Unto the altar of God

21 April 2009

Edward Dowler looks at a reassessment of liturgical reforms


Worship as a Revelation: The past, present and future of Catholic liturgy
Laurence Paul Hemming

Burns & Oates £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

Worship as Believing: Faith and reason in search of a theology of eucharist
Aelred Arnesen

Trafford Publishing £14.75
ChurchTimes Bookshop £13.25

Burns & Oates £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

Worship as Believing: Faith and reason in search of a theology of eucharist
Aelred Arnesen

IN HIS important and cogently argued book, Laurence Hemming, drawing on the work of Margaret Barker, argues that the roots of early Christian worship were primarily in the Temple in Jerusalem. This, and not the Jewish synagogue, was the place of human-divine encounter, and the body of Christ is the new temple (cf. John 2.21), into which Christians are incorporated through baptism.

Consequently, the shape and layout of the Jerusalem Temple, the detail of its furnishings, its altar, and its liturgical rites were fundamental to how Christians, from the begin­ning, understood their worship, their scriptures, and indeed their whole identity and the nature of their life in Christ.

The picture of early church wor­ship as groups of Chris­tians “coming together infor­mally to sing hymns, pray, break bread and bless wine”

is, he says, “quite false”. It was participation in the colourful and complex rites of the Catholic Church — which stood in direct and conscious continuity with Temple worship — that shaped the identity of Christian men and women until a new understanding emerged not only of the Christian liturgy, but also of the human self.

It is on this interface between philo­sophy and liturgy that Worship as a Revelation is particularly inter­esting, because of the author’s un­usual ability to combine detailed liturgical analysis with philosophical expertise. Thus, he is able to con­duct a pincer movement on much mod­ern liturgical thought, accusing it not only of historical unsound­ness in its understanding of the roots of early liturgy, but also of philosophi­cal naïvety.


Those associated with the Litur­gical Movement have, he argues, imbibed modern assump­tions based on Descartes’s dictum cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) — that human beings are essentially self-positing, rational entities. In this view, I know who I am essentially through a rational process, and the self-knowledge I gain through reasoning precedes all my other activities such as reading a book, thinking about God, walking the dog, or going to mass.

But, in some of the book’s strong­est and most compelling passages, Hemming insists that liturgy should work exactly the other way round. As members of the body of Christ, we are inserted into the eternal conversation between the Father and the Son, as enacted in a liturgy whose “meaning is primarily for God, only secondarily for us”.

It is through this that we come to understand who we really are: our identity is not something we have already worked out in advance, but is given to us from the future. The liturgy “disturbs the rational, predictable order of things in order to open the understanding still more widely to the things of God”. Rather, then, than our seeing the liturgy as something that we engage in, control, and shape for ourselves, the liturgy essentially shapes us.

It is within this context that Hemming criticises the reforms of the liturgy, most evident in the Liturgical Movement, but stretching back to those of Pope Pius X in the early 20th century. In the old dis­pen­sation, (Catholic) Christian identity was formed by the vast and complex web of interrelationships between the mass, the Offices, and other devotions: an ongoing conver­sation into which they were caught up, even if they were not always present.

In contrast, the simplicity, trans­parency, and predictability that were essential to the new rites re­flect, he argues, an individualistic, rationalistic, Cartesian view of the human person, which is non-traditional and essentially non-Christian.

After decades of what he sees as liturgical degeneracy, Pope Benedict XVI is encouraging an approach to liturgy that stresses the importance of continuity with the ancient rites. Hemming’s book is a powerful and articulate expression of this crucial shift.

Impressive and convincing as it is, it leaves me asking whether the approach of the Liturgical Move­ment was quite so shaped by rationalistic considerations as he argues it was. “Simplicity” and “predictability” are, after all, import­ant attributes of God as the Chris­tian faith has traditionally taught. And “transparency”, although it is indeed a buzzword of tedious bureaucrats (some of whom are inside the Church), has also a nobler sense: “A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heaven espy.”


In Worship as Believing, Aelred Arnesen argues that the eucharist should be rethought for the 21st century, in line with what, in the aftermath of Descartes, we now know about God and ourselves. Exploring the themes of atonement, remembrance, presence, and epiclesis, he argues that our practice should be “in reasonable accord with our view of ourselves and of the world as we know it today”.

Complex hierarchies and rituals must go, to be replaced with an ongoing sense of the Lord’s tran­scendent presence. His argument is, in other words, exactly the opposite of Hemming’s. Christian theology can be very disorienting sometimes.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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