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An Apology for Rubric-Breakers
BY A PRIEST.
O the clergy generally obey the rubrics of the Prayer Book-all of them? or, on the other hand, do many simply pick and choose, complying with such only as commend themselves to their individual preferences and coincide with their notions of expediency? Before attempting to answer this question it is necessary to ask another, namely, what is the binding force of rubrics and what is their real object? Are they invariably to be construed strictly and to be obeyed literally or are they rather general directions leaving the way open at least in some instances, for individual interpretation and compliance as each clergyman may deem proper according to the grace that is in him and the exigencies of the occasion?
It is evident that the rubrics are not all mandatory or of an explicit character and must be supplemented by the liturgical sense of an officiant in accordance with traditional practice. The rubrics are not all so definitely framed as to leave no room for individual interpretation. There are rubrics which are plainly of the essence of liturgical unity and which cannot be disregarded without mutilating the service or positively changing its character and there are rubrics which deal with minor details and whose infringement in no wise disturbs the continuity of the service or the integrity of the rite. Considered legally all rubrics stand upon an identical basis and have behind them the same ecclesiastical sanction. Like the laws upon the statute book of the state which all emanate from the same source of authority and which the executive is supposed to enforce equally, but some of which lack public approval and hence in practice have become "dead letters," so the rubrics likewise fall into similar categories. Some rubrics are generally disregarded in actual usage owing to a change in conditions, whereby they have lost their raison d'etre and are more honored in the breach than the observance. Plainly such ought
to be repealed, but they have not been and those who disregard them are technically law-breakers and subject as such to ecclesiastical censure if not to actual trial. But as it would be wellnigh impossible to secure an indictment of offenders in view of the fact that few or none could be found to present them who were themselves wholly guiltless in such respect no action is ever taken.
Some time since one of our most honored bishops delivered a Triennial Charge before the Convention taking for his subject, "Rubrical Irregularities." He proclaimed himself a strict constructionist and demanded of his clergy a full compliance with the letter of all the rubrics, reminding them that all alterations in the Prayer Book services and rites, which they or many of them lightly assumed to make, required the General Convention six years to effect. Moreover he impressively warned them that the violation of rubrics was one of the offenses for which the Clergy were liable to suffer the penalties of ecclesiastical discipline. He did not state that he proposed to institute proceedings against offenders but that was the inference. Having finished his Charge the Bishop proceeded to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in the course of which he was guilty himself of breaking three rubrics, none of which was perhaps intrinsically important, but all of which nevertheless were violated in letter and in spirit.
The interesting thing was that only a small minority of those present noticed any deviation from the norm and of those who did only one declared that he himself never offended in like ways. Subsequently the same bishop issued a questionnaire to his clergy asking them to state categorically whether they were in the habit of disregarding certain specific rubrics. The replies to the questionnaire were not made public, but it leaked out that many of the clergy were indisposed to furnish written. evidence against themselves as law-breakers and hence omitted making any reply or answered only in an evasive manner.
Now there is no intention in this article of charging the Bishop in question with inconsistency, at least of a reprehensible sort, but the incident is mentioned merely by way of illustrating
the practical unanimity on the part of the clergy in taking a certain liberty with rubrical provisions, where such does not interefere with the proper integrity of the service. In small matters or those which they regard as small the clergy generally decline to render a meticulous obedience while continuing to regard themselves as wholly loyal to the spirit of the Prayer Book. Some, of course, go farther than others. Some offend only occasionally and others habitually. Some carry their violations to the extent of degrading the service to the point where it is hardly recognizable and others merely make certain minor changes in deference to circumstances or in the interest of brevity.
