by Andrew Shanks

Liturgy as a medicine against propaganda

ANDREW SHANKS is a Church of England priest in North Yorkshire and author of various books, including "What Is Truth?": Towards a Theological Poetics and God and Modernity.

The best liturgy, surely, is the enactment of the most radical public honesty.

But let's be quite precise about this. In common parlance the word "honesty" is often used as if it were a straightforward synonym for "sincerity"; or "frankness"; or both of those combined. And yet, it seems to me that radical honesty, properly understood, is something altogether more.

Thus, sincerity is truly meaning what you say. And frankness is truly saying all you mean. But "radical honesty" -- in the sense intended here -- is, by contrast, a matter of being truly open to what other people may have to say; especially those most different to oneself in temperament, cultural conditioning, or experience of life.

It's a virtue of the imagination: the capacity to enter, sympathetically, into another person's worldview; and, moreover, into their perhaps quite critical view of oneself. A fundamental readiness to take seriously the moral challenge of other perspectives -- not least, those which the prevailing consensus of one's own community is most immediately inclined to dismiss.

We all know that true faith is something more than right belief. Thomas Aquinas for instance distinguishes between "unformed" and "formed faith." Right belief alone is "unformed faith." To become salvific it needs to be "formed." -- By what? Aquinas answers, by "love." But in what sense, exactly? The trouble is, he fails to specify. And all too often it appears that the "love" in question is understood, merely, as a certain ideal fervor of frank sincerity. As though the formula for the truth of faith were just: to believe what's metaphysically correct -- and really to mean it, holding nothing back.

I think that this is much too weak a formulation!

Far rather, it seems to me, the truth of faith is nothing other than the most radical honesty, recognized as sacred. That's to say: it's the imperative of such honesty religiously appropriated, and so invested with maximum poetic power.

Jesus called this investiture "the reign of God." The basileia tou theou -- I think one might also translate it, simply, as "Honesty" with a capital H.


To be honest is amongst other things, when appropriate, to be penitent; but never in such a way as to promote the interests of mere conformity. Take, for example, the parable which Jesus tells about the two men who go up to the temple to pray, the Pharisee and the quisling tax-collector:

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get." But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (Luke 18:11-13)

We've no reason to doubt that what this Pharisee says is both true, and sincerely and frankly meant. Only Jesus condemns him because he lacks the sort of honesty which goes beyond frankness and sincerity. Of course the Pharisee also recites prayers of penitence; and let's be generous enough to suppose that he does so frankly and sincerely -- after all, why not? Yet this can only ever be the sort of penitence which reinforces group-conformity. Whereas the penitence of the tax-collector, which Jesus commends, is the opposite. It's, exactly, the penitence of true honesty: an opening up to the element of justice in other people's criticism of his way of life.

But now compare the typical behavior of the Christian church, considered as a corporate person. Which of these two figures does the church itself most resemble?

Consider our liturgical calendar. If one were maliciously inclined, one might well describe it as -- in essence -- a great annual round of occasions for corporate boasting. First, we have the core observances: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost; a structure for celebrating the church's glorious origins. Then, at least in some traditions, there's an overlayer of saints' days, to remember all that's best in church history down the centuries. And finally, in those churches most hospitable to the more conventional forms of civil religion, further festivals are added, for boasting about the congregation's national identity.

Our constantly reiterated prayers of penitence seem only to relate to our private sins. As a priest in the Church of England, after every congregational confession I rise to pronounce an absolution. I do so as an official representative of the church's corporate tradition; which in this transaction is therefore, entirely, the channel of grace to its sinful individual participants. The action would make no sense if the sins in question were those of the church as a corporate person -- for one can hardly absolve oneself. The sins we're invited to confess aren't those of collaboration and apathy, by which we're falsely bound into the community. But (I think it's fair to say) they're exclusively the sins which, as well as being an offense against our neighbors, also offend against the community's own corporate egoism.

How -- in general -- does a community, any community, develop a corporate conscience? Partly, it's by celebrating examples of good practice. But it must surely also involve the community's learning, in all honesty, truly to own the shadow side of its own history: working through the memory of corporate moral failure and seeking to understand it. The church, however, can scarcely be said to devote much liturgical time to this latter task. Indeed, the sad fact is, we never have.

