Over the last few years, I have had frequent cause to return to the question of the ways in which the past and its forms of liturgy should be handled within the Church today. Keeping faith with the past is seldom as straightforward an endeavour as it might initially appear, despite the extreme self-assurance that one often encounters among conservatives and traditionalists on this front.
Naivety concerning the ease of this task leaves us poorly equipped for the challenge of maintaining continuity with the Church throughout the ages within the particular age within which we are placed. This naivety can be exacerbated by the prima facie continuity with the past seen within our use of traditional words and forms in our liturgies, an apparent continuity that blinds us to sharp discontinuities that can lie beneath this façade.
Within these two articles, I want to reflect upon what it might mean to keep faith with the Church’s historic traditions of worship. Although my focus here is particularly upon traditional liturgies, much that I say has dimensions of wider relevance to questions of theology, interpretation, politics, and society.
What are we are looking for when we look to the Christian past and its liturgies? Rather than presume that what we look for when we turn to the liturgies of the past are the things that we should be looking for, perhaps it would be best to begin with some of the unhelpful ways in which we make appeal to the past. Our motivations for turning to the liturgies of the past—or to the past more generally—are seldom uncomplicated. Our ostensive purposes frequently dissemble other unhelpful ones, even from ourselves. As our interest within it is rarely simply antiquarian, the past is often at risk of being conscripted for and subordinated to contemporary ideological and practical ends.
This risk is exacerbated when we are exploring the origins of a tradition, where the sacralising effects of antiquity are at their most pronounced. Founding narratives, documents, practices, or figures offer attractive sources of legitimation (or de-legitimation) and authorization. Unsurprisingly, such sources are routinely subjected to indignities by those who would cynically monopolize and mobilize their authority in the present.
Even among those who are principled, though, there is an array of temptations that exert a subtle influence upon us. We desire pristine, principled, clear, and unified origins, yet origins seldom are. Even for those with a less exalted place for ‘tradition’, the early Church—existing in the penumbra of the apostolic age—possesses considerable interest on account of its close relation to Christianity’s origins. Liturgical scholars such as Paul Bradshaw have helpfully exposed the diversity of the earliest layers of Christian tradition of worship and the degree to which many reconstructions are unsupported by the limited evidence that we possess.
The paucity of the evidence that we possess about the earliest Christian forms of worship renders the early Church’s worship especially vulnerable to the retrojection of a variety of visions of an idealized liturgical purity and simplicity, ideologically informed imaginations misperceiving their own reflections in a selective collection of texts. Among primitivist Christians, these visions are routinely appealed to as justification for a radical overhaul of the Church in the present, restoring it to a supposed original purity and simplicity.
The imagined simplicity of the origins contributes greatly to their appeal. Faced with the moral complexities of the contemporary world—of Christianity’s entanglement with politics, of the fraught and knotty realities of global capitalism, of the ethical quandaries pressed upon us by modern technology and medicine, or of the bewildering proliferation of Christian denominations and theologies—the temptation to retreat to the imagined certainties and clarity of a simpler age or to project them carelessly into our own can be profound. At the origins, all is black and white, our objectives and opponents are clear. In such an age, considerably less wisdom and prudence would be demanded of us.
Of course, even though the past may have been simpler in certain regards, viewing it retrospectively we will always find it difficult to grasp the degree to which our very vantage points were established, not through a determined drive of historical destiny but through the accidental and unpredictable resolutions of the past’s disequilibrium and contingencies. We forget that Christians of all eras have faced comparable uncertainties and similarly intractable diversities of opinion to our own.
The turn to the early Church and its liturgies within primitivist or restorationist forms of Christianity generally occurs in service of a larger ‘fall narrative’. Such a narrative seeks to move the present by presenting an original state of well-being from which the Church departed and to which we must return. Fall narratives are by no means exclusive to primitivist forms of Christianity and commonly involve a caricatured bête noire figure, who represents all that went wrong. For Anabaptists, this might be Constantine; for Catholics, Luther; for the Radical Orthodox, Duns Scotus.
