Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Liturgy bits: Bosco Peters’s Thoughts

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If you are interested in Anglican liturgy, or indeed liturgy generally, you may have already come across Bosco Peters’s video talk Some Thoughts on Liturgy. It is a thought-provoking paper on how we, as Christian ministers, use liturgy, and understand liturgy.

Bosco Peters begins by describing liturgy as a language. Indeed a linguist’s approach to its ‘grammar’ and ‘vocabulary’ might bear fruit, particularly when we distinguish between the prescriptive and descriptive methodologies — between what one should do and what one actually does. The analogy is good, but Bosco Peters immediately points out the major misunderstanding that is likely to occur: that, when we think of liturgy as language, we think it is all about words. Thus, he heads that train of thought off at the pass

So let’s be clear: The basic building blocks of liturgy are actions and gestures and people and space and symbols and signs and vesture and music and silence and movement and – yes – and words. Jesus said do this to remember me. Do this. And we turn his command into “read pages 404 to 429 out loud to remember me”. In lots of places, we come together for an hour or so on Sundays and read lots of lovely poetic stuff to each other, and sing four bits of poetry – and many of us give the impression that that’s liturgy.

This is what captured the imagination of commentators on the Anglican Communion LinkedIn group where I posted the video. An ECUSA priest spoke of a desire to share this video on a training day with fellow clergy. She added

This is the first time someone has supported my desire to be rid of ‘reading’ the liturgy instead of participating in it…body, mind, heart, spirit, gesture, Amens, over time becoming a Body of Christ which celebrates ‘by heart and body’ Reading the words gets in the way of prayer, of ‘inwardly digesting’.

Perhaps there is something of the Reformation in the wordiness and bookishness of many a liturgical approach. Yet, to be fair, the mediaeval catholic concept of ex opere operato treats the liturgy as a mutterance without social context that simply does the grace. I think our liturgical formation is perhaps better than it was in the past. Modern liturgies with their variations and choices demand our attention to certain details. Yet still, our churches publish liturgies and their rubrics in books, not videos, and thus emphasize the literary quality over the physical instances of liturgy. Even so, we would practice, hesitate, and even consider ourselves unworthy if we were tasked with an intricate poem to recite to maximum effect. Yet we do not treat each collect and eucharistic prayer with such sensitivity. Perhaps we cannot do so: it would impair our ability to function. An incarnational theology of the liturgy is simple: the Word became flesh, and so the literary must become performative action. We note that the Word does not cease to be the Word, but yet is outwardly transformed. The liturgy is performative action rather than performed action, as the latter points to the liturgical action as the drama, whereas the former shows that the action makes that drama in us, and in heaven.

Another commentator, from England, wrote

All to often reading is seen to be the norm. One of the brethren told me that he saw no point in liturgical “training days” because “all you have to do is open the book and read.” Liturgical formation of both clergy and congregations is weak. Clergy training in liturgy is so often history and no praxis: “They will pick it up from their training incumbents.” Liturgy is action, action, action; something that has so often become lost. The liturgy is also where many members of the church do theology together; they may not realise it but they are formed by the liturgy (by a sort of osmosis). that is why liturgical formation of worship leaders is so important.

I have heard similar comments about a local Anglican theological college, where experimenting with liturgy is encouraged above training, with the effect that bad habits are continued and showcased as the norm. I had a great training incumbent who taught me good liturgical practice and principles — and he is now a canon precentor — but we cannot expect every training incumbent to provide this.

Bosco Peters describes how environment, against our default formation, actually trumps words

But changing the environment, or changing our actions, I think often can have even more impact than changing the words.

Think of how differently the same words of a confession can be experienced in two different services. You can imagine one service with just a few people and they are kneeling spread around a large building. Now imagine another community where the people are all standing close together, and they are using the same words, and they are singing them. One is about being conscious of personal sinfulness – the other, with exactly the same words, is about a sense of community and maybe is experienced more as an acknowledgement of the communal
responsibility we all share for evil in the world.

Many of us get so caught up in thinking that changing the words is what will change the liturgy. But I’m emphasising that most of liturgy isn’t the words at all.

He goes on to describe how we treat liturgy like a foreign language, and we fail to progress to fluency. If it is foreign to us, we rely on the phrase book, struggle to produce a chain of awkward syllables, that, when they manage to get the message across, we feel are adequate. Perhaps one of the most valuable, simple liturgical education I received was a list of the prayers I have to learn off by heart. It is a cornerstone of catholic liturgical formation, and sounds oh-so trad, and yet it can lead to a deep internalising and naturalising of basic elements of liturgy.

I disagree with some things that Bosco Peters says, of course. Liturgical debate can be so factious that we often end up disagreeing with ourselves! I would point out that the concept of register in language has great validity to our discussion: liturgy need not model the register of everyday social interaction, and, perhaps, should not.

One thing that I take away from this talk is Bosco Peters’s insistence on uncluttered liturgy and the use of silence before the collect. These are things I know and do, but his description of the “deep silent prayer” before the collect, reminded me of this important dimension. I all too often consider how long I can hold the silence, and not how deep we can take it. Perhaps it takes little more than a good bidding to pray deeply, while modelling to our fellow worshippers one who takes this opportunity for deep prayer. As he says, “There’s the basic framework for gathering: greeting; singing; deep silent prayer”.

Watch Bosco Peters’s Some Thoughts on Liturgy

I am inspired; thank you. This article, thus, kicks off a series off liturgy bits.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

3 thoughts on “Liturgy bits: Bosco Peters’s Thoughts

  1. Pingback: Liturgy bits: the Lord be with you | Ad Fontes

  2. Pingback: Liturgy bits: let us pray the collect | Ad Fontes

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