The laity and the Church

2 11 2009

minororders

Once upon a time, there was a Church that didn’t need the laity. Well, it knew that it was there, but it wasn’t like it mattered or anything. The only non-clergy who actually mattered were the ones who had the swords and the guns; as long as they were on the clergy’s side, the Church could basically do whatever it wanted. Thus, the liturgy remained in the same language for sixteen hundred years, even if the people had long stopped speaking that language. Ceremonies were basically performed in a whisper, or in a rushing series of clerical incantations to which most of the people in the church were completely oblivious. Meanwhile, the laity had to “fend for themselves”, taking what the clergy told them and trying to fit it into how they perceived and lived their daily lives. Sometimes, the clergy themselves assumed many of the popular beliefs of the people (after all, clergymen in that Church didn’t just bud out of other clergymen like hydras), and sometimes they had to go to scold the people for their “superstition” when they found certain practices objectionable. But the point was that the clergy had a captive audience, and the laity had to accept whatever it said, like it or not.

Then, the non-clergymen with the swords and the guns figured that they would be a lot better off without the clergy’s full support. They coveted the Church’s lands and wealth, figuring then that this is modernity after all, and there is no point in leaving so much wealth in the hands of such unproductive people. So throughout the world, the Church was stripped of its political and economic power. In many places, it became a fortress, in some places more literally than others. Catholics were told to distrust their rulers, putting them through a litmus test of what the Church said to be true and acceptable. Indeed, documents were issued by the Church condemning the new order in the strongest terms, declarations that pined for the return of the Church “the way it was”.

There were changes, however. The Church began to realize that it had to do something about the whole “being in church” problem. Now the clergy could not simply do “whatever it wanted” in church while ignoring the people since there was no man with a large weapon standing over them forcing them to go to Mass on Sunday or at the very least pay their tithe. Nor could the clerical caste simply bask in its own autonomy, seeing the laity as a herd of obedient sheep in a sealed pen. Times had changed, and the pen was levelled, and the sheep could wander wherever they may, and in some places were encouraged to do so. They had to come up with strategies to address this issue. For it was as if one day, the Church woke up, groaned, and realized that it actually needed the laity.

Well, it took the Church long enough, but it came up with a solution: take away from the people all of the “superstitious” gruel that they had been feeding on while the “enlightened” clergy mumbled their prayers in a dead language, and replace it with a totally new thing created by (guess who) the clergy themselves. Get rid of the dead language, and put the liturgy in a language that they could understand. Make theology and the Faith “hip and relevant”, tone down the whole emphasis on rules and regulations, and emphasize the compassionate love of God. And hey, if the people are listening to Elvis, make the music in church sound like Elvis (it doesn’t matter that people have moved on to the Rolling Stones. Or Lil Wayne.) And if they hang out in malls, make their churches look like malls. After all, the clergy “get it now”: it needs the people, and the only way to keep the people in the pews is to “be like the people”. The only way to shepherd the sheep is to dress up like a sheep and pretend to be one.

The problem is, the people aren’t buying it. The sheep even in this shining city on a hill are slowly hemorrhaging out of the church, and in other parts, they are almost all out of the pen.

In this tale, I seek not to offer answers, but rather to pose the situation as it really stands. Perhaps I have painted a picture with rather wide brush strokes. But in the end, this is the bind we are in. And as I have said before, just because there is a problem, that doesn’t mean that there is anyone around smart enough to fix it. Except God Himself.


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21 responses

10 06 2010
A Disturbing Phone Call « Agostinal Reflections II

[…] him to send you a priest with a better sense of orthodoxy. We no longer live in the days when the laity didn’t matter, and now you have options that you didn’t have before. I just think it’s time the laity […]

7 06 2010
Joshua Bukyanagandi

Its intresting and quite refreshing to read history concerning the ‘beginnings’ of the most important organizations called the church today. The laity group of believers are a reality the church cannot do away with. In my opinion they determine the direction of the church. That if there is anything the church does, shouid be done in the interest of but the laity. They must be involved in the activities that make the daily running of the church. Gone are the days when the church just ignored them. Joshua

27 11 2009
Josh S

Because Arturo mentioned it:

We Lutherans, we didn’t much care for indulgences. Not big fans of the pope. Really not cool with the cult of the saints. But we could deal with it. We carved out our niche. And for about 400 years, everything was cool. Catholics went to Latin Mass, Lutherans went to Deutsche Messe, and we were able to stop killing each other.

