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Liturgical document ‘a disabling blow,’ Anglican says


Like many liturgists, Fr. David Holeton says he was hurt and disappointed by the May 2001 Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam, which rejected many of the principles that guided the production of texts for Catholic worship since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

In place of flexibility and inculturation, Liturgiam Authenticam said texts must now become more uniform, more traditional and more Roman. They must avoid “wording or styles that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort.”

Given that Holeton has been a major player in liturgical reform efforts, his negative reaction is hardly surprising.

What may be more puzzling is that he’s not Catholic.

Holeton, an Anglican priest, a professor at Charles University in Prague and one of the world’s foremost Anglican liturgists, is a longtime participant in ecumenical endeavors. He said Catholics might not understand what a body blow Liturgiam Authenticam was for other Christians.

Holeton was one of the first to receive a fax last summer announcing that the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the main Catholic liturgical agency in English, was pulling out of ecumenical cooperation in the wake of Liturgiam Authenticam.

“I’m not one given to drama,” Holeton said, a claim that is easy to believe. He has the dry wit and stately bearing typical of a rather “high church” Anglican cleric.

“But when I saw that fax, I really felt as if I had received a disabling blow,” Holeton said. “It felt as if a process I have been engaged in virtually my entire adult life was coming to a halt.”

Holeton was in Rome in late February to lecture on Anglican liturgical reform at the Centro Pro Unione, an ecumenical center run by the Graymoor Friars. He sat down for an interview with NCR at the Graymoor residence at Sant’Onofrio.

Holeton stressed how influential the liturgical reforms launched by Vatican II have been in other Christian churches. Today, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics and others use the same words when they say such traditional prayers as the Gloria, the Creed, the Sanctus, and The Lord’s Prayer. The structure of liturgies is similar, and many churches now use a lectionary, or collection of scripture readings, virtually identical to the Catholic model. This was made possible by the ecumenical approach prompted by the council.

The effect, Holeton said, is that Christians feel more “at home” when they attend one another’s services. They come to realize that the differences separating them are perhaps not as vast as they imagined.

Holeton admits he also has a more selfish reason for alarm. Catholic liturgical aggiornamento (updating), he said, has played a key role in supporting Anglican reform.

“In English, up to Vatican II, God was thee and thou,” Holeton said. “When the Roman Catholics opted for you rather than this pseudo-Tudor English, it was a catalyst.”

In some ways, Catholic cross-fertilization in Anglicanism is clear only to specialists, such as the fact that in Canada, where Holeton comes from, the Anglicans adopted the Roman lectionary for daily eucharistic services.

But in other areas, the effect is there for all to see. Anglicans, for example, always exchanged a wish of peace but, “We never actually touched anyone,” Holeton said with a smile. Today, influenced by the Catholic sign of peace, Anglicans enthusiastically shake hands or hug.

The difference between the archaic and the modern forms of worship that emerged, Holeton said, is like the difference between “chalk and cheese.”

Since Vatican II, Catholics and other Christians have worked together in the Consultation on Common Texts, a North American group, and the English Language Liturgical Consultation, which brings together liturgists from around the world.

What makes the Vatican’s concern about “wording or styles” from other Christians ironic, Holeton said, is that in the case of the 1992 Revised Common Lectionary produced by these two groups, the influence runs in precisely the opposite direction. The text now in use by a wide variety of Protestant denominations is a virtual replica of the Catholic lectionary of 1969.

Moreover, Holeton said, while the Vatican stews over “Protestantization,” in his world the concern is over growing “Romanization.” But ecumenical gains, he argued, outweigh such fears.

“The importance of a common lectionary cannot be overstated,” Holeton said. “It makes the ordered reading of the Bible a common possession of the Christian churches.”

To allay Vatican fears about control, Holeton said, in the mid-1990s the ecumenical bodies invited the Congregation for Divine Worship to take over the common lectionary project. There was no response.

Holeton said he believes barring Catholic liturgical commissions from participating in ecumenical bodies is in conflict with documents of Vatican II that support ecumenical cooperation. The English Language Liturgical Consultation has written to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, known to be friendly to the ecumenical cause, asking for clarification.

Holeton said he hopes worst-case scenarios inspired by Liturgiam Authenticam will not materialize.

“The psychological effect is to damage the unity of the churches,” he said. “It also diminishes the influence of Roman Catholics in encouraging liturgical renewal among other churches.”

“That would be tragic,” Holeton said.

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002