Susan J. White’s The Spirit of Worship: The Liturgical Tradition (1999) is the second book I have read from Philip Sheldrake’s Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series, and the second that I will review.
Mr. Hindley, my Grade 12 English teacher, told us that writing an essay is in some ways like Olympic diving. There are more and less difficult dives; a diver who performs a difficult dive well usually scores better than a diver who performs a simpler dive perfectly. Of course, a diver who performs a difficult dive disastrously scores lower than either of the first. Writing is much the same. An ambitious attempt performed well enough will get higher marks than an unambitious attempt performed perfectly. A mishandled essay will receive low marks no matter the attempt’s ambition—though an ambitious attempt may still fare somewhat better than an unambitious one. Bearing this in mind, I probably ought to appreciate Spirit of Worship more than I do.
White’s attempt is ambitious. In “the liturgical tradition,” she has chosen a rather nebulous subject for her volume, one which is quite difficult to define: “There is no single founder or founding document; there is not even an identifiable point in time at which we can confidently say the tradition was established” (14). Moreover, no one identifies as a member. Instead, White says, they are embedded within other traditions: “they are Cistercians and Benedictines, Dominicans and Franciscans; they are Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans and Quakers” (14-15). Instead, she has defined her tradition thus:
But they all have one thing in common: the liturgical tradition of Christian spirituality is constituted by those who say, clearly and consistently, that the primary source for the nourishment of the Christian spiritual life is to be found in the Church’s public worship. […] ‘We have given the name of “liturgical”,’ a contemporary representative of the tradition says, to that spirituality which … frankly adopts as its own the methods used by the Church when she celebrates the liturgy.’
The tradition White has identified is thus vast and varied. While many Christians these days do not attend church, and thus are likely not part of her tradition, it does not seem like many Christian traditions (that is, Cistercian, Benedictine; Lutheran, Quaker) are excluded.
If in reading that you were worried that theological and attitudinal differences between, for instance, Methodists and Roman Catholics would make such a tradition hard to describe with anything like consistency, White notes that theology is not particularly her concern:
Despite this rather ‘functional’ approach to the spiritual resources of the liturgy, the liturgical tradition is not preoccupied with how the liturgy ‘works’ or ‘what it means’, but rather how it nourishes, sustains, influences, enriches and enlivens the relationship between the Christian believer and God (29).
And this could be a very interesting topic: what precisely are the effects of corporate worship on its participants? White, alas, does not deliver. Despite her early warning, her work is plagued by a madcap patchwork theology, making strange bold claims which most readers, I think, would find hard to swallow; at the same time, she repeatedly asserts that liturgy has particular effects on its participants without giving any reason that anyone should believe her. Here’s a random example:
[The author of the Ancrene Wisse]’s argument is that in the sacrament Christ comes to dwell within the believer, and that Christ and the Devil cannot occupy the same dwelling. […] Or, as the fifth/sixth-century visionary Pseudo-Dionysius says (in a less anthropomorphic view of evil): ‘One cannot participate in contradictory realities at one and the same time, and whoever enters into communion with the One cannot proceed to live a divided life. He must be firmly opposed to whatever may sunder this communion.
Lacking any empirical backing for this claim (or even prima facie plausibility), White would have been far better off explaining “how the liturgy ‘works’ or ‘what it means.’” I did let Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance off the hook for this (he has a whole chapter entitled ‘It Works, Just Don’t Ask Me How’), but I at least had some sense that I could test Bartlett’s claims; most of the book was engaged elsewhere and he was talking about a tradition I could investigate myself. White’s tradition is too slippery for me to look into and she offers absolutely nothing else.
In fact, the whole book is made up of the following sort of argument, repeated over and over in different permutations: a) White describes in brief an aspect of liturgy—its relationship to time, or place, or community; b) she tells us that that liturgy invites us to change our lives in some way; c) she quotes a well-known dead theologian or an unnamed “contemporary representative of the tradition” affirming her claim; d) she moves on. Causal relationships are never clear. In fact, she sometimes muddies the waters by noting that the liturgy alone isn’t enough to effect the change, but rather the person must really live out some virtue (often charity and equality) before the liturgy works. But even if she doesn’t introduce this sort of confusion, I’m left wondering what the relationship between liturgy and the renewed attitude is. Does she think all people who participate in liturgy benefit in this way? That seems implausible. What does she think is happening when people participate in liturgy but don’t see these benefits she claims that liturgy offers? Are they doing it wrong? Only once or twice does she acknowledge this possibility, and she never indicates what causes the disconnect.
I am starting to wonder if White’s claims aren’t really claims at all. Although the sentences White writes are declarative and are therefore on a grammatical level assertions, perhaps it is better to imagine them as a different sort of utterance. At first I was wondering if these were promises more than assertions, but on reflection I do not know if there is much difference between the two. White uses the word “invites” so often, however, that I wonder if that’s what she’s writing: a book-length invitation. If so, I do not find it either an attractive or clear invitation. Without some denominational stakes, I do not know to what she’s inviting us; without some concrete reason to believe her descriptions of liturgy’s riches, I do not find her invitation at all compelling.
There are two ways White might improve her book.
White could be much more personal and rely much more heavily on anecdote. How has the liturgical tradition affected her life? How has it affected the lives she’s known? This sort of writing would necessitate an attention to detail that could only help the book: she would have to look at particular rites and practices in their specificity. The book’s best parts already do this; I especially enjoyed the section on East Orthodox wedding ceremonies.
Alternately, White could have been much more psychological and sociological. She could have investigated what is going on at such a level when people engage in corporate worship. She writes, for instance, that liturgy forms a spirituality which enables the creation of true community “by setting out images which shape a holy imagination, an imagination that can envision a joyful and humane future under God” (74); if she drilled down to explain why and how this is so, I’d be more convinced. If she focused on far fewer benefits of liturgy, but developed them more thoroughly, I’d be more excited about. Her ambition makes her scope impossible, and the whole project suffers.
Those two hypothetical improved versions of the book come very close to Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church and Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, respectively. Evans recommends that disengaged, doubting Christians return to church and corporate worship, drawing on her own experiences, and those of people she has met, with a wide variety of Christian traditions (including Anglicans, Quakers, and Benedictines); her careful descriptions of different ways the sacraments are performed, including the East Orthodox wedding ceremony, are both beautiful and compelling. Beck, meanwhile, recommends that disengaged, doubting Christians return to church and corporate worship in order to strengthen their commitment to the Jesus-led social justice that attracted them in the first place. Beck makes a strong case that church, worship, and spiritual warfare are necessary to the development of virtue and the advancement of social justice and other forms of the progressive vision. He looks in particular at how these strengthen our relationships with other people and strengthen our allegiance with Christ.
I recommend that you read Searching for Sunday and Reviving Old Scratch instead.
That said: if you have read or want to read The Spirit of Worship and make a case for it, let me know and you can guest post.