SCP Presentation: Theology & Action in the Liturgy

[Note to the reader: This is the text of an oral presentation. Thus, there are no footnotes and the language is informal. The bold and the italics indicate some but not all of the things that I would emphasize verbally.]

 First, let me start off by thanking you for this opportunity to come back and speak to you. I really enjoyed being able to speak to you last year and am honored to come back and speak with you again. So—my thanks to Fr. Cobb, Fr. Hendrickson, and the other folks who were in on inviting me back.

When I was chatting with Father Cramer about this whole topic of the theological implications of liturgical ceremonial, he said: “Great, I’d love to hear something more about that, because I really hate it when people say to me things like, ‘When are we going to stop talking about copes and start talking about real ministry?’” The implication that you hear often times in our church is that ceremonial is something extra, it’s an add-on, it’s additional frippery, and is fundamentally something that can divert us from the work of real ministry. As a result we have to begin with the question of “what exactly is real ministry.” What is our purpose here? What is it that we are trying to accomplish in our work as clergy? Then once we have a sense of that, we can move on to the question of where copes and liturgies and ceremonial fit into the true work of ministry.

This is a really big topic to tackle. We’re only going to able to make a start on it. We’re not even going to be able to get to the “meaning” questions. Instead what I’m going to do is talk a bit about a theoretical framework that gives us a starting point: why all of this stuff matters, then make a practical turn and begin a conversation about only two of the many implications that this framework offers us. And it all starts with this basic question: what is real ministry?

The simplest answer about the work of real ministry has to be this: Proclaiming the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. That is the real work of ministry. Now, that’s a pretty broad mandate. So how do we do this? We could attack this question by looking at all the specific activities the clergy do. However, I think a better direction is to get a sense of the big picture first. As I said last time I was with you, for me the center of our task is described in Ephesians chapter 4. Our purpose is to:

…equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. But, speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is our head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Equiping the saints for the work of ministry, growing into maturity, building up the body of Christ in love.

Now, how does Paul say that we accomplish this? Further on in the chapter he tells us:

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and diluted by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

The transformation of the whole self according to the mind of Christ. The renewing of the spirit of our minds, and clothing ourselves with the new self. Paul is talking about a fundamental transformation here. He’s talking about a fundamental shift with the way that we perceive, interpret, and interact with the world.

However you fell about postmodernism, one of the things that it has brought to our attention is that human beings, as complex reasoning, thinking beings, simply cannot have a direct and unmediated experience of reality. There is no pure, objective, unfiltered, experience of the real. Instead, we have a lens, a layer, a model of interpretation that helps us make sense of our direct inputs and that help us conceptual make sense of what we experience.   Instead our cultures and our languages give us a prearranged system for how to comprehend things and how to fit things together. From the very ways that our mother tongue’s grammar is constructed—the very fact of breaking things into verbs, and nouns, and adjectives and the way that they relate to one another—shapes the way that we conceptualize what we encounter. For instance, the fact that a language has no grammatical future tense matters profoundly when we talk about how people from that frame of reference understand time. It’s not just that our experiences shape our languages; it’s that our languages shape what we experience and how we make sense of those experiences. This is our worldview. So, a worldview is a lens of interpretation that helps us make sense of the world. It’s an understanding of how things fit together that gives us a frame of reference for making sense of our experiences and encounters and relationships.

Now when we take this postmodern concept of a worldview, and we put it up alongside Paul’s language about the renewal of our minds, and putting on the new self in Christ, then we begin to realize that we’re entering familiar territory. One way of understanding what Paul is talking about here is that the goal of Christian maturity is inhabiting a fundamentally Christian worldview. Growth into maturity in Christ is a process of learning to perceive the world through the lens of the gospel. Through the transformation of the mind, worldly values are supplanted by gospel values, worldly priorities are challenged by God’s priorities.

