Tag Archives: Geoffrey Wainwright

Recovering Our Mother Tongue

Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.
Peruvian mother with child, courtesy Flicker via Ian Riley.

“…have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

-St. Augustine

Languages are best learned through immersion.  One cannot learn French by reading an English translation of a Dumas novel – one needs to hear the French, speak it, let it get inside.  Doctrine functions quite similarly to language, if George Lindbeck is to be believed.  Thus he argues that, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, Christian doctrines function much like “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” (1)

Reflecting on the use of creeds in worship, from the ancient church to today, Geoffrey Wainwright argues they “are binding in so far as they summarize in words the primal revelation of God in Jesus Christ…and so enable the believer to declare his own life-commitment to that same God in the present.” (2)  By the words of the traditional creeds, we learn the language of faith, the language of that sacred and profane body of persons that is somehow called the Body of Christ.  Through the creeds and other forms of doctrinal instruction (in particular, if they are of sufficient quality, our hymns), we learn to speak the truth which was “preached to [us], which [we] received and on which [we] have taken [our] stand” in and through the ministry, witness, service, and worship of the church. (1 Cor. 15:1, NIV)

St. Augustine goes so far as to recommend reciting the Apostle’s Creed multiple times per day in his homily to catechumans (who would recite the Creed at baptism):

“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed ). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed…These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes. For have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”

Only in the language bequeathed from our Mother, the church, is right praise (“orthodoxy”) possible.  This language is learned chiefly by our full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, through creed and hymn, through homily and response, through sacrament, icon, footwashing, and stained glass.  Without worship that forms us in the language of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we are left mute to proclaim and live (for language forms lives, not merely words) the One who is alone and fully True, Good, and Beautiful.

“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist. (137:4)

We cannot, at least not without much formation, practice, immersion.  And increasingly, we Western Christians are realizing that North America and Europe are foreign lands.  Thus for the sake of Christian mission, belief, and life, we need to recover our Mother Tongue.

1. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984), 18.
2. Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford 1980), 192.

Ritual is Your Friend

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.
Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Most people, and many Christians especially, think they dislike ritual.  In reality, we are doing ritual all the time.  Whether we go to the mall, brush our teeth, or go to church, there are almost always elements of ritual, whether recognized or not.  The liturgical and ecumenical theologian Geoffrey Wainwright describes ritual like so:

“It must be made clear form the start that I am not using ‘ritual’ in the pejorative sense of ‘mere ritual’ which it sometimes bears among Protestants. I mean ritual in the descriptive sense of regular patterns of behaviour invested with symbolic significance and efficacy. On my sense of the word, even those communities which pride themselves on their freedom from ‘ritual’ will generally be found to use ritual; only they will not be aware of it, and so will be unable either to enjoy its pleasures to the full or to be properly vigilant about its dangers.  Similarly it may be important to state that liturgy (and, much less often, cult) is here used of the public worship of the Church, with liturgical (and cultic) as convenient adjectives. Liturgy leaves room within itself for those spontaneous or extemporaneous forms of worship which some Protestants favour as an alternative to what they class as ‘liturgical.’ If the word liturgy is allowed to retain from its etymology the sense of ‘the work of the people’,  it hints at the focal place and function which I ascribe to worship in the Christian life as a whole. Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up  in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.”

imagining the kingdomAnother of my intellectual heroes, James K.A. Smith, has given new force to recognizing the power of ritual not just in religious life but in culture as a whole.  In addition to his many books on the subject, his lecture “Redeeming Ritual” is worth your time.

So the question is not a simple, “ritual: yes or no?”  but whether or not we are conscious of the rituals that make up our lives, the liturgies which form us each day.  Charles Duhigg has written of The Power of Habit, which describes how rituals, when made intentional, can create new, healthy patterns of life and behavior.

And that’s what it comes down to with the church.  Are our rituals effectively making us saints, or reinforcing the individualistic, shallow, consumer liturgies to which we are constantly exposed? Ritual is our friend, because there is no escaping its shaping influence in our lives.  But the constant question to ask is: to what end is this liturgy forming us? Because remember, even this is a liturgy:

 

Source: Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

Worshiping at St. Relevant of the Contemporary

Your Growtivation for the Day

In the closing chapter of his highly enjoyable For Our Salvation, Geoffrey Wainwright pauses to reflect upon the usefulness of the munus triplex (Christ’s “threefold office” of Prophet, Priest, and King) for today’s church:

“First, the reference of prophet, priest, and king should have some relevance to the human condition.  While the ‘cult of relevance’ is deplorable, it would be a betrayal to think that the gospel were irrelevant to human needs and possibilities, properly understood.”

