Lockdown liturgy: A window into synodal thinking

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

Lockdown liturgy such as online Mass, walk-up communion and drive-in Eucharist during the liturgical lockdown have shown us the dominant culture of the Church.

Where these practices became the default of bishops, the potential failure of the synodal process is high because these practices were made possible by sidelining the laity. What is the potential for bishops to listen to the laity when they have excluded them from their liturgical participation?

Some will argue that liturgy is not the centre of the Church’s life or that bishops used online formats out of compassion and care in a pandemic. Nevertheless, if the Church leaders can exclude the laity liturgically, what’s the point of including them in another ecclesial conversation?

My point is this: where the liturgical practice is not seen as ecclesial, it is not seen.

The Church is the kyriakon (belonging to the Lord) ekklesia (assembly) of Christ. The liturgy celebrates and makes this manifest. Liturgy, worship, thanksgiving—whatever word you wish to use—stands at the centre of the Church’s being and purpose. Without the liturgy, the Church is just another club or social welfare system.

Not just about in liturgical style

Often, liturgical divisions are treated as differences in style when one person prefers Bach to Led Zeppelin. At this shallow level, arguments of style and preference dominate, but these are only a starting point.

Liturgy, at its deepest level, articulates humanity’s primary and perennial quest: “Who is God, who am I, and is my life eternal?” This quest is taken up sacramentally and expressed liturgically.

How individuals and groups perform liturgical rituals is instructive of much more than just a style preference.

Liturgical rituals articulate an individual’s or a group’s understanding and beliefs of the relationships between God and the Church, the priesthood, sacramental living and ecclesial authority. Ritual enactment illustrates a much deeper, formative religious culture of belief.

This culture is formed, informed and reformed through ecclesial life, sacramental mediation and theological thinking.

During the liturgical lockdown of 2020-2021, the increased use of online Masses was made possible for four main reasons –

  • the performative nature of the Mass’s ritual structure,
  • the functional nature of priesthood,
  • the presumption that the function of the Mass is essentially clerical, and
  • that the presence of the laity at liturgy is not constitutive.

While many lay recipients of online Mass reported that they found the experience “comforting,” many also reported that it was too priest-centric and ultimately dissatisfying. By contrast, many priests saw the increased online numbers as validation of their ministry.

The critical problem of the absence of the laity was never fully addressed. The success of online Masses can only be praised by avoiding questions of authentic liturgical presence as a physical presence.

Why would any layperson entertain a dialogue about Church life after being systematically excluded by their God-given leaders from their rightful participation in their own liturgical life?

Synodal, liturgical practice

An authentic approach to the synodal process requires that we review the liturgical responses during the lockdown.

One’s liturgical practice is essentially ecclesiological. Where the liturgy (Mass) is considered a ritualised, institutional form that functions independently of all other Church business—we go to Mass, we don’t live Mass—synodality has already failed because the essential link between the Church’s mission and action has been discounted.

The institutional structures and doctrines (God, priesthood, baptism, ministry and ecclesial authority) that Johann Adam Moehler (1796-1838) – in Die Einheit in der Kirche called Gemeinschaft and Romano Guardini in Vom Sinn der Kirche – described as essential to spiritual or mystical communion in Christ, find their authentic expression in liturgical practice.

Liturgical practice is ecclesiology in action.

Lockdown liturgy

Liturgical ecclesiology

A robust liturgical ecclesiology contributes to the development of synodal ecclesiology through the examination of actual liturgical practice and culture. It offers a window into the strong, often submerged cultures of belief, dogma and identity that drive individual and group practice because it requires participants to consider their practice first.

For example, when a person agrees that authentic liturgical practice belongs primarily to the priest/bishop by ordination, and not to the laity by baptism, there is little need to discuss inclusive governance. The liturgical default setting has already defined the ecclesial outlook.

Equally, a person who approaches liturgical practice as transformative will look for transformation through the synodal process. They will probably say that worship is predicated on baptism and not see liturgy as essentially performative or functional.

If the synodal process is not transformative, this person will turn away, disappointed.

Lockdown and Synod

Covid’s liturgical lockdown practices are not incidental to the synodal process and vision, neither were they the product of Covid. The lockdown practices already existed deep in the psyche of the Church because they are the default setting of a much deeper ecclesial culture.

The online Mass, with its passive, observer layperson and its performative, functional priest, is the clearest example of the synodal process’s challenge.

If we cannot hear one another at worship, what is the point of engaging with each other at the level of governance? Will a change in governance change our approach to liturgy, or must our liturgy change first?

Suppose your participation in a process is not a constitutive element of your organisation’s practice. Would you participate based on this presumption?

Liturgical practice reveals the ecclesial culture that synodality needs to address but probably will not.

Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. “Liturgical Lockdown: A New Zealand Perspective” is available from Amazon.com


Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment, Palmerston.

Tags: , , , , ,