Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Liturgy and Liturgists

What follows is something I posted on Simple Massing Priest’s site and I want to re-post it on my own because it’s part of a conversation I’m having with myself and need to air it out a bit more.

I want to make a couple of observations. One has to do with the role of liturgy and liturgists. The other has to do with the visceral importance of having something in one’s life that will not move.  However, this post is long enough as it is so I’ll skip the second point for now.

Before I go on I want to cite a portion of something I wrote a few weeks ago because it always has to be a check on where we are going:

A passage from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, caught my eye that I think speaks directly to the current internecine warfare within the Anglican Communion.  About the various hard-core reformists and their opponents of centuries gone by he writes:

The tremendous investment in reform and hence discipline, which inspires such a sense of their spiritual superiority in the breasts of Latin, and ex-Latin Christians, when they contemplate those of other faiths, or even other Christian churches, this immense effort seems itself to have obscured the essentials of the faith, and to have led to a substitution of something secondary for the primary goal of centering everything on God.

I follow a number of Anglican blogs and news sites. Most of them are consumed with demonstrating that they are the first to know and know the most about what is going on with Lambeth, GAFCON, or any of a dozen other flashpoints in the world of Anglicanism.  I follow them because they are informative, and the occasional appearance of wry wit has some entertainment value.  But Taylor is right not only about the Church of past centuries.  In our own day we have “substituted something secondary for the primary goal of centering everything on God,” and that is to our shame.

As Chris (another posting on that site) has pointed out, there sometimes appears to be a disconnect between what liturgists give us to be the words guiding our worship and the theology that expresses the content of our faith.  But when I look back on the evolution of our own BCP it seems even more evident that the liturgists are often engaged in a difficult balancing act that attempts to accommodate a nexus of the prevailing thinking in the pews and the competing demands of very serious theologians.  Consider the prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1662.  It’s a pretty remarkable evolution that worked hard to preserve our catholic heritage without being Roman while incorporating important Lutheran reforms, picking up a bit of Calvin here and there, mediating with Puritans and finally with Presbyterians.  It took a brutal war, years of dictatorship and too many deaths on both sides to bring it about.  At least we have not gone that far yet. 

As brilliant and bloody as it was, nothing epitomizes the sort of waffling stance of Anglicanism more than the words, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.  Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.”  On the one hand it proclaims the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist while on the other articulates the Reformed understanding of the bread and wine as a memorial in which Christ is present only spiritually.  Is it either/or and we cannot make up our minds, or is it both/and and a holy mystery?  In any case, the whole effort was little more than dressing up medieval theologies of worship in the acceptable Reformation language and thinking of the day.

It seems to come as a surprise to many, but Christian worship did not start with the Reformation.  It did create a new direction for the greater Church but it did not establish a new foundation for Christianity.  Skipping forward to the 20th century, and all the theologians aside, it was the liturgical renewal movement that brought together the churches of the catholic tradition (and others who were willing) to dig back through the modern language of the post-Elizabethan and post-Tridentine periods to rediscover the theology inherent in the earliest prayers of the church and incorporate them into contemporary worship in contemporary language.  To be sure, various alternative services have also popped up with some pretty goofy language in them, but how is that all that different from the experiments between 1549 and 1662?

So it seems to me that the role of the liturgist is to put into the popular practice of worship the best of what the theologians have to offer in a way that achieves some sort of acceptable balance that speaks to the people of a certain place, culture and time.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good attempt to express what a liturgist tries to do, to balance the fads of the moment with the heritage of the past. Somewhat related: While I was teaching NT Greek at the Southwestern Seminary, I made some tentative liturgical suggestions to the resident academic clergy, one of which was to revert to a practice still followed in St.Peters, Rome, and some Reformation practices, of having the celebrant stand behind the altar/table to face the congregation. The seminary clergy I tried that out on said, "No way, that will never happen!" That was in 1960. Duh!!!

Country Parson (Steven Woolley) said...

Hey Bill,
Missed you on Tuesday.

SUNRISE SISTER said...

Old enough, young enough to remember the scandal of having to cut the altar away from the wall to allow the priest "back there".....we all had/have things to be marveled over and then accepted and then taken for granted - "you mean we haven't always done it this way?"

Anonymous said...

Actually, we don't see each other that often: you were gone the Tuesday before, and now, the Tuesday after-today! But thanks for saying that you missed me; I sort of felt that people needed to get a breather from me, anyway!