Then you had to go inflict “On Eagles’ Wings” on us, infecting our hymnals with this disease. WHY?!?!?! WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LET THE PAIN STOP?!?!?!?!! WILL THERE EVER BE ANY ESCAPE FROM PAPIST TYRANNY?!?!?!

20 11 2009
Victor

This is not necessarily true. Church Slavonic is understandable, though imperfectly so. And if we wish to speak in generatlities, the big division in the modern Russian probably started in the 18th century.

13 11 2009
CNI

The Romanian Church-quite considerable in size among the various National and Autocephalous Orthodox Churches- gradually switched from Slavonic to Romanian starting in the 16th century (1570-first Romanian edition of the Liturgikon) in some places, then much more towards the end of the 17th century and throughout all of the 18th century, so that by the beginning 19th century in most of the territories inhabited by Romanians the Liturgy and the daily offices were celebrated in the vernacular.
Only some monasteries (such as Neamt) or som cathedrals (such as Arad, which was, for a long time, under the Serbian Metropolitan of Karlovitz) held on to Slavonic into the second half of the 19th century.
And then there were some princely churches and monasteries, either funded or founded by the Phanatiotes, where the liturgy was celebrated in Greek, besides Slavonic, of course.

11 11 2009
evagrius

No, it’s not the “laity” but the “clerics” who are causing the division.

Read Afanasiev’s “The Church of the Holy Spirit”. He makes an interesting observation. In the early Church there was no distinction. The Eucharist was a liturgia, a common work. This is remembered in the Orthodox Church in the fact that no priest can celebrate the liturgy by himself.

11 11 2009
Tom Smith

So… the Byzantine liturgy was celebrated in a vernacular language, for a rather short time, 1200 years ago. If you use this fact to try and argue that the East has somehow maintained a tradition of vernacular liturgy, then you must say the same of the West, having 1700 years ago switched over to the Latin spoken by the common folk.

9 11 2009
Tom

This essay is incoherent. It uses political categories rather than ecclesial ones. The “laity,” which includes professed religious, have always been “part of the Church.”

Frankly, it’s the laity who are creating division in the Church.

5 11 2009
Cambrensis

Leah wrote:

“One of the things that intrieges me is the fact that when non-Church nerds carp about the Catholic Church, their complaints don’t focus on liturgical abuses, bad architecture, or watered down teachings. Rather, the anger is about teachings about women’s ordination, birth control, abortion, fornication, etc., as if these issues were being denounced from every pulpit on a regular basis. To these critics, including many people who presumably are old enough to have lived through Vatican II, it’s like nothing has changed since Pius IX issued the “Syllabus of Errors.”

I’ve noticed that Catholic posters on atheist internet forums who try to be conciliatory by proclaiming their liberal credentials receive the fiercest abuse. They’re either accused of being lying hypocrites who’d whip out the thumbscrews given half a chance, or mocked as sentimental weaklings. To the guilty conscience even the mildest opposition is unendurable. They’ll never be satisfied until the Church reforms herself out of existence and because she can’t do that she remains a standing reproof. To hostile critics, the modern clergy’s left-liberal stance on many issues only makes their opposition to abortion etc seem bafflingly incongruous.

The then Cardinal Ratzinger famously described Gaudium et Spes as “an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789”. Alas, the new era doesn’t seem interested in reconciliation.

“Even when the Church is portrayed in the popular media, it’s always in pre-Vatican II terms: nuns in full habit, gothic cathedrals, old-school anonymous confessionals, all-male altar servers.”

In part this might be more of the determination to portray the Church as hidebound and reactionary, but I wonder if it isn’t also a simple awareness that the trappings of the preconciliar Church were more aesthetically pleasing. Any Hollywood producer who wants to make a horror movie involving the supernatural is going to go for the “old Church” look because it’s so much more dramatically striking.

