I grew up in a fairly low liturgical environment, it was liturgical but in the sense that there was a shared structure and framework that I recognised when I went to other churches from the same tradition. It did, however, avoid a lot of the trappings and paraphernalia one tends to think of in a liturgical setting. 

Liturgy, Magic and Technology

My experience of highly liturgical settings has increased as I’ve gotten older and yet, at the same time, I’ve always struggled with seeing them as possessing any substantive potency. Partly because, in a way, it comes across as an incredibly technical process, like a science experiment or a magic spell, that seeks to control all its variables to guarantee an outcome regardless of the intent or disposition of the individual. In light of this it isn’t a surprise that ritualistic movements within my own tradition also corresponded with an interest in magic and the occult more generally, one commentator rights:

…Anglo-Catholic involvement in the occult is much broader and deeper than most would suspect. Take, for instance, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, established in 1887. Devoted to the Western esoteric tradition, and practising various forms of initiatory ritual magic, the Golden Dawn recruited heavily from the clergy…

Richard Yoder, On the wings of the Dawn — the lure of the Occult. Church Times, 2018

You can listen to Richard Yoder expand on this in the podcast below:

It isn’t merely incidental that the stage magic term ‘hocus pocus’ is generally considered to be a (negative) term derivative of the ‘hoc est corpus mean’ eucharistic proclamation of the Latin mass. A Black Mass follows the same underlying logic as the Mass. Magic, as an idea, is partly about shaping the environment around us in our own image, in this sense it is also like technology. So the overlap between ex opere operato priestcraft and magic isn’t entirely unexpected. The same can be said for technology, the historian Lynn White goes so far to argue that the impulse leading to technological development in the West originated from impulses found in the Rule of St Benedict:

The technological revolution in the West, famously asserted the historian Lynn White, began with the Benedictine rule. In the classical tradition, a moral distinction had been made between the work of the body and the work of the mind. But for the monks of St Benedict, to labor was to pray, and thus their intellects could turn to the practical problems of power and production in fulfilment of their calling rather than as a diversion from it. In addition, technological innovation promised the completion of man’s dominion over nature and so a hastening of the day when he would recover from the Fall and be restored to grace, as a creator in the likeness of God.

Kendrick Oliver, To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957–1975 p16. Citing Lynn White Jr’s Essay ‘Dynamo and Virgin Reconsidered’ from ‘Machina Ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture’.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the first attempted flight in Europe was also by a Benedictine monk:

It was a Benedictine monk, Eilmer of Malmesbury, who made the first recorded attempt at flight in Christian Europe, in the first decade of the eleventh century, though the story of his descent from a tower of Malmesbury Abbey, widely disseminated in medieval culture, likely chilled in its readers whatever hopes they had harbored for a winged passaged into heaven. After gliding for more than a furlong, Eilmer crashed into the ground, breaking both his legs: he “was lame ever after,” the chronicler notes.

Kendrick Oliver, To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957–1975 p18. Citing Lynn White Jr’s Essay ‘Eilmer of Malmesbury, An Eleventh Century Aviator: A Case Study of Technological Innovation, Its Context and Tradition.’ from ‘Medieval Religion and Technology: Collected Essays‘.

Whilst the rule of St Benedict isn’t a liturgy the former and the latter are both like an experiment, wherein a process is followed in pursuit of a specific outcome, or a macro wherein a single input from a user into an application runs a string of pre-programmed commands. 

Rites can confuse representation and reality

Another point of consideration is that liturgy can be like television in that it is a visual medium communicating things which when offered as propositions in the cold light of day might be otherwise contested. I think this is especially the case in the context of high, ritualised, or formalised liturgy. Even some of the earliest ritualists in my tradition were very open about this:

In proportion as the doctrines of the real presence and eucharistic sacrifice have found their way into the faith of congregations, so have ceremonial observances increased … It is not for a chasuble or a cope, lighted tapers or the smoke of incense, the mitre or the pastoral staff, that we are contending; but, as all those who think deeply on either side of the question know full well, for the doctrines which lie hidden under them. No one of the commonest capacity would either undergo the trouble or encounter the expense which is unavoidably connected with the proper observance of religious ceremonies, if it were only for the external show which was to be gained in them.

E B Pusey, cited in Law Reports, Admiralty and Ecclesiastical, 1869-72 Vol III P 170.

Liturgy in this sense circumvents the reasoning faculties and creates the capacity to confuse representation for reality. This was one of my criticisms of icons when I wrote about them.

This isn’t to deny ritual and rites out of hand. There’s a lot of ink shed on the fact that rites make up big features of our lives even if they aren’t at first glance explicitly containing a metaphysical dimension. We can’t escape them. So you could argue if we must have them let them be good ones otherwise we shall have bad ones.

