Project Canterbury

Towards a Living Liturgy: The Liturgy of the Lord's Supper Examined in Essays.

Liturgical Communication

By Robert E. Terwilliger

New York: Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, 1969.

The liturgy is a form of communication. It is notorious that we are experiencing a communications revolution. Therefore, the question of liturgical communication is of utmost urgency.

One of the most surprising things in liturgical scholarship is the incredible lack of studies in the nature of liturgical language and even of the import of liturgical signs and their function in conveying meaning. It may, of course, be that such a task is the vocation of this moment in the Church. At any rate, we have too little to rely upon for principles and precedents in criticizing the liturgical communication of the many new rites which are now springing into existence throughout Christendom.

The Anglican tradition has a long-standing commitment to comprehensibility in worship. Article XXIV says: "It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people." In the days when this article was written, being "understanded of the people" was primarily a verbal affair. In the age of television and Marshall McLuhan, this is no longer the case. It appears that the primary forms of communication now may indeed be non-verbal. How does the proposed liturgy fare according to this requirement?

The liturgy is primarily an action. The words of the liturgy are the interpretation of the action. The new rite does much to make this come clear. For one thing, it is shorter. The effect of the order for the celebration of the sacrament itself is abrupt, as is appropriate both to primitive precedent and to modern time sense. It is much more clearly a deed composed of several clearly-defined actions — offertory, consecration, fraction, and communion.

The forms of liturgical action are in some cases more directly specified. The reader of the Gospel is told to face the people. The deacon is involved in the action as well as the priest or bishop, and is explicitly given the task of setting the table. The more individuals involved in the celebration, the more the movement. It is suggested as appropriate that other priests stand at the altar and join in the offering and consecration. The breaking of the bread is made a dramatic and separate ceremony which is no longer in the Prayer of Consecration.

The congregation is also involved in the action. The rubric that the priest and people "shall exchange one with another The Peace" implies some sort of action, even a touching. The revelation of astonished reaction to this has been evidence that the congregations are getting involved even more than they wish.

Standing is a much more active position than cither sitting or even kneeling. This has been rubrically commanded as at the offertory, rubrically permitted as at the communion, and has come to be in general practice increasingly the posture of the people when the proposed Eucharist is celebrated.

The emphasis on communication by action is not explicitly or inevitably the result of the proposed liturgy. These changes which clearly reflect a return to primitive practice and to a rethinking of medieval liturgical communication have been the occasion for the return to many more effective non-verbal liturgical signs. The rite obviously works better with a free-standing altar and a celebration facing the people. The greater articulation of the offertory has made the offertory procession a natural aspect of the celebration. All of this has increased the feeling of corporateness and has destroyed the old individualism of low-mass piety which invaded even the more Protestant parts of the Episcopal Church.

As non-verbal communication the proposed rite comes off rather well in comparison to the liturgy of 1928. It is possible, of course, to wish for many things more but one of the excellent things about this rite is that there are so few limitations on action. It can be celebrated with splendid and dramatic effects in action or with the greatest spontaneity and informality. Indeed, the spontaneity and informality may give as much or more dynamic effect to the symbolic action as the greater formality of disciplined ceremonial. This is obviously a time for experiment in action. One thing which should be suggested is that the communion itself should be more obviously an eating and drinking with breads that have some substance and some taste, perhaps the common bread of our tables or an unleavened bread of whole wheat flour. Perhaps now we should teach the people that they should really chew the bread and drink from the chalice rather than just sip from it—the explicit provision for intinction does, however, vitiate this point. The rite is in itself a stimulus to the development of new forms and the revival of lapsed ceremonial action. This is obviously one of its excellencies.

