Alexander Schmemann was right on target in his vision of what liturgy is in the life of the Church, a vision we need today in my view more than ever. For it is ironic that, as we celebrate today the achievements in liturgical theology of Alexander Schmemann, one must note a recent and to me unwelcome shift in American liturgical writings from a prescriptive to a descriptive view of what Christian liturgy is. As if liturgy is not what Christians ought to be doing at their worship but whatever they in fact happen to be doing. I hold, on the contrary, that Christian history has left us an objective and, yes, prescriptive, liturgical tradition, one that views Christian worship not as whatever Christians do in church but as what they ought to be doing, one that draws them to participate in a common heritage far nobler and richer than any individual’s choice or creation. Those who seem to foster this descriptive view cite the rhetorical question of the late James F. White, one of the major voices of the Protestant liturgical establishment of my generation. He writes: “Do we want to say that a preaching service each week and a thirteenth Sabbath Lord’s Supper as among the Seventh Day Adventists is not authentic Christian worship? Do we want to disqualify those for whom the major events in the liturgical year are children’s Sunday, homecoming, revival and rally day? Any scheme that totally ignores the worship life of about sixty percent of American Christianity is highly questionable.” As with most rhetorical questions the anticipated politically correct reply is: “Of course not.” Alas, I must confess to the diametrically opposite view. Reversing the rhetoric, I would ask, rather: “How can one consider authentic the Christian worship of those for whom the major events in the liturgical year are not Lent and Easter, Christmas and Theophany, and on Sundays the Holy Eucharist. So in my view, far from it being time to move beyond the Schmemann … line of liturgical theology, we need it more than ever.

Robert Taft, SJ, in the podcast I mentioned a couple of posts back: “The Liturgical Enterprise 25 Years After Alexander Schmemann – The Man and His Heritage.”

I was struck by this quote, for this is far from being simply an American or a Protestant problem. I have noticed a similar underlying dynamic in certain European Catholic liturgical studies, notably in the emphasis on ritual studies and rehabilitating popular religion. While anthropological insights into human beings as ritual creatures can indeed be helpful, when they become cut off from a broader understanding of liturgy as bearer of tradition, then they end up becoming a sort of phenomenological study of religion rather than a vital aspect of Christian theology.

This reminded me of something I wrote on the relationship between ritual studies, liturgy and theology a few years ago – and which I never got down to publishing in English; a Dutch version was published in Monastieke Informatie, 225, September 2006 – and I thought I’d publish an extract from it here…


…ritual language is really a form of text. While we are used to thinking of texts as written objects, Paul Ricoeur in his important essay “The model of the text: meaningful action considered as text” has shown that actions too constitute “texts” for they involve the fixation of meaning in actions which have become disassociated from the mental intentions of their “authors”. They are a form in which meaning is passed on to a broad public.[1] Thus texts are not only verbal or written but can also be visual, spatial, ritual and so on. They comprise all of our means of communication.

The Christian Tradition – with a capital ‘T’ – is never accessible in itself, but is always mediated through different forms of texts that serve to pass on the faith of the Church. One of these important mediators is the liturgy, whose importance in theology can be seen in the widely quoted maxim lex orandi est lex credendi, or, the law of praying is the law of believing.[2] Liturgy is not simply the application of theological truth to our ritual acts, but is rather the matrix that gives birth to theology. It is the ongoing proclamation, that which is handed down to us and which forms subsequent generations of Christians.

It is here that we discover that liturgy, as poetry and ritual, has a particular role as bearer of revelation for it is able to provide access to that which is beyond words. Through the fully incarnational use of symbol, music, silence, space, movement and colour, it allows a glimpse of that which is beyond cerebral expression. As Yves Congar tells us: “The celebration of the Eucharist communicates the whole reality: the merest sign of the cross is an entire profession of faith in the Redemption.”[3]

Thus we see that, while Christian liturgy is indeed rooted in the human need for ritual, liturgy is much more than simply ritual studies, for liturgy is a witness to a much larger and all-embracing Tradition. Liturgy is an aspect of the language which the Church uses to express the revelation of God in Christ and is formative for our Christian faith. While clearly a human activity it is also much more than a human activity, for it is one of the privileged places for encountering revelation. In the oft-quoted words of Dom Prosper Guéranger: “It is in the liturgy that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures speaks again; the liturgy is Tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity.”[4]

[1] Paul Ricoeur. 1981. “The model of the text: meaningful action considered as text” in J. Thompson (ed). Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 210.

[2] Aidan Nichols. 1991. The Shape of Catholic Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. 181.

[3] Yves Congar. 1964. Tradition in the Life of the Church. London: Burns and Oates. 127.

[4] Ibid. 125.