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Liturgical persistence and Ecclesial resistance

Written by geoff holsclaw : April 8, 2008

taize serviceIf Stanley Hauerwas calls himself a ‘high-church Mennonite’, then I would like to become the official Jesus Manifesto ‘high-church’ advocate. My thesis is simple: there cannot be any sustained ecclesial resistance without a corresponding liturgical persistence. Over the weeks I plan to unpack this under various themes as a way to get my own thoughts clear on the topic, and to learn from you all.

By liturgical persistence I mean both a real commitment to practicing a liturgical form of communal worship and a relatively deep understand of what is going on and why (passing the peace, exchanging greetings, the Eucharistic Prayer, benediction, etc.). I’m not really going to define ecclesial resistance because Jesus Manifesto is all about this.

Now I could marshal all the missional, emerging, neo-monastic reasons against emphasizing so strongly the gathered moment of corporate worship, but I thought I would let you all raise those objections in your own words, or the words of those you interact with.

So what say you: Does ecclesial resistance require a deep liturgical persistence?

Geoff Holsclaw is co-pastor at life on the vine in chicago and a ph.d student at Marquette University studying liturgy and politics.


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    Great thoughts to ponder!

    Communal worship is one of the things we've tragically lost in the low-church model. I'm sure people more versed in the pros and con of liturgy can attest to its necessity or lack thereof. But I hunger to merge with other believers and become immersed in the mysteries of Eucharist and Word and other sacraments. It's necessary to balance solitude and individual devotional time with communal worship to model the communal aspects of Trinity and remind us of our death to self and the process of being built together as the Temple of the living God.
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    Missio Dei has a liturgical structure of sorts, so what I'm about to say isn't born out of disdain for, or rejection of, liturgy.

    I can't see any positive correlation between liturgical persistance and ecclesial resistance, practically speaking. Sure, I can understand theologically how liturigcal elements ought to shape disciples into the way of Jesus. But in reality, I still believe that liturgically robust traditions aren't any more likely to be faithful over the long-haul than low-church traditions.

    But I guess that depends upon what one means by "liturgical persistence." I believe we need sustained structures, traditions, practices, and rhythms. But these don't need to be liturgical (at least by most people's understanding of liturgy).
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    Geoff! I didn't know you wrote on this site. We met briefly at a 'Learning Commons' Fitch set up in Chicago a few months back. I don't have any resistance to your thesis - in fact I blogged about the very same question briefly last week, and I really think the two go together.

    One of the main points of resistance I get when I talk about this, though, is that people say "Just doing liturgy by itself won't help," as though that's what I was advocating ;) So I like that you've emphasized the doing of liturgy with the understanding of it. Both are crucial.

    Anyway, I look forward to the series you've promised, and the other comments that will come in.
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    Wow, this is an interesting question... having grown up a mid-church Mennonite (in between low and high), I still have huge questions and little experience with real, high-church liturgy.

    I grew up learning to disdain "empty" high church worship, only to eventually realize that we had incidentally created our own through our order of worship, choice of music, etc. As a young adult, I moved to a lower church setting and over the years am watching this setting become more rigid in expression, again, without adequate reflection in my mind... so I'm of the _experience_ that liturgy is very much a human construct that needs our reflection, assent and the Breath of the Spirit to remain vital.

    I don't agree with "beyondwords" that we've "lost" worship in the low-church model. I do, however, believe that in many scenarios we've not reflected adequately on what we're doing... I hope to agree with Geoff's implication that the communal worship moment is significant... and am really looking forward to his further thoughts. There has been a dramatic move of Mennonite Young Adults to a particular Anglican (Episcopal) congregation here in Winnipeg... (people are calling it Manglican), so there is a clear hunger for more formal liturgy in parts of my community.
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    I think I would suggest that the sacraments would be essential, but liturgy would be secondary. My understanding of the sacraments are that they arise as symbols of resistance to the empire's way of life. In the same way, the communal gathering to celebrate the sacraments and allow them to shape our lives becomes a key part of living out our resistance to the empire we find ourselves in. Through the sacraments we submit ourselves to the community of believers, identify ourselves with Christ, and in the symbol and celebration of the sacraments we align our lives to a different rhythm and value system that the empire.

    For me, these sacraments do not have to be attached to liturgy. I have shared these sacraments in high and low church settings. That's my two cents. I look forward to where this conversation goes.

