An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury given to a meeting of the Alcuin Club at Lambeth Palace
Wednesday 20th May 2009Founded in 1897, the Club (named after Alcuin of York, deacon, abbot of Tours, d 840) has a long and respected tradition of promoting sound liturgical scholarship within and beyond the Church of England by publishing a series of collections and other works.
Read a transcript below:
Is there a liturgical crisis in the Church of England? The language of crisis comes very easily to people's lips in these days, and I'm instinctively rather cautious about using it. At the same time it would be a very eccentric and shortsighted observer who would deny that in the Church of England at the moment, and doubtless in the Communion more widely, there is what could be described as a drift; a drift whose direction has the effect of increasing the distance between liturgy as traditionally understood, and the worship that seems to flourish in many of the larger congregations in our Church, and which is certainly preferred by those in the Church who like to use the language of 'Fresh Expressions'. This distance and the problems it brings, finds focus in specific questions about the use of robes, about the use of certain formulae, about a whole range of issues around the style of music, about posture and even physical layout in worship spaces. But before we get too bogged down in that, it may be worth offering a little terminological clarification.
A great deal of worship in these newer contexts is in fact highly ritualized. That doesn't mean it's liturgical. As you all know better than I, it can be of some importance and significance to draw a few distinctions here. Ritual speech and behaviour is rule-governed, habitual, repetitive and formulaic behaviour. And anybody who has ever experienced worship in supposedly modern church settings will be well aware that formulaic behaviour is by no means absent. In my least friendly and most unregenerate moments in such contexts, I have felt that the language used is as esoteric and alienating as anything in the Book of Common Prayer or indeed the Tridentine Missal. It takes for granted the insider's point of view, sometimes even more dramatically than more traditional forms do. It is ritualized activity, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is liturgical activity. And one emphasis that may be helpful in framing the rest of what I'd like to say this afternoon is to suggest that liturgy is an event involving physical space, moving you from one condition to another. Ritual doesn't necessarily have the effect of moving you in that way from condition to condition; liturgy, I would suggest, is of its essence a transition. It involves change. It is an event. And when modern ritualized worship bids fair to replace the liturgical in some contexts, it's worth asking what precisely is likely to be lost, as well as what bridges might be built between the different worlds involved here.
So I'm going to suggest two dimensions of our humanity that are involved in liturgical activity, which may sharpen up the distinction between that and mere ritual. I've said that I believe liturgy is something which effects a transition, an event of change. Liturgy transforms the self and its space. And that means that liturgy draws in two sets of considerations - considerations about the body and considerations about time. If we begin to understand a little better the sort of issues that are involved in reflecting on the body and time, we may get to a fuller sense of what effective liturgy must be.
But to put it in those terms does at once focus for us why some of this is difficult at the moment, for the simple reason that we live in a culture which is often deeply illiterate about the body. A strange thing to say in a culture which appears very interested indeed in the gratification of the body, and is often described as materialist; and yet the notion that bodies are organs of meaning is not one that is easy to explain in our present context. We're illiterate about the body as a signifying reality, a 'meaning' reality. And also we are, very largely, trapped in undifferentiated time; we don't know how to mark time. But if those two things are true about the culture we're currently operating in, then these days, liturgical activity of the kind most of us are familiar with and most of us value, is proposing itself to an unprepared consciousness. I put it that way because of a book I read many years ago which concluded that the trouble with the Sermon on the Mount was that it was addressed to human beings who didn't yet exist. That is, in order to hear exactly what the Sermon on the Mount is saying, you need to have arrived at a certain level of sheer human attentiveness and honesty. Similarly a great deal of what we take for granted about liturgy is addressed to 'human beings who don't yet exist' -- that is to say, it presents itself in an environment where it's almost impossible to translate what has traditionally been meant by 'the body' in liturgy and the use of time.
