The Tyranny of Options

Having been an active advocate of the revised English translation of the Roman Missal, which will soon be five years old, it is cheering to see how well established it has become. It is not perfect, but its imperfections are far fewer than those of the translation it replaced, and at least errs on the side of assuming that the faithful are more intelligent, as opposed to the previous translation’s implicit assumption that we were all a little thick and needed things served up in small sentences and easy words. There are still the grey and disgruntled who clamour for its abolition, though even they, or most of them, do not seek the return of the previous translation, advocating instead the ill-fated 1998 translation. That translation was indeed a marked improvement on the previous, but it was marked by contemporary ideology. The virtue of a more literal translation is that passing ideology gets less room to play.

However, the new translation, being merely that—a translation—and not a new missal per se, keeps the structural, liturgical and theological defects of the post-conciliar Roman Missal.

Perhaps many of us were hoping that the elevated linguistic register of the new translation would effect a transformation in the way the Mass is celebrated. To some degree it has, though one might wonder if Summorum Pontificum has had a greater effect, at least in the liturgical consciousness of the clergy. The modern Roman Missal still exhibits a split-personality, sometimes heightening the sacrificial essence of the Mass, at others—and perhaps more often—heightening the meal aspect. In the latter, it wavers between the sacrificial meal by which believers share in the fruits of the sacrifice by consuming it what has been offered, and the fellowship meal in which congregational unity is stressed with the Real Presence as that of Christ as an empathetic host of the party. It assumes that the priest faces east when addressing the Father, but it does not seem entirely comfortable with that. It strives constantly—and for some, vainly—to pour the new wine of liturgical understanding into the old wineskin of the traditional forms and constructions, as far as they have been retained.

What follows is not written through a theological or historical lens. Rather it focuses on a more fundamental issue in liturgy: the nature of ritual. Rereading a passage from C S Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1963), has crystallised some issues that had been lingering in mind, unarticulated and so unanalysed. That C S Lewis was a bible Anglican with a liturgical sensibility, and writing at the time of the Second Vatican Council, makes his observations particularly striking. What follows is extracted from the first letter to Malcolm. Even after editing it makes for a lengthy quotation, but it is well worth reading in full. What is omitted is just as interesting, but what is included below serves my purpose of looking at our liturgy through the lens of ritual:

I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.

To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure.

Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping…

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats; or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”

Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit—habito dell’ arte.

It may well be that some variations which seem to me merely matters of taste really involve grave doctrinal differences. But surely not all? For if grave doctrinal differences are really as numerous as variations in practice, then we shall have to conclude that no such thing as the Church of England exists. And anyway, the Liturgical Fidget is not a purely Anglican phenomenon; I have heard Roman Catholics complain of it too…


C S Lewis’ observations are particularly relevant. At least one of the architects of the post-conciliar liturgical revision, Annibale Bugnini, is on record as saying that removing obstacles to protestants was one of the guiding principles in the post-conciliar liturgical reconstruction. Lewis was a bible Anglican, liturgical but not Anglo-Catholic. He was writing the above at the very period that produced the new missal, a missal which so clearly embodies the preoccupations and enthusiasms of the contemporary experts. He was an academic and so had an intellectual, analytical and reflective cast of mind. He was also a lifelong educator both at Oxford and Cambridge, and so was well acquainted with the needs and the outlook of the young, not least spiritually. He was also a layman, fond of a pint and a pipe, who had experienced the joy of love and the grief of loss, and for a period as young man had been an atheist. He is, in Catholic terms, wonderfully impartial and superbly qualified.

Young man Lewis

In the early 1960s the Church still had the Latin liturgy with which it had worshipped for more than a millennium and a half, and which had inspired painters, poets and composers to the heights of creative achievement and nourished a paradise of saints and martyrs. For the Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer still held sway, a remarkable editing of the Catholic liturgy in the light of protestant principles and the zenith of vernacular liturgical translation, the cadences and pithy beauty of which had entered the language and formed a Christian consciousness among the majority of the English. In both communions there had been precipitate, avant garde liturgical experimentation which had already disturbed many people while exciting those who had drunk deeply of the spirit of the times.

