There are many imaginable approaches to the conduct of public worship, some of them amounting to little more than matters of taste or fashion.  A period of liturgical experimentation and change gained momentum in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II.  Around the same time in the Anglican world, after a series of rather conservative Prayer Book revisions in the late 1950s and very early 1960s, a similar wave of experimentation and change took hold.  This set of approaches has held sway since the 1970s and favors:  options and choices over fixed and determined forms; an informal and relaxed manner in the conduct of public worship over formal and careful observances; simplicity over complexity; and change and novelty over stability and tradition. 

These tendencies of the last half century are deeply at odds with the history of both the Roman and the Anglican Churches.  To make this assertion is not to deny, of course, the existence of liturgical change within the world of Western Christendom, both before and after the Reformation.  Nor does this assertion deny the existence of liturgical variety within the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic world or the existence of liturgical parties and of Prayer Book versions and revisions in the Anglican world.  Nonetheless, since the early 1960s an unprecedented revolution in liturgy has occurred, which is only comparable to the liturgical changes in the ecclesial bodies of the Protestant Reformation that followed the break with Rome in the 16th century.

Between the promulgation of the Tridentine Missal in the 16th century and the reform of the Holy Week rites in the 1950s, the normative Roman Mass was virtually unchanged for four hundred years.  Moreover, the Tridentine Missal itself is substantially the same as the earlier, medieval Western rites and uses of the Latin Church.  Ceremonial, ritual, and lections might differ from place to place and feasts might be added, but the bulk of what was read and heard was the same for a millennium and more.  Also, the prestige of the Roman rite and of the most influential local uses, such as that of Sarum in the pre-Reformation Church in England, exerted a consistent pressure towards uniformity and homogenization.

In the Anglican world, the Edwardian and Elizabethan Prayer Books and ordinals show significant variations, as the Tudor monarchs from the 1530s through 1559 engaged in religious reforms and reversals and modifications and reactions.  But there is almost nothing in the 1549 daily Offices that does not survive into the 1662 English book or into its 20th century revisions in the United States, Canada, South Africa, India, and elsewhere.  Furthermore, there is almost nothing in the 1549 Offices that is not present in medieval Offices, apart from the permissive use of English after 1549.  Even in revisions as late as those of 1959-1962 more is retained and preserved from other Tudor rites and offices than was produced de novo or radically altered.  The Tudor translations of the Creeds, the Te Deum, the Gloria in excelsis, and the gospel canticles in the Offices were retained unchanged, as were such great Anglican compositions as the General Confessions, the Prayer of Humble Access, and the General Thanksgiving.  The Coverdale Psalter and most of the Tudor collects and the pre-Reformation sequence of Sunday Eucharistic lections also remained largely unchanged.  The substantial, calming continuity of the Roman rite was mirrored by a similar, if less uniform and venerable, continuity in the Prayer Book tradition.  In short, the Roman and the Anglican liturgical worlds were both, until the Vatican II era, deeply conservative.

The main alternative approach to the current spirit of liturgical experimentation and informality is the traditional liturgical approach called rubricism.  As the name suggests, the rubricist believes that liturgical use and performance should mainly be guided by rubrics, by liturgical law, and by authoritative direction.  The rubricist believes that as a rule individual choice, options, change, and variation are not desirable.  While it may not be a good rule in the spiritual life or in moral theology, in liturgy it is desirable that things done be done by rule and by mandate.  The liturgy should be conducted according to rubric and authoritative direction, not private choice, whim, or accident.

The liturgy, as the intersection of heaven and earth, as the most solemn of human activities, calls for reverence, awe, and formal dignity.  This call implies the sublimation of the officiant’s personality, taste, individuality, peculiar appearance, and particular ideas.  What should govern is the objective meaning of the rite, the sense of the Church, the use of prescribed forms and vesture, and the homogenizing of peculiarities.  The individual goals and understanding of the officiant are entirely secondary to the intention and theological purpose supplied by his Church.  The joke-telling, extemporaneous-prayer-making, relaxed and informal officiant is to be deplored.  The potential bad taste and bad theology of the priest, who might prefer an Hawaiian shirt or ill-fitting business suit, is abjured for the vestments, texts, and ceremonies given to him by his Church. 

