Liturgy as Language

I haven’t been online a whole lot since around the beginning of Lent. The computer dying was part of it as was general busy-ness. In any case, I’m trying to get caught up on things, including interesting things that were happening online while I was away.

One of these things was this talk from Fr. Bosco Peters. Now, if you read this blog, you probably also ought to be reading his blog anyway. I don’t always agree with everything that he says or suggests, but he is a good, thoughtful voice on Anglican liturgy grounded in the history and ecumenical aspects of it. (He’s also a Kiwi so it’s interesting to have his perspective on a book greatly beloved but little understood by many American liberal-types…)

The general approach that Fr. Peters takes in this talk should be fairly familiar. I see him operating within the sphere of the post-liberal/Yale School perspective pioneered by Frei and Lindbeck that understands religion generally to be a linguistic-cultural phenomenon into which one is enculturated. (This is in opposition to, among others, a perspective of religion as a body of ideas to which one does or does not give assent.) Fr. Peters sees liturgy as a fundamental language of the Christian culture. I heartily agree and have used this perspective myself in some of my own presentations.

What I find most interesting here is the way that Fr. Peters pushes this perspective/metaphor. Making the logical next step, he gives us some very interesting thoughts about fluency. This is a very intriguing way to think about liturgy and the church, how we reach out to the non/un/de-churched, and also how we think about clergy and leaders within our own church and their facility (or lack thereof) in the liturgy.

Do take some time to read over the presentation or to watch it.

4 Replies to “Liturgy as Language”

  1. A good talk; I agree that “fluency” is a really interesting angle. I was glad to hear him talk at length about the “lay calling” within the liturgy and outside it; to me, this makes a huge difference in how people think of themselves (ourselves, that is) in relation to the church….

  2. The line that struck me was “We don’t do liturgical things because they are in some book that [says] this is what we have to do. They are in some book because this is what we do.” For my work on early medieval service books, his point turns things around. What the manuscript contains are the words, like a reference book, but the actions and behaviors are often omitted (most of the ones I work with have few if any directions, assuming the person using it knew what he was about). Taking that further, the liturgy was all performance, with a handy reference book to consult as needed. Therefore, when they did write things down, they did so to record what was working, what they were doing, to share it with others or make use of it later. So often scholars of medieval liturgy do treat these service books as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

  3. I think Lindbeck and the Yale School are structuralists. As such, Saussure’s distinction between language (langue) and speech (parole) is key to understanding Lindbeck’s point. For Saussure, language is the precondition of speech. Language consists of the words (signifiers) and these words only make sense in a system of other words. These words can be combined in this system in predictable ways that make sense and allow the speaker to use language to make sense of the world and to communicate with others. Of course, this cannot happen if the speakers are not part of a community that shares that common language.

    For Lindbeck, doctrine is like language. It consists of symbols which allow the Christian community to interpret the presence and activity of God in the world and through which we can respond to that presence and connect with each other. These symbols are largely verbal, but images and actions are also part of this system. Like language, there is a structure to doctrine. The symbols are not randomly connected. They can be combined in some ways, and they cannot be combined in others. Lindbeck is not really that clear on how this happens, though I suspect he would agree with most of the Yale School that narrative is the key “grammar” of doctrine. What Lindbeck is fairly clear about is that doctrine is what allows us to understand the world and to communicate that understanding to others. That is why Lindbeck’s great animus is aimed at Lonergan and other liberals who believe that religious experience is non-verbal and non-conceptual.

    Given this perspective, liturgy belongs to both the realms of language and speech. Some parts of liturgy like prayer in the morning and evening, the rhythm of the calendar, and the taking, blessing, and breaking of bread are part of language. Many of the words we use in liturgy like Father, Son, and Spirit are part of language. But our specific prayers and specific prayer books best seen as speech. They are the way we use doctrine to respond to God and to understand the world. We do not expect people to say exactly the same words in exactly the same order all the time. And likewise we should not see differences between different communities in their set prayers as differences in doctrine as long as they are using the same symbols in roughly the same way. And just as listening to speech and participating in speech is the way we learn language, joining in the prayers of our Christian community trains us in the “grammar” of our faith and allows us to become fluent in it.

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