Friday, November 20, 2015

Liturgical Change is Theological Change

In the issue of Liturgy 30, no. 4, dealing with “Worship and the Divided Church,” Don Saliers argues that when we change our worship practices, we are inevitably confronting theological issues.

Questions of aesthetics and pastoral relevance matter deeply. Architecture, art, music, rhetoric, and vesture are necessary to the texts. The verbal languages used in liturgy depend upon these nonverbal elements for depth. Likewise, gesture, touch, and the ethos of hospitality and care are intrinsic to qualities of liturgical participation. Aesthetic and pastoral details become theologically significant when they are embodied features of the divine–human transaction of living liturgy, as Aidan Kavanagh reminded us. [See On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1985.)] The implications of true reform have to do with the very reason for the church being in the world. Calling the central liturgical action of Christian worship both source and summit invokes a double critique of both forms and spirit. Thus liturgical reform cannot begin simply with restoration of past history or with a pragmatic or utilitarian assessment of what works for people now. Rather we must ask: “What is the Holy Spirit bringing about in church and world?” But for Christian liturgy this cannot be discontinuous with what is claimed in the life, death, resurrection, and Spirit-giving of Jesus Christ and his true witnesses. 
 Theological foundations for reform emerge when the church confronts basic contradictions and misunderstandings that develop over time in actual liturgical practice. Some result from cultural accretions that obscure the unity of word and sacrament. When the whole range of scripture is diminished, the adequacy of prayer and song to the whole of biblical revelation is endangered. Loss of connection with the earliest sources of liturgical life and the rich diversity of prayer forms is another weakness that requires recovery and new forms of imagination. These are results of discerning the gap between what is actually practiced and the covenantal and messianic promises found in the appropriation of scripture and tradition. This appropriation is what Vatican II referred to under the notion of ressourcement. Liturgical reform can be, in this sense, historically driven. Even here, something more than textuality was recovered—how the community participates goes beyond the texts. But the rediscovery of early sources and texts cannot be the only motivation. At the same time, the social and cultural contexts in which liturgy is performed are ever shifting through time. Fidelity to origins requires a form of dynamic equivalence in order that the saving work of God can be understood in the social and cultural realties in which the churches must dwell. This is the spirit of the Second Council’s aggiornamento—at times in tension with historical retrieval. 
 At the theological heart of liturgical reform is the dual demand of fidelity to tradition and adequacy to the present demands of the Gospel in the present age. These are sine qua non for any Christian effort at reform of worship. No genuine reform can take place without desire for the renewal of communities of Christians in their visible ministries and engagement with social and cultural forces swirling around the church’s life. This requires a much fuller conception of the eschatological promises of God in scripture and tradition and, above all, deeper and more mature Christian pneumatology.

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Don E. Saliers is the Wm. R. Cannon professor of theology and liturgy, Emeritus, at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Don E. Saliers, “Theological Foundations of Liturgical Reform,” Liturgy 30, no. 4 (2015), 20-27.

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