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The Language of Liturgy, by David Jasper

11 May 2018

Bridget Nichols reads the work of an advocate for liturgy that is not merely ‘accessible’

DAVID JASPER’s scholarship has contributed definitively to the study of literature and theology, both through his writing, and through his inspiring work with research students. In this book, he turns his attention to the territory where we might claim that literature and theology find an almost perfect meeting-place: the words and forms of Christian liturgy.

This focus does not come without personal complication. Jasper very movingly pays tribute to his father, Ronald Jasper, Dean of York, who chaired the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission through the period that produced the Alternative Service Book 1980. He does not, however, allow his admiration for his father’s scholarship and sheer tenacity in the face of hostility to the project of producing liturgy in modern language to stand in the way of an objective critique of how liturgical revision has been pursued, particularly in the Church of England.

The Language of Liturgy might best be described as a quest for the kind of liturgical language which can be more than an accessible vehicle for prayer and worship. It points over and over to forms of expression that are exact, rhythmic, and unafraid to retain theologically complex ideas, even when these may not be instantly clear to a wide range of worshippers. A number of its illustrations return us to the 17th-century poets and to the Book of Common Prayer. Jasper quotes the contemporary poet David Scott, who, in “The Book of Common Prayer 1549”, celebrates the BCP’s uncannily accurate framing of human experience in words that “bit”.

Particularly in the light of recent moves to provide alternatives to some Common Worship provision in forms that avoid syntactic complexity, dense biblical and theological reference, and classical literary devices, this summary will set off alarm bells for many readers. But the book’s argument is not nostalgic or elitist. Jasper points to earlier examples not to depreciate modern-language liturgy, but to indicate what it could be aiming for without sacrificing the urgent project of drawing those with little biblical or ecclesiastical literacy into the life and worship of the Church.(References to the fourth-century Apostolic Tradition should have taken account of current research, which detaches it from Hippolytus.)

Foremost among the characteristics that he identifies is the ability to stretch the imagination of worshippers, to offer them a way of praying that refers beyond itself and makes illuminating connections to the whole milieu of Christian heritage and practice. In his judgement, David Frost’s well-loved post-communion prayer, “Father of all, we give you thanks and praise . . .”, achieves all these things.

This is to show what is possible when a lively “poetics” of the liturgy is at work, though it is disquieting if there are no more recent examples than Frost’s work of the 1970s. Jasper is careful to show that liturgy and poetry are not the same thing, but he does not, in the end, set down patterns for good liturgical composition.

Perhaps that is an impossible expectation. The penultimate chapter on the eucharist suggests that some experiences are realised only in words, and it is extraordinarily difficult to establish principles without presuming to dictate the liturgical experience of worshippers. Jasper’s reserve testifies to his honesty as a scholar and a priest. But that should not foreclose a very timely conversation.

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

The Language of Liturgy: A ritual poetics
David Jasper
SCM Press £30
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