Tuesday, 26 October 2010

"We don't need to preserve anything, except the truth."

It's a long running tradition amongst my friends to go to the local pub after our mid-week Mass and Adoration. The time at church itself is meant to be a "haven in the middle of the week", in the words of our priest, and it really is. Likewise, the time spent together afterward, catching up, telling jokes, and making fun of ourselves, is the perfect compliment to the contemplative hour of prayer.

Being passionate and fairly well educated types, as the real ale flows (or strawberry beer for the philistines), these sessions sometimes turn into what I like to call 'Theology on Tap', after the actual 'Theology on Tap' events which started in Chicago. Unfortunately, our 'ToT' can get a bit fractious without the structured agenda, and when you throw in the cold beers, it can be a recipe for hot tempers. I'm getting better at recognising the effects of alcohol on me, and on others, and am not so easily baited as I once was, but generally, someone will say something that piques my critical interest.

So...the last time we were at the pub, one of the girls was talking about worship and liturgy, comparing traditional liturgy with praise-and-worship, and concluded with, "We don't need to preserve anything, except the Truth." I have heard similar remarks before, such as another friend telling me that we need modern praise-and-worship music in the Catholic Church because young people won't be drawn in by traditional music like chant and polyphony.

It does have an appealing simplicity about it, doesn't it? Blessed John Henry Newman said of the Popes that, "a great Pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith, the tradition of the Apostles, and the vital principles of the divine polity." Bl. JHN specifically lists "Basilicas and Gothic cathedrals" among the things upon which a Pope "will not rest his cause." Surely, such detachment from earthly things like liturgy, traditional sacred art and music and architecture, makes us freer to pass on the Truth in a manner more suited to the age?

Upon further reflection, there are a number of difficulties with this philosophy. As we shall see, it is almost impossible to separate the fullness of the Truth which is preserved in the Catholic Church, from the way in which it is preserved i.e. in its traditional liturgies.

The key principle here is Lex orandi, lex credendi "The law of prayer is the law of belief." At heart, this means two related things. First, the way we worship reflects what we believe already. Secondly, the way we worship informs what we believe. Liturgy "is therefore the privileged place for catechizing the People of God," - it is the premier way of teaching Christian Truth. So, it's reasonable to ask what effect doing away with, or changing, our long liturgical tradition would have on what we believe.

If we look at the whole of Christianity with Catholicism in the centre, and moving out from there to the churches with absolutely no liturgy at all, like the Salvation Army, passing Lutherans, Methodists, and Pentecostals on the way, do you notice anything? The further away you get from the tradition of liturgy, the further away you get from the fullness of the Truth which is presented to us in the liturgy. On this scale, we go from a church which believes what the Apostles were taught by Christ about eating His flesh, and expresses and teaches that belief in the Holy Mass, to one which disregards that ancient belief, and completely ignores the command to "do this in memory of me," and instructs its followers to do the same.

An example from history will also illustrate the point. During the so-called Reformation, the liturgy in England was vandalised - crucifixes were burned and empty crosses set up in their place, icons of angels and saints on the walls were white-washed, Latin chant outlawed. Now, growing up in a church like that, would you be likely to believe in the true importance of Christ's Passion, the communion of saints, or the universality of the Church? At a friend's wedding this summer, an Anglican friend of the groom told me that it was very clear that his church believed in an "English, middle class, right-handed sort of God." Not surprising, given their liturgical environment.

Another difficulty with this way of thinking is that it smacks of a common problem in modern Catholic circles - reductionism. This says that we should view as expendable everything except the bare necessities. Yet another Catholic friend was once a few sentences away from declaring that a priest in jeans and T-shirt, with any ol' wheat bread and grape wine, would still be a Mass, and all the other stuff was somehow optional.

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like we're getting what we were promised by Jesus i.e. "life to the full". The juicy steak which is the fullness of the Truth comes with all the trimmings as standard. That's what makes it into a meal, rather than just plain rations. We might compare the reductionist attitude to asking, "What's the minimum amount I can love my wife and still be married?"

I like to think of it this way. The liturgy we have (i.e. Holy Mass and the Divine Office), is the 'pill' in which the Church delivers the 'medicine' of Scripture & Tradition (i.e. the Truth) to us. You can't take the medicine out of the pill and have the pill still work, and you can't get the medicine into the system without putting it in something which can be digested. The liturgy we have received from the Church, and the truth it communicates, are inextricably linked - the medium is part of the message. If you mess with the medium, which has happened a lot in the last 40 years, you can't help but alter the message.

Last, but not least, there is something to be said for preserving our Catholic culture for purposes of evangelisation: "In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art." [§12] Our mission as lay people is to bring people to the Faith, into the visible Body of Christ which is the Church. Their first encounter with that Faith will be the things they can experience, and the ancient practice of liturgy has a unique beauty about it - when they come into a Catholic church to witness Holy Mass, they should know that this event is like no other, and they can't get it anywhere else. Further, its beauty should have a definite 'vertical' quality about it - and there truly is something about the faint smell of incense and melted wax, richly embroidered vestments quietly rustling as the priest makes his way around the sanctuary, all to the other-worldly sound of chant washing over us from the choir, which makes us think of Heaven. (See Scott Hahn's book The Lamb's Supper for a wonderful analysis of how much like Heaven the Mass really is.)

If we change the Catholic way of worship to look more like Pentecostal, Baptist, or other evangelical worship, what are we telling the people we bring to Church? That all Christianity is the same, so it doesn't matter which one you go to, because they all basically believe the same (because they worship the same way - lex orandi, lex credendi). But we don't. To use horrible business language, if people can't distinguish our 'brand' from everyone else's, or even mere entertainment, then we're bound to be met with the reasonable objection, "What's the point of going to church?" Preserving, and to a certain extent rediscovering, a way of worshiping which is distinctly Catholic would be a great first step in fulfilling our evangelising mission.

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