Liturgical Texts in Postmodernity III

This is the second of five sections (and 5 blogposts) of an MTh essay unpacking the problem of text in postmodern contexts for worship and the implications for the Liturgy Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia.  It specifically reflects upon the Commission’s 2009 Alternative Service for Holy Communion.

The Postmodern Paradigm of Authority 

Phyllis Tickle argues that paradigms of authority are undergoing a massive transition in the Christian Church across the world. “Always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of a reconfiguration (of a culture) is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbiter of correct belief, action, and control.”1 Authority in a postmodern era tends toward diffuse, personalised and pluralistic expressions where individuals ‘make up their own mind’ rather than accept what is passed down to them within a hierarchy. Tickle argues it is also strongly influenced by ‘orthonomy’ which she defines as “the employment of aesthetic or harmonic purity as a tool for discerning the truth – and therefore the intent and authority – of anything, be that thing either doctrine or practice.”2

The changing paradigm of authority impacts the function of theological sources of authority – Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The Wesleyan addition of Experience to form a Quadrilateral in the eighteenth century should already be a post-Reformation reminder that theological epistemology and hermeneutics are dynamic conceptualisations. Naming the sources of authority is a Theologia Secunda3 task as theologians and liturgists attempt to explain the basis upon which we know anything about God. Postmodern Christians tend to prioritise the authority of Experience as a lens through which Scripture, Tradition and Reason are received. It is not a hierarchy with Experience replacing Scripture (or Tradition) as a superior vehicle of revelation. Rather, all things must make sense in a persons experience, for them to be considered true. Hence, a postmodern Christian will grapple with Scripture and Tradition until they find an interpretation that makes sense (Reason) to them in their own world of meaning (Experience). The inherited, ancient texts are received quite differently in this way. As Rowan Williams articulates in his theological method, the authority is in the eschatological, narrative connections: the points of fusion between our lives and those in the text.4

There are at least two complications in the transmission of a liturgical text in this new paridigm of authority. First, a postmodern Christian will resist any centralised, hierarchical insistence for activity or belief. This is not to say that a centralised liturgy is without purpose but rather the liturgy commission must begin to work with the fact that the text will be the beginning of a “conversation”5 with the local context. Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves from the USA and Bishop Michael Perham from UK went on a ‘pilgrimage of grace’ to fourteen ’emerging church’ communities and then reflected on lessons for mainstream Anglican worship. The coined a phrase ‘indigenous authenticity’ to describe how these postmodern expressions of worship worked with ancient and modern liturgies for local use. The congregations were very positive about the liturgies officially authorised by the church, but at the same time felt free to alter wording, pick and choose prayers, play with the order and experiment with the rubrics. Whilst this leads to wonderful creativity and local authenticity, it leaves the worship open to the possibility of weakened apostolic authenticity. How is Episcopal oversight exercised when deconstruction of texts is normative?

The 2009 liturgy is written as a unity. The choice of informal theological language is consistent and the congregation glide along easily on the liturgical journey from gathering, hearing the Word of God, responding to the Word in prayer then sharing in the Holy Communion before being sent out into the world to live as God’s people. To select a single prayer or cut and change the order does alter the effect of the text as it was written and ‘approved.’ Whether or not these changes are helpful depends entirely upon the liturgical capacity of the local worship leader. Unless the deconstructed liturgy experienced by the local congregation is as carefully prepared as the original text, it is in danger of being diminished in some way – theologically, experientially or aesthetically.

A second obstacle for the liturgy commission is presented by Post-colonial theology. Michael Jagessar and Stephen Burns have begun to identify how Post-colonial critique of texts needs to infiltrate our construction of liturgy. They cite Clauco S. de Lima to describe just how complicated this is for Anglicans:

“In our Anglican churches, the signs and the power of colonial symbols may be seen not only in the liturgical order. The Hebrew and Greek sources of our liturgy come to us already filtered through British culture and in the Book of Common Prayer, a wonderful Western and Christian inspiration, itself an example of a contextual theological process. Beyond the very order and the linguistic sources of our worship, even our clothing bears a witness to a colonial origin. In the vestments and trimming of the clergy, for example, on the bishop’s surplice, the sleeves finish up at the cuffs in the same way as those of the nobleman in the British court.”6

The creation of a self-conscious Holy Communion text for post-colonial Australia is profoundly complicated but no less important. As Kieran Flanagan notes in his study on Liturgy from a sociological perspective, “differing forms or styles of rite produce contrasting effects in the way the social is arranged to capture the holy.”7 The 2009 liturgy by the Liturgy Commission was an attempt at expressing the tradition in a ‘different voice’ – but whose voice is it? Whose story does this language exclude? How does it create a text that invites participation from different ethnic backgrounds? How does it create a text that connects to the land we now reside in yet acknowledges the multiplicity of lands from which we’ve come? In one sense, the clear scholarship undergirding the 2009 text, drawing upon liturgical resources much more ancient than the English prayer books addresses this concern. This is evident in the obvious absence of monarchical prayers but also in the shape of the service which follws a West Syrian model rather than that contained in the Book of Common Prayer. Perhaps this is as much as the liturgical authors can do at a textual level.

1Tickle (2008) p.45
2Tickle (2009) p.148-149
3Kavanagh (1981) p.74
4Williams (2000) ch.3
5Gray-Reeves & Perham (2011) p.26
6Jagessar & Burns (2011) p.46
7Flanagan (1991) p.33

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