Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Clarification on Liturgy as Theatre

For those too young 
who might otherwise 
miss the reference, 
the great diva, 
Montserrat Caballé, 

My recent posting on how the view of Liturgy as reenactment has permitted the Liturgy, and particularly the usus antiquior,  to devolve into “sacred theatre” has garnered quite a response and I want to consider some of those responses in postings and not simply in the comments section.  Lets begin by looking at this comment:
While I too abhor the "liturgy as theater" model with which the Krazies are so enamored (and one might note here that the former rite tends to appeal to profoundly introverted and authoritarian psychological types who eschew the kind of interaction you note the present rite expects of its participants) I think there is plenty of this in the reformed liturgy, at least as it is often celebrated. I am thinking especially of the clerical divas who think of themselves as center stage and the stars of the show. I think too of narcissistic cantors who make sure their voice is amplified by sound systems so as to drown out everybody else's. I also have in mind the entertainment model that choirs and music ministers so often promote -- where applause is the sure sign the audience appreciated their performance. Then there is the endless supply of gimmicks employed to warm up the crowd and maintain their attention, on display especially when homilists decide to get folksy and creative. 
I have to agree that I know what you are talking about and the problem of liturgy as theatre is not limited to the Traditional Rites.  I am fortunate in as that I have been able for most of the last however many years ordinarily to avail myself of worship with a religious community with a strong contemplative tradition.  The liturgies tend to be profoundly prayerful and ordinarily devoid of any pomp much less the sort of exhibitionism the reader refers to.  I tend to forget what sometimes goes on in some parishes and with some priests.  That being said, good liturgy often draws on the theatrical arts in a non-self-conscious way.  I think of the beautiful and prayerful liturgies at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. In my occasional moments of distraction I have noticed the normally inconspicuous monk who works the discreetly located light board—the same sort of light board that one finds in a theatre—to subtly change the focus of the lighting from altar to ambo to the Icon of the Mother of God or wherever our attention is to be drawn at that point of the liturgy.  I think too of the care with which a vase of flowers is placed to give an unstated emphasis.  The abbey church itself is a splendid performance space that allows for processional movement and where the eye is drawn and the mind soothed by the natural light coming through the windows and playing on the walls and floor.  The uniformity of the monastic cowls and their graceful draping even portly figures is brilliant costuming.  The various “props” (processional cross, altar candles, sacred vessels, etc.) are understated and do not draw attention to themselves. There are times when the singing is limited to the monks or instrumental music is provided by the organ.  But for all that “theatre” the prayer still demands a “full, conscious, and active” participation of all present.  There aren’t performers and audience.  Just as in any piece of theatre, not all actors are always moving and always in voice but all are essential to the drama.  One may have a leading role (presider, abbot) or simply be a member of the chorus but you never feel like an “extra.”  Somehow each person there is essential to the celebration.
So I guess I am not saying that liturgy should not be theatre, but rather it should not be the sort of theatrical performance in which some entertain others, whether that is the folksy presider chatting his way through Mass like Conan chatting up his audience on late-nite or it be Cardinal Burke ascending the altar like Montserrat Caballé as Tosca ascending the parapet to throw herself off.  


  1. For what it is worth, there are some traditionalists who do share your concern. Take a look at the following article:

  2. thanks for this lead. While I am not a fan of the Traditional Liturgy per se, I would feel quite comfortable in this setting as my real beef isn't the Liturgy, it is the ecclesiology the Liturgy expresses. Like the one person noted, I would choose this liturgy over a "low mass" or even the typical weekday morning novus ordo routine where the liturgy is reduced to sheer and mindless function.

  3. In our contracted-out and industrialized world, we lose a lot of the context of liturgical ownership that would have been felt in past centuries. I work at a very blue-collar parish, introverted, un-confident, and many, especially of the old guard, simply think that no one wants to hear them sing; and at 65 years on they're not going to be convinced. But, back in the day, one hears stories of parishes being built of bricks made by the parishioners themselves, and erected by the meanest and the wealthiest alike. All of those "props" and the "set" were not clericalist posturing, but rather the community's own contribution to dignifying, as they saw it, the worship of God, which was felt to require a certain objective splendor.

    A modern priest who breaks the parish budget to procure a zillion brass candlesticks in order to "educate" his congregation is, of course, not in this spirit at all. But we have lost the culture of taking ownership of the liturgy by contributing to it when it's not going on (how painfully obvious in most parish settings when it comes to finding volunteers to clean or decorate the Church), while arriving at no real consensus about how to take ownership of it while it is being enacted; there will always be those who don't sing. Who can't sing. But just because you're silent, that doesn't mean you are a mere spectator. It is, after all, a spiritual thing going on, an offering, and you can offer as well as the next person, even in silence, helped and moved by the context of beauty and the proclamation of the Word in a dignified way to do so.

    Just a different lens is all it takes...