In 1984 the Lutheran medievalist George Lindbeck wrote a short little book called The Nature of Doctrine. And in this book he makes the suggestion that faith and doctrine make a lot more sense when we come at them from the right angle. Instead of thinking about the faith as transmitting a set of thoughts that have to be properly thought, we need to start conceiving of the faith as a linguistic-cultural system. Just as our culture enculturates us into a worldview formed by things like our language and our deep cultural symbols, the Christian faith is best understood as a culture and a language that connect the dots to help us understand the relationships between God, the world, and ourselves.

What makes this both interesting and challenging is that we can’t even talk about “a” worldview. Instead, we have to talk about a variety of worldviews or parts of worldviews that press themselves upon us that we have to fit together in some way that seems to make sense. Even this central lens for how we see and experience things is composite construct of a bunch of direct ways of conceiving of and valuing the world. So—a “traditional American” worldview might tell us that family is important; and that in thinking about our decisions and priorities, family should be most important. We’re fed status-oriented worldviews that tell us that what is most important is how important we are, what our title is and the size of our take-home package. Advertisements feed us a consumerist worldview telling us that our worth is equivalent to what we have and that if we have less, we’re worth-less.

To all of these messages, the Gospel offers a word of challenge and critique. Trying to figure our way through incarnate life is hard, but the call of the Gospel is the call to transform how we see, experience, and value things. What does it mean to take seriously the call to the love of God and love of neighbor? “The old self” is Paul’s shorthand for those old ways of making sense of what’s really important, the lusts that we must suppress are much less about sex and much more about our needs and insecurities for those things like money, or status, or safety, that ultimately will not and cannot give us life. As we put on the new self into which we are baptized, we are challenged to revolutionize our experience of the world, to see as God sees, to love as God loves.

Rather than a collection of doctrinal thinking points, Lindbeck’s understanding of the faith as a linguistic-cultural endeavor most clearly engages with this notion of forming a Christian worldview within the body of Christ in order to bring the body to the maturity of Christ. Now, we are formed in many ways in many places, and at many times. However, as Christians who find our primary identity in our baptism, as members of the crucified and risen Christ, and branches of the same vine, our most important and paradigmatic experiences occur when we are together. You can’t be a Christian by yourself! Furthermore, our fullest identity is found when we gather for Eucharistic worship. In the Eucharist, the disparate and scattered members of the body of Christ are held together, are re-membered, forming a physical and literal body of Christ; in the Eucharist, we are most fully who we are baptized to be in community– and participate most deeply in the mystery and promise of baptism. Within our Eucharistic worship, we are given the extraordinary opportunity to participate within the interior life of the Trinity: as the body of Christ we join with Christ in his praise of and self-offering to the Father through the Holy Spirit. What we do in worship is not just to gather together as a community, it’s not just to praise God together, it’s not just to express our identity as the gathered body of Christ, it is to make present an eschatological reality where we foreshadow the full consummation of all in all. This is our moment when we enact most clearly what the kingdom of God is.

Our corporate worship is an icon of the kingdom of God. It’s not just a moment of supreme realization, it’s also practice of our most important paradigm. Our whole life ought to be an act of worship. And, if that’s the case, it’s this glimpse of the kingdom in our worship that gives us the fundamental tools for enacting that kingdom when we’re outside of worship too.

As a result, it’s in this most central experience for us, that the full Christian worldview is best expressed and communicated. The way that worship is constructed and conducted is a presentation of our perspective of what being in the kingdom is like and shall be like. As a result, what we do in worship matters. What we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we do, shapes our understanding of what it means to be a Christian people. The Book of Common Prayer gives us the words. But ceremonial is what gives us the rest.

No matter what else goes on, the first purpose of worship is always just that; our primary priority in worship is always the worship of God. We err when we let anything get in the way of that. Our secondary purpose in worship is the formation of the people of God. Fortunately, these two priorities rarely come into conflict with one another as long as we have the order right. When our worship becomes overly didactic or overly self-congratulatory or overly penitential, this is when we need to ask if we have our priorities reversed. Proper, reverent, intentional worship of God is always primary. Having said that upfront, we can turn now to the questions and issues of formation.

