Liturgical Texts in Postmodernity IV

This is the third 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 Hermeneutical Turn

The publication of a text as a strategy for liturgical renewal encounters all the difficulties of language which postmodern scholarship has grappled with the past half century or more, including a philosophical skepticism about the capacity of language to convey either objective or universal truths. Using the work of Breton, David Power writes:

“There is a double epistemological and ontological imperative to this. First, writing distances what is said from what is thought, but communication and transmission are impossible without it. Interpretation, however, must take this distancing into account… Second, when something in human history is established through an event, the event receives its power within human affairs through narrative, which may be primarily oral but which has to take on written form, where it is enriched by interplay with a variety of other genres.”1

We come to a kind of workable starting point with language for liturgy when, as Catherine Pickstock says, we find a via media between total determinacy and total indeterminacy. “Our words remain always undefined until we actually use them, even though there is always something we know of a word’s meaning which enables us to use it in the first place.”2 The congregation’s experience of the liturgy is inextricably linked to the performance of the words not the words per se.

With this in mind, the text of the 2009 Holy Communion Service can be viewed as a palette of texts from which worshippers can begin their inner liturgical journey. The provision of a text is about so much more than flat transmission of the apostolic testimony or ‘correct’ Anglican theology. Instead, the provision of an authorised liturgical rite could be helpfully viewed within Gordon Lathrop’s category of words as ‘things’ which are essential to the eucharist.

“The words, too, are things, … powerful things, to be encountered with the same force as meets us in meal and bath: they are not mere brief explanations of the water and the food,nor are the water and the food mere illustrations of the words. The words are symbols, gathering places of multilayered meaning and means to participate in that meaning. They are also sacred even before we hear their content, suggesting transcendence simply in the way they are used, evoking our longing for speech that does not lie but works, a kind of speech we do not much know in our time, either in public or in private.”3

An understanding of semiotics is key for the transmission of centrally authorised texts in a postmodern context. Plurality and ‘indigenous authenticity’ happens in the liturgy as event, rather than liturgy as text.

“Performance influences action and prayer and opens the way to a diversity that means that the same words do not mean exactly the same things every time or place in which they are pronounced. One cannot therefore settle on a once and for all meaning and effect of such components as supper narrative, anamnesis, and epiclesis and determine the appropriate gestures accordingly. It is necessary to ask what they signify in this particular prayer tradition and even further in this particular ritual performance even when it is recited as prescribed.”4

I wonder then, about the task of creating ‘modern language’ for the transmission of ancient liturgy. The 2009 liturgy strives for a mix of ‘everyday’ language that the majority of Australians would find family, together with a rich array of biblical images and traditional eucharistic language. The opening prayers set the tone:

“We come by the grace of the one God, creator of beauty, lover of justice.

Blessed be God for ever.

We pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, one with us in sorrow and in joy.

Blessed be God for ever.

We are one in the Spirit who fills the Church, breath of life, making all things new.

Blessed be God for ever.

Come and worship the holy and glorious Trinity, as we pray together:

God of the feast,

your Wisdom calls us,

your Word teaches us and you feed us with your life.

Give us grace to welcome one another as you have welcomed us in Christ Jesus,

in whose name we pray. Amen.

If we understand that every worshipper and worshipping community will be doing their own contextualisation of the text, does not retaining the ancient language, without cultural or linguistic translation, make us more alert to the semiotic work that needs to be done in every worship event? Using a ‘voice’ that belongs to a social context of no one in the present congregation, could potentially create a more egalitarian context. On the other hand, if the shared symbolic meaning of the words is not accessible enough there is opportunity for an educated minority to exercise significant power and control over the interpretation.

Gerard Moore has written about the ‘lens’ through which members of a congregation might enter into the liturgy.5 In any liturgy there are pathways into meaning creation through engaging with the ritual aspects of the liturgy; the doctrine contained in the liturgy; or the spiritual experience evoked by the liturgy. Yet another difficulty for the Liturgy Commission, is that a text lends itself to doctrinal analysis before it gets to the point of either ritual or enacted experience. Hence when the 2009 Holy Communion text was under construction, it was subject first of all to the doctrinal politics of the church. Any text in this context in inevitably uncreative and nurturing for it is birthed from dogmatic compromise rather than lived experience of the liturgy. It is the reversal of lex orandi:lex credendi that Irwin laments in Modern liturgical theology.6

 Footnotes:
1Power (1994) p.687-688
2Pickstock (1999) p.159
3Lathrop (1993) p.99
4Power (2005) p.122
5Moore (2006)
6Irwin (1993)

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