Recently I read where one complained that the Reformers (both of the Great Reformation and more recent varieties) made claims to antiquity which are not simply borne out in fact. This particular issue had to do with the reforms of the Mass in the wake of Vatican II by those scholars who appeared to know antiquity as well as they knew the present moment.
On the one hand the charge laid against the Great Reformers is that they actually knew little of the early church, of the writings of the fathers, or of the liturgical state of affairs in the early church. Of course, this is not quite true. For example, the Lutheran Confessions are replete with references to the fathers and to councils to show that their position is not novelty but catholic. It is also true that if there is a lack of knowledge of the early church or liturgical development, as one more narrow example, it is because these things had been allowed to languish in a medieval church which thought the most important things of theology and liturgy happened in more recent history.
But there is another answer. That answer is that antiquity was not of one mind on everything, especially things liturgical. There are great gaps in the history that beg elucidation from people who can only speculate -- like the structural development of the Roman Canon. An appeal to antiquity can often allow you to cite competing and conflicting views. Surely this is in part because we want the ancients to speak with one voice, in one vocabulary, just as we would speak today. We want a formula that is precise and detailed. Yet that is what we do not find in early Christendom. It is not heresy to admit that the liturgical development in the West is neither clear nor logical and it is certainly not well documented. So we theorize and that theories we often propose are the fruit of our positions as much as the evidence of the past.
When I went to seminary, for example, it was fashionable among some theologians to claim that the substitutionary explanation of the atonement was late and the early church favored the Christus Victor way of describing what our Lord accomplished. But surely part of the issue is that modern theologians do not like the presuppositions of and the consequences to the idea of penal substitution. The reality is that early Christians spoke of Christ's work in a variety of ways and that penal substitution was woven into their thought as deeply and intricately as any other view or description.
So in liturgical theology and the history of rites, the presumption of some golden thread through history and some uniform stages of development for the mass has been the mask many have worn through the modern liturgical movement of reform. Reclaiming the past has been the motto but the past reclaimed is often strangely or not so strangely in line with the presuppositions of the one viewing the history. This has been especially true even of more modern evolutionary development and among Lutherans fighting their worship wars (some in the comments of this blog). Let me say that there is no perfect moment in which the forces came together to imagine a pristine and pure liturgy. It has been a history of development, loss, reclamation, deterioration, and renewal since Christ ascended. Why would the history of our rites and practices be different than the rest of our history as Christians?
Speaking as a Lutheran, I know our history is a mess. Yet within that mess of conflicting and competing claims of what is Lutheran and what is not, we are left with something more than historical nuance to guide us and that is voiced in the Lutheran Confessions. Keep all that we can without compromising the Gospel and yet do not legislate these as laws that demand obedience. Perhaps that is the Lutheran liturgical principle. Perhaps it is applicable beyond even Lutheranism. It is the tension of lex orandi lex credendi lived out in history. Antiquity informs and has a vote, to be sure. But we are not hot in pursuit of a pure treasure to be mined from some hidden source.
Rome has a slightly different history. Yes, Trent (after the Reformation) ruled the roost for 500 years and yet there were slight variations and rites that continued to live after Trent defined liturgy and dogma. There always were. But the problem of Rome is that Trent is not antiquity -- as much as some would want it to be. And Trent was tinkered with along the way before the great reform of a new Mass. So perhaps Rome could benefit, as Lutherans, from a ceasefire from the battlements of antiquity. Not everything that is added is terrible and not everything that was inherited is wonderful.
Antiquity can speak in various voices and not uniformly. The key in theology and liturgical development is not antiquity or improvisation but faithfulness. It would seem to me that this focus would be better than turning over every old rock to find a perfect model of dogma and liturgy or constantly reinventing what we look like on Sunday morning. We are our rites -- not because they are perfect -- because that is exactly how lex orandi lex credendi works. What we pray shapes what we believe and what we believe shapes how we pray. You cannot solve the tension by the rule of the past or the dictatorship of the present. They must be kept in tension with the binding of faithfulness. If that were to happen, things might be better for Christendom all around.