In fact the idea we can do without agreed rites is arguably the product of a late capitalist or romanticist mindset that privileges individuality. Rites, and liturgy, aren’t something we can pretend to do without, church services don’t spring into being ex nihilo, and even the lowest of churches will follow their own structure week after week despite any denouncement of formalised liturgy from up the front. Rites are part of being human, they inculcate us into shared beliefs and shared means of understanding those beliefs:

It is an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.  To the extent that their memories of a society’s past diverge, to that extent its members can share neither experiences nor assumptions.

Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember

Personal Reflections

On a personal note, liturgy has taken me beyond myself. It is something shared and a means of incorporating us into a broader social and ecclesiastical narrative we wouldn’t otherwise occupy. The problem is I’ve never really been convinced by a sizable number of people facilitating the liturgy, specifically in a high church context, really believe in the narrative in question, either by their conduct or earnestness. Tom Holland described it well when he said:

If you’re a Christian, you think that the entire fabric of the cosmos was ruptured when by this strange singularity where someone who is a God and a man sets everything on its head. To say it’s supernatural is to downplay it. I mean this is a massive singularity at the heart of things. And if you don’t believe that, it seems to me you’re not really a confessional Christian. You may be a cultural Christian, but you’re not a confessional Christian. So if you believe that, it should be possible to dwell on all the other weird stuff that traditionally comes as part of the Christian package. It seems to me that there’s a deep anxiety about that, almost a sense of embarrassment…If it’s to be preached as something true, the strangeness of it, the way that it can’t be framed by what seems to be mere reality, has to be fundamental to it.

Tom Holland, “How Christianity Gained Dominion”

Maybe this isn’t about liturgy but the people I’ve seen advocating it. Perhaps it is the medium, I personally find it difficult to not sound like I’m following a script when I’ve had to in the past, I imagine many clergy do too in a liturgical setting. Yet I think even when I was young I experienced this dissonance between what I witnessed as to the claims made in a ornate liturgical service and what seemed like the latent embarrassment, milquetoast delivery, or general lack of conviction amongst those who presided over it. How do you avoid that whilst following a script?

The more I think about the more I don’t think I would have ever become a Christian in a high liturgical setting. Rather it was the lives and confessions of faith from people I knew and the substance behind the claims of the personhood of Christ that led to my baptism. Liturgy at times has helped sustain it but I’ve never seen it compelling as an argument itself. I don’t think I would ever have known that God loved me from my experience of highly liturgical environments. It’s just never been translated for me in that context. I know people who say the opposite, but for me this fails for the same reason I’m critical of aspects of charismatic worship. Your reaction or the effect the service has on you could be according to your emotional state, what you ate for breakfast etc. Based on aesthetic or ambiance, if I were to let go of my faculties, there are a great many non-Christian rituals and paraphernalia that would be compelling. This is the shortcoming of arguments around the ‘beauty’ of a given rite. On the other hand, I know people who have suffered for their beliefs, I am at most one degree of separation from those who have died for it, and yet the overwhelming majority of those come from what could be considered a low church background, the same can be said of those I know who are genuinely interested in others coming to know Christ. I guess I don’t see a correlation, in my experience, between those I’ve known willing to have their faith cost something personally and a preference for high liturgy. If anything there’s something of a negative correlation.

CS Lewis on Newman, and Ellul on Technique

I think CS Lewis touches on why I struggle in this area in his Letters to Malcolm:

I can well understand how a man who is trying to love God and his neighbour should come to dislike the very word religion; a word, by the way, which hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Newman makes my blood run cold, when he says in one of the Parochial and Plain Sermons that Heaven is like a church because in both, “one single sovereign subject—religion—is brought before us”. He forgets that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem.

He has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious.

Religion, nevertheless, appears to exist as a department, and, in some ages, to thrive as such. It thrives partly because there exists in many people a “love of religious observances”, which I think Simone Weil is quite right in regarding as a merely natural taste. There exists also—Vidler is rather good on this—the delight in religious (as in any other) organisation. Then all sorts of aesthetic, sentimental, historical, political interests are drawn in. Finally sales of work, the parish magazine, and bell-ringing, and Santa Claus.

None of them bad things. But none of them is necessarily of more spiritual value than the activities we call secular. And they are infinitely dangerous when this is not understood. This department of life, labelled “sacred”, can become an end in itself; an idol that hides both God and my neighbours. (“When the means are autonomous they are deadly”.) It may even come about that a man’s most genuinely Christian actions fall entirely outside that part of his life which he calls religious.

I read in a religious paper, “Nothing is more important than to teach children to use the sign of the cross.” Nothing? Not compassion, nor veracity, nor justice? Voilà l’ennemi.

CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer

I can relate to the last paragraph in particular because, for a time, I had been caught up in the use of the Jesus Prayer. I would say it a lot, throughout the day, until I realised wherein I once would talk to God I’d now just pray the Jesus Prayer. I hadn’t stopped extemporaneous prayer but taking time out to increasingly start talking to God again, about my hopes, my fears, my failures, my request for strengths and my need for him has drawn me so much closer to him than I’d been previously just using the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is well and good but it had become a thing I had come to rely on in and of itself as a habit rather than coming to Christ himself. Religion, and liturgy, as a subset of that isn’t ‘the thing’ but should be ‘the thing that helps us get to the thing’.

