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.

Christian Sacraments in a Postmodern World: A Theology for the Third Millennium by Kenan B. Osborne

(Paulist Press; NY, 1999)

I liked this guy’s methodology in developing a theology of worship in a postmodern cultural context.


1. Biblical Data – Sola Scriptura  (Not just a Reformation principle.)

2.  Seven Ritual Sacraments  (i.e. Take the whole Christian tradition as our heritage not just from sixteenth century onwards.)

3.  The History of the Sacraments  (The Modern period’s drive for accurate historical knowledge has led to unprecedented access to primary sources.)

4.  Jesus is the Primordial Sacrament and The Church is the Foundational Sacrament  (Salvation in Christ alone.)

5.  A Critique of the Onto-Theological Presuppositions of Classical Sacramental Theology and an overcoming of Onto-Theological Thought  (The connection between the ‘sign’ and it’s real referent (that which the sign refers too) is way more complex than Western Thought has previously allowed.)  If this technical language means something to you and you want to read more, check out Louis-Marie Chauvet’s postmodern critique of Thomistic Theology. Here’s a review of Chauvet’s book on the Sacraments.

6.  The Sacramentality of the Universe  (Symbolic meaning is central to understanding all language and experience.)

In the book’s conclusion he writes…

“To invoke the issues of ‘divine revelation’ or of ‘divine authority’ avoids the very challenge [of subjectivity] itself and misses the precise area of the challenge.  Postmodern thinkers in large measure do not focus on the divine aspect, the God aspect.  Rather, there is a clear focus on human receptivity, human intellection, and human communicativeness.  Theological and magisterial sacramental statements, on every level, have been made within a certain episteme.  What is challenged today is the episteme that was used and is still being used in the formulation of such theological and magisterial statements.

“In contemporary theology and magisterial statements, as we have seen, a sacramental action or event is primarily a self-disclosure of God and secondarily a human response.  When this understanding of sacramentality is taken as the basis of sacramental discourse – that God alone is the source and goal of all liturgy – then, subjectivity, individuality, temporality, and language are involved.  God is disclosing God’s own self to a subjective human individual within the coordinates of a given time-space continuum and through a linguistic communication.  This theological change from propositional revelation to personalist revelation is helped strongly by postmodern hermeneutical discussion.  Retention of an outdated hermeneutic – the hermeneutic of scholasticism, neo-scholasticism, or transcendental Thomism – can only end in hermeneutical disaster.”

My ‘take away’ challenge – let’s be clearer about what is human and what is divine, lest we worship a god in our own image.

The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

(Baker: Grand Rapids, 2008)

If you were taking ‘Emerging Church’ as a formal study unit, The Great Emergence by Phylis Tickle would be a textbook. She argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition has a habit of renewing itself every 500 years or so and the experimentation we are currently seeing in the emerging church movement is part of this process and the Church will look very different by the middle of the 21st century. Key to this process is an integration of the different expressions of church from the previous epoch but not as a homogenous, simple entity. Rather, as a network of religious belief, belonging and behaving recognisable to each other by the orientation it’s centering principle: Jesus Christ. I think others write better speculating about the future, but as I continue to read in this university session, I see the acute scholarship in her analysis of the past.

I’ve just re-read Phylis Tickle having read Schleiermacher’s Second Speech: On The Essence of Religion. Schleirermacher is a 19th century theologian who is often quoted as the Father of Twentieth Century Liberal theology. I found it fascinating mapping his influence and was drawn back into Phylis Tickle’s argument about the present emergence of the Christian church into something new. In a lecture to a group of atheists, Schleiermacher presented an apologetics argument that religion should not be seen as a logical set of rationalities nor a particular set of moral behaviours, rules and actions. “The essence of religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.” In other words, religion is best defined as that intuition or feeling that all human beings have: that there is something mysterious, something divine, something beyond ourselves. I am interested that this is how most people would define spirituality these days. (See the post on spirituality and theology, including the comments where I explain to Marcus why I favour a human-centric definition of spirituality.)

Phylis Tickle refers to both sociological and philosophical shifts that are shuffling the church into a new era. The postmodern cultural pressures on the church are now well known and their effects relatively obvious (eg. No-one walks to church anymore). What is less often discussed is the philosophical shifts underlying the beliefs of everyday Christians. For me, Schleiermacher represents the first shots fired in the ‘Spirituality Revolution’ which has birthed a variety of pyscho-spiritual expressions. This includes such a diverse range of movements in both religious and non-religious human experience as the whole psycho-dynamic psycho-therapy movement, charismatic renewal in the Church, the embracing of Eastern spiritualities, and, as Phylis Tickle points out, eventually forged into emerging forms of church ecclesiology and worship.

There are 2 themes introduced by Schleiermacher which have influenced Christian theology. The first is this recovery of the psycho-spiritual. The second is a theology of universalism: that all religions are basically variant expressions of one, unified divine mystery. The two are connected for him because religion is the experience of the divine within a tradition, not the doctrine or moral code of that religion (which clearly differ between religions). However, the postmodern subjectivity ‘turn’ a century after Schleirermacher developed intellectual tools to offer a more sophisticated explanation of universal human experience. (See the post on David Tracey’s limit situations for an example of how Schleiermacher’s concerns have been evolved.) Post-liberal theorists have found a way to let multiple experiences and explanations sit side by side without having to dissolve them, because we understand ultimate truth and transcendent being (in whatever form) necessarily exists beyond our definitive knowing. So post-post liberal theorists (or whatever we are up to now!) have continued to move away further from a need for the doctrine of universalism. I love the way Rowan Williams explains the importance of rejecting universalism: the Jesus story (or the Hebrew story, Buddha’s story etc) gets distorted if we do not allow it’s uniqueness to stand (See the post on Rowan Williams and Pluralism for an example.)  Tickle gets onto this in her final chapter describing the kind of distinctive expressions of the Great Emergence.

The other day a new friend called me ‘liberal.’ My response was, “Yes, postmodern Christianity can look a lot like liberalism.” But if liberal refers to an embracing of humanistic enlightenment theology, I am definitely not a liberal! Recovering the experiential – the psycho-spiritual aspect of human consciousness – is a critical element to postmodern theologies. Also, I still hold to the exclusivist claims of Christ as the unique divine embodiment of the God Who Is the source of all existence. However, that does not mean that I am then logically obliged to reject the aspects of truth, beauty and goodness in other religious discourses. Indeed, paradox is paramount to postmodern epistemology. In fact, if I sense myself bumping up against two understandings that both seem to be true but don’t immediately fit logically together, I intuitively feel like I might be really onto something!

Living in the creative space between ‘boxes’ of established theological and ecclesiological traditions is not easy. Phylis Tickle doesn’t really discuss the birthpangs in her book, but anyone who understands her thesis will know them. They are also evident in the questions that she says are critical in every great transition. I love these questions, they are my questions and the questions that I see in the Church as I know it today:

  • how do we know stuff? (what are our sources of authority, what happens to sola scriptura, and what is the nature of the term ‘truth’?)
  • who are we? (what is it to be a human being?)

and to a lesser extent she says this question which preoccupies me personally:

  • How is our community structured (eg. Nuclear family of Reformation Era is being deconstructed and a new basic building block of society relationships is yet to functionally replace it.)