Why not? Above all, I think, it's because the church originally evolved as a social organism designed to survive persecution; and a community of that sort is necessarily far more concerned with defensive unity than with honesty. Boasting helps unite such a community, and reinforce its morale. Honest self-criticism is a luxury it can't afford. The church has never yet fully recovered from the trauma of its abused childhood; the abuse occurred at so decisive a formative period of its development. And then the abused child grew up to be an abuser, in turn. First, the boasting which was originally a justifiable defiance of the persecuting outsider slipped over into a general attitude of closure towards all outsiders. This is already observable in the New Testament, especially the fourth gospel. And then, when the church became a persecutor itself, the crueler it was the more obsessively it identified itself with its remembered martyrs, to soothe its conscience. But even when the constraints of secularity prevent the church from persecuting, our background addiction to boasting still remains. It has become second nature.

And so, how might healing be possible here? In short, what's surely needed is a local situation in which churches no longer face any danger of persecution, yet in which they've also very largely lost their old cultural hegemony. Time's needed, too. And plenty of it. But then at least a potential space may begin to open up, for the Honesty preached by Jesus to re-emerge -- as it were, from under the old concealment of the church's boastfulness.

More and more, though, such spaces are in fact now opening up; as never before. And so the question becomes: what would it require for the resultant opportunity actually to be seized? In my view, we need major calendar reform.

The liturgical tradition of ancient Israel developed, at least in part, as an attempt to appropriate the unprecedented critical challenge of the God who appears in Amos 5:21-24, Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:10-17, Micah 6:6-8. For this is a God who can't be flattered and manipulated, but who positively rejects any worship not infused with a genuine yearning for "justice." By which is meant, precisely, an infinite commitment, on the part of the worshipping community as a whole, to moral self-critique. The Day of Atonement became the key festival in this regard. And I'd argue that we need to work at developing some sort of Christian equivalent.

It might take a very different form from the Jewish festival. Moreover, I think it would ideally need to be incorporated into a whole series of other more specific commemorative observances; which would be different in each society, as each has its own particular unresolved traumas to be probed. But the basic purpose would be, so far as possible, to reconnect with the prophetic tradition out of which Jesus himself originally came; and thereby, quite explicitly, to represent the Honesty he stood for, in all its intrinsic opposition to church ideology as such.

I think we need new observances for this purpose; with a view to also, then, transforming the old ones. For, so far as I can see, the old habits of church ideology are just too well ensconced in the traditional calendar to be shifted any other way.


Of course, it would be nice to be part of a community which one might feel was historically innocent of sin. But unfortunately, I think, this niceness is in a sense rather like the niceness of sin itself: it's an attraction from which we need to be released.

And, therefore, I'm happy to belong to the Church of England -- not least, because it's a church of which it's really very hard to feel proud.

Emerging out of a great act of vandalism, the destruction and pillage of the monasteries; designed, very much, to be a compliant instrument of oppressive governmental power; a great land-owning church, always in league with our fellow landlords; constantly struggling to repress Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and Nonconformists, on the other, until at last (thank God) we were defeated -- quite rightly, no one any longer admires the sort of church we used to be. It's clear that we have a special vocation: to be a pioneeringly honest ex-oppressor church.

If I'd been born, or if by some lucky chance I'd become a Quaker -- for instance -- then indeed I might feel some legitimate pride in my community's tradition. But, insofar as any possibility of redemption remains, it seems to me that religious communities are to be loved, not because they're historically good, but just because they're there. And, as regards liturgy, the great challenge today is surely to develop new forms of expression for that sort of love.

In the same way: although I wholeheartedly agree with those feminists who criticize the patriarchal quality of traditional liturgy -- so much so that, if there were ever any justification for "walking out" as a prophetic act, then I accept that this would be it -- nevertheless, I also agree with Angela West, who, in her book Deadly Innocence, repudiates that option on the grounds that after all it renders prophecy too easy; and that it allows the proper challenge behind the protest to be too easily evaded by those left behind.

And likewise: this would be my basic response to Nietzsche, as well. It's true, no one has confronted the dishonesty of traditional church ideology more penetratingly, or more subversively, than Nietzsche. Yet the honesty which he envisages remains, exclusively, that of an isolated individual free spirit. In the end, Nietzsche simply ducks the problem of public honesty altogether. For it's as though he's saying, "If I can't have an innocent community -- innocent of dishonesty -- I choose to have none." In that sense, he too is seduced by the chimera of innocence.

