Sunday, April 12, 2015

More On The Liturgy Theatrical Reenactment or Evangelical Experience

Palm Sunday often is
another "reenactment"
Well, let’s go back to another response to my posting about Liturgy as reenactment or theatre as opposed to Liturgy as being an act that involves the entire community.  I received the following response to the post:
A different Anonymous: The old rite's view of itself has to be understood in context of the entire rite. It cannot be conceived primarily as theater because there does not have to be an audience! It's indifference to the congregation is partly a historical accident and partly an emphasis on the objectivity of the sacrifice being wrought or the praise being rendered, neither of which makes good theater, which is always audience focused. As for the point about "mixing with the players," it's well and good that in our modern dramaticized liturgies certain laymen get parts, too, but how well would it go over in most parishes if a member of the congregation actually did toddle onstage and decide to do a reading, or add a petition? As to this idea that the "re-enactment" mentality is limited only to those in favor of the Old Rite, cf. the USCCB's website: " For this reason, the priest who presides at the Holy Thursday liturgy portrays the biblical scene of the gospel by washing the feet on 
Good comments. Let me respond piece by piece.
I understand your argument that the Old Rite cannot be conceived of as theatre because there does not have to be an audience, but I think we need to look at it from a different angle.  While the private Mass, invariably a Low Mass, could be done with only a server in attendance, even in the Old Rite the normative celebration, that is the standard from which other levels of celebration were derived, was the Solemn Mass with a full complement of liturgical ministers, including a schola cantorum.  This does not mean that the normative was the most common—it was fairly rarely done even in the best parishes except at Easter Midnight and Christmas Midnight, though some parishes did it for funerals or weddings.   But the Missa Cantata and the Missa Lecta (low Mass) were accommodations made to what the rite presumed to be the standard.  The lack of audience was irrelevant—the rite was fixed in stone in every detail, more fixed than a kabuki performance.  In the case of the private Mass, it may not have been performed for an audience—or at least an earthly audience—but it was done for the Emperor of Heaven and in the sight of his Court.  It was total Rite, pure libretto.  Any subjective or personal dimension was totally irrelevant and not to be exteriorly displayed.  You had your script and you were to stick to it, both for text and stage direction.  Granted while this rigid and static approach does not work for modern drama, it was the heart and soul of classic Greek theater as it still is today in classic Asian theatre.  So while I agree with the commentator that the old rite displays the objectivity of the sacrifice being wrought, I disagree that such does not make good theatre.  It is not good for contemporary theatre—or even Shakespeare—but it does fit well many theatrical traditions. 
As for “mixing with the players” I have not suggested that the liturgy become a free for all where anyone can “toddle onstage to do a reading or add a petition.”  The Liturgy is a well-organized event.  It has a structure.   (It actually has several structures as the various Rites follow the same general pattern of Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist, but are within that general pattern often quite different in their various litanies and prayers and antiphons etc.) What we need to do is to move from a mentality where those around the altar and ambo are actors and those in the pews are audience to a mentality where all are intrinsically involved—according to their various functions and roles—but with no one left as a passive participant, except perchance the stray curiosity-seeker from another faith.  And even they should be welcome cordially enough to feel included to some degree in the community without being forced to “worship.” 
I remember attending Evensong at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.  This goes back thirty-some years.  It was a Palm Sunday; I can still see the processional cross bedecked with palm and pussy-willow and the clergy in their heavy copes carrying sheaves of palm tied up with daffodils in red ribbon.  It was all very, well, let’s just say that it was quite festive.  (That shouldn’t get us a rebuke for hate speech from the Southern Poverty Law Center.)  You may or may not be familiar with Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue but even in the Episcopal/Anglican world it is somewhat ethereal.   The word is that they applied to the English chapter of the Hitler Youth and found the perfect sidesman (we call ‘em ushers): six-three, 185 lbs, blond, blue-eyed.  Then they cloned him to get a perfect dozen exactly identical, dressed them in morning coats with lavender pocket-squares and striped trousers and set them about the church with silver alms basins for the offertory.  Everything at Saint Thomas is done in a way that makes the Chapel Royal look like a tawdry Methodist chapel.  Anyway, I remember this magnificent Palm Sunday Evensong with the choir of men and boys performing incredible music by Poulenac and Williams (among others) and clouds of incense and coped priests going up steps and down steps as we sat in silent awe save for one hymn, The Royal Banners Forward Go.  It was lovely—I won’t deny it.  But in the end it was about choirs and vestments and daffodils—oh, and the sidesmen.  I mean there was the occasional reference to God and even to Jesus once or twice.  And we all went home feeling justified, or at least feeling the better for it.  But what did God ask of me and what did I give him?  Six verses (the choir did two by themselves with descants) with a croaky throat coming out half a tone flat and five bucks in the alms dish when the sidesman handed it to me. (I didn’t want him to think I was cheap.)  I don’t think that is what Christian worship is about.  I do think there is plenty of room for good choirs and times for us all to sit and listen—and even to watch.  But we aren’t an audience.  There are different roles in the liturgy and not all are equally prominent or even vocal, and not all may require us moving from our place—but it does require that each of us be intimately engaged in the entire act of worship.  The bassoonist in the orchestra at the Met is fixed in his chair and is not tooting his horn throughout the entirety of La Bohème  but he is engaged from the first note of the overture  until the curtain comes down.  So too Liturgy must be something in which we all play our part. 
As for the USCCB website saying that the priest reenacts the Gospel of the Washing of the Feet, I might suggest one of three understandings. The first possibility is that the writer just thoughtlessly carried over the reenactment model from all the crap we have been handed over the years that Liturgy is about reenactment.  The second possibility is that the writer actually buys that philosophy and espouses a mentality more suited to the old rite than the current rite.  The third possibility is that whoever is responsible for the website, or whoever that person reports to, understands the theological/political stakes of theatrical model vs worshipping community model and is trying to advance a theology of liturgical celebration that will reinforce a clergy-centered worship as opposed to a community-based liturgy.  The battles between competing ecclesiologies—which is ultimately what this reenactment model vs fulfillment model is all about rages at the USCCB as much as it does elsewhere in the Church.  I just know that I am more comfortable worshipping in a community that is inclusive of all its members rather than have someone take on themselves the responsibility of being my mediator before God.  Jesus does that well enough for me.  