I put it that way because it seems to me that very often this is a problem that is wrongly diagnosed in the contemporary setting. I'm not saying that the language of liturgy is difficult and should be made easier, or that the structure and visual tone of liturgy is alien and should be made familiar. Those are the tempting and easy mistakes that the 'kindergarten' liturgical reformer is most easily seduced by. And I'd go back at that point to underlining what I said earlier about some supposedly contemporary styles, which are in fact as alienating and impenetrable as any of the language of the Prayer Book or whatever. It's not simply a matter of translating 'stuff' from one medium to another. It is about recognizing that there is some quality of our current human cultural situation that makes the whole notion of liturgy difficult. Difficult of course does not mean 'shouldn't be tried', and you won't need me to stress that. But this means that good liturgy, good liturgical reform or renewal has to think through the two themes I suggested about the body and time, rather more systematically than often we're used to. And it means also that we should not try to reduce that problem to the much less interesting problem of how you might translate something difficult into something easy.
The body communicates as a whole. It has certain organs (the ones whose effect you're now listening, or half-listening to) which particularly focus the energy and reflection of human beings around communication -- because noises and words have a very particular effect and are very specially flexible and creative. At the same time, we all know well enough what it is to listen to words coming from an expressionless face and we know the great variety with which people accompany their speech in terms of gesture. The question posed by a school boy to an over exuberant female school teacher, 'Miss, would you be able to talk if they cut off your arms?' does remind us of just how varied that performance can be.
The body communicates as a whole, but that also means of course that the body receives communication as a whole. That's to say that we don't just hear with our ears. We hear with all our senses. We absorb messages and process them through media far broader and more variegated than the ears alone. And that means that in this particular context we're bound to think of the liturgical event – one of communication and transition – as an event that necessarily involves a whole environment, visual, aural and sensual. Significance is absorbed in all those ways and at all those levels. The language about the liturgy as 'heaven on earth' so often associated with the Orthodox liturgy, may be overused (not to say in many contexts wildly implausible and counter-intuitive) but it nonetheless relates to the absolute base line of Christian identity, reflection and activity. It relates to the fact that liturgy is designed to be a transition into the New Creation. If I had one slogan to sum up what I believe we ought to be saying about liturgy, it is, 'Movement into the New Creation', with all the implications that has for 'the liturgy after the liturgy; but perhaps that's another story.
It's a dimension of liturgy and of Christian identity that I think has been brought out more clearly than ever in the last few years by some rather maverick kinds of biblical scholarship -- 'maverick', because many of the assumptions of biblical scholarship in the last couple of generations have been based on the idea that essentially the Jewish world of Jesus' day was non-conformist, that is, that it approached liturgy very much at the level of ideas and inspiration. But the work of writers like Margaret Barker has stressed as never before how far the ritual of the Temple dominated the imagination of Jesus' contemporaries. And once you've read Margaret Barker's books it's really quite difficult to come at the New Testament as once you might have done; you'll see how the imagery, the metaphorical world of Temple worship is pervasive in the New Testament, and, more specifically, how that dimension of Temple ritual which was about re-establishing the order of the Cosmos pervades much of the New Testament's thinking about the Christian life.
Jesus' Jewish world was a deeply liturgical world, a world in which the central activity for an entire culture and community was the cycle of annual events, in the Temple, though not exclusively so, that had to do with the restoration of humanity to its proper place in creation. The divine image overlaid by the passage of time and the corruption of sin had to be laid bare and restored to its full glory. Humanity had to clothe itself afresh in the garments of light, lost at the beginning. In this process, humanity was revealed in its proper relationship to God and to creation as a whole. Liturgy in the Temple 'activated God-wards' the buried divine image. And all of this language was at hand for those early Christian believers seeking to make sense of the impact of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. In the wake of those events, humanity had discovered itself afresh. Humanity had been clothed anew in the garments of light, restored in its place before God and its relationship with the rest of the created order -- and all of that because humanity had been invited, summoned to stand in the place of Jesus the New Adam, the Son of Man, the focus of God's creative and re-creative work and power.
So as the New Testament evolves and as its theology takes sharper and deeper form, part at least of what is going on is that the new Christian identity is being thought through and imagined in terms of that legacy of liturgy. The whole process of becoming a Christian and growing up as a Christian, growing into your full humanity as a believer, is to do with what the Temple liturgy was all about. It's a restoration to the place of Adam. It's a clothing with light and the uncovering (to use the opposite image) of the naked likeness of God in human nature. So in terms of the entire environment in which liturgy takes place, the human body is receiving impressions with all its senses whose sole purpose is the restoration of the entire human being, spirit and body, in right relationship with God and the world. To reduce this to a matter of the exchange of ideas or the uttering of exhortations is to miss that deep and powerful current in scripture which is about New Creation, restored relationship. And at that level of course, it connects with questions around time.
