The Liturgy and the Priestly Office

Screening the Liturgy

A number of years ago, a parish in a Baltimore suburb installed projection screens as part of a comprehensive plan by the staff of this Roman Catholic church to recreate or “rebuild” their parish into a church that sought out “the lost”—those who were un-churched or de-churched. Drawing explicitly on the experience of Protestant mega-churches, the pastor and staff sought to strip away the non-essentials—disbanding most of the traditional devotional and social groups that one typically finds in Catholic parishes—in order to focus with laser-like intensity on the task of making disciples.[1]

As part of this initiative, they installed 9-by-16 screens on either side of the altar. On those screens, they project religious images, the reader of scripture, the text of the Gospel reading and of songs, the priest during the homily (or, as they called it, the “message”) and the Eucharistic prayer, as well as the very professional sounding worship band as they perform. In their recently completed new church, the screens are integral to the design, and during the liturgy the seating area for the congregation is darkened, making the stage-like sanctuary, but especially the screens, stand out all the more vividly.

In order to accommodate the remarkable growth in numbers that the parish experienced, screens were not strictly speaking necessary in order to be able to see what is going on. Certainly, there was no particular reason why one needed to see the musicians, whose role would seem to be more aural than visual. The leaders of the parish said that the screens serve to “draw the people deeper into the liturgical action,” and noted that there are video screens at both St. Patrick’s in New York and St. Peter’s in Rome.[2]

While I hardly think that either practical need or ecclesiastical precedent is the real motivation here, I do think that the use of video screens does represent a genuine desire to draw people more deeply into the liturgical action. I would suggest that the screens do this not simply by increasing the degree of the liturgy’s visibility, but by changing the mode or quality of that visibility.

Our ordinary seeing of physically-present objects can seem drab and uninteresting in a culture that saturates us with vibrant light radiating from electronic screens. Paradoxically, images emanating from screens seem to us to have more depth and power than our perception of things within our own three-dimensional sensorium. Screen-presence signals importance, and if we want twenty-first century Americans to think the liturgy is important, if we want to draw them into the liturgical action, we had better put it on a screen.        

I do not offer this example to condemn what the people at this parish are doing with their liturgy.[3] It is difficult (though not impossible) to argue with success and, unlike most Catholic congregations in the North East, this parish is growing, not simply in terms of attendance, but also in the number of people involved in small groups and various other ministries, as well as in per capita giving. I offer this example, rather, because it might give us a starting point in thinking about the relationship of Church and culture.

It seems a not inapt description of twenty-first century America to call us a “screen culture”: big screens in our sports stadiums, medium sized screens in our homes, small screens on the phones in our pockets. To what degree can, should, or must the Church adapt to that culture in order to draw people more deeply into her worship, her preaching, or her communal life? To what degree can, should, or must the Church adapt to any culture? At what point, if any, does adherence to tradition become simply nostalgia for past cultural forms rather than fidelity to the Gospel? At what point, if any, does cultural adaptation become cultural capitulation?

To structure my remarks in this essay (the first of a three-part series) I want to draw upon the idea of the tria munera Christi or three offices of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. Picking up on St. John Henry Newman’s suggestion that, while these offices “primarily and supremely” belong to Christ, I would hold with Newman that “after His pattern, and in human measure, Holy Church has a triple office too . . . three offices, which are indivisible, though diverse.”[4] In other words, the Church too has a priestly office, a prophetic office, and a royal office. As participated in by the Church, the priestly office is expressed primarily in worship and liturgy, and this is the office to which I will now turn my attention.  

Over the course of this essay, I will ask how in the exercise of her priestly office the Church can, should, or must engage the culture in which she finds herself. Before doing so, however, I will indulge in a digression into the question of exactly what we might mean by a “culture.” I could do this by looking at post-conciliar Roman Catholic discussions of the need for the Gospel to be “inculturated,” but instead I will look at an earlier discussion by the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, which, at least in the English-speaking world, has exercised significant influence on those discussions.