In such a context Lewis moves beyond liturgical detail and even the supernatural element of liturgy to focus on its human form. Liturgy is ritual, and as ritual it addresses a basic human need. Human society is formed around rituals, both secular and religious. We have rites of passage, rituals for greetings stranger or a friend, rituals of state such as those of royalty or parliament, rituals for the military and for schools, rituals for family life. Our word comes from the Latin ritus, or rite. In its origins it refers to the proven way of doing something. The Latin word probably has its origin in the Sanskrit ṛtá, which refers to the regular order of things in the cosmos and in society. Thus ritual as a basic human phenomenon orders human activity in light of the larger, cosmic structure of reality.

Ritual is thus something received by the individual and even by the group, and it not something that it creates anew from time to time. The ritual serves as common ground, a unifying element in a social group and forming its identity, a familiar place in which all feel connected to something greater than themselves and all know their place and their role in light of it. It is something to which the individual submits, and so demonstrates a humble submission to, and desire to remain in, the larger group. In religious terms, the “something greater” is not merely a social group, but the divinity above all.

The Mass is intrinsically, and obviously, ritual. Lewis’ critique of contemporary liturgical trends, which were soon enshrined in the liturgical revisions, is a critique based on the nature of ritual. Novelty is the enemy of ritual as it introduces the unfamiliar into what is intended to be familiar to all, and so inclusive of all. Novelty focuses attention on the innovator and his motives. The ritual ceases to be second nature, an artful habit, liberating the consciousness to attend to the very thing the ritual serves, God. Novelty makes the ritual itself the focus, displacing God. “What on earth is he up to now?” reflects a situation which is  essentially anti-ritual, and indeed anti-spiritual. It is the failure of to submit to the greater, and reflects a desire to dominate and control it and so the social group that is united by it.

Now one might claim that this is an argument against the revised Missal itself, and indeed against any further liturgical changes in the foreseeable future. We need time to get used to the new liturgy and to allow it to become second nature, a liberating habit. But it is even more an argument against the massive post-conciliar liturgical reconstruction itself. The revised missal embodies essentially the same ritual as the original reformed missal of 1969. The revised missal is a new translation not a new ritual. Of course, language is very important to the ritual of the Mass, and indeed cannot be separated from it. However, the integrity of the ritual of the post-conciliar missal was already undermined by the English of the first post-conciliar missal. It lacked the gravity proper to liturgical ritual. Ritual familiarity with an inferior register of language would not have served the ritual well ultimately.

Many people, maybe now even most, would agree that individual tinkering with the liturgy, making large cuts, intruding novel elements into it, doing one’s own thing, is not desirable or helpful. To be fair, the gross abuses that can be seen on video sharing websites are usually the result of violence being done to the ritual of the post-conciliar liturgy, and cannot be sanctioned by the rubrics of the liturgy.

Yet, at a deeper level, there is in the missal itself such a welter of options that the missal itself is, in many respects, not helpful to the aims or operation of liturgical ritual. Some options have no ritual impact, such as the expansion of the number of prefaces since the 1962 missal. Yet those touching the congregation directly do have significant impact. Instead of the fixed Dominus vobiscum—”The Lord be with you”—there are now two longer and more wordy greetings that can be employed, the traditional option being relegated to third place in the list. The missal allows for the “Priest, or Deacons, or another minister” to give, “very briefly” an introduction to the Mass of the day, which often becomes an opening homily setting the Mass in the context of a specific theme. There are several penitential rites (or acts as they are now called) that can be used; instead of the one, ancient, canon of in use till 1962, there are now an extra three headline canons (all newly composed with unconvincing links to ancient and obsolete canons), as well as two canons for reconciliation and four for “special needs”, all of which again are modern creations. So the central action of the Mass has moved from a fixed and universally familiar canon (in a universal and fixed language, moreover) to being open to a choice from ten canons. In the middle of it the novel intrusion of “The mystery of faith” is answered in one of three possible ways. The exchange of peace is invariably unstructured, and ad-lib affair that disrupts the ritual action into which it intrudes. Communion can be received on the tongue or in the hand, standing or kneeling, under both kinds or just one, and administered by a priest, a deacon or lay person. The dismissal is no longer a single Ite missa est but can now be one of four options.

