A certain kind of theologian both favors the idea of the ongoing development of doctrine over time but also inclines to an extreme primitivism in matters liturgical. The combination seems at first glance to be internally contradictory. There is, however, a common goal embedded in the two elements of this combination, and that commonality is hostility to tradition. Doctrinal development seems favored in the tacit hope that doctrine will develop beyond orthodoxy: that new development will usher in and vindicate novelties, such as the ordination of women. Liturgical primitivism is favored by the same people as a way of bypassing the massive, stabilizing, and conservative influence of venerable authorities such as the Tridentine Mass or the Book of Common Prayer. In matters both doctrinal and liturgical the real goal, even if it is not consciously held or explicitly stated, seems to be the destabilization of tradition.
Pius XII, in a much-quoted passage from his 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, is almost eerily prescient concerning this matter. First, Pius rejects liturgical primitivism:
…it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table-form; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer’s body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music…. (Paragraph 62)
This ‘exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism’ (Paragraph 64) was a mere generation later inflicted on Pius’s Church by the post-Vatican II liturgical changes. After 1970 Roman parishes almost always had free-standing table altars, almost universally abolished the use of black in the ‘Mass of Christian Burial’, frequently banished all or most statues, often featured altar crosses showing ‘no trace’ of our Lord’s ‘cruel sufferings’, and featured bad modern music rather than plainsong or traditional polyphony. In general, the liturgical reforms under Paul VI were built on precisely a reduction of everything possible to the antiquity of an imagined, pre-Constantinian, ‘Hippolytan’ liturgical ideal.
Traditional Roman Catholics such as Pius, of course, must accept a very strong theory of doctrinal development, because without such they cannot sustain either the Vatican I theory of the Papacy itself or the 19th and 20th century dogmatizations of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Pius appeals to this Roman Catholic theory of development precisely to justify also the developed liturgical forms of his own day, as they stood from Trent and until the aftermath of Vatican II:
Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas. No more can any Catholic in his right senses repudiate existing legislation of the Church to revert to prescriptions based on the earliest sources of canon law. Just as obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who in matters liturgical would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation. (Paragraph 63)
Pius is consistent in supporting the development of doctrine, liturgy, and canon law, all under the overarching authority of his own Petrine office.
The combination of liturgical primitivism and doctrinal development under Pius’s successors is both odd and inconsistent. The same combination is less odd in liberal Protestants, who often explicitly seek to develop Christian doctrine beyond Nicaean and other orthodoxies: but then often liberal Protestant liturgical authorities were weak to begin with and therefore presented few impediments to doctrinal innovation.
Anglican authorities, like Pius, traditionally rejected a blind liturgical antiquarianism, while also having a strong principle to limit doctrinal development. For example, Richard Hooker admits a general authority to antiquity (‘the ancienter, the better’), but asserts nonetheless that different ages may alter liturgy and render antique revivals grossly inappropriate. Hooker would approve Pius’s phrase, that liturgy may alter ‘to meet the changes of circumstances and situation’. Hooker notes, for example, that ‘[i]n the Apostles’ times that was harmless, which being now revived would be scandalous; as their oscula sancta.’ (Laws, Preface, iv.4.) Liturgical antiquity by itself does not suffice to authorize a return to an ancient usage. While limiting liturgical antiquarianism, classical Anglicanism sharply confines legitimate doctrinal development by requiring that all essential doctrines must be ‘comprehended’ in Scripture. That is, a clear biblical foundation is necessary for all dogmas and essential doctrines. While theology and the understanding of doctrine may grow, dogmas and doctrines are unlikely to do so.
On the one hand, then, classical Anglicanism, while it gives liturgical tradition a high place, is inhospitable to a liturgical antiquarianism that ignores intermediate history. On the other hand, classical Anglicanism is doctrinally conservative and hostile to innovation. Indeed, the central Anglican objection to the Roman system is and always was precisely Rome’s inclinations toward innovation and its lack of a clear check on papal authority to alter doctrine.
Anglicans, like the Church of Pius, had a profoundly influential liturgical tradition. Scholarship since the 1970s has demonstrated that Anglican modernists deliberately sought to alter doctrine by the process of Prayer Book revision which produced the 1979 Episcopalian Prayer Book (first authorized in 1976, but only finally authorized in 1979 by the approval of a second triennial General Convention). In particular, the traditional Prayer Books (1549 to 1928) offended the modernists with, among other things, Augustinian soteriological assumptions, with traditional teaching concerning marriage and Holy Orders, and with the innumerable connections to the homiletic and theological traditions of the Western Church embedded in the one-year Eucharistic lectionary. The coalition that supported the Prayer Book revolution was diverse in its motives, but this modernist doctrinal agenda was a powerful force without which revision would not have gotten far.
In the end the size of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the modern papacy have prevented the implementation of the full radical theological agenda. Ordination of women, dissolubility of valid marriages, the permissive agenda in sexual matters, religious indifferentism, something close to universalism, ‘open’ sacraments, and similar novelties remain contrary to official papal teaching. The same papal authority that has held the line on such ‘developments’, however, could impose them overnight under the current or some future pope. Many Roman theologians object that such ‘developments’ in fact would be illegitimate and impossible, since true developments expand the meaning of past developments but cannot contradict them or radically innovate. But such a traditional (and correct) interpretation could easily be swept away by the same excessive papal authority that currently (and fortunately) sustains the truth of the tradition. How many Roman bishops or laymen does anyone seriously believe would stand against a future pope’s determination to implement a modernist agenda?
Anglican Catholics, of course, cannot do anything much about papal authority, whether old-fashioned, theoretical, or still to come, and whether currently beneficent or later perhaps malevolent in its effects. But there are good reasons to remain thoroughly devoted to traditional Anglican liturgical norms and to the general liturgical tradition of the Western Church. Traditional liturgy is a bulwark against doctrinal innovation and the spirit of heresy. Liturgical antiquarianism is harmful if it is not closely tied to doctrinal orthodoxy and to a conservative appreciation for the stability provided by venerable forms of worship, music, the religious arts, and ceremonial. Rome would be better off if Pius XII’s ideas were still governing matters liturgical. But they are not.