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.