With so many options specifically allowed for, an environment is created in which almost everything can seem optional. Thus the creed on Sundays can be omitted if the priest feels Mass is going too long or that the people cannot understand it. Some priests use a pall on the chalice, some do not. Some genuflect, some bow. Music can be almost anything in some places. Liturgical dance, non-ordained preachers, clown Masses, rock Masses, youth Masses, family Masses, healing Masses, all variety of themed Masses seem possible because the Missal itself is now characterised by licit options.

“What on earth is he up to now?”

“But every novelty [and option] prevents this [ie fixing our attention on God]. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping.” This rings so true. Given that the principle of optionality is enshrined throughout the ritual action of the Mass in the new missal, it is an easy step to everything being subject to options, even illicit ones.

Options operate a sort of tyranny over the liturgy as there has developed an unconscious, unacknowledged mindset that to stick to the set ritual, and to the same options within the ritual, is to be uncreative, rigid and inflexible, un-pastoral and narrow-minded. Options cease to be optional and must be employed regularly, because they are there.

There is thankfully a trend now to resist the tyranny of options, and to return to consistency in use, especially in using the options that embassy the traditional usage. The issue of the merits of the 1962 Missal to one side, any liturgical “reform of the reform” will need to address the principle of optionality if the ritual action of the liturgy is again to be what it should: the privileged place of self-transcendence and divine awareness.

C S Lewis should be allowed the last word, this time from his A Preface to Paradise Lost:

[Ritual] is a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance.

Ritual is liberating.




12 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Options

  1. Sadly, for many priests, and thus laity, there is one fixed Canon -No. II, the Trastevere café one. Our PP only uses another (the Roman) when there is a compulsory variant Communcantes.

    Bugnini’s success in protestantising can easily be seen. The average Sunday parish Mass lasts 60 mins of which 40 precede the Offertory. In other words it is a service of prayer, preaching and Bible reading, with a communion service tacked on. What could be more protestant?.


  2. I love love C.S. Lewis!!!!—and as a wayward Anglican, I do love that solemn “nature of liturgy” —-perhaps it is much to which Mr Lewis alludes that has lead to my own waywardness—leaning more to the Catholic roots of any anglican—there is a staying power of the Catholic Church—which gives testament to it being at the cornerstone of all of Christendom (much to the Orthodox chagrin)
    And don’t we see so much of that “novelty” in today’s Christian Church—regardless of denomination.
    It, meaning the service, the ritual, the act of communion, should flow should it not Father—where we think not of the words, the usage, the vernacular, the hidden meaning, the celebrants bias, our own endurance of it all—we’ve…all denominations, have lost the flow…for we are caught up in the delivery, the wording, the length, the clarity, the songs, the time, the heat, the ulterior motives of the clergy, the underlying
    and hidden agendas — the we have forgotten why we have come—and that is to worship God

    and by the way, I’m rather partial to the 1928 version of the Common Book of Prayer…just saying 🙂


  3. Our chaplain now uses the canons for various needs almost exclusively. We have them daily and on Sundays. I wouldn’t mind using an option once in awhile for a special mass, i.e. anointing of the sick, but every day is a bit much. But then he thinks it is his mass anyway since he regularly says, “I” invite you to pray. I’ve given up.


    1. Oh dear. His language does rather give his underlying attitude away. It’s “his” Mass obviously. Now that is clericalism!

      All I can suggest, at the risk of sounding pious and conscious that it would not satisfy me for long, is to offer it up, daily if necessary. Small comfort.

      But I wonder – has any among, the superior for example, ever raised the issue with him? Or are most of the sisters acquiescent?



      1. Considering how difficult it is to find a chaplain you can understand the reluctance to say anything. We are good at “offering things up”. And considering the state of the country it’s probably good we have more to offer Our Lord. Peace!


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