Such grand fall narratives typically operate at some distance from the detailed analysis of historical researchers and markedly wither beneath the glare of their close scrutiny. They paint a simplistic portrait of history, a history of easily identifiable bad and good guys and of states of affairs that could obdurately resist all sorts of social and ideological upheavals and shifts unmoved. Each in their own way can involve attempts to avoid the responsibility of the transformational engagement that history demands of us: whether it be in seeking to be a Church that didn’t have to grapple with the complicating reality of its political ascendency, a Church that didn’t have to undergo a painful reformation, or a Church that didn’t have to do serious business with modernity.
In addition to the motives underlying the turn to the past and its liturgies mentioned above, there are further temptations that may be felt more acutely within our own age. In A Secular Age Charles Taylor speaks of our age as one of ‘authenticity’, one in which we all have the responsibility to realize and express our own chosen identities, rather than just conforming to some pattern imposed upon us from without. We express our identity through our choices, displaying these choices in constant relation to and interaction with a host of other choosing individuals who are expressing their individuality in similar manners.
The turn to historic liturgies among many today has been shaped by a need created by expressive individualism’s quest for authenticity. Plagued by a disquieting sense of inauthenticity amidst the simulacra of postmodern consumer culture, many in quest of traditional liturgy can be like the stereotypical hipster who seeks out ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ vintage styles in the thrift store. Traditional liturgy can become yet another element within the culture of mutual display, a lifestyle choice, or something that we consume, to display our personal taste and liturgical refinement, socio-economic class, and ecclesiastical pedigree.
In some contexts, the appeal of the liturgies of the past may also be encouraged by their possession of an awe-inspiring dignity and grandeur that is often lacking within many of their successors. On account of their informality and eschewing of mystery in favour of conscious participation, many modern liturgies leave people feeling vulnerable to the stifling immanence of our secular age. By contrast, the solemnity and majesty of many traditional liturgies serve as a bulwark against this sense, offering, at the very least, an ersatz aesthetic transcendence.
Having said all of this, why should we turn to the past and its liturgies?
The importance of the past ages of the Church and its liturgies for Christianity arises in large measure from our creedal convictions concerning the character of the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and the reality of the communion of saints. In turning to the liturgies of the past, we can seek to maintain and express the truth of the unity of the Church through all ages. In attending to the liturgies of the past we can honour and advocate for the interests and wisdom of those who preceded us in history, refusing to surrender the Church to the tyranny of the interests of the immediate present.
As Chesterton once observed, tradition is the “democracy of the dead.” We are the bearers of a legacy, which we hope to pass on in turn, and liturgy is one of the primary means by which this transition is effected. Alasdair MacIntyre has defined tradition as “an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined.” In turning to the past we maintain and develop this conversation.
I was recently struck by Robert Daly’s observation that “absent ecumenism, or at least a potentially ecumenical context, liturgical renewal does not seem to flourish.” The turn to the liturgies of the past has frequently been occasioned by the desire to appreciate, to wrestle with, and to re-appropriate a shared patrimony, enabling us to discover and advance—not only our relation to those past voices—but also our mutual relations with those of other Christian traditions in our own day.
Besides this, past liturgies provide a fertile source of inspiration, insight, and guidance for Christian worship in our own day. Liturgies and their performances are contextualized interpretations and presentations of Christian truth, designed to bring participants into the symbolic universe of the Christian faith and form them within it. While no single liturgy or liturgical performance will exhaust the potential of this symbolic universe, studying liturgies of the past is comparable to studying classic works of literature, which broaden our apprehension of the cultural canon and provide worthy models for our own practice.
Finally, it is through a deep acquaintance with the past that we are most likely to be alerted to the prevailing prejudices and blindspots of the present. The past affords us a different vantage point upon Christian truth; it can also provide us with a way of looking at ourselves.
Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.
 Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
 Robert J. Daly, Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 196
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.