We have a gift in the Book of Common Prayer. It gives us the words and the rites which foreground the values of the kingdom. Our liturgy, standing in continuity the liturgy of the historic Western church, has been crafted carefully for its formative role as well as its central doxological role. What exactly do I mean by this? Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of what we mean by the liturgical transformation of our system of values is the repetition of the song of Zechariah in morning prayer and the repetition of the song of Mary in evening prayer. Zechariah’s words give us a fundamental mission by informing us of God’s gifts. God has given us the freedom “to worship him without fear” and therefore to remain “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Mary’s words give us a fundamental mission by informing us of the value structure of God’s kingdom.

He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.

Our Eucharistic service with its dual emphases on proclamation of the word and a celebration of the sacrament in combination offer the mystery of God’s presence in our midst. But there’s more to worship than just the words!

Whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we intended or not, our decisions about what else occurs in worship inform our congregations about the value structures and systems of the kingdom of God. As a result, we do our ministry best and we attend to a careful and deliberate proclamation of the gospel best, when we are intentional about the ways we worship and the vision of the kingdom that we incarnate there. And this is where careful attention to ceremonial comes into play.

So – that’s my first point. Christian ministry is fundamentally about enculturating the people of God into a worldview. The Christian worldview is a vision of the world and its relationships that are structured by God’s values. Because of the central role that worship plays in our corporate identity, worship in general and Eucharistic worship in particular, likewise occupy the central role in how our communities receive and perceive the gospel of the living God.

Now, whenever I start thinking and talking about Christian ceremonial, one of my favorite conversation partners is the Rev. Dr. Percy Dearmer. Dr. Dearmer wrote quite a lot on worship and ceremonial. And always wrote with a considerable amount of vigor and conviction. I don’t agree with everything that he wrote, but I always find him thought-provoking. Although his writings come from almost a century ago, much of it remains relevant and pertinent, partly because he stands removed from some of the immediate issues of our day. In the year 1919, Dr. Dearmer gave the Bohlen Lectures at the Philadelphia Divinity School. The next year these lectures along with some additional chapters, were produced as the art of public worship. At its heart, this book is a heartfelt plea for two key necessities in Christian worship. The first is realism. Worship has to be meaningful and sensible to the people of its age. The second is beauty.

Dearmer is known for being very direct. He doesn’t pull any punches. And one of the targets of his special ire in this book, are the founders of the Church Revival movement. He writes in particular of their approach towards ceremonial:

in our own Church Revival nothing made the ritualist (as they were rather absurdly called) so angry as to be told that they like things because they were pretty, or revived old customs because they were beautiful. We could hardly sum up that instinctive dislike of beauty better than in such unconscious sentences as these of the judicious historian of The Anglican Revival Dr. Overton: [and here Dearmer cites a passage from Overton]

The real question at issue between the most thoughtful on both sides was not one of ceremonial, but of doctrine. Ritual, apart from its symbolism, is a thing of nought. It was valued by the really earnest man, not for its intrinsic beauty, but for what it taught – taught through the eye rather than through the ear, and therefore, on the Horatian principal, taught more quickly and vividly, and that especially for the poor and unlearned. [end of his quote from Overton, and Dearmer continues…]

Precisely! Nothing could be more clearly put, and this was the defense consistently made.

This infuriated Dearmer! In fact, he saw it as nothing less than of the betrayal of the identity of God. In his theology, Dearmer understood God to be the very height of truth, goodness, and beauty. He writes:

Beauty is the manifestation of the Father; and this is precisely what modern Christianity has forgotten. Goodness is also the manifestation of God – the will to goodness is the Holy Spirit; but it is not the sole manifestation, as good people have imagined; for there is yet a third which the Word reveals, and that is truth. Within these three all religion is contained – must be contained.

Dearmer refers us to the wonders of creation, to the beauty inherent in the created order. He reminds us that art is not merely decoration and instead, the search for beauty is tied deeply into the search for truth and goodness. The arts of ministry—preaching, singing, architecture—are arts, Dearmer reminds us. We can either do them well or we can do them poorly; we can either choose beauty or we can settle for whatever comes out. However, should we choose to settle for whatever comes out, we are compromising the spirit of the God who created all things wonderfully.

