Dr Janet Rutherford on the Happy-Clappy Problem

“You could try telling them how out of date they are; they look like they belong in the 1970s.” This was the bemused response of Dr Janet Rutherford, a liturgist and patristics scholar, upon encountering videos online of so-called “praise and worship” at Oriental Orthodox youth and mission events.

Dr Rutherford comments: “I am so sorry that the Coptic Church is experiencing pressure for non-liturgical ‘worship’! And all those contentless hymns! I will certainly help in any way I can.

I have spent the last few years exploring the phenomenon of the invasion of non-liturgical elements into the worship of the western churches. There is a vast amount of literature on the subject, and I don’t want to drown you in it! Especially because it is largely an in-house argument among western Christians. I don’t agree with ‘trendy’ worship, but on the other hand I know that the Tridentine Mass is a serious corruption of the Alexandrian liturgy, and I don’t want that either!

It is terrible that this infection should be influencing the Coptic Church, because the Liturgy of St Mark is the perfect liturgy, the origin of our western liturgies, and it ought to be the touch-stone of all our western liturgical revisions. So it seems to me that what you need to do is… explain to Copts what is wrong with non-liturgical worship…

If you watch the dynamics of how people behave in a non-liturgical worship setting, compared to people attending a celebration of the Liturgy, you will notice that whereas people attending a liturgy have their attention focused on the presence of God, people attending non-liturgical worship talk to each other. That is, whereas in the liturgy we gather together to encounter God, in non-liturgical worship (or watered-down western liturgical worship), people gather together to encounter each other. I have argued that we can only be saved from this by rediscovering our patristic liturgical roots. I am attaching here an article I wrote on this subject for One in Christ (vol. 45 no. 2, 2011, pp 182-199). It is about problems in western liturgies, but it can also serve as a warning to any Orthodox Christians who are being seduced in the worship-as-meeting direction.”

‘Putting ashes on our heads’: Anglican reflections on the problem of liturgical English
One in Christ vol. 45 no. 2, 2011, pp 182-199

…The importance of being grounded in the early tradition is not to claim any previous period as normative, but to ensure that what we retain from each phase of liturgical development conforms to the theological principles that Christianity started out with, so that the eucharistic liturgy doesn’t gradually change into something other than itself…

Liturgy and the Person of Christ

The duality of Antiochene and Alexandrian approaches to the mystery of salvation, as expressed in their respective eucharistic liturgies, arises from their being based in two different aspects of Jewish ritual, and two different Jewish cultures: the Aramaic Palestinian on the one hand and the Hellenistic Alexandrian on the other. In theology, the Antiochene tradition came to emphasize Christ’s human nature, and therefore liturgical symbolism related to the life of Christ. The Alexandrian tradition emphasized Christ’s divine nature, and symbolism that related to the whole of salvation history. Though the general principles behind the great Christological struggles of the fifth and sixth centuries had always been known, twentieth century scholarship led to much greater understanding of the respective anaphoras of the Antiochene and Alexandrian traditions, and the importance of retaining a balance between them.[1]

Thus, liturgical complementarity reflects a correct balance of Antiochene and Alexandrian Christologies. This became clear during the Iconoclast crisis in the Eastern Churches during the eighth century, which culminated in 787 with the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II. Nicaea II established the theological importance of liturgical iconography, and its correct aesthetic principles. I have argued extensively elsewhere[2] that the western Churches have yet to implement fully the lessons of Nicaea II, and that our liturgical balance is at risk until we do. In formulating a defence of the depiction of Christ during the Iconoclast crisis, it became clear that icons are a dogmatic affirmation that Christ was one Person, divine and human, and that it is thus not only appropriate, but necessary to depict him. On this basis the Eastern Churches came to realize that the unity of the Person of Christ had to be represented in the symbolic and aesthetic integrity of the entire liturgy – rite, music, art, and architecture.[3]

