The Curse of Clericalism

Greg Reynolds is an Australian who still considers himself a priest. Regardless of that, he is an instinctively pastoral liturgist. In an article commenting on clericalism in the liturgy, he makes points concerning [pompous] processions, the presider’s chair (or throne?!), extravagant vestments, how the assembly should be arranged, and where the presider should sit, involving the whole assembly in bringing the gifts of bread and wine to the altar, using bread that looks more like real bread (and cf. GIRM 321), involving women in liturgical roles….

Nothing remarkable there; indeed, the sort of things that liturgists have talked about both informally and formally during the past 50 years.

His primary thrust appears to be greater inclusiveness. Indeed, he went as far as to resign his active priesthood in 2011 to concentrate more on this. He was involuntarily laicized and excommunicated in 2013.

He says that this freed him to take up what some may describe as a more extreme stance, changing the texts of the latest translation of the Missal “which is causing so many of my brother priests so much angst” and no doubt going further still.

Read the whole article at

Without knowing more details, excommunication seems an abrupt and undeserved reward. How many of us have thought in the same pathways, or have even done some of these things, and yet have not suffered this kind of fate? Was it counterproductive in his case?


28 responses to “The Curse of Clericalism”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    More details:

    Not sure if it was productive or counterproductive – the case sank from prominence, though I would imagine it remains prominent (in varied ways, good or ill) in the minds of people he ministered to or people who followed him from afar (likewise for good or ill – an example of the latter being Fr Zed, who likes to imitate SNL’s “Francisco Franco is still dead” with reference to Greg Reyholds – what a charmer).

    Of the ideas in his essay that he promotes, I would say that the emphasis on seating congregants concentrically is one that in my experience promises much more than it actually delivers. The idea in its current form goes back to European church design thinking of the last century, and it’s one of those thing that speaks much more to abstract thinking than to reality. One of the things it does is place an even greater emphasis on evaluating the liturgy in visual over aural terms, which is already far more of a problem than it needs to be (it’s much easier to write abstractly about visual than aural matters).

    As for his other ideas, I would not consider his arguments about them to be the best and most persuasive ones. There can be more than one reasonable approach to a given issue; just because an approach is not the most persuasive doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable (these days, unfortunately, people tend to act is if it does mean that, though there are also approaches that are in fact unreasonable). One can disagree with all of his specific desiderata and still agree with him that clericalism is a curse – we may simply disagree about what the most effective ways to deal with it are. (For example, assuming the privilege of unilaterally changing the Mass can be mighty powerful form of clericalism.) That’s all.

  2. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    I find it very strange that he presents these ideas as if they are somehow new rather than the baseline standard of progressive Catholics in the 70s.

    As to the merits of the ideas themselves, they seem to embody a few dubious notions about symbol and ritual, particularly the idea that symbols have meanings that should be clearly articulable and that rituals can be created or abandoned on the basis of such meanings.

  3. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    San Francisco’s parish of S. Gregory of Nyssa would seem to embody many of Fr. Reynolds’ hopes. The holy table in the midst of the people; real bread; men & women as liturgists and so on. They do retain vestments and love processions of an Ethiopian kind, with drums and dance steps.

    A friend who attends S. Gregory’s tells me that it is indeed a wonderful experience, but after a while it ‘s so exhausting that he longs for an Anglican Missal low mass at a side altar!

    1. Cindy Bavaria Avatar
      Cindy Bavaria

      @Brian Duffy:
      It is funny how we expect to find “rest” at the liturgy. I think it was Nathan Mitchell who reminded us that we should rather be exhausted…that worship is work demanding the “all” of our being. It is the ideal. And we are so far from it!

  4. Chip Stalter Avatar
    Chip Stalter

    Isn’t the ultimate example of clericalism someone who “still considers himself a priest” after being laicized and excommunicated by Pope Francis? #justsaying

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      @Chip Stalter:
      I don’t think we should call everything we don’t like “clericalism.” If he believes in conscience he is a priest, we could call this disobedience to the pope, or having convictions that differ from the official Roman Catholic church – but that isn’t necessarily ‘clericalism.’ I’m not defending him, mind you, but pushing us to be accurate about how we name and interpret his actions. Self confidence (which can be misplaced, to be sure) is not necessarily clericalism.

