An Uninviting Invitation: Susan White’s Liturgical Tradition

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.

SINGAPORE-2010 YOUTH OLYMPIC GAMES-DIVING

Source: Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games at flic.kr/p/8v2w86

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.

Index for the Widespread Hunger series

FtPA: An Accidentally Intended Effect

There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I would like to share one of the journals I wrote for a course on the American Gothic with Sandra Tomc at the University of British Columbia. This one concerns some of the strangeness involved in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” As you’ll see, I drew a bit from ideas I explored with Michael Snediker in my undergraduate program, shared in a previous FtPA. At the end of the year, we were to gather these journals together into a final paper. I titled mine “How to Haunt: Journals on the American Gothic.” I might share more of these later.

bzjcnv

Source: Blueorangutan flic.kr/p/BZjCNv

Continue reading

Anglican Aesthetics

According to Bartlett, beauty is not a luxury.

qydlr

Source: Robin Dawes at flic.kr/p/qyDLR

In the sixth chapter of A Passionate Balance, “The ‘Beauty of Holiness’: Worship as the Heart of Anglicanism,” Alan Bartlett makes this announcement:

In this chapter, we have reached the heart of Anglicanism, which is worship; the purpose of Anglicanism, which is to foster Christlike holiness, individually and socially; and the essence of Anglicanism, which is that the two cannot be separated (170).

To be frank, this seems more like Anglicanism to me than all that talk of orthodoxy, ecclesiology, and reason. “It is rightly said,” Bartlett continues, “that if you want to know what makes an Anglican tick, don’t ask her about her doctrine, worship with her” (ibid). Maybe I am being overly autobiographical in my assessment, but it was liturgy that attracted me to the Anglican Church of Canada in the first place (though moral and practical matters are keeping me here). Elsewhere Bartlett notes that Cranmer’s gift as a liturgist, not as a theologian, means that “Anglicans do not define themselves in relationship to a particular body of theological writing but in relationship to the living use of liturgical texts” (171). There’s a reason I chose an image of the Book of Common Prayer to accompany my post on Anglican orthodoxy.

Continue reading

FtPA: A Library Without Librarians?

There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. This one comes from the same class as my essay on the universal library’s myriad problems, Dr. Richard Arias-Hernandez’s Fall 2014 course on Digital Libraries at the University of British Columbia iSchool. This time, I was to take a look at a digital library’s workflow and metadata standards and I decided to look at the Marxists Internet Archive as an exercise in connecting library practice with ideological and institutional constraints.

daahz5

Source: Claremont Colleges Digital Library (not the subject of this post) at flic.kr/p/dAAHZ5


A Library without Librarians?: The Marxist Internet Archive’s Policies and Standards

The Marxist Internet Archive collects texts, and fragments of texts, from writers who have had some impact on Marxist, communist, socialist, and allied movements. Most of these texts are simple HTML documents viewed directly in a web browser; a number of them are available for download in other formats, most commonly pdf but also in prc, mobi, epub, and odt. Most, but not all, documents have a set of metadata, which the Archive presents in a standard way but which do not always contain the same fields: fields might include when the text was written, when it was first published, the source, who transcribed the text, who proofread the text, who applied HTML markup, and so on. Although the scope appears to be fairly well-defined as original texts or text fragments by Marxist, communist, socialist, or anarchist thinkers, a few scientific and feminist documents are also in the collection with little or insubstantial explanation.

Continue reading

Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).

wenceslas_hollar_-_richard_hooker_state_1

Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

Continue reading

Anglican Orthodoxy

My mother always said you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.

—Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

7xawyk

Source: MyEyeSees at flic.kr/p/7XaWYk

I should admit from the outset that the very idea of orthodoxy makes me squirm. I do not think this is an unusual response these days. At any rate, Paul Tillich’s idea of the Protestant Principle—that all symbols for God, including doctrines, must be subject to replacement—is very attractive to me. I worry that any commitment to specific doctrinal content (that is to say, orthodoxy) is in fact a form of error: in intellectual terms, immature epistemology; in relational terms, unfair expectations; in spiritual terms, idolatry. At the same time, however, a church does need to be organized around something. I am beginning to see how practical it is to make that centre a set of doctrines; indeed, perhaps all organizations, religious or not, need some common convictions to function.

