On Liturgical History, Meaning, and Function

Again—just a quick thought, but one that I’ve been rolling around for a while in relation to my Prayer Book Spirituality project.

Liturgists, clergy, and those who teach the faith need to be careful when they make claims about the meaning and function of parts of our liturgy based on history.

The reason why things were put in long ago are not necessarily the reasons why they are useful and valuable now. The function that a certain liturgical element had may no longer be the same based on what else has shifted around it.

Liturgies are not just texts—they are always and should be approached fundamentally as enacted practices. However, we do encounter them (particularly historical liturgies) preeminently as texts and we apply principles of textual interpretation to them as we read them and make sense of them.

I’m going to caricature a little bit now… I see some people using historical criticism as a base reading paradigm. As in biblical  scholarship, this perspective believes that identifying when an element came in, where it came from, and why it was added is determinative for what that element means. I wouldn’t agree. I think the history is important to know, but that it operates on the role of being a supplementary fact that may or may not have any real impact on the use and function of an element now.

I prefer to take a reader-response approach as a primary tool among others in my interpretive toolkit. The question I ask, then, is “How have and how do people encounter what’s there largely apart from the original intentions of the authors, editors, and compilers?” This is one of the reasons that I love looking at the late medieval devotional guides for the Mass: they show the wide diversity of actual concrete readings of the liturgy operating from a radical ignorance of liturgical history and development. These texts discover, locate, and/or impose meaning on the liturgy in a variety of ways. Each of these teach us about how meaning can be found in the liturgy. Each of these gives us options to weigh when we start considering how meaning should be found in the liturgy. Some provide very interesting insights worth being recovered. Others—really deserve to be forgotten. But in the act of discovering and winnowing, I think we learn a lot about the process as a whole.

5 Replies to “On Liturgical History, Meaning, and Function”

  1. Thanks for a most helpful insight. How a liturgical practice originated and what its creators thought they were creating is one element of the process, but how the practice has been and is used and what it means to its practitioners is equally important. For some reason, I am reminded of how often something I said but have long forgotten is mentioned by my children as a bit of paternal wisdom that continues to be life-directlng for them. Conscious intent of our forebears is not the only thing that shapes our inheritance.

  2. “how often something I said but have long forgotten is mentioned by my children…”
    What a helpful insight! You may just have sponsored an epiphany for me. Thank you.

  3. I would also amend one of your comments to “Liturgies […] should be approached fundamentally as potentially enacted practices.” The 1979 BCP, or rather how it is done, illustrates this quite well: the rites use “may” a great deal, but back in the 1980s, every priest I ever came across did the rite with no omissions. To some degree that is still true: I’ve never been in any parish where the OT/psalm/epistle/hymn/gospel pattern of readings was deviated from in the slightest. But these days I see a lot of deviation, some of it permitted but most of it not. And given that the liturgy itself says next to nothing about what is to be done, it’s very hard to read the text and understand what it looks like. You need a copy of Michno/Fortesque/whomever, and you need to know what a church looks like and how it is arranged. (This is even more true of eastern liturgies.)

  4. PS: an old Orthodox bishop told a young priest who wanted to change stuff: “You do not save the Church! The Church saves you!” Something to remember when we want to ‘change’ things…

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