Christ and Culture

In 1951 Niebuhr published a book entitled Christ and Culture. Though during his life he lived somewhat in the shadow of his brother, Reinhold—who, unlike Richard, graced the cover of Time magazine, back when that was still a big deal—I would venture to say that the long-term influence of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has been far more pervasive and enduring than anything Reinhold Niebuhr ever wrote.

Part of the appeal of the book is that it provides a framework for addressing how Christians should evaluate the social, political, artistic, and philosophical achievements of culture, and how they should relate these to the Gospel. Niebuhr sought to convey a sense of the pervasiveness of this question in the history of the Church by treating figures ranging from St. Paul, to Augustine, Aquinas, and Schleiermacher in the context of a fivefold typology of different ways in which “Christ” and “culture” might be related. Though Niebuhr’s typology is familiar to many, let me rehearse it briefly here.[5]

At one extreme is the “Christ against culture” type, which stresses the opposition of the Gospel and worldly wisdom. As Tertullian (one of Niebuhr’s exemplars of this type) put it, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”? At the other extreme is the “Christ of culture” type, which stresses the agreement of the Gospel and worldly wisdom, with the high aspirations of the Gospel seen as more or less identical to the highest aspirations of human culture, as in such nineteenth century Protestant liberals such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl.

A less extreme position on this side is what Niebuhr calls the “Christ above culture” type, which he identifies with Thomas Aquinas’s approach as it continues in the Roman Catholic Church. In this view, as in the Christ of culture type, human cultural achievements have genuine value, but constitute a “lower” realm that must be supplemented by the ecclesiastical institutions, sacraments, and so forth, through which Christ is mediated to the faithful. The emphasis here is on a kind of union-without-confusion of Christ and culture. On the other side, the less extreme view is the “Christ and culture in paradox” type, represented by the classical Lutheran “two kingdoms” view. This view recognizes the opposition of Christ and culture, as the Christ against culture type does, but also claims that Christians owe equal but non-overlapping allegiance to both, holding the two in a tension that is never resolved short of the eschaton, but only endured.

Finally, at the center is the “Christ the transformer of culture” type, which Niebuhr identifies with Augustine (at least, on Augustine’s good days), John Calvin, and F. D. Maurice. In this view, the Gospel is something distinct from the realm of human culture, but still related to that realm as a transformative force, making the realm of culture approximate Christ ever more closely. Indeed, for this view, “the kingdom of God is transformed culture.”[6] Though Niebuhr presents his typology as a neutral interpretive tool, it seems clear to anyone who has read the book that this is his favored type.

As influential as Niebuhr’s book has been, it has been in equal measure criticized, particularly in the last thirty years. Some of this criticism has come from Christians who feel that Niebuhr has misrepresented their tradition: Mennonites who reject the image he paints of latter day Pharisees who are reflexively “against culture” or Roman Catholics who see in Niebuhr’s account of a two-storied scheme of nature and grace a mere caricature of St. Thomas. Some of these same critics point out that Niebuhr engages in “argument by typology”—that is, he creates a spectrum of positions and locates his favored position in the middle of that spectrum, thus endorsing it as superior to the others without ever having to argue explicitly for that superiority.

But there is another sort of criticism of Niebuhr that I want to mention as a way of setting up my subsequent reflections on Church and culture. This is the criticism that in setting up the dichotomy “Christ and culture” (and, for our purposes, the correlative dichotomy “Church and culture”) Niebuhr sets out far too neat a picture of both culture and of Christ and his Church.

First, “culture” is a far more complex and contested concept than Niebuhr might lead us to believe. The anthropologist’s understanding of culture, which focuses on the factors and forces that shape a group’s identity, is not the same as the art historian’s or the literary scholar’s, which focus more on the distinctive modes of expression of people in a particular time and place. People typically mean different things when they talk of the culture of the Nuer people of South Sudan and when they speak of the culture of Renaissance Florence. In the latter case we tend to mean a patrimony of artistic and literary achievements, while in the former case we mean a way of life constituted by things like language, culinary styles, patterns of entertainment, courtship customs, ethnic identity, and so forth that distinguishes one people from another.

