meant the biblical word alive in the churches, and, in that sense, as Gustav Mahler is supposed to have said, it is not “the worship of ashes but the passing on of fire.” But what that biblical word is—what makes up the fire—remains a question not currently drawing widespread Christian agreement.Return to this website on September 18 to explore Lathrop’s proposals for a renewed ecumenism. Given the enormous shifts churches have experienced since the Second Vatican Council and then the growth of greater emphasis on differentiating ourselves from one another, this topic is of utmost importance. Lathrop’s entire essay – and the other enlightening contributions to Liturgy 31, no. 4 – are already available online through library or personal subscription.
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.