"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nicholas Denysenko on Liturgical Reform

It has been my happy--and frequent!--duty on here to note the many recent publications of my friend, Nicholas Denysenko, a deacon in the Orthodox Church of America and a prolific liturgical scholar at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he also heads the Huffington Ecumenical Institute. Previously on here I have interviewed him about his two most recent books, Chrismation, and The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany.

Now it is my pleasure to interview him about his latest book published at the end of last year by Fortress Press, Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: The Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy.

AD: For readers new to your work, give us again a bit of your background.

I am a first-generation American, grandson of an Orthodox priest of Ukrainian descent. Like many other people in clerical families, I spent my child and adolescent years serving at the altar and singing in the parish choir. My first full-time job after receiving my business degree at the University of Minnesota was music director at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) in Minneapolis.

I sensed that God was calling me to presbyteral ordination, so I enrolled at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and graduated in 2000. After a few years working in Minneapolis and getting married, we moved to the Washington, DC area in 2003, and I received my Ph.D. in liturgical studies and sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America in 2008.

I began teaching at Loyola Marymount University in 2008 and am now associate professor and director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute here. I have also been a deacon since 2003, ordained and serving OCA parishes. For me, all teaching and writing is giving blood to the Church (to paraphrase Fathers Meyendorff and Hopko of blessed memory).

AD: Tell us the origins or genesis of Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: the Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy and how you came to write it. 

ND: I did not plan on writing this book. I was and remain intrigued by liturgical ecclesiology and in writing my book on Chrismation was quite intrigued by the twentieth-century retrieval of patristic and liturgical testimonies to anointing and the imparting of the Christic offices of priest, prophet, and king to each person, the priestly foundation of the order of the laity. It was an ecumenical endeavor and the retrieval transcended the boundaries separating Catholics and Orthodox.

For many years, I attempted to digest Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s complex response to Sacrosanctum concilium; on the one hand, he celebrated the eucharistic revival in Orthodoxy and lauded the principles of the liturgical movement. On the other hand, he was sharply critical of the Roman reception of Sacrosanctum concilium and he stated that Orthodoxy needs a theological rationale for liturgical reform. I was and remain painfully aware of the liturgy wars afflicting all the churches, including the Orthodox. The project was born after I presented a paper at a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrosanctum concilium at Catholic University in 2013. I was determined to make sense of liturgical reform in Orthodoxy and its sources in the milieu of Vatican II, and the book delivers on the promise.

AD: As you know, the very prospect of liturgical reform is a neuralgic issue for just about all Christians, East and West, raising all kinds of fears and feelings. Did you have any dread about diving into such choppy waters?

ND: Yes, I was concerned about the tendency for discussions on liturgy to devolve into a subjective exchange of opinions on this or that musical style, or the permeation of political agendas into the fabric of the liturgy. In fact, this happened in the last few days when a popular Orthodox writer reflected on the section I have on women in the Church, with social media and other blogs re-posting his assessment of my opinion. The problem with his essay is that it ignored the entire trajectory of my study and instead illuminated one of the potential outcomes of reform, an increase of women’s exercise of liturgical ministries.

Many theologians have written on the history of the order of the deaconess or have offered theological rationales for and against the ordination of women. My book is about the liturgy as a whole and the theological rationale for reform; I am not advocating for a particular political agenda, but for the orders of the Church to exercise their Spirit-laden ministries – especially the first order of the laity. In my view, this particular essay subverted the discourse to take on a polarizing political issue. As you know, when we teach, we try to form students to adopt habits of responsible engagement of authors and their ideas, and this example violates the principle of engagement.

I am supremely confident that the people of our Churches have the intelligence and the integrity to consider how liturgical structures and components might manifest the theological rationale for liturgical reform. If we are successful in swinging the pendulum away from passionate arguments about style and towards a serious discussion of how liturgical participation discloses God as the lover of humankind and capacitates faithful to become christbearers for the life of the world, the liturgy itself will evolve into forms that are lifegiving. Experts in comparative liturgy are already offering much for our consideration; I felt I had a duty to attempt to address the question of a theological rationale for reform. And by reform, I mean a clarification of what we mean when we talk about organic liturgical development.

AD: As one who has been through liturgical wars in Anglican, RC, and Byzantine Catholic parishes, I greatly cheered your first paragraph on p.1 that discussions about liturgy are not the exclusive domain of academics but "internal Church discourse involves ordinary people and their experiences of the liturgy." Does such a perspective place you in a minority among liturgists?

Liturgical studies is essentially a product of classical patristics. I have made modest contributions to the field of comparative liturgy with my book on the blessing of waters along with several articles. As I read the initial assessments of liturgical reform, I was struck by the hegemony of referring to texts and their interpretation by experts as “liturgical theology.” Giants like Aidan Kavanagh, Robert Taft, and Nathan Mitchell have reminded us that Mrs. Murphy, Mrs. Ivanova, and the grandmother explaining Mass to the grandchild on her lap are also models for liturgical theology.