Dearmer doesn’t come out and say this, but in his argument for the importance of beauty in worship, he is tapping into one of the deep themes of Western philosophy. Ever since Plato’s Symposium, thinkers have recognized the interrelation between beauty, goodness, and truth. Diotima’s speech to Socrates presents a pathway beginning with a human love of beauty that reaches to a divine love of the good enacted through the virtues. The wise woman of Athens presented a pattern that has informed philosophers, theologians, and mystics for generations and, as heirs of that company, we would do well to heed her words.

Beauty, then, should be a key concern as we craft our worship. Not simply an external or an add-on, beauty is part of our central witness to who God is and to what God is like. From the most minute details of creation we can discern that God cares for beauty, and that beauty through symmetry leads us into a deeper quest for other spiritual goods.

I have to confess, that in his critique of the church revival movement, Dearmer is likewise critiquing me. I, too, am guilty of backgrounding beauty in order to foreground doctrine. And I accept his critique. On the other hand, I have two critiques of my own to offer Dearmer’s words.

The first is to note that the situation has changed. In Dearmer’s day, his struggle was the acceptance of beauty at all. The Evangelical party was in ascendance, and the Broad Church party followed them in matters of vestiture and ceremonial. Our situation in the modern Episcopal Church is a little bit different. In our context, the Broad Church party has widely adopted a plentitude of colorful vestments. However, this ecclesiastical fashion statement may occur within a void; in some cases there seems to be no recognition that these beautiful things have any import beyond their beauty. If Dearmer’s struggle with the Church Revival was that they attended to doctrine with little concern for beauty, our struggle may well be an attention to beauty with little concern for doctrine. Dearmer rightly reminds us, however, that in such cases at least the beauty is present, and witnesses silently to the glories of God.

My second critique of Dearmer is a little more substantive. I see great value in his Trinity of characteristics of God: truth and goodness and beauty. However, I believe that one of these lacks a certain precision. And I’m looking at you, beauty. Beauty is an aesthetic experience and while I agree that beauty is intrinsic to God, I believe that there is another aesthetic category that more truly and properly leads us to the heart of God.

Before I go there, let me pause and restate my second point. Following Dearmer, I too see beauty as an essential witness to the identity of God. Beauty is not an add-on or an accessory to Christian worship. Rather, it needs to be an intentional and intrinsic part of what we do when we worship. We need to look for and craft beauty into our liturgies and our ceremonies, not as an extra, but as part and parcel of our proclamation of the gospel truth. That’s point 2.

Right around the same time that Dearmer was giving his Bohlen lecture, a German theologian and student of comparative religion was also working on a book. The name of this book was Das Heilige and it would be translated into English as the Idea of the Holy. The year was 1917 and the author was Rudolf Otto. One of the issues that was directly confronting Otto was rationalism. Liberal theology was in the ascendance and thanks to Ritschel and his students the proclamation of the Christian faith was in danger of being reduced to nothing more than “morality touched with emotion.” Otto pushed back against this tendency. Not that he wasn’t a rationalist himself, but he was able to realize that a purely rational religion is missing something fundamental. Instead, he argued that religion in general and Christianity in particular must hold together both rational and nonrational elements. The subject of his book, was the nonrational aspect.

Otto begins with the word “holy” but immediately turns around and states that the modern meaning has suffered semantic drift. That is, the word no longer means what it used to; it has acquired, through familiarity, a slightly different meaning than its original referent. It is this original referent that he tries to find. The word holy has acquired too much of an ethical sense. Conventionally, the term “holy” refers to a high standard of behavior. Holiness is how someone acts. What Otto argues is that there was a more primary and original meaning that lacks the ethical element which now predominates in the word. Instead of trying to reset our understanding of the word holy, Otto chooses to give us a new word, a word that is capable of recapturing the original meaning of holy. Thus he coins the word “numinous”.

