Book Review: Liturgical Theology (5/8)

Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan

Part One: Foundations – Chapter 4: the Liturgy as Ecclesial Practice

 Introduction

Recent writings on “the new ecclesiology” revive a long-ignored emphasis on the visible Church.

  • Positive Feature #1: concrete focus on the active presence of the Holy Spirit
    • This highlights that Christianity is a distinct way of life enabled by the Spirit.
    • The Holy Spirit, then, is also a key actor in all the actions of the Church.
  • Positive Feature #2: robust defense of Christianity’s unique truth claims
    • This shows it’s possible for Christians to sin along the way.
    • This shows that the Church is a “soteriologically relevant reality” (p86).
  • The problem with this is how to account for diversity within communities!
    • This can be solved by recognizing the Church’s liturgy as the essential and primary practice of the Church.
    • “It is from this coherent liturgy that other secondary practices derive their significance as Christians practices.  But in the final analysis, how the liturgy forms the community can be expressed only in terms of the mystery of grace – a mystery one inevitably discovers in the practice of prayer.  It is from such a theology of the liturgy that we can develop a sound theology of practice” (p87).

A theology of practice must account for the dual concerns of “the personal dimension of ecclesial practices and… the meaning of the practices” (p87).

  • Mere repetition doesn’t legitimize anything, nor give it spiritual power.
  • Personal intent, perception, and attitude affect how people participate.
  • So is the effectiveness of all ecclesial practices subjective – dependent upon how people appropriate them?
    • No: there are essential practices that do objectively form the Church: Word and Sacrament.
      • “They constitute the church by being what they are in themselves and quite apart from the intention and other subjective response of the one performing them” (p88).
      • Even still, faith is necessary for their intended effects to take hold.
    • Yes: there are practices that totally depend upon how people do them.
      • Their effectiveness is dependent upon their connection the essentials, how people understand them, and how people carry them out.
      • This doesn’t make them less important or not Spirit-led.
      • Example: hospitality is only a Christian practice insofar as it’s done in the name of Christ – as part of the mission of the Church.
  • Teaching the meaning of ecclesial practices is itself an important practice.
    • The better one understands a practice, the more formative it can be for them.
    • “Ecclesial practices cannot be considered apart from the larger web of meaning (systematic theology) and the attitude and intention in which they are to be carried out (spirituality)” (p89).
  • The key to understanding and appropriating ecclesial practices is to ground them in the liturgy.

 

 The Liturgy as the practice par excellence

Ecclesial practices have both an objective and a subjective pole.  In prayer these two forms are commonly known as “cathedral prayer” and “monastic prayer.”

  • Cathedral prayer conveys its own experience, apart from our own conscious thought process.  It puts the individual into the corporate life of the Church.
  • Monastic prayer seeks to make the prayer of the Church one’s own.
  • Objective “cathedral prayer” – the liturgy of Word & Sacrament – forms us by its own inherent power in its own distinct way.  This is what it means to call it the work of the Spirit!

The Liturgy of Word & Sacrament lays the foundation for a theology of ecclesial practices.

  1. The liturgy provides a pattern for understanding ecclesial practice.
    1. Words and signs work together to shape and form us spiritually.
    2. The liturgy provides the means of establishing secondary practices as ecclesial practices.
      1. All Christian life can be exemplified within the liturgy Word & Sacrament.
      2. This can also be explored from the perspective of the Eucharistic mystery.
        1. The theological concept of mystery is rooted in God’s transcendence.
          i.      The revelation of Jesus Christ still doesn’t mean we can fully grasp God.
          ii.      The revelation of Jesus Christ opens us to the mystery of the incarnation.
          iii.      The revelation of Jesus Christ opens us to the mystery of divine grace.
        2. Thus, the mystery of the liturgy is at the center of the Church’s practice.
          i.      How ecclesial practices form us into graced beings cannot be explained by a cause-and-effect description.
          ii.      How practice changes us = encountering the mystery of grace
        3. Grace is never under our control; we can either cooperate under it or “kick against the goads.”
          i.      Ultimately it’s grace that forms us, not ecclesial practices per se, but it does so through such practices.
          ii.      The foundational virtue we exercise in this process is humility.

The virtue of humility informs us about the subjective form of prayer – “monastic prayer.”  “Monastic Prayer” = practicing virtue + contemplation

  • Contemplation is the focused intellect shifting focus from created things to the Creator.
  • Contemplation isn’t a discourse, but a whole-self activity.
  • “‘If you are a theological, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’  What Evagrius means is that the theologian is not a person who understands truth merely cognitively but one who embodies it in prayer, which is ‘the intellect’s true and highest activity.’  True prayer calls for a certain disposition, a contemplative engagement with the truth, the Logos” (p95).
  • Contemplation is free from worldly distraction.
  • Vices hinder our prayer; virtues advance our prayer.
  • Demons constantly seek to distract and hinder our prayers.  A mature contemplative can overcome this by praying more – to him it’s a minor distraction.  But “modern Christians cannot be so sure, especially when prayer (liturgical or otherwise) hardly features in their practices” (p97)!

A spirituality of practice requires “active participation” – “the technique of going to church!”

  • We aren’t being formed simply because we’re actively participating – our intention and understanding isn’t everything.
  • Worship is what we “do,” while formation is really a matter of “imbibing the spirit of the liturgy” (p97).

 

Conclusion

“Because worship is the defining practice of the church, it ‘provides the primary source for the nourishment of the Christian spiritual life’” (p98).

  • We don’t just repeat old ideas in liturgical worship, we engage in re-presenting them in the present.
  • Liturgical forms aren’t just a “socializing process.”
    • Liturgical worship isn’t something of our own making, but is a set of fitting responses to God’s revelation.
    • Worship is human action and divine action combined.
    • “If the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men, the liturgy is the saving deeds of God in the actions of those men and women who would live in him” (p98).
  • Right intention isn’t the key, but if we’re actively participating.
  • Even still, spiritual formation is not entirely dependent upon an individual’s response!
  • Denying that spiritual formation takes place in a normative liturgy is to deny the reality of grace and its mysterious workings.
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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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