What does the rite as a whole communicate? Most lay Episcopalians think of it as a newness. It is an updating of the liturgy. This is one of the reasons why it is often thought to be a threat to their sense of security in the continuity. They have for long taken romantic comfort in the euphonious phrases of Prayer Book English. The new language offends them. They do not wish to be disturbed. In actual fact, of course, the new rite equally should communicate, and can communicate, if rightly interpreted, the primitive New Testament original nature of the Eucharist. Perhaps this needs to be even more underscored in official interpretations which may come in the future. The communication of the age-old eucharistic understanding is a potential in the proposed liturgy. The way of true renewal is always a return to the roots: re-source-ment. The liturgy is a celebration of the Word of God as much as it is a celebration of the sacrament. The Liturgy of the Word in the proposed rite is one of the best features it has to offer. It is splendid at last to have a lection from the Old Testament It is good to have the sermon directly after the Gospel. The sequence of Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel, and sermon provides a real Ministry of the Word. It can, of course, be made deadly if the lections are not separated by any psalmody or hymnody and the sermon is unprepared or otherwise inadequate. But when the Scripture is read solemnly, and hopefully in a current translation of some literary merit such as the Jerusalem Bible, and when the sermon is a real, vital, and even spontaneous proclamation of the Gospel, the Liturgy of the Word creates the evangelical power which is essential to true liturgy. As it now stands, the articulation of the Ministry of the Word may be the very best part of the proposed liturgy.

When all of this has been said, it has to be admitted that the proposed liturgy is still too verbal. This is something which is utterly intolerable to a modem man with his short attention span and his conditioning in timing of expression. A man who is sold things through commercials on television cannot tolerate the Prayer of Intercession. This composition has, of course, been the target of the most vivid criticism. It is garrulous, it is sentimental, and it is full of phrases which are unnecessarily indirect. Clearly, it will not last in its present form, so as it is it is hardly worth discussing. Its substitute must certainly have the excellence of litany form if for no other reason than so that the petitions may be interrupted so that people can actually keep their minds on them.

The other notorious example is, of course, the dismissal. It is not necessary to discuss the purpose of our exit to be the Body of Christ with such banality. (And speaking of banality, could anything be worse than, "Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor unto the Lord"?) To put it rudely, it is necessary to let some of the air out of the expression of this rite. And this, strangely, is more necessary in the writing that is new than in the familiar words of the inherited compositions.

One of the greatest problems of the new rite is the excellence of the literature of past Prayer Books. It would seem desecration to tamper with the Collect for Purity and a thousand other compositions of such perfection simply in order to update them. It is also true that old English simply is not going to communicate the liturgy to the generation which has already come. Indeed, there is an emotional resistance against it which is a given fact There must be modern English, but there clearly is no common mind within the Episcopal Church as to what is to be done about this. The reason for the indecisiveness is sometimes sheer sentimentality, or worse. We make our worship a comfortable escape into the memories of the more secure childhood of our personal religion. Yet there is also the fact that a liturgy is a form of continuity, and there must be within it some communication of the truth that ours is a historical religion.

It is very improbable that even the most modernized of us would at this point really enjoy the total recomposition of the Lord's Prayer in modern English. This has to do with our belonging. It has to do with the kind of learned, conditioned, repeated liturgical form which sinks below the surface of our conscious and lives deep in our mind when it is not being expressed on our lips. Therefore, it seems inevitable that there will be some reminiscences of a liturgical past in any form of true liturgy. There is no solution to this problem until we recognize that there is no solution. But is not one thing clear? When modem English is composed, it must be modem. It needs to be contemporary in rhythm and directness and in use of current wording. Do we actually say, "engaged in the arts and sciences", "the harvest of the lands and of the waters", "in this transitory life"? These lumbering phrases may give a certain literary satisfaction, but they may actually prevent prayer because they cannot now be heard. The problem of inherited language in this rite is apparent also in the way in which dearly beloved phrases have been rearranged in revised compositions and the rhythm of the passages has been ruined. One notable instance can be found in the Prayer of Consecration. The anamnesis begins with its "Wherefore, O Lord and holy Father," and concludes magnificently with "looking for his Coming again in power and great glory"; and then for some inscrutable reason, there is intruded a section from the final paragraph of the old Consecration Prayer, "And herewith we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, which is our bounden duty and service..." Anyone who has tried to read this in celebration realizes that there is a sudden diminution in force and the whole thing is fantastically disjointed. It may be that we must be prepared to junk many of our best loved expressions in order to produce new compositions which have their own real authority of expression.