But when we explain the meaning of a particular rite or office, how often do we consider how the people respond to that rite? Our fidelity to text has caused us to ignore the perspective of the people in the pew. Liturgy is not the sum of texts and ritual performance. Liturgy is an encounter with a community and the living God. We’ll have a much more robust understanding of the liturgy when we begin paying attention to how people respond (or adjust) to liturgical participation. Certainly, there are select people in the field of liturgical ritual studies who are doing groundbreaking work in this area, but yes, I think this group is a minority in the sea of liturgical historians.  

AD: Give us a brief understanding of how you arrived at the four models of liturgical reform you focus on

I was determined to begin with Fr. Schmemann. As I read Schmemann and became convinced that he was continuing the work done in preparation for the Moscow Council, I was struck by the divergent responses to proposals for liturgical renewal within the Russian Orthodox community. Thus I decided to write next about ROCOR because of ROCOR’s steadfast fidelity to observing the Typikon, and also for their superlative patronage of the liturgical arts. I learned a great deal from ROCOR’s preference for the canonical singing promoted by the Moscow Synodal Choir, and the existence of a school devoted to the Petersburg style within ROCOR was abundantly informative.

Then I decided to profile the Church of Greece because of the unique symposia they hold which are devoted to liturgical rebirth.

Finally, New Skete fascinates me. It might seem that their creativity attracted me, but I was much more interested in their reconstruction of cathedral rites to create a liturgical order for a contemporary monastery. I found common threads underpinning the models, but also found tensions between them, and these findings permitted me to tell a fascinating story.

AD: I flipped to your chapter on New Skete first, not least because their origins as Byzantine Franciscans have fascinated me since I had a grad student who wrote his thesis on the Byz. Franciscans of Hazleton, PA. Do you think New Skete, with such a "reforming impulse" in the decade of Vatican II, would have been possible had they started out in Orthodoxy originally? Or were their Catholic roots essential to the work they have done?

ND: I think their Catholic roots gave them the courage, the freedom to discover an ordo that worked for them. I would caution readers to beware of assuming that New Skete's ordo is an innovation without reference to tradition: New Skete created a liturgical order drawing abundantly from tradition that coalesces with the rhythms and needs of their community life. I most certainly think that a reform would have been possible for New Skete had they started in Orthodoxy if they had a bishop-patron to bless their freedom in translating careful academic research into a liturgical order based on traditional structures.

That said, contemporary Orthodoxy views liturgy as unchanged and unchangeable, a perspective partially attributable to the memory of Russian renovationists whose liturgical reforms appeared to be inseparable from their attempt to subvert the patriarchate during the early years of the revolution. Some Orthodox view New Skete as a community of innovators whose adoption of a reconstructed ordo is actually a violation of Orthodoxy. In my view, New Skete epitomizes the objective of liturgical studies: to show us what is possible. The Churches of East and West have much to learn from New Skete.

AD: Sum up what your hopes were for Liturgical Reform After Vatican II: the Impact on Eastern Orthodoxy. and who should read it.

ND: My initial hope is that this book might catalyze the approach we adopt towards liturgical celebration and move us away from the liturgical wars. If we are all Christ’s concelebrants in the liturgy, what does this mean for our rituals, our texts, and our daily lives? Should we assess liturgical traditions that are difficult to interpret and comprehend?

Take, for example, the preponderance of Holy Week hymns on Judas and the Jews. Do we continue to chant these texts to honor tradition even if we have to explain that Holy Week is about the crucified Christ (and not the impious Judas) or that we are not anti-Semitic? My hope is that this book will help us to adopt a mindset that always focuses Christ’s priesthood at the center of a liturgy, eternally offered to God and received as a gift for the life of the world. As for the ultimate objectives of my project, my hope is that we will begin to view the liturgy as the source of our transformation into God’s body. What does that look like in tangible terms? I refer you to pages 371-373 of the book. I wrote this book for students and clergy.

AD: Tell us what you are at work on next.

ND: I’m working on two projects. First and foremost is the sequel to this study: The People’s Faith: The Liturgy of the Faithful in Orthodoxy. I’ll be spending much of the next year analyzing survey results and meeting with small groups of people in Orthodox parishes to hear their descriptions of the impact of liturgy on their daily lives.

I’m also continuing to work hard on a manuscript devoted to making sense of the divisions within the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The contemporary literature on this matter tends to be reactionary and lacks grounding in history, so my objective is to lay out the facts of the movement and disclose its complexities. Essentially, the world knows the history of Ukraine and her Churches through Russian historians. I value the contributions of Russian historians, but we need narratives that present the Ukrainian perspective, and I think the results of the study will prove to be both surprising and rewarding.

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