Lewis’s description of Newman’s belief being that both Heaven and church are the same given, “one single sovereign subject—religion—is brought before us” also reminds me of Jacque Ellul’s description of technique:

Technique is the complex and complete milieu in which human beings must live, and in relation to which they must define themselves. It is a universal mediator, producing a generalised mediation, totalizing and aspiring to totality.

Jacques Ellul, The Search For Ethics In A Technicist Society

Lewis’s description of Newman’s view of religion, therefore, I think could be described as technical given it’s articulation as an end in and of itself even if it is not descriptive of a universalising system. That, as Lewis says, when the “sacred” as a department becomes an end in itself it becomes an idol that hides both God and neighbour. Now whether you agree with Lewis regarding Newman’s views is another question. Ellul, however, goes on to say:

Science and technique develop according to objectives, rarely and accidently in relation to more general goals, and never for ethical or spiritual ideals.


We could, therefore, excuse Lewis’s description of Newman’s religion as a technical process, given it is ordered towards spiritual ideals. Yet this is to miss the fact that what is bound up in the use of the term sacred, or religion, can obscure the ‘spiritual ideals’ in question, or in Lewis’s terms become an idol that diverts our attention away from God. Newman’s religion, according to Lewis, was its own end rather than a means to encounter God himself. That there was no God without this mediation and that is what made Lewis’s blood run cold.

Rites are a part of being human 

In the midst of all this I believe that liturgy, like most things mankind does to shape the world, is baked into us. You can’t escape rites and rituals. Yet I’ve found it’s most stringent and overt forms unconvincing. That could be me, that is undoubtedly part of it, but it can also just be the misfortune of having sat through some of the services I’ve experienced in my life so far. Whether Ellul’s description of technique is appropriate here or not I will let you decide but his point about bearing the ends in mind rather than letting the means be determinative I think is something crucial to bear in mind. Rites are something human, it is not bad, but my experience of them is mixed at best, as a child it would wash over me and then be gone. I would say the words without much thought, or rather at times with my thoughts entirely elsewhere. The service was on rails and people would go out from that place apparently unchanged as they had been before their entering. As I’ve gotten older I’ve seen the value of the role of rites and timing in the life of the church, I just think in my experience it tends not to be done that well, or becomes an end in and of itself, or that orthopraxis, at times, can stand in the stead of orthodoxy. With the last point I will happily say have a greater tolerance for heteropraxis than heterodoxy in the context of a liturgy.

A fair response to the last paragraph is that orthopraxy and orthodoxy are inseparably intertwined. That the degree to which you deviate from the script is the degree to which you might fall into heterodoxy. Even in my own tradition variation and departure from the Church’s liturgy has gone hand in hand with a departure from it’s own stated historic orthodoxy over time. As Pusey stated in the earlier mentioned quote: liturgical change contributes to doctrinal change and anyone who is serious about this will admit that this isn’t superficial stuff. They lead us to accept propositions which if asked about plainly we might otherwise object to but otherwise come to accept by participation in a given liturgy over time. That’s the pedagogical aspect of liturgy. Yet I would offer in response that too often the liturgy is treated as the ends itself. That if push comes to shove orthodoxy must come first. As Tertullian stated:

But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs ] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. For after their blasphemy, what is there that is unlawful for them (to attempt)? But should they even effect the contrivance, they will not advance a step. For their very doctrine, after comparison with that of the apostles, will declare, by its own diversity and contrariety, that it had for its author neither an apostle nor an apostolic man; because, as the apostles would never have taught things which were self-contradictory, so the apostolic men would not have inculcated teaching different from the apostles, unless they who received their instruction from the apostles went and preached in a contrary manner. To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic. But in truth they neither are so, nor are they able to prove themselves to be what they are not. Nor are they admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles, inasmuch as they are in no sense themselves apostolic because of their diversity as to the mysteries of the faith.

Tertullian, Against Heresies. Chapter 32. None of the Heretics Claim Succession from the Apostles. New Churches Still Apostolic, Because Their Faith is that Which the Apostles Taught and Handed Down. The Heretics Challenged to Show Any Apostolic Credentials.

Continuity with the faith of the apostles, catholicity, is preeminent. The rites of the early church were originally varied and over time harmonised but the faith precedes the liturgy which articulates it. If the liturgy defines the faith the cart has been set before the horse and no liturgy will save a church which departs from the faith of the apostles. If the liturgy obscures the communication of the apostolic faith then it must be replaced by one that is. The means may change, they might need to change, but the ends cannot. When the means become equivocal with the ends that is when we get into trouble.

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