Long ago, I had read Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy. It was during a very turbulent point in my theological development. I had endeavored to find some way of harmonizing the reform of the Latin liturgy with the spirituality and worldview it seemed the Latin church had left behind at the close of the 1960s. I sought to find a point of substantial convergence between what came before and what came after; there had to be something which could demonstrate a most profound continuity between the two. It ought to be something that could be researched and argued. In sum, it ought to be something more substantial than arguments from authority or religious confession.
The reason for so doing was very simple; it was to find the reason. There had to be a reason to justify dismantling the structure of the Latin or Western liturgy as it had been inherited. It had to be more than just the will of authority. There must be, perhaps laid away in the passage of centuries or the dusty shelves of some well stocked, thought scantly visited, theological library a text that could elucidate the need for revision and the harmony of the new form with the Latin tradition.
And such the time was when I encountered Dix's work. It was amid the long attempt to find something that, ultimately, could not be found. In that moment, however, there was no regretful introspection on a failed intellectual, if not spiritual, quest. There was only the moment of studying a book that had garnered the reputation of being an important landmark in the later half of the liturgical movement.
In some respects, The Shape of the Liturgy solidifies a shift in Western liturgics. Within its pages, the scientific understanding of the liturgy is presented as the enescapable interpretative course upon which Western liturgics must tread henceforth. The book conveys this not so much by explicit statement or decree, but rather by means of the industrial automated appeal to historical data as demonstrating the meaning of the liturgy. Dix was clear in the introductory matter of the book that he envisioned the historical data presented in its pages as defining the clear shape or combination of elements that "make" the liturgy. He envisioned this data as having practical effect in the Church; Christians would have greater comprehension of the liturgy as action and in turn be drawn into the action of the liturgy.
Whether or not Dix's work achieved this aim is uncertain. Certainly, and regrettably, subsequent liturgists, or at least the greater majority of them, ignored Dix's admonition that although the data demonstrate the liturgy can change, it did not follow that the form of the liturgy as it had "finally" developed indicated that the form or shape should be changed by the present generation. Data demonstrating that liturgy changed in earlier centuries was used to propose that liturgy could in fact change in the present century, even in radical ways. The liturgical tradition of the West was reduced to historical data. Having reduced the liturgy to one set of data, a window was opened to supplement the sparse content with other sets of data, most often sociological or political.
Liturgy, in our own day, is data. It is conceived as so many historical, sociological, or psychological models. Liturgists wait for the next study to apply to a restless conception of liturgy, liturgy that rushes to stay current in an age of near instant information/infotainment. Any attempts at stabilization are interpreted as an affront to data, particularly the primordial data of liturgical change in the earliest decades. It doesn't matter that the data behind the data points to a context in which Christianity's position in relation to the larger culture was in flux and that upon stabilization the classical or post-Nicene form of the liturgy begins to quickly emerge and substantially crystalize. The data indicate change has happened, therefore change can and should happen.
Liturgy is data. Furthermore, it is data that can be and often is manipulated. The somewhat traditional notion that liturgy is something we receive is often repugnante to contempotrary Western liturgists. However, the reigning alternative, liturgy as malleable data, is perhaps a more cynical alternative. It is certainly more disasterous in the long run. While liturgists find their creativity stifiled by the notion that we receive the liturgy, the notion that liturgy can be changed has turned it into an ideological weapon. Certainly, the two attempts at translating the contemporary Roman liturgy into English have demonstrated that liturgy is used, one way or another, to promote ideological agendas to the left and to the right, the actual content of the liturgy being secondary to the ruling currents of either the liberalism or conservativism of the day.
The notion that there should be no taboo surrounding liturgical change is perhaps an unintended consequence of Dix's work, if not the liturgical movement as a whole. If the manner in which a particular religion worships reflects its conception of reality, then we are left with a rather gloomy prospect. Western Christianity does not see itself as answerable to anything, other than its own notions, no matter how ephemeral they are. Indeed, it is debatable if Western Christianity considers itself accountable to God or itself. The West has adopted an almost brazen attitude to its liturgical tradition, if not an embedded animosity to its treasury of liturgical prayer. Even in the reformed form of the Roman Rite, the Latin text and the history of prayer that has withstood centuries is spurned in favor of contemporary emotive outbursts.
Compare the attitude of contemporary Western liturgics with Dix's delicate thesis. There are points at which the historical record seems to suggest he stated more than was demonstrable with the available evidence. We cannot, in my estimation, claim that we have a detailed description of the rubrics, readings, and prayers of the ancient Roman rite and how those elements were executed and intersected with each other. Nevertheless, along the road to constructing his proposal of a Western Rite as opposed to a Roman Rite, Dix does not overly contrast the obscure ancient Roman liturgy with the liturgy synonymous with the "Tridentine" and high church traditions. He carefully notes that the Western liturgy follows the general Roman form as opposed to other liturgical traditions. He duly notes the antiquity of the lectionary found in both the old Missale Romanum and many of the reformed liturgies, observing that the old lectionary had such antiquity that most reformers could not imagine that it could or should be changed. Although Dix advocated the scientific study of the liturgy, although he may have over estimated the value of the scientific study of the liturgy for deepening an understanding of the action of the liturgy, Dix fully comprehended the weight and venerability of the liturgy as the West had inherited it.