It is not a coincidence that the greatest theologian of Christological orthodoxy – Maximus Confessor – also wrote the oldest extant Byzantine liturgical commentary, the Mystagogy. For Maximus, the entire context of the liturgy, including the church building, forms an organic unity, like the divine and human natures of the one indivisible Christ. All of salvation history, from the Old Testament to the Eschaton, is symbolized in the spatial context of the architecture and iconography of the church, together with the words, music and ritual of the liturgy. But ‘symbol’ in its Alexandrian and Byzantine sense is not merely a thing that represents something divine. It is the place in which the divine is made present. Visible and invisible, material and spiritual, are inseparable in the eucharistic synaxis, the gathering into one of Christ’s body, the Church. The unifying aesthetic principles of this liturgical whole, which assure its sacrality, derive from the geometric ratios that govern the created order: the static symmetry of inorganic things, and the ‘dynamic symmetry’ of all living organisms.[4]

It is common to hear people say that they feel closer to God when taking a walk in the country than when going to church; and most of us will have experienced a feeling of God’s presence when surrounded by the natural world. When the physical principles of the created world are knowledgeably replicated in the integrated sacred space of the liturgy, we instinctively feel that same sense of God’s presence. Even (or perhaps especially) children do. We know that it is beautiful, and we know that that beauty is divine. But unlike a walk in the country, where we encounter God in this world, in sacred liturgical space, rationally created on divine principles, we stand on the threshold of the world to come. When we look at the greatest and most enduring music, art and architecture of the Church, we find the same proportional and aesthetic principles, enshrining the same theological and Christological principles. These are the principles upon which Orthodox iconography is based. They are also the principles inherent in the hexachord of Gregorian chant, upon which Desiderius Lenz based his senarium, the proportional canon of the Beuron school of art.[5] It is arguable that the aesthetic principles of the Church’s tradition have been best preserved in the West within the Benedictine tradition. This explains the fact (which must confuse many people) that there have been Benedictines on both sides of the barricades in contemporary liturgical disagreements. They are two sides of the same coin, as I hope to show.

I will argue that the majority of those who wish to preserve the old, and those who wish to embrace the new, actually want the same thing. There is, for example, no confusing a twentieth century Greek icon with a fifteenth century Russian one, though both conform to the same compositional principles. These aesthetic principles express the Christological principles that form our common Christian inheritance. They are the basis for genuine ecumenism, and informed Sacrosanctum concilium (see SC 50).

Sacrosanctum concilium

As we have seen, the ‘new’ eucharistic prayers of the Mass of Paul VI were in fact composed on the basis of the recovery of old anaphoras. This is characteristic of the vision of the Second Vatican Council. Ancient things were recovered, valid liturgical developments within the Roman Rite were retained, and the guidelines for implementing the reform were left in general terms in order to facilitate legitimate development into the new. Sacrosanctum concilium is indeed like the head of a house who brings out of his storeroom both what is new and what is old.[6] When looking at Sacrosanctum concilium therefore we must remember that the question is not, what would the Mass it envisaged seem like today, but what would it would have seemed like in the 1970s, had it been implemented in full?

Looking at the document as a whole, the Mass it envisaged would have been celebrated in the context of integrated sacred space comprised of architecture, art and music, composed according to the principles described above.[7] The ordinary of the Mass would have remained in Latin;[8] and since music is intrinsic to the liturgy, the Mass would be sung, by clergy and laity, led by trained choirs[9] (with Gregorian Chant retaining pride of place).[10] Language, music, art, and furnishings would be simplified and without useless ornament, but only in order to clarify their beauty and make their symbolic meanings more explicit.[11] Statuary would be ordered within the context of the integrated liturgical space,[12] probably in a schematic representation of salvation history. Everyone, clergy and lay, would be trained not only to understand the liturgy, but to move, sing and speak with the reverence and dignity appropriate to a Church gathered together in the presence of God.[13] Lay people would form part of an integrated liturgical act, joining themselves to the priest through word, song and sacrament.[14] To accomplish the necessary training for this, the liturgy was to be taught to clergy and people in the context of the history of the Church,[15] with rite, art, architecture and music being treated together.[16]

When we imagine this Mass, it is clear that its greatest resemblance would have been to the Orthodox Liturgy. Had the Conciliar reform of the eucharistic liturgy been implemented in this way, it would have benefitted us all, serving as a model for other denominations to develop their patristic inheritance in the traditions of their own reformations. This in turn would have promoted not only unity in the West, but unity between West and East. Sadly however, the Mass envisaged by Sacrosanctum concilium failed to materialize. This is because patristic tradition was set aside in favour of adopting principles of twentieth century ideologies that are inimical to that tradition.