According to Bartlett, L. William Countryman, another author in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series, argues that Anglicanism is defined by its historical community, not by its doctrine. In A Passionate Balance, Bartlett disagrees but, perhaps anticipating people like me, he also tries to show how Anglicanism can make orthodoxy a liberating, life-giving thing, not a stifling and idolatrous one.

Continue reading

The “Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition

A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (2007) (Amazon) is Alan Barlett’s contribution to the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series edited by Philip Sheldrake and published by Darton, Longman, and Todd. Bartlett’s book is not the first on Anglicanism in the series; L. William Countryman’s The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Tradition preceded it.
Although not structured as a rebuttal, Bartlett’s book responds to Countryman’s book; Countryman’s thesis seems to be that Anglicanism does not have a doctrinal core so much as a continuous community, as seen and expressed in its poetic tradition. Bartlett disagrees. He insists that despite its reputation, and despite the attitudes of certain participants in Anglican discourse, the tradition does have central doctrinal content, as well as a set of features that may not be unique to Anglicanism but are at least distinctive of Anglicanism. Put together, these form an identifiable, if often obscured, Anglican identity and tradition. A recurring theme in these features is that of moderation, of finding the golden mean or, in the early Church of England’s phrase, the “golden mediocrity.” Mediocrity here means middle, not poor quality; I’ve taken it as the title for this post to suggest that, at least according to Bartlett, what many people see as a mediocre tradition is, rather, a golden one.

img_0625

Most of my attempts to photograph my rabbit Aswan with the book also involved her attempts to eat it. If I get a better one, I will replace it.

This post is intended as a general review and summary of the book. Future posts will tackle more specific issues that arose for me during my reading.

Continue reading

Monthly Marvel: Ammit

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I’d like to introduce you to Ammit, an ancient Egyptian figure for entropic forces.


Ammit

This week’s fantastic being is Ammit.

ammit

Source: Wikipedia, cropped by me.

Her name means devourer or soul-eater in ancient Egyptian; her titles are Devourer of the Dead, Eater of Hearts, and Great of Death. (The English translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings calls her Eater of the Dead.) She was a female demon with the head of a crocodile, the mane, front legs, and forebody of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus.
Continue reading

A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index

Nowadays, in the Western world, there is a widespread hunger for spirituality in all its forms. This is not confined to traditional religious people, let alone to regular churchgoers. The desire for resources to sustain the spiritual quest has led many people to seek wisdom in unfamiliar places.

So Philip Sheldrake begins his preface to each of the books in the Traditions of Christian Spirituality series in the early through late 2000s. Sheldrake laments that Christianity, with a few exceptions, is not seen as such a resource. I think for many of us, the lament is more that we ourselves have trouble seeing Christianity as such a resource. That is part of why I began reading some of this series.

img_0455

Photo mine, 2016.

The first book of the series I’ve read is Alan Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition. I will be posting about it on 2 October 2016 and each Sunday after that through the month. I have a lot to say about Bartlett’s Balance; I can’t promise to have as much to say about the others.

In the meantime, I’d like to remind you that I’ve posted a schedule already and that I would be happy for guest posts, if anyone wants to join in.

Index

Alan Bartlett, A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition

  1. “The Golden Mediocrity”: Bartlett’s Anglican Tradition
  2. Anglican Orthodoxy
  3. Anglican Reason
  4. Anglican Aesthetics
  5. Anglican Crisis – Postponed until I have something worth saying

Susan J. White, The Spirit of Worship: The Liturgical Tradition

  1. An Uninviting Invitation: White’s Liturgical Tradition

Michael L. Birkel, Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition

  1. Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition
  2. TBA
  3. TBA
  4. TBA

Steven Chase, Contemplation and Compassion: The Victorine Tradition

  1. TBA

John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition

  1. TBA

Esther de Waal, The Way of Simplicity: The Cistercian Tradition

  1. TBA

C. Arnold Snyder, Following in the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition

  1. TBA

David Lonsdale, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality

  1. TBA

FtPA: Constructing Narratives in Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine”

There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. As with last month’s offering, this piece is from Michael Snediker’s 2008-2009 undergraduate course at Queen’s University called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane. And as with that piece, the paper makes more sense alongside the text—Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” in The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (1899)—but I think this one reads perfectly well even if you know nothing about the original. The last paragraph betrays a lot of my own theoretical preoccupations at the time.

4tw5EY

Source: Ernest Adams at flic.kr/p/4tw5EY

Continue reading