Sunday, September 20, 2015

Commentary: Four Books of Contemporary Liturgical Theology

From The Living Church, Sept 20, 2015

Within Christ’s sadly fractured body, it has been some consolation for the past few generations that at least the liturgists could sing from the same hymnal.  The convictions and priorities of the Liturgical Movement have reshaped the Sunday gatherings of most Christians across the Western world, drawing us together through the use of shared texts, calendars and lectionaries, as well as a common emphasis on active lay participation. 

The Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms reclaimed the centrality of baptism, simplified ceremonial and symbolism and exalted early Christian liturgies as a model for contemporary use.  The Roman Catholic Church’s revised liturgies, which debuted fifty years ago decisively shaped a wave of new liturgical resources throughout mainline Protestantism, including the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1979).  With perhaps the sole exception of biblical studies among the other theological disciplines, liturgical scholars have been educated together and continued in dialogue across confessional borders, working together to institute change within their respective church bodies. 

But that longstanding consensus is clearly beginning to fray.  The grand promises about reformed liturgy’s capacity to reenergize Christian mission and catechesis have worn thin in the advancing days of secularism.  Historical scholarship has undermined earlier confidence about unified patterns of liturgy within the early Church.  Texts, music, and aesthetic idioms that were exciting and innovative 50 years ago now largely seem banal and gauche.   Roman Catholicism’s most recent liturgical developments have been oriented toward reclaiming Latinity, while mainline Protestants have consistently pushed the envelope in the direction of inclusivity, stressing pastoral concerns.  Evangelicalism’s relative growth has popularized casual and emotive forms of worship untouched by the Liturgical Movement’s influence.  

Liturgical studies finds itself at a crossroads, as an aging cadre of scholars seeks to uphold the inherited consensus while new voices move in different directions.   Four recent publications in liturgical studies reflect different points along the spectrum of voices in these important debates, which will reshape the way Christian liturgy is studied and practiced in the coming generation. 

Marquette University’s John Laurence is an important voice affirming the Liturgical Movement standard.  His The Sacrament of the Eucharist is the flagship volume in the Lex Orandi series of Liturgical Press, which explicates the theology and practice of the Roman Rite’s seven sacraments in the light of normal parish practice.  The Roman Church has been gradually issuing retranslations of its liturgical texts for several years (the new English language missal was issued in 2011), and the series purports to interact with these new texts.  There’s scant evidence of this in Laurence’s book, aside from a half-hearted defense of the translation’s use of consubstantial in the Creed.  But there is a consistent desire to justify the Liturgical Movement’s original vision in the light of more recent criticisms.

The first half of Laurence’s book is a dense but rewarding summary of the deeply Christological theology undergirding the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms.  Drawing heavily from the work of Karl Rahner, Edward Kilmartin and Louis-Marie Chauvet, Laurence sets sacramental participation in the widest possible scope, tracing a liturgically-focused Christology, soteriology and ecclesiology.  Christ is present and active in the church’s liturgy as “God’s self-gift to the world,” received by His people in the shared life of grace.  The liturgy is the church’s symbolic language and its public testimony, and is uniquely privileged among other sources of theology in its ability to express the apostolic faith.   In passing, Laurence treats a number of complex issues skillfully, including the background of the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi and the appropriate balance between universal and local elements in liturgical celebration. 

The work’s second half is a mystagogical commentary on a celebration of the Sunday Eucharist in Ordinary time.  There is a great deal of helpful material here, though Laurence does exhibit the occasionally humorous tendency of such works to allegorize every possible element of the liturgy—thus, church pews  represent the way believers are gathered together in Christ, while congregational chairs are alternatively signs of the equal dignity of all persons in Christ.

Healing Touch and Saving Word by Episcopal priest Linda Malia attempts a similar project, analyzing the Episcopal Church’s rites for healing in light of the Liturgical Movement’s vision.  Her work also begin with a rather simpler overview of what she calls Old School and New School models of sacramental theology, and a review of successive Anglican rites for the visitation of the sick.  The different sections are rather poorly integrated, and the author displays a bit too much of the polemicist’s adversion to straw men in summarily dismissing medieval sacramental theology as magical and hierarchical and the early Prayer Books as guilt-ridden and negative.

Malia’s work, like that of many mainline Protestant liturgical scholars, is more valuable in its attentiveness to pastoral issues surrounding healing ministry. Like many contemporary Episcopalians, she is a robust advocate for the ministry of all the baptized, and ponders how the healing rites might be revised to make them more intentionally corporate, even giving the sick person a more active role, as a way of challenging “the alienation and disempowerment that accompany sickness and debility.”  She also notes the role that families and other caregivers play in supporting the sick, and urges that rites pay more attention be paid to their ministry as agents of God’s comfort and healing. 

