Liturgy as literature

The suspicion and hostility of modernity and postmodernity towards the truth of imagination raises an acute problem for Christian theology because the language of scripture, theology, belief and liturgy is permeated with metaphor, symbol and myth. Edit them out and there is little or nothing left. Christianity is embodied in figurative language and cannot exist in abstraction from it. The imagination is the matrix of Christian faith. The language of Christian devotion (that is, of private prayer, meditation and hymnody) springs from the Christian imagination that is aflame with the love of God and is therefore incorrigibly figurative—sometimes boldly and radically so. Let us take a well-known example from the hymn book. In the eighteenth century, John Newton, in the hymn 'How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds', addresses Christ as

My Shepherd, Husband, Friend, My Prophet, Priest and King, My Lord, my life, my Way, my End.

To say this was simply to echo biblical metaphors, especially from Isaiah and the Psalms, where God is the husband, betrothed or beloved of Israel. In scripture or traditional hymnody these images seem unexceptionable. Let us move on to one or two examples that may be a little more provocative.

In the fifteenth century, Julian of Norwich spoke of God as at once Father, Mother and Spouse and of Jesus as at once Mother, Brother and Saviour. Her Revelations of Divine Love included a 'shewing' of the 'true motherhood' of Jesus. She sustains and elaborates this maternal metaphor along the lines of biblical and medieval imagery:

The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, he may feed us with himself, and doeth it full courteously and full tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious food of my life; and with all the sweet sacraments he sustaineth us full mercifully and graciously... The mother may lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender Mother, Jesus, he may homely lead us into his blessed breast, by his sweet open side, and shew therein part of the Godhead and the joys of heaven.

(Julian of Norwich, 1901, pp.149ff.)

The image of God or Jesus as Mother was not new with Julian, but was already found in Anselm of Canterbury, Aelred of Rivaulx, William of St Thierry and Bernard of Clairvaux. Maternal imagery was also applied to male religious authority figures, who represented God to their people: the Apostles, bishops and abbots (Bynum, 1982, pp.11069).

It is in this tradition that new, non-sexist liturgies pray to God or Christ as 'our beloved', 'our companion', 'our brother', 'our mother', 'our victim', 'our lover', 'our healer' and so on (Morley, 1988). The poet and hymn-writer Brian Wren has reflected on our new freedom to rename God in the innumerable diverse metaphors generated in the intense subjectivity and active sociability of modern religious life. This he sees as something to be celebrated:

Bring many names, beautiful and good; celebrate, in parable and story, holiness in glory, living, loving God.

This is, of course, a long overdue reaction against the patriarchy and hierarchy, traditionalism and authoritarianism that maintained a monopoly of naming God. Sexuality has been made a safe area from which to draw images of the divine by long practice by 'respectable' mystics like St Bernard of Clairvaux, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila. At their best, the new metaphors for God and Jesus Christ are drawn from personal relations and reflect the tacit personalism and immanentism of recently emergent theological paradigms. They find their precedent in scripture and tradition. They have their sanction in the doctrines of humanity's creation in the divine image and of the triune nature of God. The struggle for the emancipation and ordination of women in the Church and the celebration of a succession of partial victories has generated enormous creativity in non-sexist spirituality.

However, we also need to think reflectively-and self-critically about the scope and limits of the language of prayer, praise and liturgy. The current surge of creativity can help us to understand the dynamics of the creation of metaphor. Is it merely an expression of subjective feeling? Can metaphor be produced at will? Does the 'naming' in metaphor redescribe reality? Do metaphors have a purchase on what is 'out there', transcendent, objective? Are feminist liturgists redesigning the Christian faith? Or are they articulating insights and resources that have always been there, though suppressed?

The language of liturgy

In Liturgy and Society (1935), Gabriel Hebert wrote:

Liturgical tradition is the continuous life of the Church which expresses itself in liturgical forms, and finds in them a meaning that is partly grasped by the intellect, and partly subconscious and unformulated: for that which the forms enshrine is the Christian Mystery and the life of the mystical Body of Christ.