The writer not long since was present at a Sunday morning service in a large parish where the Exhortation was omitted, where the Psalter was that for a preceding festival, where the Lessons were not those appointed for the day but were evidently selected by the reader's personal choice, where the First Lesson was preceded by a lengthy dissertation upon the life and the literary and historical activities of the author. The Collect for the Day was not followed by the regular order but by special prayers which were amended to make them apply to certain national and local conditions. And this occasion was not exceptional, but so the writer was informed, was the customary practice in that parish. It might therefore be said of this rector that he was regular in his irregularities, and that he went upon the assumption that the order of the Prayer Book was not to be habitually used, but was rather designed to afford certain general outlines in accordance with which he was free to develop a service that suited his personal inclinations. His own explanation frankly avowed was that his method was more edifying than the regular order and that the people preferred it. Whatever the effect of the service may have been upon the congregation habitually worshipping in that church, the impression left upon the mind of the writer was most unpleasant. He felt as though he had been participating in a service which was neither fish, flesh nor yet good red herring. He knows in a general way what to expect when he attends worship in a Protestant
meeting house or in a Roman Catholic Church and ordinarily in his own Church, whether high or low, but as to the truncated, dislocated, individualistic, anarchic specimen of liturgical hodgepodge to which he was there subjected he can only echo with heart-felt fervor a "Good Lord deliver us."
The scrupulous observance of rubrics on every occasion may be wearisome to the flesh and unedifying to the spirit, entailing, for instance, the recitation of tedious exhortations and confessions with a redundancy of verbiage that has long lost its significance for the present generation, but at any rate such strictness is certainly to be preferred to the liturgical jumble dictated by the perverted taste of our ecclesiastical Bolsheviki. Yet if there were any attempt to present such for trial on the ground of gross violation of rubrics they could point to the fact that all their brethren including their ecclesiastical superiors were guilty of like offences in more or less degree and that it was unfair to single them out. The truth is that while the great majority of the clergy are loyal in the main to the principles of worship laid down in the Prayer Book, there are few or none who permit themselves no liberties. The theory adopted is doubtless that the rubrics are to be regarded not as the laws of the Medes and Persians but rather as liturgical directions which may legitimately be modified according to the necessities of the occasion and particularly as they conduce to the edification of the worshippers. In other words the assumption is that the rubrics were made for man and not man for the rubrics. Of course, if a priest is not restrained by a sense of liturgical fitness and a spirit of true devotion the liberties he takes will be apt to verge upon the fantastic and thus spoil the service for the instructed Churchman, but such instances merely represent what is known in biological terminology as "sports" and do not count in the normal life of the Church, or modify its liturgical development. All religious bodies have to suffer fools, whether gladly or otherwise, and perhaps the best way to deal with such is simply to ignore them.
What we have to realize in studying this subject is that the
Liturgy of the Church is a thing of growth and that the growth is still going on. The Church of today cannot be bound in its worship by the ideals, the language, and the customs of the sixteenth century or even the nineteenth. Liturgical forms which met the needs of an earlier day gradually become obsolete and unmeaning. The Prayer Book is indeed a treasury of devotion but it is a treasury in which the coin must be reminted from time to time in order to pass as currency.
I know it will be righteously urged that changes in the rubrics are matters that pertain to the legislative function of the General Church and cannot properly be left to the judgment of the individual priest; that the constitution provides a remedy whereby public sentiment on such matters can make itself effective. This is of course theoretically the case. No individual priest has the legal right to conduct any service or rite otherwise than the rubrics permit. If he desires a change his remedy is to work for it in a constitutional manner. Yet as a matter of fact that is not the way needed reforms have hitherto been secured. As the pressure from time to time has been felt for change and modification, either for the sake of brevity or edification, a few of the less conservative among the clergy have taken the matter into their own hands and thus obtained for themselves the relief they desire. Gradually more and more, encouraged by their example, have done likewise until finally a sufficient number having become law-breakers, the legislative authority has subsequently been invoked and the belated reforms granted. Whether this official authorization amounts to an ex post facto vindication of the lawlessness of the original offenders is perhaps a matter for the casuists to determine. Upon this delicate matter I have no title to express an opinion. I am merely stating the usual method in accordance with which needed reforms actually do come about. If there had been none willing to take the initiative in breaking the law, the conservatism of the Church is such that probably no reforms would ever have been forthcoming.
If it were possible or expedient to discipline the clergy for breaches of rubrical order, doubtless desirable reforms would