Liturgical Theology by Graham Hughes

(chapter 7 in Worship as Meaning: a liturgical theology for late modernity (Cambridge University Press; UK, 2003))

It took me 3 readings and several weeks of reflection on this chapter to comprehend it properly!  So not only did I want to share my hard work, Hughes’ wisdom is worth sharing.  He has great insight into the relationship between Worship and Culture.  So, here’s my 3 minute summary:

1.  Worship is always an interaction with culture.

“Human beings construct their meanings (a meaningful world) from the meanings culturally available to them.”

2.  Most of ‘primary sources’ for Christian worship were created in a world which is now foreign to us, which leaves us with a ‘meaning gap’ between the original intention and how we might make it meaningful to us.

 “How shall modern worshippers comprehend (‘grasp together’ into a meaningful whole) the world of meanings irreducibly part of a worship service and the world in which these same worshippers must negotiate the joys and perils of being human”.

3.  Frequently the creators of liturgy/worship don’t notice the gap because they have been thoroughly schooled in an ancient mindset through their theological and church education.

4.  Hughes identifies 3 different approaches in Modern expressions of worship to ‘closing the meaning gap’  (If you know it you’ll be reminded of H.R. Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture categories):

  • Church ‘liturigcal’ theologians – ignore contemporary culture
  • Conservative Evangelical – have a co-dependent relationship with culture
  • Mainline (liberal) Protestantism – have capitulated to culture
Liturgical Theologians have spent a lot of time on ‘liturgical renewal’ in the past century but it has been an exercise largely confined within itself, even though it might be motivated by context issues.  The biggest gain through this movement is in the construction of a thorough history of liturgical sources which are yet to be thoroughly engaged with questions of postmodern culture.
Evangelicalism has an inherent contradiction in that it defines itself by culture at the same time against culture.  The worshipper is required to enter into a fully constructed world in order to create meaning within the worship.  For example, the use of contemporary music is a familiar mode, stuff that you’d hear on the ‘secular’ radio, but it is  reinterpreted and reappropriated for a different meaning in worship.  To share the new meaning with the rest of the gathered community you need to buy into a whole new worldview.  This powerfully closes the ‘meaning gap’ in worship and deals with the existential need for meaning with a ‘complete package’ meaning system.  Liturgically, it seeks to claims supremacy over the previous centuries of Christian worship practice, yet fails to see that this merely weds it to a particular time and space (Modern Culture) thereby denying it’s ancient (and future) connections.  “How long does a form of worship remain Christian which untethers itself from Christian tradition so forthrightly as evangelicalism has?”
Mainline Protestantism is dominated by a positive view of human culture and theologically preoccupied with the Immanent dimension of God.  The difficulty is that in the quest for relevance God becomes too small and ‘ordinariness’ is easily misrepresented as sacred.  Protestantism is inextricably Modern and therefore subject to the same decline at the end of the Modern cultural period.
And so what does Hughes conclude about the task of curating worship after this analysis?
“What the case requires, therefore, is a theorization which is recognizable from within present-day presuppositions while not remaining ensconced therein; which is clear-eyed about our dependence on late modern cultural forms and at the same time works towards the relativization of these in the name of a theistic reading of reality.”
Two obvious questions for me in response:
a.  How does the charismatic renewal movement fit into this?  At what point does the Spirit just do what the Spirit does, over and above culture?
b.  How does the emerging movement fit into this?  There are some parts of the emerging worship that are adolescent reactions to Modern religion, but there are other mature expressions of worship which are a genuine attempt at Postmodern ways of being.

You can read the preview of Hughe’s book, including this particular chapter on Google Books.

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