The language of liturgy is poetry rather than prose: it is the product of Christian imagination that has been chastened and shaped by the liturgical and doctrinal tradition. Like any artistic creation, liturgy results from the creative interaction between the imaginative vision of the artist and the disciplined energy of the tradition. The liturgist is above all the servant of the tradition and cannot make free with it. The liturgist is also the servant of the community and must respond to its pastoral needs. This requires a sensitivity to the religious affections of Christians in the Church today. The framing of liturgy therefore demands considerable humility and self-effacement, combined with an intensity of spiritual vision that has been formed both by deep academic study of the tradition and by years of liturgical practice.

It would be stating the obvious to show that the liturgies of the Church are imbued with figurative language. Metaphor, symbol and myth are identifiable as the linguistic types that are characteristic of liturgy. We take these for granted most of the time; when worshipping, we do not pause to ask: 'Is this metaphor, symbol or myth that I am saying?' It is only when the language does not come naturally to our lips, when it is no longer second nature to us, that we stop to analyse what we are doing. Liturgy comes into crisis either when familiar forms lose their power over us and begin to leave us cold or when new liturgies strike us as banal and as bereft of that afflatus of transcendence and mystery that enables liturgy to fulfil its purpose of lifting the hearts and minds of the faithful to God in worship and adoration. This is a function of the figurative language of the liturgy.

In his Table Talk, Coleridge in one place defined prose as 'words in their best order' but poetry as 'the best words in the best order'. In another place he defined good prose as 'proper words in their proper places' and good verse as 'the most proper words in their proper places'. Coleridge admitted that the distinction between prose and poetry was not watertight, for some prose (such as oratory) may approximate to verse, and some verse (such as narrative) may approximate to prose. Nevertheless, he suggested that in prose the words are subordinate to the meaning and ought to express it as efficiently as possible without attracting too much attention to themselves, while the words of poetry must be beautiful in themselves, though without detracting from the unity of effect of the whole (Coleridge, 1884, pp.63, 220f.).

In the earlier lectures on Shakespeare and in the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge complemented this distinction between prose and poetry by stressing that it is the object of poetry to give pleasure by being beautiful (pleasurability being one of the aspects of the received definition of the beautiful). 'The proper and immediate object of poetry' is not to convey knowledge; it is rather 'the communication of immediate pleasure'. However, Coleridge admits that novels and other prose genres also aim to give pleasure: what is distinctive about poetry? The distinctive characteristic of poetry is found in the experience of intense creativity out of which the poem is born—'that pleasurable emotion, that peculiar state and degree of excitement, which arises in the poet himself in the act of composition' (Coleridge, 1960, vol. 1, pp.147f.).

Coleridge's answer is, of course, typical of the Romantic interpretation of art as essentially the creative expression of the aesthetic experience—the artistic vision—of the individual, whose gift is not under his control. Byron said that poetry is 'the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake' (Abrams, 1953, p. 139). In his

Defence of Poetry, Shelley wrote that: 'Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it' (Shelley, 1888, vol. 2, p.16). For Keble, poetry acts as a safety-valve for overflowing emotion: the writing and reading of poetry is cathartic and soothes—that is to say steadies or tempers—the spirit suffering the turbulence of passion. In his 'Prospectus' in the preface to 'The Excursion', Wordsworth spoke of the 'soothing' and 'elevating' power of the poetic:

And I am conscious of affecting thoughts

And dear remembrances, whose presence soothes

Or elevates the mind.

