Friday, November 6, 2015

Theological Foundations of Liturgical Reform

In the October-December 2015 issue of Liturgy 30, no. 4, whose theme is “Worship and the Divided Church,” Don Saliers tackles the question of the bases upon which liturgical reform is grounded by laying out four governing theses. (I am paraphrasing his theses here.)

I.   We live between what is and what ought to be.

II.  Liturgical debates are theological debates.

III. Reform must be based on the meaning of being the Body of Christ.

IV. Proposals for reform – especially today – stand in tension with actual practice.

To give you a sense of the depth and breadth of his arguments around reform of worship practice, here is a portion of what he has to say about grounding liturgical change in the work of the Holy Spirit, witnessed biblically as the church responded to present-world needs.

 Already in the New Testament, there are signs of prophetic critique and nascent theological/liturgical reform. St. Paul brought gospel-initiated concerns to the church at Corinth, most particularly to their practices around the emerging Eucharist. In chapter 11 of the letter to the Corinthians, we find a vigorous ethical critique of Eucharistic practices. When some in the community arrive early and consume all the food, this is more than bad manners. This is a theological misunderstanding that needs correction. Perhaps it is better to say that Paul’s basic intention is “formative” rather than “reformative.” His ritual criticism has theological import well after liturgical orders are established in centuries following.
 There is evidence of what recent reforms have called “indigenization” or “inculturation” as well. The great prayer in the opening chapters of Ephesians can be taken as a major form of Christian indigenization, which comes to play a significant role as the Gospel spreads to multiple cultures. Based on antecedent Jewish berakoth, the author gives that form new focus in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this is not a rejection of the earlier theological pattern found in the berakoth. It is, we might say, an adaptation and reorientation. 
 The prophetic critique and reformist impulse arises from the communal memory of what Jesus said and did. The narrative of his person and work, with different accents in the four Gospels, already shows both ritual and ethical criticism of established worship patterns. “Humankind is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for humankind.” “You shall not make my Father’s house a den of thieves.” “When you pray, do not be as the hypocrites.” Teachings such as these are embedded in what Jesus does; they are remembered and practiced because of his suffering, death, resurrection, and Spirit-giving. At the same time, the Holy Spirit makes what he says and does present and active in the communities of resurrection memory. The prophetic critique and reformist impulse are therefore indigenous to the Gospel proclamation, to the in-Spirited water bath, and to the continuing meal of saving memory. 
 In every period of reform, we find this critical impulse, for good and for ill. The desert monastics desired to reform the worldliness of aspects of the early church. Charlemagne sent Alcuin to bring political and ecclesiastic uniformity, but diminished the diversity of Gallican rites. The sixteenth century saw massive critique and liturgical reform that produced both vigorous new life and deep divisions within Christianity. 
Our question is not simply whether there is prophetic zeal and vigorous reform, but whether the qualities and consequences of the liturgical reforms remain faithful to God’s promises and to the fullness of the crucified and resurrected Lord. . . . This is the legacy of the continuing rhythm in the history of Christian faith on earth.
For the full article, you may subscribe to Liturgy at or see your theological library.

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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