Review: Byzantine Liturgical Reform

Thomas Pott, Byzantine Liturgical Reform (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2010), 293pgs.

Thomas Pott, a Catholic monk, has written on a topic which should streak fear into the hearts of all contemporary Christians: liturgical reform. Only, instead of penning another tract condemning or exonerating the strange ways of Roman liturgical reform in the 20th C., he has opted to cast his glance at a rite which, to this day, some still believe hasn’t changed much since the days of Ss. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. But of course the Byzantine Rite has changed, and what Pott does is try to draw a line between the spontaneous evolution of liturgy, which is borne from man “doing liturgy,” and non-spontaneous reform which requires the active and deliberate intervention of man. It’s not a clean line mind you. Moreover, the amount of effort Pott puts into making, maintaining, and elaborating upon this distinction, up to and including providing a three-part “taxonomy of reform,” never seems to pay off past saying: The liturgy changes; sometimes it’s an accident; sometimes it’s not; and what we should do with that isn’t an easy question.

Or maybe there is a bit more to Pott’s analysis than all of that, though after undergoing a possibly uneven translation from French to English, the “more” isn’t always easy to tease out. In fact, the first 111 pages of Byzantine Liturgical Reform (“Part One”), which is largely conceptual-theoretical, often makes for painful reading. Needless repetitions, digressions, and references which go nowhere give the text an amateurish quality even though it is clear that Pott has studied his topic with great care and depth. Pott deserves kudos for never losing sight of the socio-historical context of liturgical reform and the intentionality behind it, but it remains unclear to my lay eyes what new ground he is breaking. Perhaps that’s because, generally speaking, he isn’t, though for Christians attached to the Byzantine Rite, most of whom are Orthodox, any account of the liturgy which does not accept a priori the questionable thesis of “organic development” or assign every vowel and movement to the authorship of the Holy Ghost will likely be anathema.

In Part Two of Byzantine Liturgical Reform, Pott surveys four “historical paradigms” of reform: (1) The monastic Studite reform; (2) The formation of the Paschal Triduum; (3) The Prothesis Rite; and (4) 17th C. Slavic liturgical reform. These chapters, despite carrying over some of the clumsy formulations and sentence structure found in Part One, are generally well-written, informative, and, most importantly, quite helpful in assisting readers who may have lost their way with the conceptual-theoretical material to get a better sense of what Pott is trying to say about the nature and purposes of liturgical reform. For instance, the socio-historical context of liturgical reform, along with the spiritual and theological needs which arise in concrete situations, is well illustrated in the section on late-Slavic liturgical reform. Whether the reforms in question are those of Metropolitan Peter Moghila, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, or the various changes introduced into the rite after the Union of Brest, it’s not difficult to discern what particular issues and needs—some more imagined than real—drove each respective alteration. As Pott points out, while “tradition” or “history” could be invoked by reformers to justify their actions, such invocations were sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, mistaken or disingenuous. And the post-Brest reforms largely came about not as a (vain?) search for the “authentic form” of the Byzantine Rite, but as a response to the polemical, cultural, and ecclesial pressure which accompanied the Ruthenian Church’s recommunion with Rome.

Today, the question of liturgical reform of the Byzantine Rite remains a topic of interest for primarily Catholic academics, though some 20th C. Orthodox churchmen went to significant lengths to examine the topic in the light of what they theologically believed the liturgy is for. The most pressing reform question for the Orthodox remains linguistic. While most of the “diaspora churches” in the Anglophone world have adopted vernacular translations, the largest Orthodox body in the world, the Moscow Patriarchate, remains strict in its adherence to Church Slavonic. The Greek Orthodox Church, too, insists on holding fast to an archaic form of the Hellenic tongue. While the Greek Church did make some ritual alterations in the 19th C. for parish use (something Pott doesn’t focus on), neither it nor the Russian Church seem particularly disposed toward undertaking reforms which even come close to what took place in the Roman Catholic Church during the last century. As for the Eastern Catholic churches which use the Byzantine Rite, some marginal reforms have, unfortunately, begun to take place despite the difficult, and sometimes controversial, work of “de-Latinizing” their rite in the 19th and 20th Centuries. One imagines that any serious liturgical overhauls by the Eastern Catholic churches will be met with understandable scorn from the Orthodox while reaffirming for them that the most important “things of the Faith” cannot be entrusted to Catholic hands.


