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Liturgists taking a broad view

30 January 2015

Simon Jones applauds a book that relates church worship to a range of disciplines

The Study of Liturgy and Worship: An Alcuin guide
Juliette Day and Benjamin Gordon-Taylor, editors
SPCK £25
Church Times Bookshop special price £18.75

THE STUDY OF LITURGY, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold SJ, has been an indispensable companion to students of liturgy since it was first published in 1978.

Thanks to the work of, among others, Paul Bradshaw, Maxwell Johnson, and Bryan Spinks, liturgical scholarship has moved on in significant areas since that time, and, indeed, since the publication of the revised edition in 1992 (in which Bradshaw replaced Jones as one of the editors).

One area of development has been the way in which liturgists look at the origins and early history of Christian rites such as initiation and the eucharist. With an emphasis on variety rather than uniformity of practice, the liturgical landscape of the Early Church now looks very different from the way it did even 30 years ago.

But there has been another significant development in liturgical scholarship during this time, which is reflected in the approach and content of the Alcuin Club's The Study of Liturgy and Worship. This discipline within academic theology does not exist in a vacuum, but is presented by the 22 contributors to this comprehensive work as being in a two-way dialogue with different academic disciplines (among them anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, and the social sciences), and, no less importantly, as being rooted in the experience and practice of Christian communities.

Expertly edited by Juliette Day and Benjamin Gordon-Taylor, The Study of Liturgy and Worship deliberately moves away from the predominantly historical approach of The Study of Liturgy by covering new ground with great breadth and fresh scholarly insight.

Divided into four main sections, Foundations, Elements, Event, and Dimensions, it achieves far more than its first aim of being a "one-volume introductory book to support students beginning their studies in this field".

Drawing on writers from the UK, Ireland, and the United States, and from several Christian denominations, it embraces topics that have, hitherto, been considered of peripheral interest to the liturgist (such as the use of language, and the relationship between worship and ethics) and given them the same amount of attention as the rites that are the staple diet of the liturgist.

This breadth of approach and subject-matter is the book's great-est strength. It whets the appetite, and leaves the reader eager to find out more by making use of the suggested further reading. That said, in places, such breadth comes at a cost. Although most of the chapters succeed in balancing history, theology, praxis, and engagement with related disciplines, a handful are less convincing in this regard, and read more like a "how to do it" guide than a scholarly engagement with a particular subject.

The attempt of some scholars to describe traditions other than their own has also led to the odd factual error. Examples of this are confusion about the optional signing with the cross (if it has not taken place at the Decision) in the Common Worship baptism rite, and why the same prayer is omitted when baptism and confirmation are celebrated together, in an otherwise excellent chapter on initiation by Maxwell Johnson; and references to the commemoration of the departed in The Promise of His Glory rather than in its revised form in Common Worship: Times and Seasons, in Lizette Larson-Miller's chapter on death and dying.

These niggles aside, faithful to the traditions of the Alcuin Club, Day and Gordon-Taylor have done a great service to academia and the Church in editing such a ground-breaking volume. Essential reading for those preparing for ordained and lay ministry in the Church of England, it deserves a much wider readership than these groups, and is guaranteed to enlarge the liturgical horizons of all who believe that liturgy and worship are central to the Church's identity and mission.

 The Revd Dr Simon Jones is Chaplain and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and a member of the Church of England's Liturgical Commission.

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