There is a world of meaning implied in the phrase, “properly understood.”  There is the rub.  The ‘cult of relevance’ operates on the assumption that people’s needs felt needs should determine both the medium and the message (for they are not really as separable as many adherents to the cult would claim).  Church, worship, faith, and worst of all, Jesus, thereby become means to all kinds of ends that have little to nothing to do with the gospel.  Warm feelings are felt, children are entertained, and all can go home satisfied that they have had some kind of meaningful “experience” (which is not really meaningful at all, because in fact they have merely imbibed a product that was marketed, designed, and sold to produce that very effect).  This runs utterly counter to the first principle of Christian discipleship, which tells us that our needs are not needs at all: denial of self.

As Wainwright points out, this “cult” (and it is not too strong a term) really is deplorable.  And yet, as is so often the case, there is a nugget of truth in the lie.  The gospel is by no means irrelevant to our real needs: to our brokenness, our alienation from self and other, our need for meaning and value and worship.  To really address those things, we must stay focused on the One who really is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem: Jesus.  If you seek Christ, the rest will work itself out. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you’ll get neither.”

P.S. Watch the video above, but be warned: you may not be able to look at your worship service the same afterwards.

P.P.S. For a better, more thoughtful argument similar to what I have made above – and a theology of worship that goes deeper than “whatever works” – check out Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn.

Eucharistic Adoration: Don’t Call it a Comeback

https://pastormack.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/benxvieucharisticadoration.jpg?w=195

File this under “commenting on things I know nothing about.”

Still, it’s interesting.  Over at Christian Century, this is an interesting article about the Vatican’s attempt under the two most recent pontiffs to renew the practice of eucharistic adoration.  This is the practice by which the consecrated host – in Catholic view, the actual body of Christ – is displayed publicly for the purposes of prayer and spiritual reverence.  Some churches even have round-the-clock hosts on display, while others have particular prayer times dedicated to the sacramental bread.  Though discouraged in times past, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI are encouraging the practice once more.

But the tradition – admittedly ancient – has its detractors.  CC asked Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame for comment:

McBrien acknowledged that some Catholics find adoration “spiritually enriching,” but said many liturgists see it is a “step back into the Middle Ages.”

“It distorts the meaning of the Eucharist,” McBrien said. “It erodes the communal aspect, and it erodes the fact that the Eucharist is a meal. Holy Communion is something to be eaten, not to be adored.”

For that reason, McBrien said, the practice should be “tolerated but not encouraged.”

To be fair, it looks as if Catholics who like JPII and Benedict aren’t going to listen to McBrien.  If wikipedia is to be trusted, McBrien is not very popular among traditionalist Catholics, both for his writings (which “overemphasize” change in Catholic history) and for serving as an adviser to the filming of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Yeah, that last one kind of offends me too.

But still, his take on the adoration of the host is very similar to what I have just been reading in The Oxford History of Christian Worship (edited, in part, by the awesome Geoffrey Wainwright, one of my favorite professors from seminary).   Timothy Thibodeau of Nazareth College argues along similar lines to McBrien, that the adoration rather than the consumption of the consecrated host – in addition to the medieval feast of Corpus Christi – led to an “objectification” of the Eucharist that undermined its sacramental and communal nature and reduced the body of Christ to something more like a saint’s relic:

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, the Eucharist had been reduced to  an object, the Eucharistic host consecrated by the hands of a properly ordained priest.  The late twelfth century practice of elevating the host at the moment of consecration – which first appeared in northern France at the close of that century – was the logical outcome of this reification of the Eucharist into a sacred object or relic par excellence of Christ’s body, to be seen, reverenced, and adored but not regularly received at communion….for a great majority of the laity, “seeing” the host had become an acceptable substitute for “receiving” it.

“Although clerical authorities insisted that the consecrated host was not to be treated as a relic per se,” he clarifies, “it was in fact subjected to the same sort of devotionalism as other objects associated with the cult of the saints.”  (from “Western Christendom” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, p. 236, 248)

As with all communions, there is a great deal of diversity in contemporary Catholicism.  The debates over the actual meaning and implications of Vatican II are just one instantiation of this diversity.  Obviously, the Holy Father and many high-ranking ecclesiastical officials believe strongly in reviving this practice.  Contemporary supporters will point out that this is a nearly thousand-year-old practice that deserves to be brought back in the modern era, for the good of the church.  Others will see this as a return to practices best left in history.  No doubt such arguments are heavily bound up on views of the Roman Catholic Church itself: whether its health, vitality, and faithfulness lie in reclaiming the past (“we move forward by moving backward,” as many in the ecumenical movement put it) or in stepping forward into the future, accepting the norms and arguments of contemporary culture and thus becoming “relevant” (a word I despise) to the modern era.  This argument is not unique to Catholicism.

