Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cultural universals in liturgical worship

The last three Sundays, I've worshipped in Spain, at home in California and Australia. The juxtaposition has given me additional insights into liturgical variations (and similarities) between cultures, and thus the degree to which churches should (or at least have) adapt their worship to the local culture.

When comparing two services, there are several possible variables: language, the order of service, what is said, the role of music and how those leading the service (and those in the pews) actually worship.

Language matters, but within the Western liturgical churches there is still a common heritage to the medieval Latin service. For example, both my wife and I have found strong affinity to service in Germany’s Roman Catholic church — we have a similar childhood and adult experience with high church Episcopalian (and now Anglican) worship, but I speak some German and she doesn’t. When I first visited Cologne cathedral in 1980, the service felt very familiar as the service followed what I'd known as a kid. My wife — who attended a small town mass with friends two years ago while I was traveling on business — says that the service she attended what quite recognizable from our childhood services.

But language isn’t everything. I've heard some claim that a Christian from the early church would recognize our 21st century services. That seems a bit much, but I certainly think an Italian from the early Middle Ages would recognize an Anglo-Catholic service more than an Englishman from Elizabethan England would recognize a nondenom praise band service.

This morning in Spain, despite not speaking the language, I recognized the order of lessons (Isaiah, Romans, Matthew) that would have been used at a US Catholic church or by Protestants under the Revised Common Lectionary year A. I also recognized the Lord’s Prayer and prayers of the people, and the Alleluia was the same one I’ve sung for decades (albeit with the syllables broken differently).

What was most different was that instead of hymns, the singing consisted of a series of chants by the cantor, with the congregation singing an antiphon after each phrase. The cantor tried to teach the congregation the antiphons, and I found (despite the language) I was able to sing along when the words matched the handout.

However, in a (IMHO foolish) attempt to save money or the planet, the handout only covered what was different for the season of Advent. There were several antiphons that were not handed out — perhaps they were familiar to regular worshippers — but the net effect was to exclude visitors from participation in the worship.

I had hoped from the handout we would sing (in Catalan) perhaps the most universal Advent hymn
Veniu, veniu, oh Emmanuel,
sou l'esperança d'Israel
que en trist exili ací tothora
redempció de vós implora.
Exulta! Exulta! Israel,
a tu vindrà l'Emmnanuel.

Veniu, esclat del nostre hivern,
Oh Saviesa de l'Etern!
De vostra llum el món fretura
per retrobar-vos dalt l'altura.
Exulta! Exulta! Israel,
a tu vindrà l'Emmnanuel.

Veniu, oh Rei Omnipotent,
d'antics oracles compliment.
Veniu, refeu nostra flaquesa,
Déu eternal, font de bonesa.
Exulta! Exulta! Israel,
a tu vindrà l'Emmanuel.
but apparently that was for an earlier Sunday.

In Australia, I attended two communion services: one fro the 1995 Australian prayer book at an Anglo-Catholic parish, and the other using the 1662 BCP at an evangelical one. Not surprisingly, the former used the ICEL translation of the Sanctus (“…God of power and might”) and other parts of the ordinary; the latter had the Elizabethan words, even if in an unfamiliar order. So the latter was nominally more similar to Anglo-Catholic worship from Rite I or the 1928 BCP.

But if you ignored the words and watched what people did, the liturgical practice was just the opposite. At the Anglo-Catholic (modern language) church, nearly everyone made the sign of the cross and most kneeled at the familiar parts of the service. At the evangelical (traditional language) church, there were no kneelers and no sign of the cross; it also had a sermon more than 30 minutes long (versus 12 minutes at my home parish).

Still, it seems as though there is a distinct subset of the Western church today that retains the liturgy and practices of the pre-Reformation church. For these Christians, worshipping in another denomination with similar liturgical style (e.g. at a baptism, wedding or in a mixed marriage) will be comfortable, as will a chaplain’s service at a college, in a hospital or the military.

The issue of East and West seems more insurmountable. My Orthodox (ex-Episcopalian) friend claims there are many similarities, but in my one visit to his (Greek) church they were hard to find. Many of the non-ethnic Orthodox parishes in the U.S. use familiar words (where applicable) and so at such churches there might be more recognizable similarities.

Still, there seem fewer opportunities for common ground. In the 13th century, the emperor Michael Paeologus — founder of the last dynasty of the Byzantine Empire — tried to reunify the Eastern church with Rome barely 200 years after the Great Schism. However, the laity (and some clergy) of the Greek church sabotaged his efforts because they didn’t want to give up their distinct worship style in the name of unity with Rome — even though it ultimately meant surrendering the empire to the Ottoman invaders.

Thus we must constantly pray for healing the divisions in Christ’s church, even if such healing (like the second coming) may not happen in our lifetimes.

No comments: