Few things are more important in the liturgical life of a cleric than whether he approaches public worship in a spirit of self-effacement or as a matter of self-expression.  And few things are so seldom explicitly considered by clerics.

The key dividing line between a traditional and a modernist approach to worship, I think, is not the language of the liturgy (Latin versus English; Tudor and Stuart English versus ersatz modern or actually modern).  It is not the date of one’s prayer book or missal.  It is not Pius V versus Paul VI.  The key dividing line is whether the cleric does or does not assume, whether consciously or not, that he should efface himself by submission to liturgical authority and to the objective nature of the Church’s worship.

Once this simple principle is understood, any moderately observant worshipper almost immediately can know whether a liturgy is traditional or modernist. 

For the second time in two years I was present in a Roman Catholic beach parish this autumn.  The celebrant said in his sermon that some people tell him that they are distracted at Mass by his constant grinning.  This rather serious criticism the priest swept aside by saying that he was a just a joyful, happy worshipper.  The priest thereby admitted, though he did not take the matter to heart, that some people find his liturgical style distracting and something that stood between themselves and God.  The priest seemed to believe that his own emotional reaction to worship and the liturgy is more important than the experience of the people or the objective duty of his role.  Since congregations in time tend to adopt the assumptions and approach of their clergy, this essentially self-expressive, emotional, even sentimental approach to the Mass will color those regularly subjected to it.  The complainers and those distracted will tend to be people from a traditional background:  such as me.

Because, of course, traditionally a priest’s interior feelings about the liturgy and his emotional response to his liturgical activity are only subjectively relevant, as when the priest privately examines his conscience or makes his confession.  A tired or unhappy priest, a priest who at a particular Mass does not feel particularly joyful, is still expected to do his job competently, to enact the Mysteries with dignity, and to open the gate of heaven for the people of God objectively. 

Everything about traditional worship teaches this central fact.  Consider the ways in which the great Churches and the central tradition of Christendom have sought to efface the ministers of her worship:

First, the ancient Church quickly learned the dangers of permitting her clergy freedom to make up the liturgy themselves.  The construction of liturgical texts ad libitum permitted the introduction of explicitly heretical teaching.  When the clergy were free to improvise, Arian clergy, for example, could introduce Arian doctrine not only in the language of creeds, but also in the Eucharistic canon.  More commonly still, perhaps, clergy who were theologically deficient or simply inattentive were likely to introduce error or ambiguity inadvertently when left free to improvise.  And most commonly of all, probably, clergy with too much liberty were likely to impose upon their people bad taste, bad judgement, and bad prose.   A fixed liturgical text forces the deep subordination of the individual celebrant’s beliefs, tastes, and understanding to the much sounder mind of the Church that he serves. 

Secondly, the use of vestments, less importantly but more visibly, literally covers up the individual celebrant and his personality.  Uniforms always serve the goal of fitting an individual into an organization, a group, or a role.  A poor sense of color coordination or taste in fashion matter little if a priest puts on a black cassock or a black suit, black clerical shirt, and black shoes.  Even more in the liturgy itself, the use of vestments literally covers up the individuality of the ministers in the external garb of the roles they are serving.  For this reason, the use of relatively traditional styles and colors of vestments is desirable.  Strikingly beautiful vestments may be desirable.  Strikingly different vestments are not. 

Thirdly, restraint in gesture and movement minimizes distraction for the worshipper.  Sudden, striking, intrusive, unusual, and flamboyant manual acts, arm movements, and other movement all turn the attention of the worshipper from devotion and the objective significance of the liturgy itself to awareness of the person through whom the liturgy is enacted.  Of course, anything new in a parish’s worship might cause some distraction or annoyance to some people for a time.  If the priest at Saint Swithun’s appears under a biretta, when none of his predecessors ever did, that may be somewhat distracting for a time.  A new setting of the Gloria in excelsis or singing the Lord’s Prayer rather than saying it might annoy or distract some people.  But such variations within set standards can be consistent with self-restraint and minimization of the startling or intrusive, so long as they are not overly frequent. 

Fourthly, and related to the two previous points, clergy traditionally were taught to minimize eye contact with the congregation – except, of course, in a sermon when the personality of the preacher is properly given freer scope.  In the liturgy itself eye contact pushes those in the congregation to encounter the cleric as an individual rather than as a minister.  The liturgical officiant properly is the enactor of a role:  in the Eucharist he is the alter Christus.  That role is infinitely more important than anything the officiant is personally and individually.  The priest, when addressing the congregation should look at a point on the floor, not at Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones.  The priest should not intrude himself between the worshipper and God, and incidentally also should not distract himself by looking at Mrs. Smith’s odd hair or Mr. Jones’s startling shirt.  Likewise, during the administration of Holy Communion, the priest should not look into the eyes of the communicants, but rather at the host or the chalice that he is administering:  Jesus Really Present should be the center of the priest’s and communicant’s attention, not each other.  Similarly, I once knew a priest who when placing the host on the palm of each communicant’s hand would fold his own hand over theirs.  This intrusive, physical act compelled a personal encounter between the priest and communicant precisely when the communicant was preparing for the most direct, intimate, and important encounter possible with his or her Lord.  At the very moment when the priest should most definitely recede from the picture, he was placing himself firmly into it.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Finally, the priest should as a rule read the liturgical texts in an objective, clear, and distinct fashion.  Of course the priest should not mangle his reading or make it unintelligible.  But the priest also should not attempt to interpret the text by emotional, expressive reading or by sobbing forth the text.  The text, particularly texts that regularly recur as part of the Ordinary of the Mass, carry their own freight of meaning if read simply, clearly, and distinctly.  The priest does not need to sigh forth, ‘Do THISSSSS….in remembranccccce….of….meeeee.’  He only needs to say, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ 

Most of these individual points, and the general principle behind them of self-restraint, self-effacement, and modesty in the liturgical celebrant, are, I think, tacitly understood by those who are accustomed to traditional worship.  The articulation of these matters, however, will, I hope, help to inform laymen about the soundness of their tacit and instinctive aversion to modernist worship.  And, I hope, such articulation will also help guide the clergy both by suggesting the general principle behind particular practices and also by indicating ways in which that principle should extend itself but which they may not have fully considered. 

3 thoughts on “Self-Effacement and the Liturgy

  1. I had to laugh when I read the paragraph that starts, “First, the ancient Church quickly learned the dangers of permitting her clergy freedom to make up the liturgy themselves.” That’s us! We have a unique talent for mucking things up if left to our devices, lol.


  2. Our liturgy centers me, brings me back from wherever I have been, so the busy world is hushed and I can return to the comfortable calm of the familiar, unchanging word of God. I have joked with priests that they all dress alike because they are interchangeable. If the priest laughs, smiles, or even groans – you probably have a good one. If the priest seems offended – well, there may be trouble ahead.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s