This is a brand-new word, having at its basis the Latin word numen which in classical Latin means God or divinity or divine will. It sounds kind of like “luminous” and kind of like “ominous”, and in truth has something in common with both. The numinous for Otto, is an objective characteristic – it’s a special something that a being possesses – that can be recognized because of the subjective feeling it evokes in those who experience it. A key point here is that Otto is not talking about a feeling, he’s talking about thing that causes a feeling.

In his book, Otto works through the characteristics of the numinous by means of a brief Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I don’t think that I need to go through everything that he says but a brief thought or two on each of these words may prove helpful.

First, mysterium. For him, this is what Karl Barth calls the “Wholly Other,” the Entirely Other. This is the recognition that we are in the presence of something that goes beyond our everyday existence and frames of reference. Second, tremendum. This has three basic aspects to it. The word tremendum comes from the Latin base tremor meaning fear, but not quite the same fear as being afraid. English has the word “awe” that used to lay at the heart of our words awful and awesome which hit closer to his meaning then fear. It’s the awe of awesome used properly that Otto is trying to point us to. Tremendum also contains a majesty, an overpoweringness that is the experience of being in the presence of immensity. It is a fullness of power and being. Tremendum also contains an energy, urgency, and vitality. This is not something dead or static, but living, moving, and active.

As a brief aside – one of the reasons that I love the horror author H. P. Lovecraft, is that he so faithfully evokes in the depiction of his horrific elder gods like Cthulu the mysterium tremendum. This sense of divinity quite apart from any ethical quality. In fact, his creations are actually either amoral or immoral, but in these descriptions he is able to capture and convey what Otto means by the numinous better than any other author I know.

Where Otto goes in a different direction from Lovecraft, is with that second descriptor fascinans. Otto doesn’t just stop at tremendum. Where Lovecraft’s elder gods are often described as repellent, Otto uses fascinans for that characteristic of the divine that draws us to itself. This is the attraction; wonder and rapture are all connected to this fascinans. Feelings of love and grace and compassion and mercy are mingled together with the elements of the mysterious and tremendous; there is that which pushes us away by means of its grandeur and its immensity, but at the same time we are impelled towards it by awe and wonder.

Yesterday, Mother Takacs’s presentation did a wonderful job of teasing out some of the particular aspects that Otto specifically points to. As we listened to the different interpretations of the Sanctus, you could almost pick out where certain ones championed certain aspects. Just sitting there listening to those, Byrd’s Sanctus gave such a feeling of mysterium. With the upward spiraling notes on “sanctus” itself, it literally lifts your consciousness to a different place and points to the transcendent. There’s no doubt that the Macmillan Sanctus was tremendum. It really did convey that sense of a vital immensity before which your best option is full prostration. And the warmth of the Faure and the adoration of the Palestrina gave us the fascinans.

Thus, Otto uses the word numinous to capture this aspect of God which we can identify and relate to by means of this feeling that experiencing it creates within us.

If we back up a second, we notice that Otto, while being a modern rationalist in a philosophical sense, is actually conducting a wildly postmodern exercise here. In essence, Otto is confirming exactly what Lindbeck is arguing. Otto is creating a new piece of language that, by its creation, enables us to have a discrete kind of experience. He introduces a new linguistic phenomenon that helps us to better comprehend the Triune Being at the heart of our gospel proclamation.

Now, what does our identification of the numinous add to our discussion of Christian worship? I would argue that much of our ritual action grows out of prescribing direction for the human encounter with the numinous. As we look through the holy Scriptures, we can identify certain times and places that are indelibly marked by a numinous character. It is almost impossible to read the sixth chapter of Isaiah, and not understand what we mean by the numinous.