Furthermore, even if we focus on this more anthropological approach, a human culture, with perhaps the exception of extremely isolated tribal peoples, is always pluralistic, both in terms of the subcultures within it and in terms of its relations with the cultures that surround it. As the philosopher Mary Midgley put it, we sometimes speak of cultures as if they were divided by the kinds of boundaries one finds on a political map, when in fact it is more like the way in which one ecosystem blends into another, as a desert shades into a prairie, with no defined point where the desert stops and the prairie begins.[7] Indeed, this cultural blending plays out in the lives of individuals, who find themselves with multiple cultural belongings.

To complicate the picture even further, the subtle transition from one cultural formation to another occurs not simply as one moves through space—going from, say, Chicago to South Bend, Indiana—but also as one moves through time—as the Renaissance becomes the Baroque or the modern becomes the postmodern. So it is not entirely clear that there is at any given time or place a single thing called “culture” to which we can relate “Christ” or “Church” in the way Niebuhr wants to.

Further, Niebuhr, due to his principle of “radical monotheism”—which forestalls the possibility of identifying God with any particular manifestation of God—tends to produce a picture in which the Church, while inevitably enmeshed in culture, at the same time is defined by her relationship to a Christ who somehow floats free from culture and history, existing “nakedly,” as it were, as a kind of regulative ideal showing the relativity of all human cultures. But what if we take seriously Paul’s claim that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:4-5)?

In other words, what if the time and place of God’s decisive intervention in human history was not peripheral to God’s purposes? What if the cultural matrix in which Christ appeared was a necessary—in the sense of supremely fitting—element in God’s intentions? What if there needed to be a particular law and a particular people living under that law—a particular culture—in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled? Karl Barth wrote of this in the following way:

There is one thing we must emphasize especially . . . The Word did not simply become any “flesh,” any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that this comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental.[8]

In other words, Christian faith in the incarnation says that a highly specific cultural context was central to God’s plan. Contrary to the impression one might get from Niebuhr, God did not simply choose to become flesh in a culture chosen willy-nilly; rather, God, through the Law and the prophets, formed a culture, a people, into which Christ would be born. And Christ and his Spirit transformed that culture from within, and continue their work of cultural formation and transformation.

So, down through history the Church has not simply interacted with the cultures in which she has found herself, but also has had the role of a former or creator of culture.[9] The Church is a way of being together within a “space” defined by things like shared language, histories, heroes, eating practices, and ethos. In other words, the Church in a significant sense always already is a “culture.” Indeed, while these days we often emphasize the idea that the Church is a community, in some ways “culture” is a more apt descriptor of the Church than “community,” since even within most parishes the shared identity of the members of the Church is not a matter of their direct knowledge of each other (what the Germans call Gemeinschaft) or even a common set of institutions (what the Germans call Gesellschaft), but of a common set of meaningful practices—ways of doing that shape ways of being—into which one has been initiated over time.

Even when we think in terms of “culture” as a patrimony of artistic and technical achievements, there are elements of culture that are essentially and not simply accidentally Christian, such as Gregorian Chant and the music of Bach, the monastic frescoes of Cappadocia and the gothic Cathedrals of France, the Cyrillic alphabet and the codex form of the book. All of these were created or propagated under the impulse of Christian faith.

So if the Church is both something like a culture in an anthropological sense, and the creative impulse behind various cultural achievements, then we are perhaps better off approaching the question of the Church and culture not as Niebuhr did (and as Catholic discussions of inculturation largely continue to do)—as something non- or supra-cultural clothing itself in various cultural forms—but by thinking in terms of how different cultures relate to each other. How do the cultures of the Church (and I would underscore that we need here to speak of cultures, in the plural) interact with cultures that are non-Christian, or post-Christian, or residually Christian?

The Christian Code

Having indulged in this long digression, let me return to the priestly office of the Church and the question of the liturgy. It is perhaps in the liturgy that the cultural character of the Church shows itself most clearly, not simply because the liturgy has been the seedbed of so much of the artistic monuments of Western Culture, but more fundamentally because of the relationship of liturgy to language.

