Catholic vs. Episcopal Liturgical Changes: The Difference

Dr. Peter Toon’s article on Virtue Online about the difference between the changes wrought by the Catholic and Episcopal churches in the 1960′s and 1970′s is essentially correct but needs some expansion, particularly on the Catholic side of things.

The years preceding Vatican II were interesting ones in Catholic thought because there were two trends going on, both of which were centred in France.

The first was the very liberal trend which Anglicans are all too familiar with. The best known representative of this was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose writings were extensively supressed during his lifetime.

The second was a trend back towards a stronger Biblical/Patristic emphasis. The Biblical trend was exemplified by the École Biblique de Jerusalem, headed up by Roland de Vaux. It was given a serious boost by the 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which encouraged Bilbical studies and allowed Catholic Biblical translations to be done from the original Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew rather than strictly the Latin. The Patristic emphasis was the work of scholars such as Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac.

A driving force behind the latter case was to construct a more “authentic” Catholicism from Roman Empire Christianity, peeling away many of the trappings that the Church had accumulated, especially in the Counter-Reformation. In this respect the idea was the same as Thomas Cramner’s, something that many traditional Catholics didn’t miss.

In the wake of Vatican II, the process that resulted in the Novus Ordo Missae in 1970 was the result of extensive studies of liturgies in use in Roman times from Hippolytus forward, both Eastern and Western. One reason why they ended up with four canons is to reflect the diversity of liturgical practice of the Patristic era (another was to break monotony in liturgical use, the same idea as the A/B/C reading cycle.) An excellent reference on this is Cipriano Vagaggini’s book The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform (Staten Island: Alba House, 1967.)

The implementation of these reforms is something that has never sat well with very traditional Catholics. In addition to the vernacular problem–something Anglicans find mystifying–the “new” Mass, along with the whole Vatican II paradigm, gives more emphasis to the “horizontal” relationship of the faith community, as opposed to the focus on the “vertical” relationship between man and God that was the hallmark of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.

Having said all of that, we get to Toon’s point about the difference between the two liturgical reforms.

In a way, both of these reforms can be seen as a race between the two trends noted above: the liberal trend and the Biblical/Patristic trend. In the Catholic case, the leftward lurch of much of the church after Vatican II hadn’t gone far enough for the first trend to really make an impact on the new liturgy; that trend had to content itself with “after the fact” alterations in translation. (We noted elsewhere that this process could have gone another way under different circumstances.)

In the Episcopal case, the second trend was accomplished in prayer books such as the 1662 and 1928 ones, and the thinking of the upper reaches of the church had embraced the first trend enough to end up with the 1979 “prayer book.”

Traditional Catholics would argue from the above that Episcopal history is proof that, once you revert to a more Biblical/Patristic emphasis and deny the value of subsequent tradition, you will end up with liberalism. In saying this they are thinking of the concept of church in purely Catholic terms. As we set forth a long time ago, the whole Catholic concept of the church is one of the church as a formal mediator between man and God, thus giving it the right to dictate the terms and conditions of that relationship. Once you break the continuity of the institution, either literally or through a major change in theology, those terms and conditions are subject to change.

This is in fact that “affirming Catholics” and other liberal types in the Episcopal church would have us to believe; since they have changed the church, our approach to God (or gods) must be different. But in both Catholic and Protestant contexts there is a better way.

In the Catholic context, the church has had a strong enough intellectual tradition to recognise that the tradition they have now is built on what they had before. For Protestants, the emphasis on the primacy of Scripture forces us to avoid things that contradict the teachings of the Word of God in either form (book or Saviour.) In both cases there is a recognition that there is a point at which what one believes can put one (either an individual or a church) outside of the boundaries of Christianity.

And the Episcopal Church certainly has exceeded that boundary.

4 thoughts on “Catholic vs. Episcopal Liturgical Changes: The Difference”

  1. Bonjour,

    I find Episcopalians in France to be far more liberal, trendy, social driven and less gilt driven than my brothers and Sisters Episcopalians in the USA.

    Any suggestions to fit in ???

    I would not want to upset them…I have a good marriage, 23 years, love my husband, have 2 beautiful kids, I am very family oriented, but find churches in the USA too stuffy and starchy…Why is that…It is always about attendance..Why??

  2. Update: this article is in part a response to one by Peter Toon. So this is as good a place as any to mark his passing on 25 April 2009. Toon was a first-rate theologian and clear thinker about many issues, and he will be missed. My condolences go to his family and friends.

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