Liturgy, Meaning, and Teaching

Tripp pursues one of the main topics of his thesis in this morning’s post. He worries about the dialectical relationship between “teaching” and “worship” in liturgy: “How do we understand the purpose of liturgy as a teaching tool? It seems that whenever we become too didactic, we cannot worship, but the moment we stop explaining then worship becomes meaningless.”

[Disclaimer: With regard to what follows, readers should bear in mind that I am not a card-carrying “evangelical” (as Tripp seems to have become, at least for a day) nor a scholar of liturgics. I am what the jargonmeisters call a reflective practitioner of leading worship, and (most to the point) an avid student of semiotics, of the study of meaning and what we do about it.]

Tripp seems to have gotten stuck at the wrong point in the argument, though. It’s not that liturgical worship is ever meaningless, any more than a Unix manual, or a volume of the Summa Theologia, or an essay by a postmodern theorist. “Meaninglessness” applies neither to the published words of people whose expertise doesn’t overlap with our own nor to the enacted words and gestures of a worshipper whose relation to those actions doesn’t overlap with our own — in these cases, the kind of meaning we (presumably) seek eludes us, but the words and gestures nonetheless continue to mean. If nothing else, they may mean something such as “the author of this work (of worship or prose) expects me to regard baffling obfuscation as mystical profundity.” Japanese isn’t meaningless because I don’t understand it; the problem lies not with Japanese or its speakers, but with my ignorance.

With regard to liturgy and Tripp’s dilemma, then, it looks as though Tripp is conflating the kind of teaching by which one learns a language (or a discourse or a sort of cultural behavior or a craft) with the kind of learning by which one moves from the dim, frustrating perception of what each word means toward the appreciation of sentences, thoughts, meditations, and so on. It takes a long time to learn Greek, and once one has attained elementary acquaintance with the language, one still has a hard time puzzling out what Aristotle thinks about ethics; but it seems worthwhile to distinguish the two processes.

The notion that liturgy should be self-explanatory, should comprise both the expression of thankful praise and the metacommentary that articulates that expression in plain, open terms, serves particular theological-ideological purposes. That notion eases the transition between not having the vaguest idea why Christians do the sorts of thing that they do (or having a misguided idea) and recognizing the rationale for liturgical behavior.

At the same time, some ideas and some gestures depend for their intelligibility on prior formation. Schoolteachers try to inculcate the background knowledge and sensibilities by which students may relish Shakespeare’s plays or von Bismarck’s statecraft — but without some sort of preparatory instruction, few learners will find King Lear especially “meaningful.” I once found myself in an argument over the extent to which “meaning” transcends cultural specificity, in which debate my interlocutor cited the example of Antigone as evidence that something about our common human essence binds us to the great works of antiquity. That example seemed contrariwise to demonstrate my point: unless we’re instructed beforehand about Antigone’s family history, about ancient piety and burial practices, about the politics of Sophocles’s own day, Antigone may well seem absurdly meaningless, not because of a defect in our alleged common humanity, but because the drama relies on a context of shared information and assumptions on which we just can’t draw. If a vendor won’t exchange her goods for my foreign currency, the problem isn’t that the currency is intrinsically worthless, but that we haven’t worked out a context within which it might have value.

Back to liturgy: we shouldn’t expect every service to teach the faith at an introductory level, or to evoke the deepest mystical truths, any more than every book be written by Dr. Seuss or Jürgen Habermas. I think it’s probably fair to wish that every service point toward the greater mysteries, and that no service constitute itself so as to repel visitors — but a great part of the life of faith (as it comes to expression in the liturgy) involves putting into practice things one has learned outside the liturgy. Just as one is taught table manners over time, usually at home, before one attends a formal dinner, so the teaching ministry of family and congregation prepare people, over time, for the fullest participation in a solemn mass.

In any case, the meaning subsists not just in a participant’s experience, not just in the leader’s intent, but in a complex of intentions, conventions, receptions, and innovations that (to recur to one of my favorite topics) we don’t control. The challenge for each worship leader, or for each participant in liturgical planning, involves not a simple dialectic of teaching and worship, but a negotiation among the calls to nuance and to explicitness, to that which is shared with generations of worshippers reaching into antiquity and to that which stimulates the most vivid sense of contemporaneity, to theological truth expressed in actions and words whose intelligibility derives from their roles in a great shared discourse of liturgical art, and to evangelical transparency expressed in a shared vernacular discourse of colloquial immediacy — among other urgent imperatives.

So I’d suggest (at a minimum) specific effort among regular members of the congregation to assimilate and understand the congregation’s liturgy so as to be able to bring visitors into the stylized theological conversation. (Catechizing the regulars provides all manner of benefits, this just one among them.) At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt if the congregation provided (along with its regular bulletin, assuming that they use a bulletin) a very simple guide to the congregation’s worship. It needn’t pares every technicality or define every term, but should provide enough guidance that a visitor not feel quite lost. The combination of a friendly, helpful congregant and a basic, direct guide-leaflet would do a lot of the work of elementary liturgical instruction.

