13 April 2008

Shaping the Liturgy

Patrick Comerford

IT is, perhaps, a truism to say that active Christians today are more likely to be concerned about the environment and the threats posed by global warming than about the liturgy. It requires a keen mind and a rooted spirituality to make the connections between both, making the liturgy a life-giving experience for the active Christian activist, and empowering the worshipping Christian to see in the liturgy an image of the world as God wants it to be.

A new book on liturgy and the environment seeks to make this connection between the Eucharist and the Creation story as a response to the present ecological crisis. Hugh O’Donnell believes it is critical that our concerns for the environment should be incorporated into our celebration of the Eucharist.

In his new book, Eucharist and the Living Earth (Dublin: Columba Press, ISBN 978-1-85607-573-2, €12.99), this Salesian priest and poet explores the possibilities of bringing new relevance to the Eucharist by weaving into the liturgy the principle of our responsibility before God for the well-being and diversity of the earth.

This book, which grew out of an MA course in ecology and religion at the University of Wales, Lampeter, O’Donnell explores how the connection between the Eucharist and its matrix within the created world can be strengthened, he asks how our celebrations of the Eucharist can be relocated not just within our earthly pilgrimage but within the narrative of the unfolding universe.

When we fail to make explicit the Eucharistic connection with the created world, he argues, we deny that we are woven into the fabric of the universe, that we live with the stars, that the sun and the moon leave their marks on our lives, that Christian liturgy is cosmic liturgy, and that without making these connections we have a ritual that is shorn of its roots, and are left with an impoverished Eucharist.

And so, he makes a number of practical suggestions. For example, the penitential rite can invite us to an ecological conversion. The Gloria praises God for the wonders and beauty of the Creation. The traditional formula of the Nicene Creed includes the basis of a creation spirituality. The Prayers of the Faithful should always include prayer for the living Earth to which we belong. Learning from the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church, the presentation of the gifts can be an expression of humanity giving thanks to God for the gifts of creation.

His examples from the Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving are taken from his own tradition, but it is easy to find examples in the Book of Common Prayer 2004. Prayer 1 praises God as “the creator and sustainer of all things” (page 210). Prayer 2 recalls that Christ is the eternal Word through whom God has “created all things from the beginning” and through whom all things are made new (page 212). Prayer 3 praises God as Lord of all creation. Those beautiful words in Prayer 3 – “He opened wide his arms upon the cross and, with love stronger than death, he made the perfect sacrifice for sins” – are complement by the words in Graham Kendrick’s hymn, The Servant King (ICH 219): “Come see his hands and his feet,/the scars that speak of sacrifice,/hands that flung stars into space/to cruel nails surrendered.”

Professor Paul Bradshaw of the University of Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey is one of the leading Anglican liturgists today, best known, perhaps for his Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (London: SPCK, 2002). Now with his colleague at Notre Dame, Professor John Melloh, he has edited a new collection of essays, Foundations in Ritual Studies: A Reader for Students of Christian Worship (London: SPCK, 224 pp pbk, £16.99 Stg, ISBN 978-0-281-05746-7).

At one time, the study of liturgy meant studying what Christians did in the past and how worship traditions developed over the centuries, with a particular focus on liturgical texts. Now the spotlight is on liturgical actions – what we do in worship, how we do it, and what our actions mean. Scholars now look at the global present and compare what Christians say and do in worship with actions in other religious and cultural settings.

When it comes to Christian liturgy, the starting point for ritual studies is to observe and record the totality of an act of worship, paying attention to the people involved, their attitudes, lifestyles and behaviour, their understanding of what liturgy is for, their motives for taking part in it, and how they understand its place in their lives.

This book, which is the first collection of its kind in the new field of ritual studies, applies anthropological methodology to the study of religious actions, focussing on the Christian liturgy as an example of ritual studies. This one-volume collection offers students fresh insights into Christian liturgy with key essays by specialists in anthropology, religious studies, and Christian liturgy. Many of the great names from the present and the recent past are here, with a wide range of up-to-date work in this growing field. Romano Guardini, Mark Seale and John Witvliet examine the application of ritual studies to Christian liturgies; Mary Douglas and Victor Turner discuss the anthropological basis for ritual studies; Nathan Mitchell, Ronald Grimes and Catherine Bell write on ritual; and Margaret Mary Kelleher writes on liturgical theology.

One of the pioneering figures in Anglican liturgical studies was the late Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Benedictine monk whose magnum opus, The Shape of the Liturgy, has stayed in print for over 60 years. Although some of its conclusions are now questioned, The Shape of the Liturgy is still unsurpassed as an account of the origins of the Eucharist. It continues to underpin the work of many liturgists today, such as Richard Giles, and at least one college requires all prospective students of theology to read the first 100 pages of The Shape of the Liturgy before applying.

But apart from The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix left many pamphlets, papers, sermons, radio talks and other unpublished texts. Now, Simon Jones has drawn on this remarkable archive for a new book, The Sacramental Life: Gregory Dix and his writings (London: Canterbury Press, Norwich, 161 pp, £16.99 Stg, ISBN 978-1-85311-717-6).

Simon Jones is Chaplain and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Oxford – Gregory Dix’s own college – and an oblate of Elmore Abbey, the Anglican Benedictine community in Berkshire where the Dix archives are held.

Jones has created a collection that will be valued in teaching, study, and as devotional reading for a new generation. This collection focuses on topics as central as the subject of his classic work on the Eucharist: the Liturgy, the Spiritual Life, the Religious Life and the Church’s Ministry.

As Archbishop Rowan Williams says in his foreword, this book is a real gift and “in a very robust sense a joy to read.” He writes: “Here we see most clearly how Dom Gregory brought the immensities of his theological vision to bear on the bread and butter of learning to live Christianly and to pray intelligently.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. These book reviews were first published in the April edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)

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