Liturgy as an ideal enactment of public honesty would be an open acknowledgement, and working through, of the reality of corporate sin. But, note, this is by no means to be confused with the manipulative cultivation of collective guilt-feelings. For who is it that feels guilty, in the way which invites manipulation? It's precisely someone who wants to feel innocent, yet is frustrated. And, inasmuch as the sort of liturgy I dream of would be premised on a basic repudiation of that craving, its governing purpose would actually be the very opposite of manipulative. Thus, it would at least seek to be the absolute antithesis to kitsch; entirely, a medicine against propaganda. Or, in other words: a sober, systematic discipline of learning to face up to things. A disciplined process of facing up to everything which, in Nietzsche's brutal terminology, the "human herd-animal" within us least knows how to face.


Such liturgy would be all about reconnecting with what is in fact also the earliest, pre-schismatic, and most profoundly valid impulse underlying the Protestant Reformation. I mean the impulse which comes to classic expression in Martin Luther's Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.

Thus Luther begins here with a series of propositions, in effect paradoxically elaborating on the warning in Jesus' parable, cited above; as well as echoing Paul on the Torah, and turning Paul's argument against the post-Pauline church. The first thesis sets the theme:

The law of God, although the soundest doctrine of life, is not able to bring man to righteousness but rather stands in the way.

It "stands in the way," inasmuch as the good works it prescribes, when rewarded with praise from the worshipping community, tend, almost inevitably, to divert one into boastful collusion with the corporate boastfulness of that community. For which reason, as it says in Thesis 7:

The works of righteous people would be deadly, if they were not feared to be deadly by those righteous people themselves in devout anxiety before God.

What's needed, according to this argument, is a "devout anxiety," accompanied by an absolute renunciation of any claim to be credited with the good that one does; attributing all, instead, to God's free gift of grace.

And then, on that basis, Luther goes on to distinguish between two polar opposite modes of theology:

The "theologian of glory" calls the bad good and the good bad. The "theologian of the cross" says what a thing is. (Thesis 21)

The former upholds the general worldview of officially licensed religious kitsch, whilst dismissing the "devout anxiety" which inspires the "theology of the cross," as if it were nothing but a traitorous lack of trust in the boastful community.

If only Luther had, himself, in the truest sense held fast to this distinction! But the trouble is, in his later schismatic polemic it's systematically obscured. For the meaning of his basic slogan "faith alone" mutates. Whereas at the beginning his evident concern is to set faith apart from any and every form of corporate boastfulness, increasingly later on the setting-apart is only from one form. Namely: that form which is bound up with the particular set of church practices he now repudiates as being "unscriptural." The reformed church develops a theology implicitly puffed up with its own glory, as contrasted to inglorious Rome. And so the original, primitive moment of universal truth, flickeringly there at Heidelberg, fades away into partisan bitterness.

"Theology of glory" / "theology of the cross": the opposition between these two is surely just the Christian version of a fundamental distinction applicable, trans-confessionally, to all sorts of liturgical tradition. Where Luther's thought shrinks into polemical narrowness, we need on the contrary to be expansive. In trans-confessional terms, the underlying difference between the two "theologies" is essentially a difference between two opposed prevailing qualities of pathos. Elsewhere, I've proposed that we term them "pathos of glory" and "pathos of shakenness."

By "pathos of glory" I simply mean: any sort of emotive persuasion tending to glorify the dishonest corporate egoism of a community; its self-projective hero-worship, and unthinking reverence for authority; its conventional moral prejudices. Whereas, the "pathos of shakenness" is the aesthetic antithesis to this.

At its purest and most articulate, the "pathos of shakenness" is what one encounters in certain works of anguished poetry: the products of the most solitary inner exile. One finds it raging, primevally, in the poetry of the prophet Amos; or again for instance in William Blake. It's there, also, in the jagged melancholy of Friedrich Hölderlin. Or Nelly Sachs. (To cite only the examples that I myself am most intrigued by.)

And what I'm proposing is a new approach to liturgy, reconceived as an art the whole essential aim of which would be to try and mediate at least something of the intrinsic truthfulness of such solitude, in the most participative manner possible, to society as a whole.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2002, Vol. 52,  No 2.