Plus ca change

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 03:30am on 10th March 2015

... or how to please at least some of the people some of the time

What do you wish for most of all?  Conversely, what is your greatest fear?  For the best or worst to come to pass, change is necessary, and sometimes even small changes awaken intense and deeply rooted desires and fears.  Comments on the conduct and content of liturgy are frequently influenced by a desire for change, or a fear of change.  One of the reasons it’s impossible to please all of the parishioners all of the time is that a change which satisfies the dissatisfied also unsettles the settled. 

Humans are creatures of habit.  Routines reserve mental effort for information and circumstances which demand more complicated processes of choice, consideration of possibilities and their consequences, before ultimately perhaps choosing to do something different or new.  Change is inevitable for humans as living beings: growing, and declining.  Unexpected life changes can be nasty shocks, causing Christians to rely on the reassurance of God’s eternal presence.  God who never changes, and Church which reflects this liturgically, comforts when the pace of change elsewhere seems overwhelming.  But if challenging circumstances question what was previously believed, then the liturgy needs to offer more, new ways to navigate unfamiliar surroundings.  Theologians, artists and composers craft materials for worship for each new generation, and there are saints from every place and time, demonstrating how to be Christ-like whatever our circumstances.  Each draws attention to a unique relationship with God, a particular perspective on faith, which inspires us to develop our own.  And for some people at some times in life, that relationship is with the God who makes all things new, a God of change and surprise. 

Seeking originality in liturgy isn’t about shaping God as we would like him to be, but offers a means to relate to him in a new way.  This is a natural process of maturation: the hymns and prayers which expressed childhood faith give way to those of adulthood.  But not every aspect of liturgy changes as worshippers age; a fuller understanding of the meaning of words learnt as children develops throughout life.  When the dying are no longer able to hold a conversation, sometimes they move slightly or murmur when familiar prayers are prayed around them.  Repeating prayers until they are learnt by heart (and absorbed by the body), allows them to remain expressions of faith when words, even imagination, fail us.  Worship which is perpetually novel isn’t learnt by heart, but it isn’t taken for granted, and may reveal something essential to faith which had never been expressed before.  Denying a congregation the chance to fulfil the Biblical directive to sing a new song is an arrogant claim that all they are, aspire to, or need to know about God is already contained in the current repertoire of hymns and songs.  There is always more to learn.

Over the years aspects of the Mass change, not least the new translation in 2011.  Some liturgical moments are ever-present (Sanctus); others are drawn from a selection of texts (Memorial Acclamations); models which may be applied or varied (Penitential Act I); points to discern freely what to say, sing, or do (Homily; hymns).  Congregants then choose whether or not to participate.  There is a balance between the known and the unknown, change and familiarity.  To avoid undue anxiety, any change must be justified when introduced, alongside reminders of all that will stay the same.  When singing a new song, make it clear old favourites will not be jettisoned.  Remember that the local church is valued even among those who rarely attend, but who expect it to be available when they need it – at Christmas, or for a funeral.  A regular congregation may adapt to a change, only for occasional participants to find it unsettling some months or years later.  

One of my favourite quotes on liturgy is from Julie McCann’s excellent book Spiritual Garments:

The church … recognises [the] power of repetition for all ages and does not reinvent new rituals each year … This way we are continually connected with the universal church and can mark our own growth each year by standing inside the same liturgies (p.31)

The liturgical year regulates the pace of liturgical change.  As special occasions in secular life require particular songs (Happy Birthday; Auld Lang Syne), special food (turkey; toffee-apples) and secular rituals (first-footing; fireworks), so the feasts of the Church are marked with particular Prefaces, special blessings, symbolic actions including processions (Palm Sunday, Candlemas), the distribution of ashes, foot-washing, and certain songs. Singing the same Mass setting, a Common Psalm or common song throughout a season is unifying, gives the congregation a chance to learn and value the music, its mood and the meaning of its words as this relates to the character of the season.  Approaching each season and feast annually, it’s good practice for liturgical ministers not only to draw from previous years’ celebrations, but to assess whether the same approach is appropriate to the needs of the parish this year.  Observe where there has been change, decline or development, and address this liturgically.  Sometimes seasons illuminate what is painful or hidden – one more season of Advent may feel all too much for the impatient or discouraged soul waiting for answers to a lifelong prayer, in which case the liturgy which offers hope ought not to ignore frustration and perseverance. 

Singing joyful Alleluias may seem entirely incongruous for someone who has been bereaved or received a dismal diagnosis during Eastertide, but the reality of Christ’s resurrection remains true even when we cannot perceive it.  When liturgical and personal seasons of life coincide, the liturgies may feel more meaningful, but no-one worships alone.  At some point in each liturgical season, someone in the church around us and the universal Church is experiencing personally the feelings distinctive to that season, while for others, they seem distant.  What seems like dull stasis to one is reassuring continuity to another; what may be perceived as change for change’s sake is elsewhere experienced as revitalising and refreshing.


Reproduced from Issue 353, Volume 40, Number 3 of Music and Liturgy, February 2015, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory

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