Liturgical change is mostly a hobby of the clergy or of that small set of laymen, sometimes called the clerisy, who are closely attuned to clerical interests and concerns.  Laymen tend to be conservative in matters liturgical, as any parish priest knows who tries to alter the immemorial traditions begun by his immediate predecessor.[i]

More serious evidence of lay liturgical conservatism concerns the Psalter.  After the publication of the Authorized (‘King James’) Version of the Bible in 1611, the Church of England retained the older translation of the Psalms by Miles Coverdale in the Book of Common Prayer.  So also a few other portions of Scripture, notably in the Burial Office, were kept in their older, pre-1611 form in post-1611 Prayer Books:  after 60 years of liturgical use, some things had become too familiar to change.  A similar conservative principle seems to have been at work in the case of the Vulgate Bible:  its Psalter reflects the older Latin translation, surely because liturgical use made the older version too familiar to change.  As a final example of lay conservatism, consider the rejection by Parliament of the proposed (or ‘deposited’) English Prayer Book of 1928:  the clergy wanted changes, but the mass of the laity, reflected by the parliamentarians, thought 1662 was quite recent enough.

Why this lay conservatism?  In places and periods without widespread literacy and inexpensive books and service leaflets, the practical usefulness of memorization through repetition might explain some reluctance to change.  Many Anglicans who grew up using the traditional BCP have by heart most of the fixed portions of the Daily Offices and of the Eucharistic rite, as well many of the psalms.   In addition, memorization of the collect of the day was once a standard Sunday school exercise.  Constant liturgical ferment is easier with the modern combination of active printing presses, a literate collection of guinea pigs, and laymen without retentive memories.

I think the chief explanation for lay liturgical conservatism is, however, that the laity and the clergy tend to experience the liturgy differently.  The difference is such that the laity tend to favor stability, while the clergy tend to favor novelty.  The laity approach the liturgy aesthetically, while the clergy tend to experience it more intellectually or analytically.  The laity simply worship in and with the liturgy.  The clergy worship also, of course, but in addition they have studied the historical development and the theology of the liturgy.  The clergy can usually think of ways they would like to alter the liturgy according to theological principles they have imbibed.  The laity, in contrast, prefer the familiar and the predictable.  The clergy like to tinker, the laity would prefer that their priests stop tinkering.  As C.S. Lewis – a conservative Anglican layman if ever there were one – once observed that Christ said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘Teach my trained dogs new tricks.’

The clergy know, of course, that persistence can overcome lay conservatism.  Parishioners who resist learning a new musical setting for the Mass will, after a time, become familiar with the new and will stop grumbling.  Though it is possible for the clergy to get away with upsetting lay habits of devotion and worship, there is a price to be paid for doing so.  In general, the clergy tend to underestimate that price for getting their way in matters liturgical.

Innovating clergymen tend to recognize easily the advantages or gains from liturgical change, such as, for example, more and better music or more splendid and theologically coherent ceremonial.  The costs of innovation, however, tend to be less apparent and often include the introduction of instability, which is contrary to the spirit of worship.  A priest who allows his congregation to develop a taste for novelty may even find himself undermining the foundation of his own position.  In general, the older and deeper a liturgical habit, the higher the justification that should be required for upsetting it.

The fact is that usually the conservative instincts of the laity are correct.  Often the theological principles that the clergy have absorbed and that govern their liturgical tinkering are questionable, but they much less often actually are questioned.  The laity resent the changes and may voice a preference for the old, but they have difficulty articulating or justifying their complaint.  That lay resistance can be overcome and that it often is somewhat inarticulate, however, do not mean that the laity are wrong.

In the last century or so the Roman Catholic Church is the chief perpetrator of massive liturgical tinkering imposed by clerical authority on the basis of theological fads.  The scope of the Roman liturgical revolution since the late 1960s is comprehensive and also, in the light of the very slow pace of liturgical change in the previous 1500 years, is astonishing.  The language of the process indicates its reliance on power and authority alone:  the maniple was ‘suppressed’, the sub-diaconate was ‘abolished’.  In matters trivial and substantial a revolution was imposed from the top down, on the basis of often very weak historical and theological support.

For example, the historical justification for pulling altars out from the east wall, unquestioned by one generation of seminarians and barely questioned by those slightly their seniors, was exploded in scholarly fashion by Benedict XVI.[ii]  When the old altars were demolished or abandoned, the innovation was justified with slender and shoddy arguments:  ‘This is more ancient’ or ‘This will let the laity participate more fully.’  The arguments were not really true or were misguided.  In the end, however, neither the shoddy support for the innovation nor the scholarly argument against it was the most important thing.  The most important thing was that the innovation radically altered the aesthetic experience of Mass by elevating the individuality and personality of the celebrant and by largely ending the priest’s personal subordination to his liturgical role as the alter Christus.  The clergy did not think enough about how very deep and fundamental – and damaging – the change would be.

Similarly, the value of a multi-year lectionary, was largely taken for granted and foisted on the Christian world with a few slogans (‘more Scripture’):  meanwhile the resulting costs, such as alienation from the homiletic and devotional patterns of 1500 years, were blithely overruled or ignored.

In some ways the liturgical changes pioneered in Rome were mimicked in the Anglican world.  As Rome is more centralized and clericalist, so it might seem that liturgical innovations among Anglicans would be less systematic.  Indeed Anglican liturgical changes did tend to be less radical and less ruthlessly imposed.  But Rome is large and ancient enough that it retains islands of tradition that are sufficiently substantial to survive the floods of innovation.  Moreover, the same factors of size and antiquity tend to mean that the Roman patient might merely suffer a severe cold for a couple of generations, while the Anglican patient dies of pneumonia.  In both cases, however, we all would have been better off if the clergy had resisted the temptation to tinker.

[i] Question:  ‘Who is the best priest?’  Answer:  ‘The one who just left – or is about to arrive.’

[ii] In The Spirit of the Liturgy.  After demonstrating the case for Mass with the priest facing east, Ratzinger then failed to follow through, as he might have done while pope, and instead offered some anemic suggestions involving the placement of candles and the like to limit slightly the damage done by the change.

One thought on “Lay versus Clerical Experience of the Liturgy

  1. The thing I love most about our church/ ACC, clergy come and go, ritual is tweeked or not. A bit more incense, more or fewer bells, candles, icons, lace. None of that really matters. The prayer book doesn’t change. And her familiar, treasured, memorized words give me solace and hope and joy and peace. But then, I don’t tend to overthink things. Being a layman is good.


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