On Doxology

I wanted to spend a few moments considering the point at the end of the last post, specifically the model of liturgical professionalism that arose throughout the medieval period, its organization in cathedral structures in the Late Sarum period, and its continuation in some contemporary practices of regular but low-attendance parish services like daily masses or the public Daily Office.

I have to begin by identifying what I understand to be part of the reluctance or resistance to this system. Jumping back to my own “proper” field for a moment, I want to steal some theory from a recent work, Among the Gentiles by Luke Timothy Johnson. (If you are interested in the New Testament or in the Early Church this should definitely be on your reading list! This is Johnson the scholar at his best—taking his exhaustive knowledge of Greco-Roman religious literature and condensing it into a brilliant synthesis, then using it to shed new light on Jewish and early Christian texts.) Based on his work with the sources, Johnson identifies four main non-exclusive ways of being religious in the Greco-Roman milieu:

  • A: the way of participation in divine benefits
  • B: the way of moral transformation
  • C: the way of transcending the world
  • D: the way of stabilizing the world

In his application of this synthesis to the New Testament and early Christianity, he finds that the New Testament emphasizes most strongly types A and B. With legitimation of the Church, the post-Constantinian writings seem to make a shift to A and D. (Particularly in the sense that D can be seen as the “supply side” of A—the benefits come through the ritual process and priestcraft of D.) He suggests in a concluding chapter that many of the Reformation movements were strongly of type B and were reacting to the types A and D of late medieval Catholicism and that some of our own Anglican struggles between the Puritans and the High Churchmen concerned appropriate levels of B and D in our own body.

And that’s where I’d identify some of the current discomfort—my own and Isaac’s: the system of endowed choirs and certain groups of professionals doing liturgy without the conscious and active participation of the majority of the community (a definite type D way of doing religion) affronts some of our type B inclinations. That is, if we’re not being edified or transformed, is this system a legitimate expression of the faith we hold?

I want to argue that is legitimate, and worth doing and supporting in our present situation.

God does not need our prayers and liturgies. God is God without them. The prayers and liturgies are for our benefit—but benefit and edification are not always the same thing.

The Morning Offices of the Western Church are, to me, our clearest documents of purpose. Mat(t)ins begins thus: Open thou our lips, O Lord/And our mouth shall proclaim thy praise. Then the Venite itself issues a call to praise God as the One who holds all creation in being and the One who guides his people as a flock. The festal Te Deum offers us a doxological perspective of the created order, showing us our place as beings most fully alive when oriented with the rest of creation in its uncorrupt state towards and in praise of God. Finally the ultimate Lauds psalms (from which the Office earns its appellation) echo and expand the Te Deum.

There are two reasons that we praise. The first is because we are creatures offering the praise due our Creator. As made beings, we owe our existence to the One who made us and who should be praised for it. The second is thanks to our Baptism: in our Baptism we are consciously and intentionally joined to and made aware of our membership within the Body of Christ. We become conscious participants within the life of God. Within these our boundaries our praises take on a deeper and greater valence—we participate in the internal dialogue of the Trinity. Expressed most perfectly in the Eucharist, we as the divided members of the Body of Christ come together as part of the eschatological Body of Christ who offers his own self and praises to God the Father in and through the Holy Spirit.

Now—creation continues without our praise; the dialogue of the Trinity continues without us. However, we as individuals and as a community most clearly express our nature when we are oriented in praise towards God.

Paul calls us to “pray without ceasing.” To pray without ceasing is to be in constant awareness and embodiment of life in contact with God. It is to live the praise of God in all of our actions, proclaiming through daily virtues the victory of God in Christ and the triumph of love and light over darkness, hatred, and all the forces that seek to corrupt the works of God. It is for us to recall our right mind—for the Body of Christ to be directed by the Mind of Christ. (That there would be my own type B inclinations coming up to the surface…)

While this is our goal, we fall short of its embodiment. While Anglican spirituality as laid out by Martin Thornton in English Spirituality gives us the central tools to direct us in this way—formal periodic liturgies in combination with habitual prayer of recollection—as individuals in the world we will fail to reach our aspirations while on this side of the veil. Thanks be to God, however, that we are not alone in this task. I think not only of the Te Deum but of its paraphrase in the hymn “Holy God we praise thy name” where, in Walworth’s words, “And from morn to set of sun/Through the Church the song goes on.”

We are members of the Body of Christ. And one of the ways that this is expressed locally is that we are members of a liturgical community. In our corporate nature, the living organism in which we subsist can more completely embody prayer without ceasing than any of its constituent members apart from the whole. We are just starting up public daily Evening Prayer at our parish. Some days it’s just two of us. Other days it’s five or six (when M and I and the girls can be there; G insists on doing one of the Scripture readings; H’s task—since she’s still learning to read—is to start the Lord’s Prayer). As our priest said when announcing the effort at church, we’re doing corporately and publicly what the rest of us should be doing individually at home. When it may just be the two of us—or even one solitary person—standing in the choir of the cold sanctuary, we are indicating our community’s commitment to a corporate liturgical life and the hope and promise of a life turned towards God. It doesn’t mean that we’re succeeding, that we’re meeting Paul’s challenge of praying without ceasing. What it does means is that we are making a public proclamation that the effort is worth doing, that we recognize that a life of praise is one of the central aspects of the Christian life.

The medieval system with its endowed cathedral choirs was a corporate social expression of this ideal. Public monies supported public prayer which offered a public encouragement to a life of prayer. As members of a larger organism we can look to those edifices and to the services held at our own parishes in our absence and know that some are praying even when we cannot. The services are to and for our benefit—not solely through the edification of the words uttered and understood, but through the example they enact of the life to which we are called.