A parting thought: if antiquity is the sole criterion for returning to former practices, one might also argue that clerical celibacy should be abandoned in favor of the more ancient practice: married clergy.   What say you?

Rethinking Christ & Culture, Again

https://i2.wp.com/www.earlbarnett.com/images/ChristAgainstCulture.jpg

In contemporary theological conversation, H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is both loved and hated, adored and despised.  Admirers will tell you it is a theological “classic” that deserves a reading by each successive generation, while detractors will (and I’ve seen them do it!) spew venom and the mere mention of the title.  For those unfamiliar, in this work Niebuhr gives a typology of Christian responses to culture.  Thus, he argues, throughout the course of time, the ship of the church has navigated its way through the world with 5 identifiable responses/reactions to its surrounding culture:

Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Props to Wikipedia for the descriptions above.  In the ensuing decades since the publication (1951) of his book, Niebuhr has been the subject of sustained critique for various reasons.  Some claim that his vision of “culture”, always a nebulous term, is undefined and unhelpful in the Yale professor’s telling.  Others say that it was an insidious work because it obviously favored the last model, ‘Transformation’, to the detriment of the others.  Thus, Yoder writes, “Behind this posture of humble nonnormative objectivity, it will become clear to any careful reader that Niebuhr has so organized his presentation as to indicate a definite preference for ‘transformation.’. . . ‘Transformation’ takes into itself all the values of its predecessor types and corrects most of their shortcomings.”

But there, I think, is the rub.  Many of Niebuhr’s critics, in my view, are those whose views have been most marginalized (or exposed by?) his work.  Thus, those usually raising the loudest ruckus against Christ and Culture are those who feel dismissed by it.  These would include Yoder, his protege’ Hauerwas, and all of their theological fanboys (of which there are many, at least in the blogosphere).  A more reasoned and helpful reading of Christ & Culture recognizes its shortcomings but still finds value in the discussion.  This, I think, is supplied by Geoffrey Wainwright in the opening chapter of his massive co-edited volume The Oxford History of Christian Worship.  His background in ecumenical discussion and interest in liturgy and missiology shines through brilliantly here:

“Rather than taking [Niebuhr’s] five “typical” attitudes as fixed and divergent stances of the Christian faith toward all human culture, it may be more appropriate to see them as indicating the possibility of, and need for, a discriminating attention on the part of Christians toward every human culture at all times and in all places.  Whereas a particular cultural configuration may appear as predominantly positive or negative in relation to the saving purposes of God, it is likely that most cultures will contain some elements to be affirmed; some to negated, resisted, and even fought; some to be purified and elevated; some to be held provisionally in tension; and some to be transformed.  The liturgy can function not only to sift but also to inspire a surrounding public culture.” (The Oxford History of Christian Worship [Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006], 17)

Such a nuanced take on Niebuhr’s work is, unfortunately, rather novel these days.  Those who critique it have good reason, on occasion; unfortunately, just as frequently as they have cause to critique it, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and seek to make it anathema for contemporary readers.  This is a shame.  Wainwright has given us a measured and helpful response that will hopefully keep Christ & Culture part of our discourse for decades to come.

Note: The Yoder quote comes from Gathje’s article found at:

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2641

Geoffrey Wainwright and World Communion Sunday

This Sunday marks the annual celebration of World Communion Sunday, in which many Christians from around the world go to the Lord’s table as a sign of the unity to which we are called.  In preparation for this celebration, I read from Geoffrey Wainwright’s Methodists in Dialogue.  This collection of essays and addresses is culled from the British Methodist’s decades of participation in the ecumenical movement, and broaches both general principles for ecumenical dialogue and the results of recent bilateral work (Methodists with Catholics/Lutherands/Episcopalians/etc.).  This is a brilliant book from a teacher I truly enjoy and admire.

World Communion Sunday brings together themes – church unity and the Lord’s Supper – that Wainwright has himself written on extensively.  I could think of no better way to recognize this Sunday than to quote from Wainwright, whose example shows us that one can be deeply embedded in a tradition and yet firmly committed to relationships and reconciliation with other communions:

…Christians involved in the ecumenical movement have already found it possible to discern sanctity also beyond one’s own ecclesial institution.  If, then, according to the Russian Orthodox dictum, “the walls of separation do not reach up to heaven,” the recognition of graced lives in other Christian communities should encourage the divided Churches to make unity in Christ more manifest on earth. (Methodists in Dialogue [Nashville: Abingdon 1995], 33.)