The fact that after more than four decades of liturgical reform, “nuns in full habit, gothic cathedrals etc” still signify “Catholicism” in the popular imagination speaks volumes.

-edited by AG to add quotes

5 11 2009
Sam Urfer

I have no idea what my grandmother wants played at her funeral, actually. I am inclined to agree with you, but in the Church as it is I need to stay sane, so I hold my breath and try to get on. I can’t let myself get angry.

5 11 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I would accept this argument if you were a thousand year old liturgist. I think it very silly when people start talking about millenia as if it were five minutes ago, and a century as if it passed right before they just sneezed. A hundred years is a pretty long time to be doing something, and a thousand is an eternity. So what they did XYZ in the third century? They probably did a bunch of crazy things that you don’t like too, and no one is clamoring to bring any of those things back. All the talk of not being a “liturgical purist” doesn’t absolve one iota the charge that most of what takes place on Catholic altars these days is cultural garbage. And yes, it makes the baby Jesus cry. I don’t care how much your grandmother likes “On Eagle’s Wings” and wants it played at her funeral.

Re: Old Slavonic: my understanding, taught to me by someone who read Old Slavonic, is that no one in history actually spoke Old Slavonic. It was like a very learned patois that was developed in order to be able to slavishly translate the Greek. Indeed, the point was to try to preserve as much of the Greek as possible since it was deemed a hieratic language. It was to the point that sometimes the translations of the Byzantine liturgy were nonsensical because they wanted to be too slavish to the original text. No one in the past would dream of praying in the same language that would be used in the market. That type of dysfunctional approach to language is a particularly modern monstrosity.

4 11 2009
ochlophobist

The Greek used in Greek Orthodox Churches has not been vernacular in many hundreds of years.

If what would become the OCA was so fast to get away from Slavonic, why was Schmemann so often complaining about their parishes holding on to Slavonic? Read his journals.

The Finn Orthodox also have pro-homosexual marriage clergy. They are the last Synod on earth to look to for guidance.

I have a friend, Bela, an Evangelical from the Caucasus, who got her doctorate in linguistics. She has told me that Old Church Slavonic was an admixture of various Slavic dialects at the time and it is debated by linguists whether or not it should be considered truly vernacular (at the point when it was in effect created). Even when it was created, we can say that it was not vernacular for many Slavs, though there was a pan-Slavic quality to it from the beginning. Further, we know it veered from the vernacular rather quickly, or, rather, the vernacular veered from it, as can be seen by the later recensions. With Church Slavonic there is a relationship to the vernacular that is no doubt closer than we see in most of the history of the use of ecclesiastical Latin and ecclesiastical Greek and ecclesiastical Arabic and ecclesiastical Georgian, but it is not quite right, in my opinion, to paint is as a cut and dry vernacularization of Liturgy, even from the start. Methinks that Sts. Cyril & Methodius had as much in mind to incarnate the Liturgy into a broad Slavic culture, and they wisely knew that involved a language that Slavs were deeply connected to culturally. But when considering, among other things, the many technical theological terms they introduced into Slavic for use in the Liturgy, it seems rather clear that they were not attempting to make the Liturgy easily assessable to the masses. There was not exactly what we might consider a vernacular spirit by modern standards. Thank God.

4 11 2009
Sam Urfer

It’s also worth noting that St. Cyril & St. Methodius actually translated both the Byzantine *and* the Roman rites into Slavonic for general usage, just to make the East-West dichotomy a little more unwieldy. Back then, there were no Orthodox and Catholics, just Orthodox Catholics (well, and heretics, but that’s beside the point).

Similarly, one could make the argument about Latin being the vernacular originally, or even Greek.

If I wanted to become a liturgical purist, I could only attend Church in Aramaic.

4 11 2009
Tom

Tom, the existence of A Slavonic liturgy is itself testament to the Orthodox principle of celebrating the liturgy in the common language of the people. This was certainly understood by Ss Cyril and Methodius. Although, you’re right to draw attention to the continuing use of Slavonic in Russia, I think this is an anomaly. Certainly all of the Russian missions outside Russia (Finland, America, Japan, Europe) have very quickly adopted a mainly vernacular liturgy.