    Peace.
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    I'm with daniel on this. I can appreciate many of the benefits liturgical traditions bring...however it's very easy for a rut to form and for these expressions to become cemented, and provide bondage rather than freedom.

    No church tradition is immune to this, but because many of us did not grow up primarily in liturgical traditions, it's foreign-ness can make it appear to provide an exception to the rule. I don't see it as being an exception, but just as with other traditions (music-based worship, expository preaching, and others) it must be exercised with care.
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    This is intriguing. I look forward to what you have to say.

    I don't agree with "beyondwords" that communal worship is lost in low-church environments. That is unfortunate for beyondwords if that has been their experience. I see room for some hybrids here. We're low-church I suppose and we follow the lectionary, celebrate the Lord's Table every week, etc. It has been beautiful to see these common rituals come alive in a more egalitarian environment... maybe, more communal?

    Second, how would you approach introducing liturgical practices to those unfamiliar or previously unaware of these things? At what point does this simply become imposing culture (colonialism)?

    Again, eager to see what you have to share.
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    Geoff, thanks for this initial sound off. I'm eager to hear where this can go,although I am little jealous that you are going to get the high-church advocate title on JM. I have affinities as well for the liturgical model of worship and have been exploring this in my own thoughts but have never been able to put it together in a substantial post. It is thinkers like Hauerwas and Cavanaugh that have pushed me to this area. The trickiest place for me is to embrace liturgical rhythms while being an active member in a church that for the most part does not (although every church has a "liturgy," just perhaps not a sustained one--which is what you are going to help us with). Eager to hear the rest!
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    I appreciate the conversation. Just as most seem to be saying, though, my thoughts about this are mixed. If we are going to inhabit the way of Jesus, then we will need to (among other things) at least practice the general forms of worship he engaged in—this may or may not include the specific "liturgies" he practiced. The fact that he read scriptures in the temple and participated in the various communal activities around Jewish festivals/holidays (while also challenging the dominant understandings about Sabbath and driving out the money changers from the temple), should challenge us to take our "liturgies"—whatever those might be—seriously enough to engage with them.

    I'm not trying to make a one-to-one correlation with 'high church' liturgies and the liturgies of Jesus' day. But I am saying that Jesus (and in fact all Christians) did/do have liturgical practices. The question is not if we should practice ‘liturgical persistence,’ but instead how our liturgical efforts stand up against the correction of the Spirit: idolatry or praise? Our problem today, as I see it, has to do with rampant consumerism and the industrialization of our worship, which absolutely sucks all the life out of God’s gifts and our responses to Him! In a liturgical system where the ‘machine’ has become the dominant metaphor, we are rendered as cogs or merely 'human components' within a Modern Worship Production.

    I have some Catholic acquaintances that are undeniably racist—yet they rigidly attend liturgical worship. I have many non-denom evangelical friends who very much enjoy their worship songs, but can't seem to love (or even like) the poor in any tangible kind of way. On a constructive note, however, I have often noticed among my (monk) friends at New Clairvaux Abbey concrete expressions of justice and community-wide concern for the poor, sick, and oppressed. Their tradition is an example of how to creatively weave liturgical space for those in the world who are often forgotten on the evangelical side of things. Compared to many (if not most) of the worship songs we sing at my decidedly 'low' church, the monks’ appear to have found a better, more holistic way for cultivating both 'resistance' and 'persistence.'
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    If I might be so bold...I think we agree that some sort of "liturgy" is important. I guess I understand liturgy to be a regular rhythm of prayer and worship and engagement with Scripture that is premeditated.

    If we look at the life of Jesus, we see that he engaged in regular reading of Scripture in the Synagogues, prayed the "Jesus Creed" (check out Scot McKnight's treatment of the shema), and taught his followers to pray the "Our Father." I believe he expected his followers to pray the Lord's Prayer regularly.

    In addition, we understand from Paul's letters that the gathered disciples engaged in reading of Scripture, sang songs (some of them creedal), and broke bread.

    What sort of rhythm does this suggest to us for our day? Do we need to "liturgical" in the way that its been passed down in the Western Tradition? I would argue that modern liturgies smell too much like Christendom (the pomp, the ceremony, the assumptions of clerical roles, and the one-directional communication of Scripture).

