Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a veil on liturgy’s past
(978-1-4094-2698-1)Church Times Bookshop
HAVING asked the question what happens to liturgical history when a new approach forces us to reconsider what we had previously accepted, Teresa Berger ably demonstrates exactly that, with a “gender-attentive” reading of the history and the historiography.
Liturgical history, and its use in contemporary appeals to tradition, has always been influenced by a series of different methodological presuppositions, but a constant feature is that liturgical scholars have been predominently male (and ordained), and their very ignoring of gender in the sources was symptomatic of an assumption that their own position was normative.
Worshipping communities have always contained a spectrum of gender identities, she argues, and it is the task of historians to ensure that neither our methods nor our norms suppress this.
Berger does not offer a systematic re-reading of liturgical history, but, through a series of vignettes from mostly early sources, she shows us what can be revealed by noticing where gender is present but sidelined, or indeed absent. In a chapter on liturgical space, she asks us to notice the tensions evident when female-dominated domestic space housed the male-led community assembly, and then how concerns about the separation of men and women in basilica worship brought a different set of problems and regulations.
There are medieval texts that provide blessings for bread, suspiciously like eucharistic prayers, for use by female monastics or communities; and there are plentiful examples of maternal eucharistic metaphors, such as Christ breast-feeding, from Augustine to Julian of Norwich; neither of these topics has received much scholarly attention.
Early Christian sources do show gender-attentiveness in relation to restrictions on liturgical participation resulting from menstruation, nocturnal emissions, sexual relations, and childbirth.
The biblical precedent of Mary’s purification after childbirth proved too strong to relax that purity law. Surprisingly, however, the Fathers do not speak with the same voice concerning the others.
The final thematic chapter, and to my mind a much more fragmented discussion, on “gender-troubled” liturgical leadership notes how the concentration on prohibiting female leadership has masked limitations placed around the masculinity of priesthood, particularly in relation to certain types of eunuchs and married men.
In conclusion, Berger presents the reader with new commandments that all liturgical history should be gender-attentive. Will she be heeded? Whether all topics in liturgical studies call for such an interpretative strategy is a moot point, but this is undoubtedly a book that will be difficult to ignore. Berger has presented a convincing case for re-reading our familiar sources with the veil of gender removed, although it would be fair to say that, so far, she has probably only hitched it up a little.
Dr Juliette Day is University Lecturer in Church History at the University of Helsinki and Senior Research Fellow in Liturgy at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.