One of the central aspects of performance studies, with which the current issue of Liturgy is concerned, is the examination of the ways in which speech acts and embodied actions perform the relationships between individuals and the communities within which they are embedded and the relationships between small communities and the larger social order within which they are, in turn, further embedded. In “Performing Transformation: The Lord’s Supper,” Simon du Toit invites readers to consider two different examples of the rite of Holy Communion as performed in England, the first in the medieval period and the second during the protestant reformation.
In each case du Toit posits that the rite of Holy Communion required participants to perform their own personal transformation in various publically perceivable ways, but in neither case does his examination reveal that the locus of this transformation is entirely interior. The transformation performed in Holy Communion, du Toit maintains, can only be properly understood in terms of a shift in individuals’ place within the social order of which they are a part. Specifically, participants in Holy Communion perform their membership in a community which is distinct from their larger surrounding culture in significant ways.
In the conclusion to the article, du Toit then invites readers to consider the implications of this aspect of the rite of Holy Communion in light of the current decline in religious sensibility in the industrialized West.
Both traditionalists who assert the paramount authority of scripture and innovators who seek new hermeneutics are examining, reasserting, challenging, constructing, and deconstructing boundaries and markers that stabilize or destabilize the embodied representations of the sacred.
I believe that it is fruitless to attempt to reinvigorate a religious practice simply by changing its surface features, the frequency or location of its practice, or even the doctrines that surround it as stable representation. Unless and until a transformative religious practice such as the Lord’s Supper performs a meaningful distinction that all its participants can readily recognize and desire to appropriate, no enduring change will result. The practice will lose its performative force. In the context of what Ellen T. Charry has called the ‘‘hermeneutics of emancipation,‘‘ the central struggle facing the Christian churches in the midst of the West’s crisis of representation is to discover and assert distinctions that can meaningfully be made. From what do most people need to be saved? Toward what do people experience the need to be transformed? What performative relationship between body and scripture do we long for and desire? In grappling with these questions and others like them, the transformative force of our worship practices will be renewed.
Simon du Toit (2013): Performing Transformation: The Lord's Supper, Liturgy, 28:1, 53.
Dr. Simon du Toit is Undergraduate Chair in Communication, Media, and Film, and is also Sessional Instructor in the School of Dramatic Art at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.