    Like Jason's community, we're trying to engage in a liturgy of the people...one that is participative and native to who we are...and one that embraces rhythms of study, prayer, discussion, and breaking of bread.
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    Maybe a mosaic of liturgies from various traditions (made into a daily practice) is what we're looking for today? The tradition I'm from has been something like a tradition-less tradition. We sing romantic songs, for example, and have "baby dedications" (instead of baby baptisms?) to relate with God and others. In this regard, exploring monastic traditions (from both Eastern and Western perspectives) has been helpful. Overall, for the majority of us, emerging liturgies will probably look something like a hybrid--as Jason Evans already mentioned--multiple, context-rich rhythms and expressions.
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    Geoff,
    As jwinton, Mark, and Michael have mentioned, all churches have some sort of liturgy, whether they recognize it or not. Liturgy seems to be the framework through which we engage our relationship with God and each other as fellow believers. High-church seems to want to incorporate lots of deep symbolism. Low-church seems to want to keep it simple. Both have their place. It seems to me that much of the reformation reaction to high-church liturgy had to do with the church's focus on the framework rather than using the framework to focus on relationships. It seems we now have a counter reaction because in trying to keep things simple so we could focus on the relationships, we have lost the symbolic richness of the high-church tradition that added depth to those relationships.

    I would like to suggest that ecclesial resistance is about having a different kind of liturgy than those who follow a different kind of god. Ecclesial resistance, whether high or low, rich or simple, moves us beyond our selves, changes our focus from inward to outward, and connects us to God, each other, and creation. An understanding of the liturgical practice that a person follows can help deepen the relationships that person has, but is not necessary for them to receive benefit from liturgical practice. An understanding will help a person persist in the practice though.
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    wow. thanks for all the great comments. yes I would agree with everyone the all churches have a type of liturgy (whether they recognize it our not). But I guess I'm advocating that certain type of liturgies are more fitting than others for both theological and anthropological reasons.

    On one level I'm hoping that I can back up my thesis, but I'm not sure that I will eventually be able to. You all will help me I hope. By linking 'liturgical persistence' with 'ecclesial resistance' I want to begin with a stronger thesis than merely that regular practices of some sort are good for fostering the life of a community. This would be a sociological rendering of liturgy as merely a ritual that creates social cohesion. By this argument it doesn't matter whether you have a low or high liturgy b/c it still does the same type of thing (regulates and shape communal experience, etc).

    No, I want to claim that God's disruptive grace is what liturgy is about rather than keeping the social graces of the community. But to do this of course I will have to deal with the counter factual evidence that there are many great God fearing, non-violent, sweat-shop free Christians in both high and low churches. And I'm sure that you all will keep me honest on this account.
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    Have you looked into the liturgy of foot washing? My understanding is that it is practiced by the Ethiopian church. Even in our Western, northern, sock and shoe clad environments, it seems to be a powerful liturgy. One of those counter-intuitive acts of grace that moves us to our knees.
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    Foot washing is practiced by a number of Anabaptist groups. It is also practiced in the Church of God in Christ, the nation's largest pentecostal organization.

    Whether one is high church or low church I think regular communion is essential, because it connects us with the Cross, each other, and the historical Church. And of course, we were commanded to do it. Also, giving time and place for the Holy Spirit to move in the service: confession, prayer for the sick, tongues with interpretation (if you're of that school) and worship. These activities can be done in either high or low church settings.

    Ultimately, we need to remember that the service is about God and about how we relate to Him as a community of faith and as individuals in that community.
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    as a convert to the eastern orthodox church who likes to hang out with emergent types, I agree wholeheartedly with your premise - i was drawn to the orthodox tradition because of the beauty & richness of the liturgy - the orthodox sing their theology & this as much as anything allowed me to come into relationship to God through Christ

    my experience with some of my emergent friends coming from varied evangelical backgrounds is they don't really have an understanding of what it means to come together & worship liturgically, praying verses written centuries ago by those who came before us - evangelicals, like americans in general, tend to have a poor sense of history, & there are big gaps in their understanding of christian practice & tradition - my hope is that the whole emergent conversation ( in its many guises) will fill in some of those gaps
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    Geoff, I think we all assumed you weren't saying any rhythm, as long as you have one, is the point. But, if you are suggesting that the liturgy is to be strictly observed in a particular manner... how is that not also "merely a ritual that creates social cohesion"? I'm really curious to see how you build your argument. I'm sincerely interested to see how you might build a biblical argument for this.

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