Liturgical Texts for Postmodernity V

This is the fourth 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.  If you interested in this topic you might like to check out Brian Douglas’ website called Anglican Eucharistic Theology.  It’s good.

2005 work by Cornelia Parker. you can find out about her through the EGS faculty page (click on photo).

The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Sacramentality is another philosophical construct which is changing in postmodern consciousness. Kenan Osborne describes a ‘Twentieth-Century Legacy of Sacramental Revolution’ in which new philosophical perspectives, increased access to primary liturgical sources, and sociological upheavals are contributing to new paradigms of sacramentality. Postmodern persons embrace the notion of a sacramental universe and postmodern Christians are often more comfortable with the ambiguity of the Church’s teaching in sacramental form than they are with a dogmatic articulation of doctrine. In this, “there is a dual dimension to sacramentality – the unique revelatory event of God and the secondary response to human individuals – a sacramental event only takes place when this secondary response occurs. The human response is intrinsically temporal, intrinsically limited, intrinsically subjective, and intrinsically ipseite.”1 This suggests that there is more to come after the text is written.

Brian Douglas and Terrence Lovat2 argue that the philosophical assumptions of sacramental theologies are key to understanding the present Australian debate on Anglican Eucharistic Liturgies. For his PhD thesis, Douglas analysed 160 Holy Communion texts from within the Anglican Tradition and demonstrated how one’s understanding of the eucharist differs depending on one’s semiotic understanding of the relationship between the outward symbol (the physical bread and wine) and its referent (the work of Christ). At the poles of semiotic philosophy there are two alternatives: either the sign has an actual connection to the reality behind it and therefore sign and referent are inextricable related (realism); or the sign has no actual connection to that which it refers and is merely a signpost which might be exchanged with other signposts (nominalism). Hence, two individuals with different semiotic assumptions will engage with the same liturgical text very differently.

Douglas and Lovat argue that the debate over Holy Communion texts is hampered by ‘hermeneutic idealism.’ When a perspective places the semiotic assumption over and above the primary texts of Eucharistic theology, almost always unconscious of doing so, they elevate human philosophy above any possible divine revelation. When the philosophical bones are exposed, “the multiform system of Anglican eucharistic theology is seen to be composed on more than one lifeworld or technical or hermeneutic interest… [and no-one] should be allowed the privilege of being hermetically sealed within its own solipsism and so denied the potential for inter-subjective understanding.”3 In other words, we must allow conversation on the hermeneutics in order to pursue the truth of the primary texts.

Yet sacrament is a language event” says David Power, and the Holy Communion prayer must make sense of the connection between text and spiritual reality. For Power, this is possible through Christological emphasis on kenosis. As for Rowan Williams, noted above, the location of divine revelation is that where the life and stories of the believer intersect with the life of Christ. Because of this there will always be a plurality of sacramental expression, not because Christ varies, but because we who meet with Christ vary.

“The church needs to awaken to the creative venture of language when it is guided by the power of the Spirit and focuses on the location of the memory of Christ within the memory of a people, and the memory of the people within the memory of Christ’s kenosis.”4

In the 2009 liturgy illustrates this creativity in the deft handling of the question of Christ’s sacrifice.

“As we share these holy gifts, we remember the Lord Jesus.

For the love you taught us, the sacrifice you made for us and the hope you give us,

we acclaim you, O Christ.”

It is possible to create a story with these words in a variety of ways. For the purpose should be, as Rowan Williams has said, to create a “language of sacrifice in relation to the eucharist and the church at large which do justice to the central concern for the priority of Christ’s agency … [at the same time as alluding to the importance of sacrifice] … for understanding salvation and the redeemed life.”5

1Osborne (1999) p.197
2Douglas & Lovat (2010)
3Douglas & Lovat (2010) p. 848
4Power (2001) p.198-199
5Williams (1982) p.5

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