The Tensions Of Tradition

Noah Millman contemplates the meaning of “liturgical conservatism,” arguing that “a living tradition is one that inspires a kind of passionate engagement” with a faith’s formalities:

There’s a tension in any modern person approaching a traditional liturgy, between two conflicting desires. On the one hand, there is the desire to say what you mean. Praying for, say, the restoration of animal sacrifice feels to a lot of people I know problematic – because they don’t want to see the Temple literally rebuilt and animal sacrifice restored (and, in fact, there’s rabbinic warrant for questioning whether the messianic age would really require such restoration). On the other hand, there is the desire to mean what you say, to have the words transform you by saying them. Praying for, say, the resurrection of the dead feels problematic to some people because it feels like a literal absurdity – but on another level, that’s precisely why you pray for such a thing, because it is an absurd hope.

Rejecting that kind of tension – resolving it neatly either by eliminating anything you don’t feel “comfortable” saying or by rejecting out of hand the possibility of emendation – strikes me as a spiritual mistake. It’s not true that our ancestors never changed anything, and if we act as though we have no right to change anything, we’re saying, in some sense, that we are a lesser sort of being. The implication is that the liturgy can’t mean for us what it meant for them – and that seems to me like a dangerous concession. By the same token, only somebody who doesn’t really care about the object of prayer would cavalierly make our own psychic “comfort” the proper standard by which to judge the adequacy of the liturgy.

Dreher adds:

Latin Mass Catholics, archconservatives who prize the pre-Vatican II liturgy, are probably outliers here. They are the ones who make us think that liturgical conservatism goes along with moral and cultural conservatism, but it’s just not true. It seems like it ought to be true, but somehow, it isn’t. In my experience, high-church Episcopalians tend to be quite liberal, but hold on to the more conservative liturgical practices because of their aesthetic beauty. When I lived in DC years ago, the most gay-friendly, liberal Episcopal parish was also the one known for having the most elaborate liturgies. Which makes its own kind of sense, if you think about it…