  5. Jonathan Ziegler Avatar
    Jonathan Ziegler

    Having read the Greg Reynolds article, he seems to be using two different definitions of clericalism, and mixes them together in his argument.

    One definition is what I suppose I would call ‘clerical supremacism’ – for example when he says, “all that these processions seem to do is draw attention to the superiority and implied regal status of the ordained priest.”

    Another definition seems to suggest that clericalism is merely acknowledging any difference between clergy and laity. For example, he says that “the wider the gap, the greater the distinction between priest and people, the more fertile the ground for producing clericalism.”

    If Reynolds prefers in general to lessen the distinction between priest and people, then I would ask him what exactly the maximum distinction that he would find acceptable is. In the end, would he just as much like there to be no distinction whatsoever?

    If anti-clericalism is going to be the reason for these proposed changes, I think we first need a clear understanding of what clericalism is and isn’t before we can continue further.

    1. Raphael Landreville Avatar
      Raphael Landreville

      @Jonathan Ziegler:
      I don’t believe even one in a thousand practicing Catholics are the least bit concerned about the cost of the vestments used by the priests offering the Mass. We feel ceremonies representing Christ deserve the use of fine quality vestments.The most significant act of clericalism is the use of Latin when offering Mass to a congregation that does not speak or read the language. It appear to demonstrate an arrogance that shows little concern for the average Catholic’s full mental participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The use of an English missal translation is not an adequate replacement for allowing someone to concentrate fully on the Mass with their hearts and minds and not have to spend time fumbling through a missal that has no audible relationship with what is taking place at the altar. It’s OK to offer the Mass in English.

  6. Shaughn Casey Avatar
    Shaughn Casey

    A few thoughts:

    1) It could be the Anglican in me, but processions are, in my mind, chiefly about the crucifix and, when included, the Gospel being brought forward. We all bow as the crucifix passes by. In the Catholic Masses I’ve attended, I’ve noticed that doesn’t happen, though it used to happen. In that case, I can see why people might think it’s about the altar party. Reynolds sounds like Martin Bucer (read: a protestant) here, though, by saying the solution is to remove it entirely, rather than to replace the emphasis on Christ Crucified.

    2) He says Jesus’ throne was the cross. Hear, hear. We have, however, all too often done away with that imagery in many places by getting rid of reredos, many of which included powerful images of the crucified Christ. We further damage that by where we place the thrones to which Reynolds objects. In my own tradition, the altar party sits off to the side, facing the center of the sanctuary, and leaving a full view of the altar, the cross, etc. When priests are sitting behind the altar, it’s no surprise we think the whole thing is really about them.

    3) Reynolds speaks of extravagant vestments. Now, a church can spend $400 on what looks like a giant napkin from Almy’s, or parishioners can sew very fine vestments — fiddlebacks, gothic chasubles, or otherwise. I concur that churches shouldn’t spend a fortune on vestments, but it’s simply wrong-headed to deny parishioners the ability to make nice things for their clergy.

    4) Reynolds appears to have what C S Lewis called the Liturgical Fidget, where liturgists want to fidget with every part of the liturgy to suit their own designs. How is that not also a type of clericalism? How is that not a worse clericalism than humbly attempting to follow liturgical tradition?

    1. Cindy Bavaria Avatar
      Cindy Bavaria

      @Shaughn Casey:
      The faithful liturgist has one concern. Is it good and worthy worship…is it good prayer? The caricature of the over-scrupulous liturgist just isn’t very helpful. The fact is the details matter. As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said “the beauty of the liturgy is its un-spontaneity”. I take that to underscore the importance of careful and prayerful preparation so that the assembly’s prayer is supported almost invisibly and without clumsy distraction due to inattention to detail. That is the liturgists job. Creativity is most welcome as long as it fits into that schema.