  1. The most moving (and I think correct, from a renewed liturgical perspective) celebration of the "maundy", the Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday, was at the Cowley monastery in Cambridge, MA (Episcopal monastic community, Society of St John the Evangelist SSJE - which one C of E wag claimed signified "Secret Society of Jesus in England"!).

    At Cowley, twelve chairs are set up back to back in a kind of oval formation in the midst of the monk's choir. The first twelve to have their feet washed were the senior monks, their feet washed by the younger monks. Then they traded places. Then the younger monks went back to their choir stalls and the first twelve members of the congregation came up to have their feet washed by the senior monks. Then the senior monks returned to their stalls, and the next group of twelve congregants came forward and had their feet washed by the previous twelve congregants. And so on until everyone who wanted to come up (obviously with this set up no one HAD to come up but no one HAD to be excluded) until all the members of the assembly who wanted to take part had both had their feet washed and washed someone else's feet. It was extremely moving and took - time wise - about the same amount of time as the Liturgy of the Eucharist which followed, thus nicely balancing the two main features of the day: Washing of the Feet, Institution of the Eucharist. The preacher made the point that on a night when one would expect a Synoptic Gospel of the Last Supper to be chosen, the Church chose instead to read the Last Supper account (John) in which the bread and wine are replaced by a basin and dirty feet. The point being that if we can't see Christ in the neighbor we kneel before to serve, we will never see Christ in the Eucharist we kneel before to adore. I must say that among the participants - which was every one in the assembly - there were many tears that night . . . extremely moving.

  2. thanks for this, actually the religious community where I have most often worshipped over the past few decades has been doing this for as long as I remember

  3. When I listen to S. Thomas on the net I see nothing of the ecclesiastical vestments or morning coats. I am greatly affected by the words of Scripture, by the collects and by the judicious use of Latin, German and French as well as English in the music. I find that I do participate actuose in the entire services and have received many spiritual benefits from the same.

    S. Thomas does offer millions an opportunity to experience the divine energies despite the morning coats and pin-striped trousers.

    1. I am very happy for you. And I will admit that the music is lovely. It may just be my Catholic proletariatianism, but as much as I enjoy it as a cultural event I find, as Church goes, Saint Thomas is somewhat pretentious. It does meet the needs of its many attendees, however, and I won't argue with that. I might add, however, that for Catholics listening on the net might foster personal prayer, but an essential part of worship is being in the community. This is why Sunday Mass on television doesn't "fulfill the obligation."