September 26, 2011

Objectivity and Common Prayer

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In his provocative (and sometimes wrongheaded) Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day stresses that the liturgy is not only corporate, as opposed to individual, but that it is also to be carried out with objectivity rather than subjectivity.  In the ritual, he says, individuals surrender to something bigger than themselves, so that instead of emphasizing their own individuality or their subjective experience they are taking part in something corporate.  Worship is “common prayer,” not a bunch of individuals who are each praying their own prayers.

Take the Scripture reading, for example:

A good example of objectivity in place or removed for purposes of de-ritualization can be found in the manner of proclaiming scriptures aloud at a liturgy.  According to the traditional method, someone chants the words from the Bible or reads them in a neutral tone of voice; that is, objectively.  The words themselves might tell of something joyful or horrible or ecstatic, but the voice of the reader remains steady and objective.  According to the latest de-ritualizing technique, the reader dispenses with all efforts to remain objective and, instead, colors the story with little, personal touches: dramatic pauses, emphasis on certain words, quotations spoken “in character,” and so on.  The reading takes on the style of one of those novels or children’s stories on tape; everything is all very vivid, to be sure, but, without the objectivity, those words of scripture disappear behind the display of personality.  We do not hear the words of Genesis or Matthew or Paul; we hear (and watch) Bob or Suzy or Joe give us a personal interpretation of scripture.  Bob, Suzy, and Joe do not want to be participants in a collective action; they want us to remain aware that, above all, even above and beyond the words of scripture, they are Bob, Suzy, and Joe (45-46).

I hasten to add that Day is not saying (and I certainly am not) that liturgical reading of Scripture ought to be monotonous, robotic, with nary a trace of emphasis anywhere and never a change of pitch.  What he is saying (and what I want to stress) is that the Scripture reading is not a time for the reader’s own individuality to come to the fore, not a time for him to draw attention to himself.  It’s not appropriate to dramatize the reading, giving the various disciples their own distinctive voices or sounding as if you’re weeping when you’re “being” Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb or raising your volume to shout “Lazarus, come forth!” or … adding … dramatic … pauses and emphases and changes of pitch.   All of that may be fine and appropriate when you’re reading a novel to your kids at home — by all means, give Long John Silver a distinctive voice when you’re reading Treasure Island — but in the liturgy the reading ought to draw attention to the text, not to the reader.

What about some other aspects of our common worship?  Take the phrase “common prayer,” which is the term used to describe the whole liturgy in the Anglican tradition (The Book of Common Prayer).  The liturgy is full of prayer, but these prayers are not the time for the display of one’s own personality or one’s own experience.  The prayer of confession in the Sunday morning service is not the time for weeping and gnashing of teeth as one mourns one’s sin.  The prayer for the needs of all Christendom (often called “the long prayer”) is not the time for the minister to launch into flights of eloquence (“Oh, Pastor, you pray so beautifully!” someone says). The various prayers the congregation prays are not the time for the members of the congregation to express themselves with overly dramatic enunciations, which rank up there with lagging behind the congregation or rushing ahead of them as a liturgical annoyance.  Such things draw attention away from the prayer itself and to the pray-er, and may (at least in the case of the eloquent pastoral prayer, give the congregation the impression that to truly be able to pray well, one must be able to come up with sponteneous tour-de-force prayers the way the pastor seems to every Sunday).

Add one more thing: the pastor’s clothing.  It’s possible that some people think that distinctive clerical garb is a way of drawing attention to the pastor, and it certainly can be.  If the clothing is garish and gaudy or even if the minister wears it out of pride, then it doesn’t serve its purpose.  But its purpose is not to emphasize the personality of the minister.  Quite the opposite: The purpose is to de-emphasize his personality, to cover him up so that no one can see what sort of tie he’s wearing today or wonder why his wife let him out of the house wearing that, and instead to emphasize his office and the role that he’s performing during the service.

The Lord’s Service is corporate, and so it ought to be objective.  The focus ought to be, not on me and my experience or my abilities or my personality — even if I’m the minister. Rather, the focus ought to be the liturgy itself, on the text of Scripture, on the words we’re singing or praying, on what the group is doing together and on what God is doing to us as we draw near to Him.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:15 pm | Discuss (0)

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