      1. Shaughn Casey Avatar
        Shaughn Casey

        @Cindy Bavaria:

        I agree with everything you’ve written, though I don’t know your thoughts well enough to say whether we agree or disagree about what constitutes good and worthy worship. That concern about careful and prayerful preparation makes Reynolds’ iconoclasm, though, all the more alarming to me because it doesn’t appear to be thought through, particularly concerning processions. He, private individual, doesn’t like or see the benefit of something, and so it must go.

  7. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    I tend to sympathize with what everyone so far has said regarding Reynolds’s ideas. My point was not so much to discuss the ideas themselves as to ask whether having “strange notions” is enough to get you excommunicated. Archbishop Denis Hart said that speaking in favour of the ordination of women incurred automatic excommunication. If that is the case, many other Catholics would be drummed out of the Church as well, and the Church would be far smaller in numbers than it actually is. In fact that does not happen. The Catholic Herald reporting that KLS referenced (thank you, Karl!) makes it sound as if Reynolds was being made some kind of scapegoat.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      @Paul Inwood:
      Paul, from the warning letter, it would appear that what finally drew down canonical lightning was persisting in confecting sacraments publicly without faculties.

      And that to me is no mystery at all, and not a level that most people who might otherwise share some of Greg Reynolds’ views are working on. It’s not merely dissent or insubordination. The power to confect sacraments and preach is, among many other more or less important things, a kind of power over all the laity who are powerless to do so, and for that very reason is bounded by law. (I don’t mean this in any Marxist sense.)

  8. Charles Culbreth Avatar
    Charles Culbreth

    Shaughn Casey : A few thoughts: 1) It could be the Anglican in me, but processions are, in my mind, chiefly about the crucifix and, when included, the Gospel being brought forward. We all bow as the crucifix passes by. In the Catholic Masses I’ve attended, I’ve noticed that doesn’t happen, though it used to happen. In that case, I can see why people might think it’s about the altar party. Reynolds sounds like Martin Bucer (read: a protestant) here, though, by saying the solution is to remove it entirely, rather than to replace the emphasis on Christ Crucified

    In Professor Mahrt’s THE MUSICAL SHAPE OF THE LITURGY he advances that a chanted Gregorian Introit conveys a direct inference of “Oh, this is a sacred occasion, this introit says to us something important is about to happen.” (p.152) Furthermore he contends “…the function of the procession is not to encounter the congregation but to move to the place where the sacrifice of the Mass is to be offered.” He then argues that the congregation is first obliged to “to witness (and) …see the ascending order of the church in procession….(as they)…move purposely to the altar..” which he also envisions is incensed as a sign of the sacrifice about to be offered there.(ibid) He also mentions what he describes as a circumambulation, or procession that encompasses not only the main aisle, but the side aisles so that the whole of the assembled are encircled which enriches the sacred nature of space. Accordingly Mahrt also argues that the congregation ought to participate ideally by engaged seeing of the procession, and the fluid accompaniment of the chanted Introit, which will lead them to their rightful participation in singing the Kyrie and Gloria, etc.
    As in most things liturgical, your mileage may vary (greatly.)

  9. Paul Robertson Avatar

    For a church arranged in concentric circles, those of us in England need look no further than the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. It is known colloquially as “the concrete wigwam” because that is very much what it looks like.

    I had the pleasure of attending a small weekday Mass there a couple of years ago. The acoustics are breathtaking. I have no idea what the atmosphere is like for a big Sunday liturgy, but I imagine it is rather wonderful.

    1. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      @Paul Robertson:
      I sang in the choir there for many years. It is a superb liturgical space, especially for big liturgies. Its “built for” processions. The acoustics, however were atrocious mainly because of the massive echo. It has taken a lot of money and very sophisticated electronics to tame it for the spoken word. Music is still difficult though.
      On processions. I had always assumed that they were simply a means to get from A to B decorously. Any symbolism has been attached after the fact.
      I don’t know enough about Greg Reynold’s case to comment on the particulars, but judging from his web-site he does seem to have ended up in one of those unattached one-cleric churches beloved by those who place great store on supposed apostolic succession. Interesting in a discussion about clericalism.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        @Alan Johnson:
        One of the ironies of the conciliar reforms is that, effectively, they placed a much higher premium on excellent acoustics for both the intelligibility of the spoken word (for both ministers and congregants) and for congregational singing, so that some of the abstract church design ideas popular in that era became much more difficult to justify in practice – though it appears many designers never fully grasped the effective shift. (The shift also militates heavily against gigantism in building churches/cathedrals, and especially against large deep domes on cylindrical bases.)