That’s where I’ll stop for now, but there’s more to be said here. In particular there’s quite a bit to be said about the early monastic concept of the resurrection life being patterned upon the angelic life, with the angelic life being primarily defined by the ceaseless praise of the beings around the throne as presented in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation, but at the moment I have neither the time nor the brain cells to give that topic the treatment it deserves.

8 thoughts on “On Doxology

  1. Vicki McGrath


    Thanks for distinction betwenn “benefit” and “edification.” We are whole beings, not just intellects or wills, and part of the whole Body. Who can say whatever prayer, praise and worship offered to God in some part of the Body does not affect and strengthen us all in some way?

    BTW, your comment about patterning our worship after the angels made my wonder – are you familiar with the work of Margaret Barker, specifically “The Great High Priest”? Any thoughts?

    Vicki McGrath+

  2. C. Wingate

    It seems to me that there is another difference which is perhaps more strongly manifested but which I don’t think you’ve touched on in this. Medieval piety I would characterize as very strongly offertory, and this allows for a proxy-prayer-based liturgical life for the community. It also makes being at communion an acceptable substitute for communion itself, because the offering is the part that counts the most.

    Contrast that with the piety of every Episcopal congregation I’ve been in since I left high school, where everything points toward partaking as the end of the eucharistic liturgy. This does not admit of the kind of proxy worship that other forms of prayer permit and often embody. Eucharist and office in that thinking are not two vehicles toward the same end; they have a sharply lined yin and yang quality: incorporation/interior versus prayer-and-praise/exterior. At the end of our services at M’s church we are accustomed to saying (in sending out the eucharistic ministers) that we are made one in communion, ignoring any other unity there may be. We are a congregation of communicants, period.

    I’m not sure where else to go with this and I cannot explain how this works for or against a larger, office-based liturgical life of the community. BUt I see the change and I think it has to be significant.

  3. MAG

    From a slightly different slant, what comes to my mind as we contemplate our doxological posture is our (“we” being “the Church”) existence in a post-Christendom age. Being the Church in such an age accentuates our identity as an alternate polis — that is, the Church, both corporately and individually, involves itself in postures and activities that are counter-intuitive and, in fact, offensive, to the way the “world” goes about its business and constructs its reality.
    Liturgy is one place where this gets played out. This does have clear and sharp ramifications for (B) in your post, as we see the liturgy, whether Office or Mass, as training ground for our lives, but I think also points to (C) as well — or, perhaps, a modified (C), which aims not so much to transcend the world as to reframe and renarrate it in light of the Cross.

  4. Christopher

    Charles makes a notable point of distinction and partaking and participation are strong lines in our Reformation liturgy and Hooker’s commentary, so I would have to qualify any suggestion that the Reformation in our tradition was centrally focused on B, rather than A. A forms the matrix from which B and D flow. Reading sermons by Cranmer and Andrewes, one finds some very similar concerns though their theology and churchmanship were not agreeable.

    Our edification isn’t always in the moment. The rhythm of set prayers for our benefit, however, shapes us sometimes in unknown ways, providing a language over the longhaul. The proof is in the pudding. Knowing the Our Father and Psalm 23 in their older language is a vital tool for any good pastor visiting the sick and dying.

    On the other hand there are many professionals who do not actively participate or lead liturgy in a congregation, and like theologians, you cannot be a liturgist of the Church if you are not at regular worship. It is precisely here where the expertise of a liturgist can help bring forward the edification concerns of the congregation by drawing on a wider set of resources.

    I recommend Catherine Bell’s essay on liturgical experts as useful for conversation on the place of experts and professionals in the life of the faith.

  5. C. Wingate

    It occurs to me that the communio-centric focus of current Episcopal piety is a major reason why CWOB is being pushed on us. If partaking is what it’s all about, then it is understandable that people are inclined to push it on everyone as other forms of participation don’t really “count”. Even so the notion seems wrong-headed but perhaps if one were doing first-and-third the fact that everyone is participating at the same level on the other Sundays makes it harder to argue that people aren’t included on the communion SUndays.

  6. Isaac

    Hmm… Lots of things to mull over and thank. I think you’re right that splitting ‘benefit’ and ‘edification’ isn’t helpful, and, obviously there can be no objection to reading the office alone or a daily mass with two communicants or whatever.

    That being said, there is a difference between the Church’s ongoing prayer and a liturgy that is purposely designed to exclude the majority of the people in the Church. If Dix is right about which parts are “the people’s liturgy” and which parts properly belong to the clergy, then what medieval high mass developments effectively eliminated the laity’s liturgy altogether. It’s a discontinuity with the Post-Apostolic age, not a development of it.

    I understand the issues, but I can’t help but say that maybe Art. XXV (please don’t tell my bishop I’ve been reading those) has something to say about it and that there is wisdom in reflecting on the intention of Christ in its institution. I can’t say that if I had wandered in ancient Palestine with Christ for three years, I would welcome the notion of a non-communicating Mass. My contention is that somewhere between Richard Giles and Adrian Fortescue lies a happy place with a catholic liturgy that hits all four of Johnson’s “Way of Being Religious” and remains a kinetic expression of a gathered community’s liturgy.

  7. Derek Olsen

    Very true, all: the ideas of offering and receiving are quite different now as opposed to the late medieval period.

    And Isaac, I do agree with you: reception is the point of the Eucharist, not just the offering. Of course, I don’t mind the occasional gazing at it in the form of Benediction as a reminder of what it is and why receiving it is so very important, but there’s no question that the actual taking it into ourselves in all aspects is the heart of the practice.

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