Every time I teach introduction to liturgy to undergrads, grad students, or even ministers I always seek to accentuate the relationship between right prayer and right living – between liturgy and social justice. What a hollow trope it seems though. “How,” I am always asked, “does the liturgy in the church actually connect to the way we live? And isn’t it just enough to go to liturgy and do what the liturgical books prescribe? After all, liturgy is about ‘getting grace.’”
While I have gotten better at answering those questions, increasingly it feels like no one even wants to ask them, let alone hear my answer. For so many, “getting the grace” is all that matters. To “get the grace,” I am told, all we need to know is how to say the black and do the red.
Lest we think this is a new problem, over 80 years ago Hans Anscar Reinhold in a Timely Tract critiqued what he called the “Legion of Decency,” a riff on the National Legion of Decency. This group was established in the 1930’s to protest against films that offended Christian decency and morals.
Reinhold recounts a story about a seminary professor who taught his students 4 central things about the liturgy. The first was (the myth!) that the current “liturgy is good, because it is old, as old as the Church.” The second was that obedience is the most important thing in the Church, “especially for seminarians.” As a result, “let us be obedient and carry out all the rubrics, and that is, of course, liturgy.” Third, he taught the seminarians that “the liturgy is beautiful,” but this can carry with it the danger of the senses. Nevertheless, he consoled them, telling them: “don’t worry, boys, you can’t go wrong, even when your senses come in, provided you obey…Just close your eyes…where you are alone with God.” Finally, he leveled with them that the faithful “need holy shows and sacred actions,” so “let us also stoop and descend to their level.” In the end, the liturgy, according to this seminary professor, is nothing more than a tool by which the faithful are led “to things that really count.”
This is the vision of liturgy laid out by the “Legion of Decency” and the “pious people.” What a depressingly sanitized vision of liturgy. It takes no risks. It strips of the liturgy of its challenging and prophetic dimensions – it waters down the radical call to discipleship and transformation that eating and becoming the Body of Christ demands.
It strikes me as exactly the kind of liturgical mentality that Nathan Mitchell has warned us about: “It is assumed that liturgy’s purpose is to convert parable to myth, so that people can leave church feeling ‘reconciled’ and ‘good about themselves.’” It makes the parable of the widow’s mite, for instance, a tale of a pious old lady, rather than someone who gives her whole self and all that she has to God.
What the vision of liturgy as articulated by Reinhold’s professor really does is prevent the Church from actualizing the reality of the liturgy in our parishes and in our lives. This vision of liturgy strips the liturgy of its prophetic end: “Ritual’s strategy…is to urge us beyond our comfort zone, to let ourselves be ‘parabled’ or ‘koan-ed’ in the direction of a wisdom that exceeds human reason and challenges us…to change our lives.” But, as Reinhold notes, it is much easier if the liturgy is “all neatly tucked away in little file boxes with labels, numbers and according to a system,” even if it means that our religious life ends up “quite dead too.”
The “Legion of Decency” has a very strong attraction, even today. It sure is comfortable to feel comforted. The “Legion of Decency” of the “pious people” today even repeats many of the same points as Reinhold’s professor:
- The liturgy is unchanging, or if it does change only in small ways and without much human intervention.
- To do the liturgy right – and therefore “get the grace” – all we need to do is follow the rules.
- The liturgy is beautiful, ergo:
- It must be celebrated with pomp and circumstance;
- It must be protected and preserved from the tarnish of human hands.
- The liturgy must be performed for, not by, the laity.
I sigh because I often feel like the battle between the Legion of Decency and the trained liturgist is like the battle between David and Goliath. But like the Israelites, the trained liturgists are “dismayed and terrified.”
So, what is the way forward? I am only half-heartedly joking when I say that perhaps it is time we start a legion of in-decency and impious people! I am not particularly fond of the name, but I do like the sentiment. It is time that we be willing in our classrooms and churches to take the liturgy out of the little file boxes in which we have placed it, break the labels, and challenge the system where it needs to be challenged. Perhaps doing so will breathe some new life into our churches and also help us see that the goal of liturgy is to be “parabled” so that we can change our lives and the world. If we can do that, then we really will help lead the faithful “to things that really count.”
 Nathan Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006), 127–28.
 Ibid., 125.