Rubricism simply assumes these tendencies.  But whether rubricism is forcefully imposed, automatically accepted, or self-consciously preferred, it has a sense and rationale.  There are reasons why most of the time most of the liturgy should be fixed, received, and accepted, not varied or chosen.  These reasons deserve to be stated and understood.

First, rubricism is desirable for the same reason that fixed, as opposed to free-form, prayers are generally desirable.  The very spirit of liturgical worship calls for stability.  As C.S. Lewis observed, novel prayers require from their hearer critical attention and judgement:  ‘Is this prayer true?  Can and should I say “Amen” to this?’  This exercise of the critical faculty is in tension with the spirit of prayer and diverts the worshipper’s attention into an alien channel.  Worship properly is a congruous movement of the private pray-er in harmony with the public function and voice of the officiant and of the worshipping community.  The exercise of critical judgement prevents the pray-er from moving smoothly through the vocal prayer to higher levels of prayer.  Contemplation and meditation are interrupted and prevented by novel texts.  As the spirit of prayer is fostered by a largely fixed, known, and assumed set of texts, so it is desirable that in general the ceremonial and circumstances of the liturgical function be known, familiar, and regularized.  Naturally, it is desirable that the ceremonies and circumstances accord with the nature of the liturgy in question.  But almost as important as the actual, objective congruity of the rite and its meaning is the very fact of stability and predictability

Secondly, ‘Devotion is a matter of taking pains.’  It is desirable that the officiant should feel a reverence towards authority in his liturgical work and should endeavor to conform himself to the directions of his Church in his most typical, important work.  The individual officiant or minister of a sacrament or rite may or may not have a perfect and entirely accurate understanding of what he is doing or of the Church’s intention for the rite in question.  But the Church supplies the defects of her ministers in such rites, and it is appropriate that the clergy consciously, carefully, and consistently accept their subordinate and ministerial role.  Humility calls for attention to liturgical direction, as opposed to a spirit of individual whim, innovation, and instability. 

Thirdly, over time reasons become imbedded in tradition.  Things become traditional because they work or make sense or have recommended themselves through experience and use, whether or not those imbedded reasons and purposes are explicitly, thematically understood.  There is a reason priests rest the pall on the chalice veil when they uncover the chalice at a Low Mass:  the pall is thereby made easier to pick up when the chalice needs to be covered again.  Thousands of priests over centuries have discovered this simple, practical fact.  Not everyone needs to learn everything de novo.  Not every officiant can articulate or explain all or even most of the purposes of the hundreds of details that accompany liturgical action.  Nonetheless, use and tradition are the repositories of good, sensible practice, whether the individual understands the imbedded wisdom or not. 

Finally, and related to the previous point, change usually has unintended consequences and often has motives that are objectively mistaken or partly mistaken.  At the time of the Reformation there was an explicit desire to strip away poorly understood elements of existing practice, which was often thought by, say, Lutheran or Anglican reformers to be medieval and corrupt in origin.  In fact, however, often these suspect ‘medieval accretions’ were ancient in origin, while reformed ceremonies, rites, and practices often reflected the real late medieval innovations.[i] 

While this article certainly favors a kind of rubricism, in conclusion I also would argue for a moderate application of the basic principle.  In general liturgy, public and private, should be conducted in accordance with official, rubrical directions.  The inevitable mistakes in that conduct should, however, also be taken with a grain of salt.  The officiant should be careful and serious, so that the liturgy can serve as a fit vehicle for prayer and for the expression of the Church’s intentions for the rite in question.  That kind of care and seriousness is directed to the Church’s intentions and ends and is not the end itself.  Rubricism limits the harmful potential of the Church’s ministers in matters liturgical.  Rubricism should not be so strict as to paralyze those ministers with scrupulosity. 


[i] Elsewhere in this blog are studies of Luther’s liturgical production which give examples of his unintended late medievalism.  A similar example in the Anglican rites is the final prayer and rubric in the Ordinal’s form for making deacons, which assume that the diaconate is normally transitional.  Another Anglican example includes the rubric concerning the Fracture within the Eucharistic consecration:  the medieval ‘show-and-tell’ tendency.

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