Saturday, July 26, 2008

Rise of the "feel-good liturgy": a critique

Philosopher Laurence Paul Hemming's critique of the changes to the Mass after the Second Vatican Council will shake the liturgical establishment, says Alcuin Reid.

A priest celebrates Mass in the extraordinary form in New Orleans, Louisiana

In an article entitled "Divine worship and the rise of 'feel-good liturgy'" (The Catholic Herald, UK, July 11, 2008), the astute liturgical historian Alcuin Reid reviews Worship As a Revelation: The Past Present and Future of Catholic Liturgy (London: Burns & Oates, and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008), a new book by Laurence Paul Hemming, an English scholar whose professed main interest is the relation between philosophy and theology. Hemming is no slouch. A graduate of Oxford (MA and M.Phil) and Cambridge (PhD), he is the author of two former monographs, Heidegger's Atheism: The Refusal of a Theological Voice (Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, 2002) and Postmodernity's Transcending: Devaluing God (Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame and SCM Press, London, 2005).

"We talk too much ..."

In his article, Alcuid Reid doesn't waste any time getting down to business. He writes:
We talk too much. We read too much. We hear too much. So much so, that we have lost the art of doing, of acting either as individuals or as a people. We no longer understand what it is to belong to a people who acts, who has "public action" of its own. We are no longer liturgical. For in our vernacularism and modernisation and reform, the very nature of the leiturgia - the nature of what is truly the work of the people - has been lost.

Today we seek to comprehend and explain and decide what we do in our churches but it is utterly questionable as to whether our people experience the liturgical revelation of Almighty God.

In fact, let's drop the adjective "liturgical" and use Hemming's words which assert that the liturgy is nothing less than "the ordinary and continual revealing of [God's] truth". If this is so, it cannot be a forum for our own self-expression. It cannot necessarily be within our immediate comprehension or subject to our didactic commentary. It must be experienced, indeed lived, as worship of Almighty God - as opposed to being "enjoyed" as a form of Christian activism - in order to begin to grasp something of what is being communicated in it: the very life of God Himself.

This raises the question not only of what liturgical practices are appropriate but, more fundamentally, of the place of the liturgy in Catholic theology.
Hemming's work, says Reid, arises out of his own experience of Catholic worship and also testament to his experience that most attempts to facilitate what contemporaries refer to as meaningful worship experiences in recent decades - from guitars to garrulous clergy - "while they may have resulted in our happily holding hands with each other, have in part (at least) led us to forget about the worship of Almighty God."

Hemming's philosophical and theological sophistication, says Reid, "will challenge theologians and liturgists to re-examine their assumptions about how they perceive the relationship between theology and liturgy." For if worship is in fact the revelation of Almighty God, then Sacred Liturgy can no longer be considered just another component in theology, but must be foundational.

A couple of Hemming's other observations are also provocative. His analysis of the liturgical reforms over the past century go much farther than many analyses. As Reid observes: "Very few will have located the genesis of the late 20th-century liturgical crisis in the reign of the good and sainted Pope Pius X, but Hemming's argument for precisely this is compelling." Again, when he turns to the subject of Sacred Scripture, he insists that "the liturgy is the proper ground of Scripture (and not the other way round, i.e., the false view that the liturgy derives from Scripture)," or, put more simply, in the modern understanding of the relationship between the liturgy and scripture, "scripture has lost its ground." Surely this should provoke some healthy debate.

[Hat tip to A.S.]

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