  1. What is the reason for the whole notion of purposeful liturgical reform? One can conceive of non-purposeful reform as the organic variety, and on the whole benign as it is usually leavened with a health dose of humility.

    Purposeful reform, on the other hand, often seems to be accompanied with great hubris on the part of those demanding reform; whether stated or not, or even conscious or not, the MO is “I know better.” I see no reason why anybody would embrace purposeful reform, knowingly, unless they are inspired by this same MO.

    1. Perhaps so. But the point is that purposeful reform happens in Orthodoxy too. History is messy. The Orthodox polemical meta narrative (youse guys change; we don’t) is simplistic and patently false. That’s the point. That’s what so many online Orthodox refuse to deal with. Instead of honestly examining the historical data, they deflect. I guess it’s just so much easier to deflect the argument to: Oh, look at the mess you Romans made after VCII. It’s a convenient cudgel to beat the Catholics with, but that crap gets old. Especially in the light of the messiness of liturgical history, both east and west. Know what I mean?

      BTW Dom Gregory Dix also noted the changes over time in Byzantine liturgy. And no, they were not all organic.

      1. Diane, even changes that are not organic, should still be within the reality and continuity of the Tradition; the “reforms” of Vatican II are not; they are a committee driven endeavor with an often very political implications involved, perhaps the only tradition they represent is Star Track the series and now very out-of-date “people’s movements” of the 60s of the last century. One would really have to be simply beyond hope to insinuate that the novus ordo is within the same liturgical tradition as the Roman rite. What I find strange is that the same Roman Catholics who will state that Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer is a break with the Roman tradition, are often the same individuals who never bat an eye at the real break that the novus ordo is in regards to the ancient Roman tradition.

        Yes, the Orthodox have had changes that were not organic. The forced institution of the new rite in 1666 in Russia is an example. The shorter versions of the Mass that one finds in the Rusin and Greek tradition are another, but they are only pastoral changes which still definitely reflect the received tradition. A Russian attending a Greek service will notice the difference, or a Greek attending a Russian service, but it is still a shared tradition. One cannot say the same concerning the novus ordo and the Roman rite; they are different traditions (if one can even consider the committee made novus ordo a tradition). I have taken novus ordo Catholics to the old rite, and they were simply lost, refused to receive communion and found the whole experience rather disagreeable; the same can be said for those of us who only know the old liturgy, the new liturgy is simply, well, odd at best and perhaps heretical at worst.

  2. Nope, can’t say that I do know what you mean. What I do know is that it’s only a normal human defense mechanism to deal with one’s own messiness by claiming everyone else’s is the same. So I can’t blame you for your hyper-sensitivity to Orthodox critiques of western liturgical reform (which is not much different from Card. Ottaviani’s or Arch Lefebvre’s). Further, I’m not sure I’d deal with it any differently if I were also suffering from the cognitive dissonance so common among devout RCs since Vatican II.

    What I am encouraged by is the legacy of people such as those two. It’s as if Catholic laity are re-discovering their muscles, long dormant and near-atrophied by not using them, at the thousand year behest of their clergy. Which only resulted in very few being able to withstand the latest Papal innovations so markedly distilled into the Novus Ordo. Of course, you can well appreciate that all of the things that produced the Novus Ordo constitutes liturgical reform, who would want it having seen its results?

    1. Stephen,

      Don’t be daft. If you don’t know the history of you own rite, then you don’t know the history of it. But until you do, it strikes me as both unwise and a waste of time to make sweeping pronouncements about it or liturgical reform in general. At the very least, read the book.

  3. What’s daft about being on guard against hubris, East or West? One doesn’t have to have umpteen degrees in liturgical theology to guard a treasure.

    1. The daftness consists in your ignorance of the historical record. And in your obdurate persistence in that ignorance.

      Go ahead. Impute bad faith and wrong motives to your critics. Cling to your romantic mythology. Refuse to learn or consider the facts. Do all of this and more. It just makes you look silly. And it reinforces everyone else’s perception that Online Orthodox cannot handle the messiness of reality.

  4. The 20th century taught us an important lesson: put the Latins in charge of liturgical scholarship and the greeks in charge of liturgical reform.

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