Twentieth Century liturgical reforms

Unfortunately, at the same time that all the reformed liturgies were being introduced, and the Roman Rite translated into English, other powerful forces in the West were influencing the theory of language, and also theories of western music, art and architecture. Logical positivism undermined the status of theological language by claiming that it is not possible to make valid philosophical truth claims about metaphysics (and thus, God). For whatever reason, theologians conceded the philosophical ground and retired from western philosophy (though John Hick did make a Quixotic last stand, pointing out that physicists also make truth claims about things they can’t see).[17] Equally damaging was Wittgenstein’s[18] suggestion that religious language does have a valid use. But that use is not to make truth claims about God, it is rather to provide a vocabulary for ‘language-games’ that serve the sociological needs of a religious group. Linguistic philosophy then developed into deconstruction. This, as its name suggests, took texts to pieces in order to understand the significance of their separate components, and came to the conclusion that language is meaningless.

With logical positivism, Wittgenstein and deconstruction fuelling an intellectual climate that denied the existence of objective truth, theology came increasingly to emphasize pastoral care and social justice, without the benefit of dogmatic underpinnings. While some theologians retreated into ivory towers to talk among themselves, many simply embraced the spirit of the age. Since history was held to be meaningless, Church history came to be taught less and less. Christianity became a form of ‘agapeistic living’,[19] using ‘God-talk’ without theological content, to bond individuals into a religious subculture. All this had a devastating impact on the language of all the liturgical revisions of the late-twentieth-century.

The wording of new hymns, and the revision of old ones, suffered similarly. Consideration for the sensibilities of the congregation took precedence over dogmatic content. Theological understanding deteriorated to the point where doctrinal errors of the most fundamental sort, relating to Trinitarian theology and Christology, entered in. The oldest heresy was the first to reappear: docetism. This is the belief that Jesus didn’t really suffer and die; he just seemed to. Under the guiding principle that the eucharistic liturgy exists to provide a welcoming meeting place for Christians, the unpleasantness of Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane, his agony and sense of dereliction on the Cross, and the genuine extinction of his mortal life, seemed out of place. To give one of many possible examples from the 2003 Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland, the hymn Lead us heavenly Father, lead us has replaced the line ‘Lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go’ with ‘Self denying, death defying, thou to Calvary didst go’ – which gives the impression that Jesus didn’t really mind that much.

Those of us who are old enough to remember (and not so old as to have forgotten) C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters retain a vivid impression of his description of the magnetic pull exercised by absolutely everything that gets us out of having to encounter God. Whether in private prayer or corporate worship, addressing God requires efforts of concentration and engagement, and an uncomfortable awareness of our own inadequacy. How insidiously seductive therefore is the temptation, when gathering together on a Sunday, for Christians to address one another rather than God. How easy to fall into this trap, given that we are enjoined to love not only God but also one another. With the entire liturgy suddenly in modern English, and the dominant philosophical theories of the day stating that the purpose of religious language is to bond as a community, it is clear how great a temptation it was to enter into a dialogue with the celebrant and one another rather than for the laity to join the celebrant in addressing God. That this happened is also illustrated by what became the dominant trends in church architecture and art.

Though not a philosophical movement, post-modernism is the usual umbrella term for the belief (arising from deconstruction) that it is impossible to make value judgements about anything. In literature, art and architecture, form exists simply to be played with. The art and architecture of all times and places are held to be equally meaningless. Since the aesthetic values of the liturgy enshrine theological truths, it is clear how dangerous this has been. Just when religious language and the wording of hymns were succumbing to playing ‘language-games’, architects decided that no shape or iconographic programme was normative for churches. To complement the anthropocentricity of the way religious language was being used, churches became circular or square meeting places. Art also was no longer considered necessary, or meaningful. Growing out of the modernism of the Bauhaus, minimalism’s emphasis on clean lines and clear spaces created an aesthetic climate hostile not just to ornament, but to anything that obscured architectural design. Where there was art, socially interactive forms like drama or installation art were preferred. Where there was explicitly religious art, any symbolism was as good as another, and every artist could invent his or her own (of the ‘this feather represents the Holy Spirit’ type). This tendency reached a nadir with the suggestion made several years ago by a Church of England think tank that Christianity should invent a new ‘logo’, since the cross was no longer relevant to people, and it would be better to have something fresh.[20]