A key element—perhaps the key element—of any culture is the language by which thought is shaped and expressed in particular ways. A language is not simply a device for transporting meaning from one mind to another, but is a matrix within which we learn to find our way around in the world, in which we learn how to live as the human beings that we are. The philosopher Stanley Cavell writes:

In “learning language” you learn not merely what the names of things are, but what a name is; not merely what the form of expression is for expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is; not merely what the word for “father” is, but what a father is; not merely what the word for “love” is, but what love is. In learning a language, you do not merely learn the pronunciation of sounds, and their grammatical orders, but the “forms of life” which make those sounds the words they are, do what they do—e.g. name, call, point, express a wish or affection, indicate a choice or an aversion, etc.[10]

The liturgy does not merely employ language, but is itself in some sense a language: an encoded series of signs that do not simply transmit data but convey an entire world and enable us to live in that world. In the liturgy we do not simply learn words by which to worship God, but we learn what worship is; we do not simply learn that Christ’s death on the cross is a sacrifice, but we learn the meaning of sacrifice; we do not simply state that washing someone with water symbolizes purification, but we learn to map the boundaries between the pure and the impure.

The confusion that visitors sometimes feel during a liturgy is not merely a matter of not knowing when to stand, sit, or kneel (though this is what they will often tell you), but rather that the whole thing is like a conversation taking place in an incomprehensible language, even if the words appear to be English. In some ways I suspect that modern vernacular liturgy is more disconcerting to outsiders than liturgy in a dead or archaic language like Latin or Tudor English, precisely because they feel as if they should be able to understand it with ease, but cannot because such strange things are being said, like “take, eat, this is my body” or professing ourselves unworthy to do something moments before we go ahead and do it. And of course, actions like standing and sitting and kneeling, not to mention tracing a cross on your body at certain moments or bowing deeply or beating your breast, inflect the words in peculiar ways that cannot be easily explained, but must be assimilated over time, must shape our thoughts and affection, before they can be understood. In short, liturgy poses a particularly interesting site of encounter between the Church and other cultures because it is not easily “translated.”

Now this is interesting because it is in the realm of liturgy that we hear so much about the need for “inculturation”—a process, as Pope John Paul II put it in Redemptoris Missio, of an “intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implantation of Christianity into different human cultures” (§52). In the early modern era, controversies in the Catholic Church over the incorporation of Chinese practices of ancestor worship or veneration into the Christian cultus are a notable example of the tensions engendered in the process of liturgical inculturation.

Particularly in the twentieth century, Protestant and Catholic missionaries began to see that planting the Gospel in new lands did not require the wholesale transplantation of European culture, and elements of indigenous culture began to find their way into the liturgy: in music, in vestments and vessels, and in architecture. These kinds of inculturation were relatively easy, often affecting only the most superficial aesthetic elements of the liturgy. But as liturgies began to be translated into local vernaculars, more difficult questions arose as to how we “say the same thing” in a new linguistic system: what word do we use for “God”? How do we translate Psalm 51’s plea “wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” for people who live in the tropics?

Beyond the spoken word, the encounter of liturgies with new cultural systems of gesture and symbol raised more questions. How is baptism different in cultures with different bathing customs? Can other foods be used to celebrate the Eucharist in cultures where bread and wine are not common foodstuffs? How much should Christians respect cultural taboos about who can eat with whom when it comes to the Eucharist? How does the Church cope with differing cultural approaches to such fundamental ritual elements as touching, kissing, gestures of humility, and so forth? These questions of inculturation regard the adaptation of the liturgy to new lands and peoples. There is a similar, and, to most of us, more relevant and pressing, question of adapting the liturgy to changes taking place within our own culture. Both Catholics and Protestants experienced a rather wrenching instance of this in the 1960s and 70s with a linguistic shift from Latin and Tudor English to the modern vernacular, a shift from which some have never quite recovered.

