Mixed messages: Liturgy across Christian churches

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The new Catholic translations of the Mass pose a stumbling block to ecumenical relations, says a Lutheran liturgy scholar.

One of the great joys that I have experienced in my life of faith has been the ability to join with Roman Catholics and Christians of several differing traditions in occasions of worship, including ecumenical events, and to already know the words of many of the prayers and other liturgical texts.

Such common language and common worship has done much to foster the fulfillment of Christ's prayer that all "may be one" (John 17:22). The reason that this could happen is that, since the early 1970s, Christians of many different traditions-Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others-have been using not only the same prayer texts but also the same English translations of those prayer texts in their worship.

Thanks to the work of the Roman Catholic International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and the International Commission on English Texts (ICET), the translations of the "Lord, have mercy," the "Glory to God," the Nicene Creed, liturgical greetings and responses ("The Lord be with you/And also with you"), the "Holy, Holy, Holy," and the "Lamb of God," appearing in the 1973 (and current) Roman Missal, were used in the publication of new worship books in other Christian communities produced in the 1970s and beyond, including the most recent Evangelical Lutheran Worship in 2006.

This great ecumenical convergence in liturgical language, also fostered by Protestant adaptation of the three-year Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass, has enabled Christians of diverse traditions to worship in each other's liturgical assemblies without the need even of a text or worship aid in front of them. Up to now, we have known each other's liturgical responses because they were our liturgical responses as well. No longer, unfortunately, will this be the case.

Based on a more literal style of translation from the Latin called for by the 2001 Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam, the now-approved new translation of the Roman Catholic Order of Mass has put an end to this common liturgical language among English-speaking Christians, with the result that much of English-speaking Protestant Christianity alone will be using what was originally Roman Catholic liturgical language. At the same time Roman Catholics will now be using a new translation of their own, one that has much more in common with the interim translations in use before 1970 than it does with those since then. 

Liturgiam Authenticam itself, however, directs that in the translations of texts "a similar agreement is desirable with the particular non-Catholic Eastern churches or with the authorities of the Protestant ecclesial communities," when those texts do not touch on a matter of doctrinal dispute. Unfortunately, I know of no ecumenical consultation that took place on this question; one must wonder why this did not and has not happened.

As a result of what has appeared to many Christians as a unilateral liturgical move, Presbyterian scholar of liturgy Horace Allen claimed that "the entire ecumenical liturgical conversation and dialogue is over-finished, dead, done." While I find that sentiment somewhat premature, I do think its survival is not automatically assured any longer without serious attention and sustained reflection and conversation by those of us who remain committed to the liturgical implications of the pursuit of full, visible Christian unity.

How tragic it would be if, when the history of Christian liturgy in the late 20th and early 21st century is written, that this time period be described, in but an extended footnote, as one during which an ecumenical liturgical experiment was tried but was found lacking and did not last even for 50 years. I hope we can commit ourselves to making sure in our prayer and in our scholarship that this does not happen.