  10. Bryon Gordon Avatar
    Bryon Gordon

    I was confused by Reynold’s censure of processionals. It may seem to belie a weakness in his liturgical formation. Processionals are symbolic of an important quality or model of the Church–she is on pilgrimage; therefore, always moving and active in this world.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      @Bryon Gordon:
      I think the point is that a religious class participates in processionals. Others just watch. I ponder the meme in so many places, before and after the Council, that only a select few are called to holiness. not the baptized.

      As for this thread’s notion that Fr Reynolds is really a closet clericalist, I would say that’s not his main problem. Such comments may reveal the tendency Fr Ruff nailed: that for some, there’s a temptation to redefine clericalism as “church stuff I don’t like.”

      Getting back to the universal call to holiness, my sense is that this is what hampered the church before the Council, and something that is still with us today. It is at the root of many so-called crises: vocations, the graduation mentality in the sacraments–including ordination, Catholic identity, catechesis, and the list goes on.

      Fr Reynolds has a better bead on some things than most of his critics. I imagine some of the misunderstanding is due to his non-Australian critics.

  11. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    But what he is doing is truly in the vein of clericalism : “Excommunication has afforded me the freedom to experiment with simpler, more inclusive forms of sacred ritual that have clearer and more relevant words and actions. It has allowed me the freedom to reject the new English translation of the liturgy, which is causing so many of my brother priests so much angst.”
    He’s doing what he thinks is best. It might be ‘clearer and more relevant’ to him but that doesn’t mean it is to everyone, or anyone for that matter. It seems like he’s rejected much more than just the new English translation. There are plenty of places he could have gone that might agree with and already practice the majority of his views, but he ended up starting and leading his own church. What can be more clerical that that?

  12. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar

    I share others’ confusion at Reynolds’ dismissal of processions.

    We start and end with a procession. Why? Rituals don’t have to have a practical purpose but they should at least have some symbolic meaning. For my money, all that these processions seem to do is draw attention to the superiority and implied regal status of the ordained priest.

    That’s an awfully impoverished view of processions. (Did he do any research into other analyses of the symbolism of processions?) For starters, the clergy are not the only ones walking in procession; lay people can be in there too! But he appears oblivious to the symbolism of the Church as a pilgrim people, journeying together. It seems to me that he is taking a conclusion (there is clericalism in the liturgy) and looking for things that he can interpret as clericalist.

    it is time to rise

    There’s a liturgical act he doesn’t question (perhaps because he doesn’t perceive it as clericalism) — why should we be standing? Why wasn’t sitting good enough?

    As for presidential chairs, Christ also has a heavenly throne which deserves, perhaps, to be symbolized liturgically. I’m not advocating for decadent priest-thrones, but I think a clearly presidential chair is appropriate.

    Surely a simple stole over the shoulders is sufficient. If a symbol does not speak naturally and clearly to people, then what is the point of it?

    And how, exactly, does the stole speak naturally and clearly to people? What do they interpret the symbol as? Its symbolic value has to be more than that which denotes a person as the celebrant, because then we could just use a pin or a button or a ribbon or a hat.

  13. Charles Culbreth Avatar

    Todd Flowerday : @Bryon Gordon: I think the point is that a religious class participates in processionals. Others just watch. I ponder the meme in so many places, before and after the Council, that only a select few are called to holiness. not the baptized.

