Liturgical Texts in Postmodernity VI

This is the final 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.

some extraordinary work. check out pamela hardesty @

Hermeneutical Resources for Experimental Liturgies

This essay argues that the single release of a text for holy communion by a centralised committee is, in and of itself, an inadequate tool for the renewal of a church’s liturgy. There is too much uncertainty over the status of texts in a fragmenting cultural context to rely upon them for either making much affect on the spiritual life of the church, or maintaining some kind of apostolic integrity to the evolving tradition. What then does the Liturgy Commission have at its disposal to increase the effectiveness of their task?

First and foremost, the liturgy commission must be unfalteringly self-assured in championing the theological priority of lex orandi:lex credendi as a key component of Anglican identity. “Whereas theologians or historians of doctrine often assume a clear continuity of lex orandi (Lienhard 1987), liturgists map the changes and ambiguities of early liturgical practices… [which]… reveals not only the communication or borrowing between various religious communities at the time, but also points to the openness of meaning in liturgical acts.”1 There is much in this approach to Anglican religiosity which is attractive to a postmodern sensibility as lex orandi lends itself to an emphasis on experiential knowledge and complex truth.

To accompany the production of texts, I would suggest the Liturgy Commission could create a set of educational resources about the ‘deep structures’ of the eucharistic liturgy. That is, “seeking primarily the structure itself. For in the history of liturgical development, structure outlives meaning. Elements are preserved even when their meaning is lost (conservatism), or when they have become detached from their original limited place and purpose, acquiring new and broader meanings in the process (universalization).2 David Power provides an excellent illustration of this in his article on the Catholic Mass and much is relevant to the 2009 liturgy.3 Teaching the deep structures would allow for greater conscious continuity with the ancient traditions, an increased capacity to see beyond the sociological power structures of our present context, and support the creative work of the Spirit bringing the words to life as the rite is performed.


Being guided by the lex orandi: lex credendi principle, the Liturgy Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia should be able to navigate the challenges that postmodern culture brings. However, the Commission must be realistic about the changed nature of their task, if they are to have any affect on the worship life of the Church. The publication of liturgical texts cannot stand alone as a unifying and life-giving worship initiative. Their work could be supplemented with a much broader agenda of liturgical education, focusing on the deep structures of the text, skills for liturgical performance, and the nature of the liturgical task. The 2009 Alternative service for Holy Communion helpfully begins the link between an ancient tradition and contemporary Australia, but if left to stand on its own, the intentions of the text are unlikely to have an effective impact.

1Lyman (1993) p.135
2Taft (1984) p.152
3Power (2001)

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

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

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

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

Liturgical Texts in Postmodernity II

This is the first 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.

circles of intrigue by textiles artist irena boobyer

A Fragmented World

The greatest challenge for the Liturgy Commission of the Anglican Church in Australia is the incredible rate of change in the world. This is not merely an issue for styling the content of Anglican liturgies, it is a structural, institutional difficulty. The pathways for creative nurture and renewal of Sunday worship assume the adequacy of an institution whereby a cohesive identity may be created through the ministry of the Episcopate, supplemented by a committee system. However, this paradigm of authority is untenable to postmodern Christians and the good intentions of the Liturgy Commission are in danger of being completely lost.

Whilst it is true that most present day Anglicans could not accurately be described as ‘postmodern persons,’ it is also true that our cultural context is inextricably linked to our life of faith and worship. It is a problem then, that the culture within which the Anglican Church of Australia is located, is well underway in its transition to a new paradigm. Hughes argues that “human beings construct their meanings (a meaningful world) from the meanings culturally available to them” and has illustrated this point convincingly in relation to the modern cultural context.1 Hence the Liturgy Commission have to come to terms with a potentially unknown gap between the world from which they are writing and the world in which the liturgy is received.

1Hughes (2003) p.219

Liturgical Texts in Postmodernity I

I’ve just sent off my final essay for the Worship & Liturgy unit which, truth be told, was a labour of love (and embarrassingly late – sorry Gerard).  The point of the assignment was to reflect on an element of worship, so I chose to reflect on the 2009 Alternative Service for Holy Communion published by the Liturgy Commission.  The purpose of the Liturgy Commission is to bring life and energy into the Church’s worship but it feels like they don’t get to do much other than publish the occasional prayer on the General Synod website and in my experience is pretty much ignored.

Really my original question was, ‘why the hell does anyone think that publishing a text is going to make a difference to the worshiping life of the contemporary church?’  Texts are so problematic in a fragmented world.  It is the experience of connecting with God that transforms, not the words per se.

Surprisingly, I’m less cynical than when I began!  It was a great exercise to engage deeply with questions about text.  And the 2009 service is really beautiful, I’d be very happy to use it regularly.  (Go to the Liturgy Commission page if you want to check it out.) So, thought I’d try something different and post the essay section by section over the next few days and you can follow along – this will form a total of 6 posts.  It’s a technical piece of writing – so if you’re reading and you need clarification over a term or two, please leave me a question!   Hope it’s useful.  Love to hear what you think.  (And if anyone can enlightenment on the creative, automatic formatting when I cut and paste into wordpress I’d be pleased to hear from you!)


In 2009 the Liturgy Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia released an Alternate Service for Holy Communion in response to calls for a “shorter, more direct” service “in a ‘lower register’ of language.”1 This is in line with the purpose of the Liturgy Commission which is:

To examine questions of liturgy referred to it by the Primate, the Standing Committee or the General Synod, and to report thereon to the referring party and Standing Committee;” and

To advise the Primate, the Standing Committee or the General Synod, on matters relating to the creative nurture and renewal of the liturgical life of this church.” 2

This essay reflects on the problematical nature of creating a text for Anglican Holy Communion services in a postmodern cultural context. The viability of achieving liturgical renewal through the publication of a text by a centralised commission is challenged, as I consider questions of authority, language and the particular case of the Holy Communion sacrament. In conclusion, I suggest that the theoretical constructs of ‘lex orandi:lex credendi‘ and ‘deep structures‘ may provide a helpful way forward on the difficulties discussed in this essay.

1Introduction to An Order for the Holy Communion (2009, revised)

2Anglican Church of Australia website.