The Language of Devotion

Language as a model for liturgy is a blog post by Bosco Peters.

It is particularly referencing some issues about the use of liturgy in the Anglican church in New Zealand, but has more general application for those of us following a religious path.

He says

Language is picked up naturally during our formative years by participating in a community that uses that language fluently and creatively. As we grow up we also normally complement this formation by receiving some instruction in how to use this language from those who have studied the way the language functions well.....

As a result

The "rules" of grammar and the explanation of the meaning of words are hence descriptive - they describe the way that native speakers use the language. If you are not a native speaker, or struggle with the language, then the rules of grammar and dictionary can also be prescriptive - prescribing, stipulating, how to use the language.

A living language is only ever one generation away from vanishing. Once a language has been lost it is possible to revive it. Dictionaries and rules of grammar will then, of course, no longer be descriptive - as there is no living language that one is describing. If the language is being recovered, the attitude to dictionaries and grammar rules will be primarily a regarding of them as prescriptive...

Bosco Peters then applies his model of language to liturgy.

There is a danger in my using language as a model for liturgy. The danger is that people will think I am primarily focusing on the words used in liturgy. In fact I think of gesture and vesture, worship environment, music, and so on, as all part of the "language of liturgy" as well as the words used in liturgy....

We should take note of this caveat. All our religious practice is our "language" of worship and discipleship. We are not just talking about words.

In its broadest sense, we might think of liturgy as the way we live our whole Christian life, even though Bosco is speaking more of the liturgy of worship services. In either use of the word, what he says next shows how language and liturgy are similar for us if we have been part of a vital worshipping community.

Liturgy is picked up naturally during our formative years by participating in a community that uses liturgy fluently and creatively. As we grow we also normally complement this formation by receiving some instruction in how to use liturgy from those who have studied the way liturgy functions well....

The "rules" of liturgy are hence descriptive - they describe the way that well-formed communities use liturgy. If you are not part of a well-formed community, or struggle with liturgy, then the rules of liturgy can also be prescriptive - prescribing, stipulating, how to use liturgy.

If living liturgy vanishes it is possible to revive it. Rubrics and responses will then, of course, no longer be descriptive - as there is no living liturgical life that one is describing. If liturgy is being recovered, the attitude to rubrics, responses, and so on will be primarily a regarding of them as prescriptive.

When a presider at worship stands in front of the gathered community, opens arms wide and says "The Lord be with you" (from memory/by heart), and the community responds enthusiastically from memory/by heart - then this is a sign that this community is using liturgy as a "living language".

When, on the other hand, a presider at worship stands in front of the gathered community gripping a book, reading the statement from the book, and even addressing the book - and the community responds by reading from the book or from a screen or sheet - then this is a sign that the "language of liturgy" has died. In this second scenario, in which liturgical life has been lost, when a community still follows a prayer book, there will be a much greater emphasis on doing the liturgy in the way the book says only because "that is what is required". The book, for them, becomes more prescriptive than descriptive.....

His article is very suggestive to me. It resonates with my experience in leading corporate worship as a clergy person. But it also applies to our private devotional life. How much of our private devotional life is a struggle, because we are attempting to subscribe to a prescription? How much are we trying to fit ourselves into someone else's mould, which simply does not work for us? How much are we unthinkingly reading the texts of the day, or perhaps worse, rehearsing the learned interpretations of our youth, instead of wondering our own questions? And in prayer, how much are we praying heartfelt, with our own words?

Remember to go beyond words alone. Think about the way you "be christian." Is the model and discipline of devotion you use, and then try and live out in the world, descriptive of your experience of God? Or is it a prescription you follow; rules you learned must be obeyed?

Think about the worship leaders and the congregations you see; the "alive" ones and the "simply going through the motions" ones. What light do they shine on you?

There are traps here, of course. Spiritual narcissism is one. Elsewhere, Peters quotes Sandra Schneiders. She provides a preventative word for those of us who may become to self centred.

Non-religious" spirituality at its worst is "privatized, idiosyncratic, personally satisfying stance and practice that makes no doctrinal claims, imposes no moral authority outside one's own conscience, creates no necessary personal relationships or social responsibilities, and can be changed or abandoned whenever it seems not to work for the practitioner.

And we ought not think that because things are read, they are not real.

Quite the opposite. In a well-formed liturgical community hymns will still be sung from books just as readings will be read from books and prayers and other texts will be read from books. But such a community will be agile in when we address each other (from memory/by heart), when God, and so on.

I had to learn that sometimes, those who seem rote and going through the motions were immersed in a depth of experience I was simply not able to recognise. Indeed, as Peters says on another page

Some of what appears most spontaneous in a drama, stage-production, stand-up comedy, busking, and so on, has actually been extremely well-rehearsed. Presiders at liturgy, others taking leading parts (readers, prayer leaders,...) need to rehearse to the point where what is "fixed" (responses, readings from scripture,...) is as "natural" as what is not.

But my questions remain. How much do you and I have a well rehearsed spontaneity which comes from our own experience of God? Or, how much are we following the prescriptions of a book, like the narrow, prescribed raceways of a sheep pen? If the latter is true, perhaps it is time to take courage, and carefully climb over the fences of our received doctrine, and explore the wider world.

Andrew Prior


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