The abandonment of the unifying principles of the liturgy inevitably resulted in the fragmentation of sacred space into unrelated features. Music, which had been liturgical in that it involved the singing of the rite and/or of hymns that had a logical place within the rite, also increasingly became a sociological phenomenon. It was said that traditional liturgical music was too difficult for the laity (in the way that complex sentences and multiple adjectives were thought to be). If it is impossible to make value judgements, it is clearly unnecessary to teach anybody anything, and so everything was made as easy as possible. Lay people were encouraged to engage in as many liturgical activities as possible, but were seldom taught how to perform them properly. Responses were mumbled, and lessons very often inaudible. Constant minor adjustments of wording made it difficult to memorize responses and psalms. These two factors together produced a proliferation of service sheets, leaving individuals adrift in their own personal liturgical bubbles, no longer addressing even each other.

I am not the only lay person who finds it galling that all of this was done in the name of lay participation. The reform that had begun with the aim of uniting the people with the celebrant in adoration of God ended up uniting the celebrant with the people in adoration of the community. As a result, practices were introduced that had their origins not in the patristic vision of the Conciliar reform, but ‘in order to be ecumenical’ – which undermines the basis of true ecumenism. Postmodernism acts like a virus in the body of modern liturgy precisely because those things designed to unite the people in addressing God also, and necessarily, first bond individuals into a group. It isn’t possible to tell by outward appearance whether that group is addressing God or not. A group of concelebrating priests who, like the people, are uniting their prayers to those of the president, who represents the whole body before God, looks exactly like a group of priests bonding as a group of priests. The only difference is the presence or absence of sustained prayer, which is invisible. To ensure that everyone – clergy and lay – is always thinking of God, we must first introduce the liturgical instruction of clergy and people, as set out in Sacrosanctum concilium. This will enable us to know what we are doing, and thus to know how to choose art, music and language that create real sacred liturgical space which sustains and directs our prayer. In this way, with hearts and minds united, we will be able, together, to pray without ceasing.

[1] See E. Mazza, pp 35–73.

[2] See J.E. Rutherford, ‘Back to the Future: Ecclesiastical Art after Postmodernism’, in Sacred Architecture Journal, 17 (2010): 22–6; ‘The “Triumph of Orthodoxy” and the Future of Western Ecclesiastical Art’, in D.V. Twomey and J.E. Rutherford (eds.), Benedict XVI and Beauty in Sacred Art and Architecture (Dublin: 2011), pp 54–76.

[3] See H. Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy, (London: SPCK, 1989).

[4] See J. Hambidge, Elements of Dynamic Symmetry (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1926); K. Knee, The Dynamic Symmetry Proportional System (Torrance CA: Oakwood, 1988); J.E. Rutherford, ‘Pythagoras, Byzantium and the Holiness of Beauty’, in Irish Theological Quarterly, 71/3&4 (2006): 302–319.

[5] See P. Brooke et al., The Aesthetic of Beuron (London: Francis Boutle, 2002).

[6] Matthew 13:52; cf. SC 4, 21, 23.

[7] SC 46, 112, 121, 122, 124, 127.

[8] SC 36, 54.

[9] SC 114, 115.

[10] SC 112, 114, 115, 116.

[11] SC 122, 124.

[12] SC 125.

[13] SC 28, 29.

[14] SC 27, 30, 34, 48, 50, 54, 55, 114.

[15] SC 129.

[16] SC 46.

[17] See J. Hick, ‘Theology and Verification’, in B. Mitchell (ed.), The Philosophy of Religion (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp 53–71.

[18] Set out in The Blue and Brown Books.

[19] See R.B. Braithwaite, ‘An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief’ in B. Mitchell, The Philosophy of Religion, pp 72–91.

[20] This was reported in the Church Times, but I did not retain the copy I had of that issue and am therefore unable to cite it. But the story is not apocryphal.