Simultaneously, the congregation could devote serious time and consideration to the reasons for its liturgical practice, and the significance of the liturgical decisions it makes. Tripp knows how vexed I get when people think that “ ’Cos I like it that way” trumps all other reasons in shared liturgical deliberation. Common worship involves a tremendous amount more than your or my individual likes and dislikes; if we want to communicate among the historic, dispersed, contemporary, and future saints, we need to attend to ways that our behavior signifies beyond our preferences. To that end, we should be cautious about adopting purely local idiosyncratic formulations — however much we may like them, they may exclude the saints from taking their part in a worship God longs for all to share in.

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5 Responses to Liturgy, Meaning, and Teaching

  1. Tripp says:

    Interesting begining. I look forward to reading more.

    Just a quick thought. The issue of meaninglessness is a historical hangover from more Zwinglian times. Meaninglessness was proclaimed…not necessarily experienced. Cognative reasoning and meaning get conflated somehow.

    Liturgy (ala ECUSA etc) is a foreign language to most evangelicals. At North Shore, for example, we reinvent Sunday each week in order to maintain meaning. We explain the symbol. We interpret as we go. You know all this. But this is what the dialectic is all about.

    I want to know this: Can the liturgy teach itself? Can one simply immerse oneself in a Spanish-speaking country, for example, without any former education and eventually pick up the language? Perhaps. It may very well be possible. But teaching it would make more sense.

    I just wonder if liturgy can be tought. I have learned a lot about liturgy over the years. But the performance/meaning of it is still foreign to me, even in the midst of Reconciler’s worship or prayer at Seabury.

    I may be familiar with it and have memorized much. I may even be able to tell you what it means but “knowing it by heart” is an entirely different thing.

    “Knowing by heart” was something we spoke of at the gathering. Maybe that would be a better approach.

  2. Derek says:

    One of the real benefits of the Latin liturgy is that it’s really clear that it’s not all about *you* as a congregant. It’s a good check against the modern English liturgies that either try to be all didactic or are smugly self-satisfied about how enlightened our various prayers and readings are (the thing I hate *most* about a lot of seminary liturgies, especially in the semi-liturgical traditions…).

  3. Rachel says:

    I think it’s probably fair to wish that every service point toward the greater mysteries, and that no service constitute itself so as to repel visitors — but a great part of the life of faith (as it comes to expression in the liturgy) involves putting into practice things one has learned outside the liturgy.

    I’ve been wanting to make a post on this very subject, because it’s something I think about often. It seems clear to me that when I get around to doing so, I’ll be pointing back at this post, particularly at the sentence I pulled out and italicized above. Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

  4. Here is an apothegm from Father Alexander Schmemann that I am fond of:

    “The secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but “audio-visual aids” for communicating ideas. Last winter a group of students and teachers at a well-known seminary spent a semester ‘working’ on a ‘liturgy’ centered on the following ‘themes': the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan. No doubt they ‘meant well’. It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no ‘relevance’ to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a ‘theme’ is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its ‘focus’, it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience.”–Worship in a Secular Age, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol 16, No. 1(1972).

    The theoretician in me loves theory. Other parts of me want to find practical ways of doing things. I accept Fr. Alexander’s theory that we bring all of life to our worship, and that our worship overlaps at least implicitly with all of our life. My practical side points out that I had to read Fr. Alexander’s book before that concept was able to form clearly in my mind.

    Tripp’s concern seems to be with a lack of full compatibility between the methods of the church-house and the methods of the school-house. The way of the school-house is to convey complex technical information systematically by breaking it down and organizing it into intellectually neat categories. Traditional Christian worship doesn’t use this approach. But Christian worhip itself might sometimes be better done, and better understood, if its participants have learned some schoolhouse-lessons on some matters of principle and detail. I don’t know how I could teach the Gregorian Easter Cycle except by the way of the schoolhouse. Yet without the Easter Cycle I doubt we could agree on when Easter was. The lectures attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem seem to suppose also that the initiates, after first participating in Christian rites, would benefit from having the rites they just saw interpreted afterward in lecture-fashion.

    Notwithstanding this lack of full compatibility between the way of the church-house and the way of the shool-house, it is possible to weave the two together on occasion. I have seen an “instructed eucharist” that was fully reverent and yet conveyed technical details successfully in schoolhouse-fashion. But this was an occasional exception, not the normal way of worship in the place where I saw it. Similarly the rubrics of the Episcopal Church’s “Order of Worship for Evening” seem to allow great flexibility to combine the way of the church-house and the way of the school-house in a number of different ways. On one occasion, when I led the Vespers of St. Patrick’s day, since I was not licensed to preach, I didn’t preach. Instead I gave a brief lecture on St. Patrick. Though I say it myself, I thought it was well received and didn’t distort the liturgy in any way.

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