    Todd, I have to call a question: Where do you find sufficient, legitimate offense in clerical offices, particularly with the ordained, that lead you to conclude that “They walk, we watch” is that offense made manifest? To me that sort of egalitarian, Sarah’s Circle horizon-talist manifesto isn’t reflected in a ritual. If you’re in a parish confab and the pastor tells you to pipe down, “’cause I’m the priest,” that’s another matter. (I’ve actually had a priest pull the “I’m the ALTER CHRISTUS” on me when I called him on his own “clericalism.”) If one absolutely needs to process in ritual, vote with one’s feet and go to the Orthodox. They are constantly on the move.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      @Charles Culbreth:

      The other thing is: “Others just watch.”

      That may be true of some – in the indicative mood. But not in the subjunctive mood. The actual ritual contemplates singing on the part of at least some and perhaps even all who are not processing (and, even if they aren’t actually singing, they are still called to unite themselves internally). The processional ritual is, therefore, envisioned as contrapuntal. FCAP and all that.

    2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      @Charles Culbreth:
      I am attempting to understand Greg Reynolds’ point of view. I don’t agree with everything he wrote, nor do I necessarily agree with the diagnosis of clericalism as he or others have offered here.

      One significant experience of procession I recall was at the Ste-Anne basilica in Quebec: a few thousand people streaming out of a church at evening and encircling the building singing French hymns by candlelight. That was powerful. Always opting for the simplest form on Palm Sunday–not so much.

      Jeffrey mentioned the value of pilgrimage, and I would agree that we lack something of that sensibility, be it in ordinary liturgy or for special events.

      I also recall in the early 80’s the experience at St Meinrad’s Archabbey the movement from one part of the nave for the liturgy of the Word into another for the Eucharist. That was at a formative moment in my life and quite moving to me, so to speak.

      For the record, in my view, minimalism is a greater liturgical offense. And the lack of discipleship and disciple-forming at liturgy the root disease, if you will.

      Calling an answer: please do not interpret my not-opposed viewpoint on Fr Reynolds as suggestive of taking offense at clergy.

      1. Jeffrey Pinyan Avatar

        @Todd Flowerday:
        Re: the procession-pilgrimage connection, I tend to see the opening procession as evocative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and of the Church’s journey from this world (represented by the narthex) to heaven (represented by the sanctuary). That latter journey has Christ precede us (represented by the processional cross), in our midst (represented by the ministers in general and by the Book of the Gospels especially), and shepherding us from behind (represented by the celebrant).

        Maybe that’s a lot of layers of symbolism. Maybe no one else sees it that way. But I do, and it helps me appreciate the ritual act of walking from here to there.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        @Jeffrey Pinyan:
        Well, I have no objection whatsoever to pilgrimages or liturgical acts of walking. Also no problem with your experience of symbolism. If the state of faith and discipleship in the Church were more committed, I could certainly be satisfied with a certain acceptance of the way things are.

        But they are not. And I am not.

        The priest and ministers are actually the last to process into the nave. Do lay people recognize that they too have a procession from their homes, through their neighborhoods, and into the church building for worship? Or is it just like any other attendance at a concert, a workplace, or a sporting event?

        And speaking of sport, watching English soccer the other weekend and the aerial shots of supporters walking through the neighborhood and entering the stadium, it strikes me that this procession, somehow, seems to have got the notion of pilgrimage quite a bit better than many American Catholic churchgoers.

        How do worshipers see themselves as participating in the procession by their entry into the nave? And if that sight is somehow dimmed, how could it be cleared and made more fruitful? A focus on the priest doesn’t seem to do the job. But the clerical procession isn’t the enemy, I think. Instead of deconstructing the liturgy, as Greg Reynolds seems to suggest, how could we build it up? Instead of satisfaction with the status quo, as rubrics-minded folk suggest, where can we go from here?

  14. Paul Inwood Avatar
    Paul Inwood

    Regarding processions: one thing Reynolds did not point out or maybe did not realize was the different dynamic between a normal exit procession with the priest bringing up the rear and the exit procession at the Rite of Election where the Bishop leads the Elect, Pied Piper style, out of the cathedral.

  15. Peter Haydon Avatar
    Peter Haydon

    During the thirteenth Apparition Our Lady said to Bernadette: “Go, tell the priests to come here in procession and build a chapel here.” “Come here in procession” means always moving, in this life, towards others.
    Who objects to processions?

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