There are also some descriptions of the numinous in the Old Testament where the mysterium tremendum definitely outweighs the mysterium fascinans. When the cloud with its lightnings overshadows the top of Mount Sinai, we see the numinous aspect; when we hear the warning that any person or animal who touches the mountain must die, we are confronted by the tremendum. When the ark of the covenant is carried around the walls of Jericho leading to their collapse, we see the numinous aspect of that artifact gained by its relation to the divine; when in the sixth chapter of second Samuel the ark of the covenant strikes Uzzah dead because he reached up a hand to steady it, we are confronted by the tremendum. In the original descriptions of the garments of the priesthood in Exodus, Scripture tells us that the vestments – beautiful as they may be – are not for the sake of adornment but for the protection of the priests. Chapter 28 tells us twice with the priest must wear them lest they die. The numinous is holy, but this does not mean that it is safe. Holiness, as understood by the Scriptures, is a vital and tangible power – like an electric current. It may provide unfathomable energy, or it can kill.

So, what specifically does the numinous have to do with Christian worship? Can we, should we expect a manifestation of the numinous at every Christian worship? Well, no. We can expect it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The numinous is not something that we can control; it’s an aspect of God. We don’t control God. What we want to do, though, is everything in our power not to hinder the potential for the congregation to experience the presence of God. We believe that God is omnipresent; God is everywhere. But most of us lack the faculties to experience the immediate presence of God on a regular basis. Worship well-crafted offers an opportunity par excellence for us to experience the face of God. Otto does well to remind us that the numinous is not a subjective emotion that we can manipulate. We cannot manipulate the presence of God. It’s when we try to manipulate that we most fully betray our primary purpose; manipulation cannot be praise. But prayerful worship can make us more receptive to the God who is already within our midst.

Furthermore, our tradition recognizes specific vessels of the numinous. That is, there are specific objects and places within our liturgies where we recognize the presence of God and the possibility of the numinous to be particularly potent. The sacrament of the altar, the altar itself, the cross, even—to a degree—the congregation are all places where the liturgy recognizes that we have the potential to encounter the numinous.

So, that is my third point. When we consider the central characteristics of God, we should consider God to be the height of truth, goodness, and the numinous. The numinous is the otherworldly sacral energy which both frightens us and draws us into the presence of a vital, vibrant God. And it is this last element that has such a defining effect upon Christian ceremonial.


From these three theoreticals: the faith as worldview, our central communication of the worldview in worship; the importance of beauty in worship; and the importance of our recognition of the numinous as central to understanding God, we can begin to make a turn to the practical. There are a lot of different directions that we could go in at this point; unfortunately being limited by time, we’ll only get to go in a few of them. I’m going to make two points as suggestions, as fruitful avenues for approach. We can’t go down them all the way, but I can at least show you where they are.

First off, in light of these principles, I think it’s useful to revisit some of the old arguments, and see where and how they make sense now. One of these is environment. When we come at the question of environment and the vestments by way of a worldview, and worldview as a way of proclaiming and enculturating the kingdom of God, we can see what we do and what the other choices are, in a new light. So for the sake of argument, let’s consider two options next one another. On one hand we have a stereotypical Anglo-Catholic setting and service; on the other hand we have a stereotypical evangelical mega-church setting and service. (My goal here isn’t to put down either one of them—it’s to draw some very big-brush comparisons…)

Our overall impression of the Anglo-Catholic service is that we are encountering things that are initially unfamiliar. In comparison with other buildings, the Gothic church has an odd shape and layout. The ministers are wearing strange clothes. The place is outfitted with crucifixes and candles and thuribles and a bunch of other things you normally only find in a goth shop. The music is played on old instruments. The language and terminology may be unfamiliar; the internal logic of the rite isn’t similar to other meetings were used to experiencing. By way of contrast, the evangelical mega-church does everything it can to feel familiar. The room looks like it may well be a regular auditorium with stadium style seating and potted plants. The ministers are dressed in street clothes and tattoos. They’ve got guitars and a drum kit. Both the language and internal logic of the rite are what you might find in a typical pop concert.