Liturgy is an event of transition; something changes; where you are at the end is not where you were at the beginning; and I would maintain that understanding liturgy properly is understanding the specific changes and movements that this or that liturgical act involves. So liturgy is itself a temporal activity, it takes time and it takes 'differentiated' time. Differentiated time is the opposite of the unmarked time of the seven-day working week; the opposite of time without rhythm; the opposite of time considered simply as a medium you can use in order to make money or make yourself secure or to guarantee profit or whatever. The more time is seen as opportunity for activity like that the less differentiation there is. It's much better (we seem to assume) to have seven working days on the trot than to have these tiresome interruptions all the time where you can't actually make money for twenty-four hours. I'm not in principle a dedicated, old-style sabbatarian, but there are moments when I fully understand what that is about in its most positive sense -- and many of those moments happen when I'm enjoying a Sabbath eve meal with Jewish friends, when I realize just what it is to have twenty-four hours experienced as sheer gift and grace, to be welcomed like a bride.
But that is deeply counter-cultural at the moment. Global communication and the global economy, and the work patterns that I've already referred to, all of that pushes us in the direction of time that is flattened out. It's just duration, it's not rhythmical. It's what I called earlier unmarked time. That is, more and more, the time in which we are encouraged and sometimes obliged to live. Liturgical time is the opposite of simply time that has to be filled up. It is the time of a drama, the time of an event. It is to do with the building and release of tension, and the time needed for transition or change to happen. It is differentiated in the sense that it casts a different light on how we spend the rest of our time (or at least it should). That element of building and releasing tension is, again, something which we are very easily seduced into losing sight of in liturgy. The worship event which has no story to tell and no rhythm to follow may be highly ritualized, but what it isn't is liturgical, transformative. It may have its own virtues and its own strengths, but they're not specifically liturgical.
It was Helen Gardner, I think, who many years ago in her work on religion and literature noted the differences between Eastern and Western liturgy, saying that, whereas Western liturgy was romantic, Eastern liturgy was epic. She didn't just mean the obvious thing about the length of Eastern liturgy, but that Western liturgy far more than Eastern built and released tension. The liturgy moved towards a single, dramatic, climactic moment and released that tension. Eastern liturgy moves less securely to one culminating point. Although I think she underrated the dramatic and 'romantic' qualities of Eastern liturgy, it's an interesting point, which obliges us to think about the nature of the building and releasing of tension as part of a liturgy which takes time and has dramatic energy, in the broadest possible sense.
And so in a culture where this approach to time seems increasingly strange, or eccentric, the good liturgical act becomes yet again a very counter-cultural moment. It poses questions about our use and understanding of time, and conversely it makes liturgy itself quite difficult. In our undifferentiated time of modernity, it may seem more obvious that an hour spent in worship doesn't have to have much of a shape and doesn't have to have much of a story to it. The liturgist should be challenging that in the name of a fundamental sense, drawn from the world of Jesus himself, that the point of standing before God is to move into the New Creation with its new possibilities and its new obligations. A great deal more could be and has been said by people better equipped than I on these two matters: understanding the body, the entire environment and understanding time, rhythm, and tension. These are the story of the liturgical event. But I want to outline what I believe to be some of the underlying issues as we think about liturgy these days and whether or not we have a liturgical crisis in the Church of England or anywhere else.
What I'm hinting at is that rather than simply opposing liturgy and fashionable modern worship, we look at where the bridges might be built and where the challenges specifically, are. I would want to ask, for example, in the environment of the new worship service -- the Fresh Expressions congregation or whatever – how much education is going on about what Christianity assumes concerning the body and the world? This is because I believe that in introducing people afresh to the Christian faith, we all of us need to think through what that might mean. The Christian faith is not simply the acquisition of some new ideas or even of some new emotions. It is moving into a set of renewed relationships with God and the world, moving into the New Creation and so understanding that the ambient world is not what we thought it was. In dealing with a congregation of people coming from our contemporary culture with very little preparation for or grasp of this, there is an enormous opportunity of laying out the fact that Christianity actually gives you a way of existing as a material being in the world that was not there before. It's an area where – and I say it with some trepidation – we can learn at least some lessons from our Buddhist friends for whom the practice of faith is fundamentally being a material creature in the world, in a different way. And although I say it with trepidation I don't say it with apology, because I genuinely believe that that is something we readily lose sight of in the Western religious world, and need to recover with some intelligence and imagination.