(Wordsworth, 1920, p.755)

Keble dedicated his lectures as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford to Wordsworth who, through his poetry, had become 'a minister... of high and sacred truth', for religion and poetry sprang from the same source, that of heightened emotion generated by the imaginative apprehension of transcendent truth. As early as 1814, before Coleridge's Biographia Liter aria, Keble was describing the imagination as 'creative energy'. In the Lectures on Poetry, Keble explained the nature of the poetic in therapeutic, almost religious, terms as 'a kind of medicine, divinely bestowed on man, which gives healing relief to secret mental emotion or overpowering sorrow, yet without detriment to modest reserve, and while giving scope to enthusiasm yet rules it with order and due control' (Beek, 1959, pp.85f., cf. pp.92, 96). In his review of Lockhart's life of Sir Walter Scott, Keble defined poetry as 'the indirect expression in words, most appropriately in metrical words, of some overpowering emotion, or ruling taste, or feeling, the direct indulgence whereof is somehow repressed'. Expression of emotion, 'controuled [sic] and modified by a certain reserve' is, for Keble, 'the very soul of poetry' (Keble, 1877, pp.6, 8, 20). It is significant that Keble believed that one purpose of the liturgy (i.e. The Book of Common Prayer) also was to soothe and tame our wayward, sinful nature. It is as though liturgy bridged poetry and religion, springing as they did (in Keble's view) from the one source.

In Biographia Literaria Coleridge reiterates the pleasure-giving purpose of poetry: it is 'the peculiar business of poetry to impart.pleasurable interest' (Coleridge, 1965, p. 169)—to arrest our attention and convey its meaning by means of its beauty of expression. Coleridge links this aesthetic emphasis—this 'pleasure principle' as we might call it—with what he consistently and frequently asserted about the essence of poetry being the best words in the best order, when he offers the pregnant judgement that 'nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise' (ibid., p.172). A poem is, as we might say, 'just so'—a perfect unity of words, rhythm and meaning. It contains within itself all that it requires to answer its purpose. It relies for its rationale on nothing beyond itself. In communicating its message through beauty of form and expression it has fulfilled its raison d'être.

I have mentioned rhythm and Coleridge discusses the role of metre in this connection. Metre is the natural vehicle of that excitement and heightened consciousness—just as we tend to fall into a rhythmic form of utterance, with regular stress, under the power of strong emotion. 'Our language gives to expression a certain measure, and will, in a strong state of passion, admit of scansion from the very mouth' (Coleridge, 1960, vol. 2, p.42). In discussing Wordsworth's preface to their joint volume—the Lyrical Ballads—in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge throws additional light on the distinction between prose and poetry, and does so, on this occasion, by exploring the significance of metre. Wordsworth had asserted that 'there neither is or can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition' (Coleridge, 1965, pp.203-6).

Coleridge locates the qualitative difference between poetry and prose in the significance of metre, first as to its origins and then as to its effects. Its origin he traces to the mind's innate principle of equilibrium which causes it to regulate the emotions—'the balance in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold in check the workings of passion'. Coleridge speculates that this 'balance of antagonists' (reason and emotion) became organised into metre by an act of will and judgement which anticipates the pleasure that is derived from rhythm. This in turn supports Coleridge's two contentions that metre should not only appropriately be accompanied by the language of excitement, but that it should show also indications of being subject to control. What is required is 'an interpenetration of passion and of will, of spontaneous impulse and of voluntary purpose'. This is achieved by language that is full of colour and vitality. Figures of speech, which occur with more than ordinary frequency in poetry, combine heightened awareness with intellectual energy. The pleasurable excitement of poetry is due in part to the role of metre in harnessing powerful emotions. For not only is metre produced in the presence of emotional and intellectual excitement, it also perpetuates and enhances it, tending 'to increase the vivacity and susceptibility both of the general feelings and of the attention'. This effect, Coleridge continues, is produced 'by the continued excitement of surprize [sic], and by the quick reciprocations of curiosity still gratified and still re-excited' which, though individually imperceptible, have a powerful cumulative effect (Coleridge, 1965, pp.206f.).