It is being said everywhere, of course, that the whole proposed liturgy needs to be rewritten by some genius in the English language. This is an excellent idea, but all too often the nominations for the second Cranmer are men of old established reputation who happen to be Anglicans. Our language now is not the language of the ’30s or the ’40s. If we are seeking such a genius, it could never be the contemporaries of the late T. S. Eliot It might better be the likes of John Updike.

There is one matter of communicating a gross mistake which should be dealt with straightly. This is the perpetuation of the false interpretation of the meaning of the Kyrie eleison which has been present in Anglican liturgy from its inception. Originally, the Kyrie was an acclamation of praise—a hailing of the Lord of mercy. In a recent and excellent article in the liturgical and ecumenical journal Una Sancta, Philip H. Pfatteicher defines the Kyrie as "a cheer for God". He complains, "The Kyrie became a problem in the Lutheran rite because it was taken as a prayer for mercy and forgiveness. The usual English translation, 'Lord have mercy upon us,' is Archbishop Cranmer's work and was taken over by the Lutherans in their service books when they began to speak English. The addition of the last two words, however, which are not in the Greek, is unfortunate and misleading. These words make the cry too personal, too penitential. More than half a century ago, John Dowden proposed dropping ‘upon us' to restore what he called ‘the large indefiniteness of the original.'" ("A Cheer for God," Una Sancta, Brooklyn, N.Y., Vol. 25, No. 3, Michaelmas, 1968, p. 75) It is high time that we stopped showing this bad example in Christendom. The real nature of the Kyrie is accurately expressed in the rationale of the proposed revision where it is stated, "The Kyrie is essentially an acclamation of praise, with much the same overtones of meaning that other ancient and untranslated words of the liturgy bear, such as Alleluia, Hosanna, and Amen." (Page 29)

Yet the Kyrie is still appended to the Summary of the Law, making it a penitential response to the absolute demand of the first and second commandments for total love. It cannot be said too strongly that this is the communication of a total misunderstanding of one of the grandest traditions of Christian liturgy.

This misunderstanding is made intolerable by the suggestion that after the Summary of the Law may be one of the optional places for the Penitential Order. This is simply the continuation of a liturgical abomination. A far better case could be made for the total elimination of the Gloria in excelsis, since the Kyrie is the expression of the identical act of praise. This is made perfectly clear in the alternative of using the Trisagion.

If the Comfortable Words are now made optional, could we not at least have an optional Summary of the Law so that this misinterpretation should not be forced upon us at every celebration?

Furthermore, the time has come to eliminate the "upon us" from "Lord, have mercy upon us." This is a mistranslation, and the reason advanced that there is too much music written that requires the extra syllables to make it work is hardly a reason for perpetuating this error. The inherited music of the liturgy can hardly be taken as the basis for the interpretation of the content of its wording. This indeed is a Procrustian bed.

There was a time when the Book of Common Prayer was considered the classic Christian liturgy in English. At the present moment, when the Roman Catholic Church has translated its forms into the vernacular, we sometimes get irritated that our brothers do not seem to realize that we did this very thing four hundred years before. This dramatizes the fact that our liturgy is no longer obviously in the language of the people. Certainly, the language of the Book of Common Prayer is not the liturgy in American. Furthermore, we have come into an utterly new period of liturgical understanding which has left the old prayer books behind. The Prayer Book was essentially a literary composition, and we now realize that liturgy is not essentially a literary fact. What we do in the liturgy is more important than what we say. We have an utterly new and in a very real sense a tremendously better liturgical situation in Christendom now than at the time of Reformation. The question before Anglicans at this moment is not whether we shall be able to save the liturgical treasure which we have received but whether we have the same daring now that our fathers had in the Sixteenth Century to respond creatively to a movement of the Spirit. Anglicanism has had a vocation to sound learning, common sense, tradition, and good taste. It should be possible now for us to make on the basis of this good beginning in the proposed liturgy a rite that can again be a precedent and possibly a classic in Christendom. Our motive, however, must not be competitive. The goal which we should have in view is quite clearly the emergence of a common liturgy which can be as universal as a common Bible, full of variety and yet consistent in its understanding of the meaning of Christian worship.

Project Canterbury