Now – what do these two environments communicate about the worldview that they are expressing? About the proclamation of the gospel in relation to the modern secular culture? The way I read it, the Anglo-Catholic service is foregrounding a theology of the transcendent. The environment is fundamentally and intentionally discontinuous from contemporary culture. The message is that the values and world of the gospel are likewise discontinuous from our everyday secular world. A transformation is required in order to cleave to the mind of Christ. To me, it’s a visual reminder of Isaiah’s words: my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts. Some people will tell us that we’re not being accessible. That’s not how I’d frame it. I’d rather say that we’re bearing witness to a mystery, and inviting people to come and learn about that mystery with us.

The way I read the evangelical mega-church environment, it foregrounds a theology of immanence. This environment is fundamentally continuous with contemporary culture – but with a twist. The message is that the values and world of the gospel can be seen from here, we just may not be there yet. A tweak is what’s needed. To me, it’s a reminder that God is in our very midst. This is accessible, it’s a kissing cousin with modern culture—but my concern is, where and how is the line being drawn? Where is the Gospel demand to something new, something radical?

Now, this is not to say that either one of them have a lock on transcendence or immanence. It’s a matter of emphasis, but also a legitimate difference of theology. We have chosen a different way.

Coming from the perspective of a worldview, understanding our church environment as a culture that is different from but in relation to the secular culture helps us frame some of our arguments in new ways. At one very simple level, you’re either doing things in line with contemporary secular culture, or you’re not. Take, for example, the classic vestments debate. If you’ve been anywhere around liturgical discussions in the church, then at some point or other you’ve no doubt heard one or more arguments about the place and nature of vestments. Should clergy wear street clothes, whether formal or not, or they should wear some sort of sacred vestiture. Personally, I see this as one of the – literally – most visible representations of the relationship between church culture and secular culture. I mean, it’s one of the first things I see and notice about a service after the building.

Especially since Vatican II and the liturgical renewal movement, there is been renewed interest in this discussion, especially as it relates to the fourth century, the 14th century, and the 17th century. As a result, you’ll hear people making arguments that we ought to be wearing fourth century street clothes instead of 14th century dress clothes, or 17th century church clothes. Because, “the fourth century is closer to the original; it’s a return to our origins”. From my perspective, this argument doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The street clothes question is a modern one: you are either wearing “normal” clothes, or you’re wearing “weird” clothes. Justifying weird clothes by insisting that they are historical street clothes misses the point! The street clothes ship has already sailed. You’ve already made the decision to look outwardly like the current culture, or you’ve made the decision to outwardly not look like the current culture. If the decision has been made to not look like the current culture, then other questions of aesthetics and simplicity versus ornamentation should come into play. Choosing to model yourself upon a particular century is a theological position, but it’s separate from the street clothes position.

So, seeing the construction of our religious culture as a deliberate response to our surrounding culture has important implications for the ways we proclaim the gospel and for what that gospel means. Classic Anglo-Catholic patterns suggest that God and God’s ways are something that have an identity and integrity. We are called to shape ourselves to fit the liturgy .If we try to do things the other way round, we risk missing or mistaking something very important.

We do have to be sensitivity to questions of accessibility. We do have to do everything in our power to assist the strangers and the newcomers to share in our vision of the kingdom. But is there only one way to do that? Do we welcome them as we were welcomed if our means of doing it is to offer them a diminished vision?


To head off in a different direction now, I’d like to return to the notion of the numinous and how our church culture relates itself to it. Let’s think about customaries for a moment. The customary is, at its simplest, the set of stage directions for who does what when. I tend to encounter customaries either as written documents, or sets of verbal instructions that I make into written documents. This way of looking at them and thinking about them is very linear. First we do this, then we do that, then we genuflect, then we stand up, then we head up the stairs and kiss the altar, and so on and so forth. It’s one thing then another thing than another thing. Learning a customary, I find myself ticking items off in my head as I go, and sometimes wondering if I forgot a genuflection, or a nod, or some other such thing.

What would happen if we changed our whole paradigm? What would happened if we were able to break out of list mode altogether?