4 11 2009
Tom Smith

I would contest this point. The largest autocephalous Orthodox church, the Russian, has a liturgy celebrated mostly in Old Church Slavonic, which is nearly unintelligible to modern Russians.

I have never understood how modern Orthodox apologists are able to claim that the Orthodox Church has always had a tradition of vernacular liturgy — Slavonic hasn’t been a vernacular language in 1200 years!

4 11 2009
Leah

One of the things that intrieges me is the fact that when non-Church nerds carp about the Catholic Church, their complaints don’t focus on liturgical abuses, bad architecture, or watered down teachings. Rather, the anger is about teachings about women’s ordination, birth control, abortion, fornication, etc., as if these issues were being denounced from every pulpit on a regular basis. To these critics, including many people who presumably are old enough to have lived through Vatican II, it’s like nothing has changed since Pius IX issued the “Syllabus of Errors.” Even when the Church is portrayed in the popular media, it’s always in pre-Vatican II terms: nuns in full habit, gothic cathedrals, old-school anonymous confessionals, all-male altar servers. It makes me wonder…

4 11 2009
Tom

I think it’s important to separate the issue of liturgy in the vernacular from the issue of liturgical butchery in general (bringing it “up to date”, making it “relevant” etc). It’s quite possible to have the former without the latter, and just translating the existing liturgy would have gone some way to solving the problem of the alienation of the laity. This is what has generally happened in the Orthodox Church.

3 11 2009
Cambrensis

“One of the more irritating narratives you hear among Traditionalist circles is the notion that the Church was chugging along fine until Vatican II and the Missal of Pope Paul VI ruined everything. The sociological, ideological, and economic forces contributing to the decline of the Church are Legion and pre-date the Second Vatican Council by centuries. I’m no fan of the Novus Ordo, but the idea that the new liturgy is more (or equally) culpable for the crisis in the Church than, say, the explosion of material wealth in the West or the triumph of classical liberalism in political & ethical thought is laughable.”

All the same, the replacement of a beautiful liturgy in Latin with an ugly one in countless tongues can hardly have helped. At a bare sociological minimum it must have weakened group identity and esprit de corps, no?

2 11 2009
crouchback

Sounds about right. Although the sheep have been “slowly hemorrhaging out of the church” well before the clergy decided to create a new liturgy and dress up like the sheep.

One of the more irritating narratives you hear among Traditionalist circles is the notion that the Church was chugging along fine until Vatican II and the Missal of Pope Paul VI ruined everything. The sociological, ideological, and economic forces contributing to the decline of the Church are Legion and pre-date the Second Vatican Council by centuries. I’m no fan of the Novus Ordo, but the idea that the new liturgy is more (or equally) culpable for the crisis in the Church than, say, the explosion of material wealth in the West or the triumph of classical liberalism in political & ethical thought is laughable. These are huge, complex historical currents which are hard to explain let alone lay at the feet of some nefarious individual or group; sometimes there are no bad guys other than Man’s sinful nature.

Also, it’s worth remembering that many–if not most–of the agent provocateurs for the historical movements that have been eating away at the Church these past several centuries were raised on the Missal of Pope St. Pius V and brought up in a culture that many Traditionalists nostalgically recall.* The French Revolution, Garibaldi’s armies, and the Parisian salons could count hordes of such former “traditionalist” Catholics among their numbers. Although, who knows, may be Voltaire’s Jesuit teachers were already trying to be “hip & relevant” and celebrated a proto-Novus Ordo.

*For instance, the Institute of Christ the King self-consciously cultivates a French baroque aura, apparently unaware or unconcerned the rich, decadent soil of that era bore some of the most rotten fruit in Western intellectual & political history.

2 11 2009
Sam Urfer

I’m starting to grow very suspicious of overarching narratives like this, whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, longing for yesteryear or looking with large bright eyes towards tomorrow. I do agree with you about the One Who has any sort of clue what the whole shebang means or where it is going. I’m trying to let Him deal with the problems, and just deal with what’s in front of me. Makes my head hurt less.

2 11 2009
Leah

Speaking of Elvis:

(from the “socially conscious” Elvis movie, “Change of Habit,” with Elvis as a hip doctor working in the ghetto and Mary Tyler Moore as a radical nun)

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