But the linguistic shift is only one of many, as we have sought to adapt our liturgies to changing rhythms of American life (including the proliferation of other Sunday morning activities), as well as to the shift within culture to an almost obsessive interest in the younger generations, from the Boomers to the Gen-Xers to the Millennials, and how to appeal to them—as if appealing to the most puerile members of society is a recipe for authentic worship. Whether it is by substituting Coke and beer for bread and wine in the Eucharist or adopting music for the liturgy that mimics (sometimes with embarrassing awkwardness) what young people supposedly listen to on the radio (as if anyone under the age of 50 listens to the radio anymore) or putting the liturgy on a screen that draws our gaze like the Jumbotron at a live sporting event, the Church has grappled with the felt-need to adapt the liturgy to appeal to younger generations. How does the Church worship in a way that engages people who live in a culture of fast food and pop music and glowing screens that promise endless distraction without becoming a deracinated community that offers nothing to the world except more of what the world already has?

I do not presume to have answers to these questions, but I would caution against easy answers. I do not think the answer is a liturgy frozen in amber, as Catholics had for some 400 years. Indeed, such liturgical ossification was, historically speaking, an anomaly brought on by the advent of the printing press, which allowed for much more centralized control and greater fixity of the liturgy. One need only compare the Byzantine and Roman and Coptic liturgies as they developed in the first millennium and a half of the Church to see how, when liturgy is unhindered by printed texts, inculturation takes place whether we like it or not.

At the same time, this does not give us license to adapt the liturgy however we see fit, in an endless pursuit of cultural relevance. The liturgy remains something of a language unto itself, a system of meaning that is never fully translatable, something to which we become enculturated. I would argue, for example, that the use of bread and wine in the Eucharist is non-fungible. We cannot simply substitute some other food and drink—say tea and rice cakes or Coke and pizza—that might be more culturally familiar, because the bread and wine speak not only of the eating and drinking that takes place in our culture, but also the eating and drinking of Jesus.

As Barth reminds us, Jesus is the one who did not simply take flesh, but took Jewish flesh, who participated in the Jewish ritual meal of Passover that spoke of liberation from captivity, who took that Passover bread and wine and said that henceforth it would be the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood that his disciples would recall as God’s great act of liberation. If bread and wine do not speak eloquently to us of this, then it is we who must adapt, we who must be enculturated, we who must learn what bread and wine are in the Christian economy.

Of course, as I have noted, liturgies, like language, are not unchanging. Inculturation takes place whether we are trying to make it happen or not. Just as creole languages emerge as linguistic systems confront and engage with each other, so too the liturgy changes, even if we try to make it unchanging. Old and new coexist and collide and the outcome of such collisions is uncertain. At the suburban Baltimore parish with the giant screens and the worship band, they sing the acclamations of the Eucharistic prayer in Latin Gregorian chant. Can such diverse liturgical practices survive their collision? Will the praise music and screens make the chant seem fusty and ridiculous, or will the chant make the screens and praise music seem insipid and shallow? Or, will they merge into a new liturgical matrix that will one day seem natural and even traditional, with screens seeming as fusty as chant?

Being aware of these questions, even if we do not have answers, can allow us some critical purchase. This awareness will enable us both to change liturgical forms that no longer speak even to those who have fluency in the language of liturgy and to resist changing forms that might have lost their immediate cultural relevance but which can still speak eloquently to us as we move ever deeper into the mystery that makes itself present in the liturgy.

[1] For an account, see Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter (Naples, FL: Ave Maria, 2013).

[2] Ibid., 113.

[3] I offer a more in-depth account and evaluation of this parish’s liturgy in “Rebuilt Liturgy” at the blog PrayTell: Worship, Wit & Wisdom.

[4] John Henry Newman, “Preface to the Third Edition” in The Via Media or The Anglican Church, Illustrated in Lectures, Letters, and Tracts vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Greene and C., 1891) xl.

[5] For Niebuhr’s own summary of these types, see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), 40-45.

[6] Ibid., 228.

[7] Mary Midgely, Can’t We Make More Judgments? (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991), 90.

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/1, 166.

[9] For an account of the beginnings of Christianity that underscores its role as a cultural force, see Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years (New Haven, 2012).

[10] Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford: OUP, 1991), 177-178.

Featured Image: Laurent Girardin, The Holy Trinity, 1460; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Frederick Bauerschmidt

Frederick Bauerschmidt is Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland and a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, assigned to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He is most recently the author of The Love That Is God: An Invitation to Christian Faith.

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