Liturgy and Constantinianism

David Fitch excels in raising issues that need to be thought about, and has done so again with When Liturgy Goes Bad: Constantinian Liturgy in a Post-Constantinian World.

I am certainly someone who has been attracted to liturgy because of the emotionalism inherent within a non-liturgical free church tradition, where spontaneity bears a burden larger than I believe it can handle. But moving from (so-called) spontaneous worship forms to more liturgical forms might simply exchange one set of problems for another. This is particularly because established liturgies were largely formed in a period often dubbed “Constantinian” by those who follow the work of Yoder and Hauerwas. (Read a helpful brief on the Anabaptist critique of Constantinianism)

In short, the problem is that these liturgies make too many assumptions about the world we’re living in and the relationship of the church to power which range between unhelpful and destructive. I myself am still wrestling through these issues, and I’m glad that David has articulated them so succinctly. As always, problems and solutions are more complicated than choosing from two available options.

Here’s the opening couple of paragraphs from Fitch’s post:

I am a strong advocate of liturgical worship as the centerpiece for spiritual formation for missional communities. (As I wrote in the Great Giveaway) Over against the lecture hall or the feel-good pep-rally worship that has driven so much of Christendom evangelicalism, we gather to worship God as a holy transformative immersive engagement with God that shapes us for life with God and Mission.

Sometimes however, there is a danger in liturgy that must be discerned. We realize the inadequacies of modern evangelical worship practices for our day, and then we go immediately to high church practices (Anglican/Roman Catholic) and adopt high church liturgy as it is and impose it on a bunch of people who have no idea what we’re doing. In the process, our liturgy becomes inaccessible, foreign and imposed (in a Constantianian way which I will explain in a minute). And this is where I think most people get turned off to liturgy. This is why liturgy is incomprehensible to so many emerging types and they just reject it. Or, even worse, in a reaction to its imposed and inaccessible forms as found for instance sometimes in Roman Catholicism, emerging folk turn liturgy into trite new age experiential exercises. This is a problem for those of us who desire to go beyond lecture hall-ism and feel-good pep-rally-ism and proceed into the depths of encounter made possible via liturgical formation.

When Liturgy Goes Bad: Constantinian Liturgy in a Post-Constantinian World

2 responses to “Liturgy and Constantinianism”

  1. hey matt

    Nice post. I agree that liturgy (in all its forms) can idolatrous because of the effect of constantine but i wonder if we might find that the historical liturgy, some of which predates Constantine, holds dormant and hidden within its confessions the imitation of Christ, which is always (even if not recognized) a challenge of all other powers who would claim universal (or national) authority.

    I can more easily assent to the idea that the radical convictions in Christian liturgy have been softened by pastors in communities who have been committed to nationalizing their faith.

    So we are always needing renewal and what better place to devote attention than the ancient liturgies we have learned to trust. But I think we should be careful that we do not end up trusting in our own view of Constantine and his effect on liturgy, assuming that our ‘historical’ perspective is one that is itself free from muddles and unknowns.

    but in support, my uncle says that liturgy means “work of the people.” So I apply that here to say that our ancient liturgies must be healthily mixed with our communities intuitions and confessions, especially as regards our Jesus-pacifism.

    thanks matt

  2. joel: Cheers for leaving your thoughts. I definitely think that there’s a whole ton of stuff within most liturgies which are not only fine, but crucial in the task of being the church.

    Your second paragraph hits closer to home, however, as the true political import of confessing that “Jesus is Lord” in our worship has largely been trivialized and relativized in the way we generally understand them. In short, there’s a massive disconnect between the latent subversiveness of the gospel to all other powers and the way that we understand the gospel in the context of our worship. Nobody’s going to get crucified for getting warm fuzzies.

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