“Alas, we sought a cure for Babylon, but curing her there was none; time it is we left her, and went back each to his own land,” Jeremiah 51:9.
A valued reader contacted me the other night asking me to support Western Rite Orthodoxy. Without wishing to cause offence to him or to his work I’m afraid I must say unequivocally: non possum! Please allow me to explain.
Years ago, I flirted sentimentally with the Orthodox Church, ostensibly beguiled by John Paul II’s pseudo-profound “two lungs” theory. I discovered to my bewilderment and indignation that my attraction thereto was not reciprocated. I remember very vividly walking around Ennismore Gardens, circa 2007, clutching a 1962 missal and being stared at. One woman looked me up and down and then said something to her friend in Russian. In those days I was profoundly attached to “the Latin Mass,” and to the Papacy, and I thought upon walking out of the cathedral that they were all obstinate schismatics. How could anybody spurn the Tridentine Mass of St Gregory, which of the pope’s bounty was now restored to the pristine norm of the fathers, and the communion of the “apostolic” see?
Of course, those pious ladies knew nothing of 1962, or Pius XII, or any of those things. It’s quite possible that they didn’t even know the name of the reigning pope! For them, I was just a conspicuous nuisance, a troglodyte who got in by mistake, unsolicitedly peddling impious rites and strange customs to them. It’s the sort of aversion with which we might treat Jehovah’s Witnesses. I sometimes wonder whether their reaction was based on doctrine or liturgy, but it probably wasn’t as considered as that. I was not Orthodox, and that was enough. And that went for the liturgical book I carried too.
Assuming that the liturgical book I carried was a Sarum legendary, or a post-Clementine, pre-Urban Roman breviary, do you think the reaction of the ladies would have been any different? I doubt it very much. For them, the Orthodox liturgy is Byzantine (although they might not use, or know, that term); so it was for their mothers, so it is for their daughters. Some Westerners, profoundly attached to their rites and anxious to point out their authenticity, might see the reaction of the ladies as chauvinistic prejudice. It might be so for some of them but for most of them, as it is for me now, “the ware of Rome,” as Bunyan would say, is simply not good enough. The repudiation of Roman worship is therefore a repudiation of Rome herself.
I agree very much with the ladies on this. Of course, for me these things are far more considered. I admit that “Western Rite Orthodoxy” has intelligible motives; some pastoral, some cultural, others liturgical and stylistic. Some time ago (my crest has long since fallen!) I had a mind to recreate the Roman Rite, as it ought to be, and even made a list of liturgical books for it. I abandoned this project when I realised that if I were to actually go ahead with it, and stood outside a church asking ordinary parishioners for money, nobody would give any. Why? Because it would be an esoteric, exclusive cult, attractive to no one. The rite would be inauthentic, for all the travail, agony and expense in its creation; it would have no continuity with the past or solidarity with the present; the whole thing would be fraught with problems, and would dry up like a trickle of water in the wilderness. And that’s only my own ritual phantasm. Existing forms of “Western Rite Orthodoxy” leave me cold.
Why then would somebody want to “recreate” the Roman Rite? By implication there must be something wrong with it! The Roman Rite is, of course, liturgical. So too is the Book of Common Prayer, understood anthropologically as historical forms of worship. But from an Orthodox perspective the question remains: are these historical (or ahistorical, in some cases) forms of worship everything that the Church requires of divine worship? Do they fully express the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation? Or have centuries of bad theology, schism, clericalism, legal positivism, general decadence and neglect compromised their fundamental continuity and authenticity, to the extent that – even in a fully mediaeval or “Tridentine” manifestation – they are no longer actually “Orthodox,” that is to say “right worship?” This question crucially takes no account of the feasibility of restoring dead rites like Sarum, or the Epiklesis, or of extracting dogmatic errors from the texts, or the propriety of pews, of low Mass, or the kind of bureaucratic centralism inherent to the Roman Rite since the Council of Trent. “A corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit,” saith the LORD.
Since the Slavic women are not remotely interested in “Western Rite Orthodoxy,” who is? It seems to me to be half-hearted converts, lukewarm Laodiceans who just can’t let go of the baggage of their former struggles, whether in continuing Anglicanism or Roman Catholic traditionalism. All the intelligible motives of “Western Rite Orthodoxy,” therefore, boil down to a liturgical manifestation of the broad way to destruction, and not the narrow way of the Gospel. Liturgy is as much an expression of the communion of the Church as a form of divine worship in a particular church, and it seems to me that “Western Rite Orthodoxy” is a kind of liturgical Uniatism, a spiritually harmful and potentially schismatic obstacle to full communion of the Church. I don’t deny that I was hurt by the delusions I once entertained or that I enjoy Latin antiphons and Prayer Book psalms but my Baptism literally washed away all the cares and griefs that went with them, so much so that nowadays I would say that if Western Rite Orthodoxy were on offer in my local parish I would not go to it; the forms and orders thereof being reminders of past error and frustration. I’m pushing 30 and life is short enough without dabbling in a potentially centuries-long experiment with no guarantee of success.
And so to present practitioners of “Western Rite Orthodoxy,” I urge in all sincerity to abandon their rite, and to say with Ruth, “I mean to go where thou goest, and dwell where thou dwellest; thy people shall be my people, thy God my God.”
Art: Ivan Eggink’s fictionalised rendering of the conversion of Rus. Notice the grimace on the face of the papal envoy.