Without the above discussion, my contention that liturgy is closer to poetry than to prose might seem merely a truism. The debate among these great Romantics—who were practitioners of both poetry and prose as well as theorists of them—shows that the point needs to be, and has been argued. Liturgy exerts a profound effect on the worshipper by expressing Christian religious affections in a restrained and disciplined form that protects the worshipper from being overwhelmed by an experience of the numinous (just as Keble stressed the importance of reserve, control and order in the expression of powerful poetic emotions). In The Book of Common Prayer (1662), this controlled expression of religious emotion is particularly evident in the obliqueness with which God is invoked. It is of the essence of the familiar collect form: 'O God, who didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people,', but it is conspicuous in the Prayer of Consecration: 'Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world ... Hear us,'. Thoughts that defy expression, emotions that are too strong for human nature to bear, are constrained, contained and made manageable by this obliqueness of address in traditional liturgical forms.

We have the sense in the finest poetry that nothing should—nay, could—be changed.

Coleridge as a Blue-coat Boy learned from his headmaster at Christ's Hospital that, in the truly great poets, there was a reason not only for every word but for the position of every word. As a young poet himself, he became convinced that you could as soon dislodge a huge block of stone from one the pyramids as to change a word or the position of a word in the best of Shakespeare or Milton (Coleridge, 1965, pp.3, 12). We feel that there is an almost metaphysical inevitability about those words in that order. You cannot tinker with them or improve on them. In that lies the perfection of the poem. Wittgenstein discussed in the Philosophical Investigations the way that some words are unsubstitutable: there is 'something that is expressed by these words in these positions'. He related this, typically cryptically, to understanding a poem (Wittgenstein, 1968, p. 144:531), but the point applies equally to liturgy. Because words in the best poetry and liturgy are unsubstitutable there is an inevitability about them that is not simply the result of frequent repetition. The right words in the right order have authority. It is this authority that gives them their power to articulate worship and to strengthen faith. As we indwell the language empathetically, through participating in the community gathered for worship, we are enabled to believe in the reality of which the words speak.

I have argued that it is not merely familiarity, born of frequent repetition, that gives certain words authority. It is also the aesthetic judgement that they are the entirely appropriate words in the entirely appropriate order. They have a satisfying 'rightness' about them. (This should particularly appeal to Anglicans, for it was Richard Hooker who emphasised the importance of our sense of what is fitting when making judgements about the outward order of the Church.) But to say that, is not to play down the role of familiarity. The words of liturgy or the Bible become deeply ingrained and shape our thinking, believing and praying. They rise to our lips when they are needed—especially in times of crisis. This vital function of religious language is undermined when the words and the order of the words undergo frequent change. The present craze for ever-new Bible translations and for liturgical experiment and revision actually damages the cause of liturgy and Bible knowledge. We need to affirm not only that poetry and liturgy demand the best words in the best order, but also that they demand the same words in the same order.

The need for a stable text is underlined when we consider that one purpose of liturgy is to enable a community of faith to worship together. Common prayer therefore requires a high proportion of the same words in the same order. It belongs to the spirit of the age to diversify, but it belongs to the nature of worship to unify. The marks of our postmodern culture are pluralism, fragmentation, consumer preference, playing with words and doing one's own thing. We should guard against the spirit of the age when it militates against common prayer. Coleridge cries: 'When I worship, let me unify' (Coulson, 1981, p.13, no reference given). The nature of worship is to unify. It unites the worshipper with God, it binds believers together in one body, it knits together our hectic, careworn lives, centres them on the transcendent and refocuses our existence. Worship has an integrative function. Its essence is communion (koinonia). As Coleridge above all has taught us, it is the imagination (the 'co-ad-un-ating' faculty) that has the power to bind together many discordant and divergent elements into a unified whole. It does this through metaphor, symbol and myth. Only the truth of imagination has this unifying power. Liturgy is arid and inept without it.

Part III

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