So first, how does this very exciting and vigorous new world of outreach bring into its purview the essential question: What kind of material world does Christian faith bring you into? Part of that is understanding a little more fully what is entailed about the passage of time and the use of time. And second, coming out of that, is the question of how traditional liturgy, in the broadest sense of those words, can emerge from those questions as something that's not simply weird or eccentric but genuinely about new perception and sensation?
The traditional forms of liturgy take for granted certain things about the body and time. And to be able to present those insights and those assumptions coherently as part of what the liturgical event is about, has to be the challenge of theorists and practitioners of liturgy in our own difficult times. Very often the stand-off (as it sometimes seems) between traditional liturgy and modern ritual is misconceived. The traditional is valued simply because of its traditional quality rather than because of its substantive theological depth. Certain styles of worship and certain bodily postures and gestures matter not simply because they've been done since the days of the apostles, or since the days of the vicar before last; they matter because they say something about the new humanity within the New Creation. How do we communicate that? Not simply by repetition but by entering into the depth of those things as wisdom and as discipline. It needs a great deal of discernment. There are, as we all know, attitudes to traditional liturgy which are defensive, unintelligent or even superstitious. But there are a good many cases where (a little reluctantly perhaps) we've come round to realizing that what thirty years ago might have seemed a pointless refinement, and therefore dispensable, actually carried something enabling a quality of bodily concentration which we wouldn't otherwise experience in our liturgy. And therefore some significant dimension of liturgy's essence has been overlaid.
This, of course carries over into a whole set of fascinating, difficult questions which fortunately I don't have time to address this afternoon. They have to do with the architecture of the space in which this transition happens, and the right and the wrong levels of flexibility in that physical space. These are subjects for future discussion. But I think that what I'm implying is also that a group of committed liturgists and liturgiologists are very well placed to do some work for the Church and the world not simply on the basis of liturgical scholarship in its narrowest sense, but on the basis of that liturgical theology which understands liturgy as the transformation of the time-taking body. As with a good many of you, the work of somebody like the late Fr Alexander Schmemann as a liturgical theologian has transformed a good deal of my thinking in this area, simply because this is someone whose approach to the event of Christian liturgy is very deeply rooted in a sense of what liturgy is about as part of a Christian identity which is the experience of renewal of soul and body, and the re-balancing of the whole created order in Jesus Christ. So a task for this group, and a task for all practising liturgists, is the move towards the theological depths of the liturgical action on the basis of an understanding of what the liturgical transformation is.
This is a challenge, of course, for our whole Church. Part of my concern about the situation with liturgy in our Church is not so much with the disappearance of this or that text from education and practice or with the shift in style, but with a fairly pervasive failure to realize that people do need to be educated in liturgical behaviour. By which of course I don't mean what angle to hold your thumbs, or -- thinking back to my beloved Mirfield – how far you need to turn your trousers up under your cassock! I mean liturgical behaviour: using your body significantly. A great many people emerge from our training institutions with very little sense of what that might mean, or of how the use of the celebrant's body enables or disables the whole community's worship. But no theological student is going to grasp that without some theology to underpin it.
So, is there a liturgical crisis? There is in many areas probably better practice in liturgy than there's been for quite a long time and there's also a great deal that is worse; so I hesitate simply to use the word 'crisis'. I do want to say that it is an opportunity; but above all a challenge in what I believe is a profoundly exciting dimension of our theology and our understanding of what it is to be a Christian. Because if any of this is along the right lines, then understanding our liturgy is understanding our newness as Christians and understanding what difference is made by the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it's perhaps an appropriate conclusion for this subject in this season to say that of course this is quite simply a reminder that the heart of all our liturgical activity is, and should always be, paschal.
© Rowan Williams 2009