She challenges the newer Episcopal healing rites’ seeming lack of confidence in God’s healing power, urging the use of more declarative language appropriate to a sacramental encounter.  Sickness, she notes, is a time for serious “soul work,” and she worries about the unrealistically sunny tone of some contemporary rites.  She muses that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far from the dire warnings of the traditional rites, and believes that more extensive catechesis about healing and the liturgical rites would equip the sick and those who minister to them to make better use of the opportunities for conversion and deeper growth in faith that sickness often brings.

The Serious Business of Worship is a festschrift in honor of Berkeley at Yale’s Bryan Spinks, and includes essays from many of the most significant liturgical historians in the English-speaking world.  Spinks is a highly versatile scholar who has made important contributions in the study of patristic, Reformation and modern liturgy, and many of the essays react directly to different parts of a powerful sermon about Christian worship he delivered at Yale in 1997.   Like many liturgical historians in recent decades, Spinks has been a contrarian of sorts, questioning some of the historical and theological foundations upon which the Liturgical Movement built its case.
An essay by Gregory Woolfenden on the development of the Daily Office’s lesser hours (Terce, Sext and None) emphasizes the great diversity in rites and theological justification in the early church, noting that any recovery of the practice in our times will do best to build its foundation on contemporary needs instead of an appeal to an imagined past.  Similar diversity in early Christian patterns of baptismal anointing is the theme of an essay by Paul Bradshaw, who provides support for Spinks’ claim that consistent lines of development in the practice are almost impossible to trace, even within particular regions. 

Spinks’ work has also vindicated the theological integrity of Reformation liturgy, and has expressed concern about the tendency of some contemporary liturgy to shy away from a serious engagement with sin and grace. He fears that mainline Protestant liturgy has lost its Christological center by a preoccupation with pastoral concerns, and has grown dangerously optimistic.  Philip Tovey expresses apprehension, along these lines, about the almost complete absence of atonement theology from several Anglican eucharistic prayers for children.  Simon Jones, in an essay about Anglican baptismal liturgies, is very uneasy about the tendency of many modern rites to include baptismal promises, like our current Prayer Book’s “Baptismal Covenant,” before the ritual act of washing.  “The desire to present baptism as complete sacramental initiation,” Jones notes of such rites, “seems to outweigh any other theological consideration and has produced a quasi-Pelagian rite in which ‘the Christ who reaches out to us’ does so with contractual obligations which require assent rather than the gift of grace which invites the response of faith” (156).

All of this deconstruction of old models and development of new directions makes constructive work in liturgical theology very difficult. F. Gerrit Immink’s The Touch of the Sacred is probably most valuable as a demonstration of just how confusing this has all become.  The rector of the Dutch Reformed Church’s leading seminary, Immink tries to chart a course for Protestant liturgical theology in this age of uncertainty.  He deals consistently with three different models of theory and practice: classical Reformed, Protestant ecumenical (liturgy influenced by the Liturgical Movement) and evangelical “blended worship.”  The three different models all operate simultaneously in the church for which Immink trains ministers, using different liturgical books (or none at all), and exhibiting a wide range of practice and theological orientation.

 Immink notes that most books on liturgical theology tend to be written from the celebrant’s perspective and that he desires, instead, to write from the participant’s angle, describing worship as a communal act.  He intends, like Laurence, to anchor his book in the experience of ordinary Sunday worship in a parish church.  But he quickly gets himself into a bind, when trying to say anything normative about such a diverse panoply of liturgical experience. 
The work includes some helpful insights from sociological study of worship experience and philosophical reflection on the nature of practice.   Immink also advocates constructively for the central place of the Holy Spirit in Protestant worship.  His distinction between analogical and dialectical styles of contemporary preaching, with accompanying theological justifications of both is very insightful.  But on the whole, this is an agonized work, pulled in different directions by desires to affirm community life and anti-institutionalism, spiritual experience and canonical texts, spontaneity and comprehensiveness, Christological orthodoxy and openness to radical innovations.  There’s nothing new about these tensions in Protestant liturgical theology—indeed, they explain why so little of it is actually written.  But if Immink’s work is any indication, the tensions are mounting and the agony deepening as the Liturgical Movement’s temporary truce fades away.

At its General Convention this summer, the Episcopal Church voted to begin preparatory work toward a new prayer book, even as, in some quarters, the wounds of 40 years ago seem barely healed.  It’s important to remember that, for all the theological and practical furor raised by the last revision, at least it rested on a striking degree of ecumenical consensus about the ritual and theology of Christian worship.  That consensus has suffered greatly since then.  This almost certainly means that liturgical revision will be a much more difficult task now than ever before.  

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