The majority of liturgical actions performed by the congregation and the altar party in a Eucharist can be broken down by considering three questions:

  • How do we signify what is holy – that which has the capacity to contain and transmit the numinous?
  • How do we behave towards God in the presence of the holy—what are the gestures of respect that we use towards vessels of the numinous?
  • How do we behave towards one another in the presence of the holy—what are the gestures of respect that we use towards one another as we recognize one another as fellow creatures in the image of God and beloved of God?

What we took the list of what a certain person does, and we asked it this question: how does this set of actions and gestures line out for us a geography of the sacred? Liturgical actions and gestures tend to have triggers—they tend to be in response to moving to or through certain places, or when we hear or say certain words… What are the triggers? How do they define space as that participant moves through the physical space. What places and times are we identifying as particular potential for the presence of the numinous? How do our gestures or actions show respect to that numinous potential? If we were to look across all of the lists for a given altar party, do they all describe the same geography?

You know how these lists tend to be compiled—an idiosyncratic server may have picked up certain things from a certain former parish, or perhaps a past rector has left a strong stamp on the liturgy that is observed by some and not the others. Is there an internal consistency to the sacred geographies described by the different lists? To what degree has the congregation picked up on these geographies and participate within them?

Does our ceremonial send mixed messages about who and what we are and about how we act and react in the presence of the numinous? Is there a logic and a coherence to our proclamation that gives a vision for how we behave in the face of the numinous yet does not oversimply, dumb-down or otherwise squelch the rich and diverse ways that we experience and react to God in our midst?

When we start asking questions about sacred geography some practices make instinctive sense. I’m about to enter the nave—it’s a holy place. Perhaps a bit of purification might be nice—oh, look a holy water basin so that, as I cross myself with water, I remember the holiness infused within me at my Baptism…  What aspects of sacred geography are immediately obvious? What aspects are things that we have a responsibility to share with our congregations, place where we have an important teaching role in connecting the dots? What aspects are best left as mysteries to be experienced rather than problems to be explained?

Good ceremonial can do a lot. Good ceremonial can communicate a lot on its own about the vision of the kingdom of God that we are seeking to enculturate. But it can’t do it all. You have an obligation to name the values, to identify the practices, to proclaim with words what the liturgy teaches with deeds. At the end of the day, how we encounter the numinous within the liturgy, presents a paradigm for how we encounter the numinous outside the liturgy. It teaches what to look for, what to feel for, and the clues for recognize the sacred presence in things expected and unexpected.

That’s my final point: It’s not enough to be intentional about the way we design things. It’s not enough to be intentional about how we construct the environments of our liturgies. We have to connect the dots. We have to make sure that our messages and meanings about the gospel, the holy, are sinking in. Let me end by giving you two little exercises you can do at home to see how things are going:

First – it’s worth taking a look to see how your servers, your altar guild, yourself, and other folks treat the vessels after the services are over. Do they treat them like sacred things worthy of respect, or do they handle them carelessly, like something to be tossed around? It’s one thing to treat them with reverence during the service, when everyone’s watching, but what happens when it’s over?

Second – it’s worth taking a look to see how your servers, your altar guild, yourself, and other folks treat the people at coffee hour. Do they treat them like sacred things worthy of respect, or do they handle them carelessly, like something to be tossed around? The difference between the two is clear: the vessels no longer have the blessed sacrament within them. The people at coffee hour – do.

7 thoughts on “SCP Presentation: Theology & Action in the Liturgy

  1. MAG

    How much Hauerwas have you read? The bits about language-forming-community jibe very well with his emphases.

  2. Derek Olsen

    I’ve read a certain amount of Hauerwas–but he was informed by Lindbeck and the two of them together are considered key leaders of the postliberal movement in theology.

  3. Sean+ Lotz

    I’m only half-way through and in need of a break, but I want to say Thank you. So far you’re doing a bang-up job with the subject.

  4. David Glaser

    Thanks for this wonderful presentation – and thanks for posting so I could have a chance to read it again. When I first heard it, my head was in a spin trying to take it all in! Peace to you, my friend.

  5. Pingback: Liturgy as Language | haligweorc

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