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Thursday, 17 August 2006

Why avoid "Creative Liturgy"?

Somebody anonymous asked "Why do you avoid creative liturgy?" It was a comment on my post on comments and I don't really want to have comments on those posts so I'll answer it here. In any case, it is a good question.

First, the list in the sidebar of "Things I don't like very much at all and would really rather avoid wherever possible" is obviously meant to be a little flippant and "Creative Liturgy" is used as a label for the kind of celebrations that involve liturgical dance, picking coloured beads out of glass bowls, listening to whale or panpipe music etc. I do appreciate that some people find this terribly moving but it makes me want to run shrieking into the night. I am not alone in this. When I think of the builders, electricians and plumbers in my parish club and the "creative liturgy" I have seen, it is painfully clear why the Church is failing to attract men to its worship.

Secondly, to address the question more seriously, creativity is certainly at the service of liturgy but must never become its primary characteristic. Palestrina, Byrd, Bach and Mozart contributed their creative genius to the enhancement of the Liturgy but they worked within a given framework. They composed settings for the Kyrie, for example, which was sung in its proper place. Where creativity meant that a part of the Liturgy was given disproportionate emphasis, this was regarded as an abuse and worthy of correction. Today, many people see "a liturgy" as something entirely framed by our own creative abilities. So instead of the text of the Gloria, we are given something else, an "adaptation" to suit the creative taste of the composer or our preferences.

The Church has on the contrary always understood her Liturgy to be something given to us, the public worship of the whole Church which has a definite structure and text. We are not called to create something but to participate in something transcendent. We participate by uniting ourselves to the offering of Christ who is made present as our sacrament and sacrifice. It was this understanding of the Liturgy which led the second Vatican Council to say that the regulation of the Liturgy depends on the apostolic see and, as laws may determine, the Bishop: and
Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the Liturgy on his own authority. (Sacrosanctum Conciium 22.3)
This text cannot possibly make sense if the liturgy is our own creation.

Unfortunately, there has grown up the idea that the Liturgy does depend on our creative abilities. Therefore, especially for example in Youth Masses or school Masses, the proper preparation for the Liturgy is seen entirely in terms of picking hymns (or meaningful pop songs to play on CD), arranging dances or mimes and choosing readings, often including non-scriptural pieces of poetry, or quotations from Martin Luther King, Jonathan Livingston Seagull or whoever.

The aim of Guéranger and the pioneers of the Liturgical Movement has thus been entirely subverted. They wanted the faithful to be able to draw upon the Liturgy of the Church for their life of prayer. But now, instead of taking the texts that are given to us and seeking to ponder them in prayer, we choose our own. Preparation is an activity, a project or a rehearsal, rather than an examination of conscience and a vigil of prayer and penance.

Cardinal Ratzinger succinctly described the problem with such creative liturgy:
We left the living process of growth and development to enter the realm of fabrication. There was no longer a desire to continue developing and maturing, as the centuries passed and so this was replaced - as if it were a technical production - with a construction, a banal on-the-spot product.
[Prefact to Klaus Gamber The Reform of the Roman Liturgy]
Writing in 1975, the then Professor Ratzinger was even more blunt. He said
We must be far more resolute than heretofore in opposing rationalistic relativism, confusing claptrap and pastoral infantilism. These things degrade the liturgy to the level of a parish tea party and the intelligibility of the popular newspaper. With this in mind we shall also have to examine the reforms already carried out...
[quoted by Vittoria Messori in The Ratzinger Report]
So yes, I avoid "creative liturgy" wherever possible. I also try to do my bit to promote the classical Roman liturgy because it teaches both priest and people to participate genuinely, without focussing on my choices, my activities, my ministry but rather on what Christ gives to us in the Liturgy as the Church has celebrated it for two millennia. I celebrate the modern Roman rite daily in obedience to the Church but I believe that the Holy Father is right in saying that the classical rite can be used as a point of reference for the reform of the liturgical reform.

[The picture shows Cardinal Ratzinger on the occasion of his celebrating the classical Roman rite at the traditional seminary of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter at Wigratzbad on 15 April 1990]


UPDATE
In response to this post, some students at St Andrews University have provided graphic evidence of just how bad things can get when you start creating your own liturgy. See Creative Liturgy Comes To Canmore and be afraid. Be very afraid.
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