Barbaric and Civilized Worship

Peter Leithart writes about the development of a split in worship styles on the First Things blog:—

Elias’s account not only provides what he calls a “sociogenesis” of mannered, civilized behavior, but also describes a social form of what T. S. Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility.” As court society became more refined, more controlled, more Apollonian, court and its associated institutions became the locus of high art and intellect, separated from sensuous perception and the body. “Civilized” standards of behavior, and refinement of thought and conversation, became badges of inclusion in court society. Dionysian vigor, the body, energy, and life became associated with barbaric, uncivilized behavior. The formation of courtly society through the civilizing process created not only the early modern form of social hierarchy in the West; it produced a rift in the Western imagination.

A similar rift is evident in the history of Christian worship. Medieval liturgies were of course highly structured, but there are regular accounts of a surprising liturgical playfulness. A priest of Auxerre writing in the early Middle Ages recorded that during the Easter celebration, the dean or some other cathedral office would chant the Easter antiphon holding a leather ball, then dance through a maze as the ball was passed from hand to hand: “There was sport, and the meter of the dance was set by the organ. Following the dance, the singing of the sequence and the jumping having concluded, the chorus proceeded to a meal.” Dancers costumed as angels danced in Corpus Christi processions in Spain, and by the late fourteenth century in England, the Corpus Christi festival had taken on some of the atmosphere of a popular carnival, complete with edifying but also amusing theater.

For several centuries, the Church has been divided between those who worship in a “courtly” manner and those who worship “barbarously,” a distinction that cuts across Protestant-Catholic boundaries and is as fundamental as doctrinal differences. Liturgical jumping, if the tradition continues at all, would be confined to the “low church” worship of charismatics. High-church lectionaries often discretely skip the appalling sexual imagery of Ezekiel 16, while Leviticus with its blood and flesh and bodily fluids is barely read at all. Effete, passionless, orotund sermons echo through cathedrals, while the Baptist minister on the other side of town preaches himself into a lather in a clapboard pillbox. The jazzy rhythms of Reformation hymnody were smoothed by the Reformers’ heirs, and only charismatics clapped or swayed as they sang. As Elias would lead us to expect, this liturgical divide has often also been a class division, as the upper classes gravitate to the civilized Episcopalian Church, while working stiffs find spiritual solace in a raucous Pentecostal atmosphere.

There is some hope. Free-church evangelicals are rediscovering the riches of historic liturgies, and the grassroots ecumenism spreading through the American church puts courtly and barbaric Christians face-to-face in a way they have not been for some time. In the southern hemisphere, Anglicanism combines a biblicist traditionalism and respect for the Anglican liturgical with a visceral vitality unknown in English and American Anglicanism. These are hopeful signs for the future of Christian worship. They are equally signs that there is yet hope to mend a breach in the western soul.

Much food for thought here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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