A Social History of the Liturgy
Frank C. Senn. The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.
IN THE PARLANCE OF ITS practitioners, the field of liturgical studies is now often concerned with what lies "beyond the text." Frank C. Senn's The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy exemplifies this "beyond the text" understanding of liturgical studies. This book realizes the necessity of moving beyond the consideration of texts and structures to an exploration of the people whose texts and structures they were and are.
After an introductory chapter in which he explains that writing a social history of liturgy involves a telling of the story of Christian liturgy from the perspective of the worshiping people, Senn provides some methodological considerations ("Sociologically Speaking, What Kind of Group Was the Christian Assembly?") to acquaint the reader with the various forms that early Christianity assumed. Then, in seventeen subsequent chapters, following more or less a conventional periodization that most liturgical historians employ (early, medieval, Reformation, modern), Senn pursues his "aim" of demonstrating "the impact of the people on the performance of their 'public work,' by means of which they signified their hopes and aspirations, expressed their devotion to God, and acted out their human relationships in the presence of the Judge of all" (7). While Senn is aware that a social-scientific or social-historical approach runs the risk of reductionism by either ignoring or downplaying the salience of the theological in a consideration of the church's worship, he makes a deft methodological move by asserting that "the incarnational principle of Christian theology" makes it possible, if not necessary, to observe how "the church really operates as a human institution in order to affirm its meaning as a community created by the Holy Spirit in the image of the Triune God" (8).
From this theological-cultural vantage point, Senn charts how those human communities formed by God, triune and holy, and in which the Son of God is present in Word and Sacrament have encountered this reality in a myriad of settings and styles ranging from the austere to the awe-inspiring-house churches, cemetery gatherings around the graves of martyrs, in great basilicas, in the elevation of the host, in processions, in the word of preaching, in the devotions of the pious—to name but a few.
To conclude his social history, Senn offers an epilogue—"Postmodern Liturgical Retrieval"—in which he addresses the "sticky-wicket" of what worship might look like in our time. Whether it is "ancient/future worship" or the "alternative worship" of the so-called emerging churches, Senn finds here the potential for Grafting ways to worship God that embody ancient rites and symbols but are connected in fresh ways to contemporary culture. His own hunch "is that the retrieval of tradition, combined with instances of inculturation, will also be the way of Christianity in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—'the next Christendom'"(332).
At the outset, Senn notes the limitations of his enterprise which means that he can only "paint a picture using broad strokes," thus leaving to "others to color in the details of particular traditions and local worshiping communities" (8). Hence, as I read the book, I found myself doing this, particularly with the medieval and Reformation material. The rather well-known study of James Russell on The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, or the essay of Mary Collins, "Evangelization, Catechesis, and the Beginning of Western Eucharistic Theology," would be two examples of such coloring in of the details. Or, one might be more acutely aware of how John Bossy's work on medieval Christianity is often an over-romanticizing of late medieval Catholicism or a caricaturing of Protestantism.
Similarly, with regard to the Reformation, one could attend to the work of those who have proclaimed the Reformation a "failure," merely substituting one system of coercion for another. Or, one could address some of these more "negative" works with the contributions of historians who view the Reformation as a "new experiment in companionship and community." For instance, good use can be made of the work of David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany, that has shown, on the basis of church visitation records, that the more social understanding of the Lord's Supper was still operative in an early Lutheran piety. Or, one could emphasize at this juncture, too, how the great sixteenth-century debate about religious ritual belonged to a larger, early modern discourse over the nature of the person, one defined not by individualism but by reference to the social and moral community that was embodied in liturgical practice. Finally, Christopher Boyd Brown's Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation is a social-historical study that has shown that the success of the Reformation lay not only in its effect on the public institutions or educated elite of sixteenth-century Germany but in its hold in the homes and on the hearts of its people.
Another place "to color in the details" would be in the realm of the "theological." This is often the soft-underbelly of many social-historical approaches in liturgical studies. To Senn's credit, he does come down on the side of the theological that is the guiding thread in his book—that is, whatever it is that believers say, sing, or do in the worship of the church, it is the work of God. Or, in the words of another recent "sociological" history of Christian worship, it is this opus Dei that provides a distinctive understanding of this event being about a relationship of intimacy between the human and the divine (Martin D. Stringer, A Sociological History of Christian Worship, 20-21).
Another set of observations about Senn's book concerns both his repeated use of the definite article, "the liturgy" as well as the title, The People's Work. Paul Bradshaw has noted that the former presumes a continuity over time that recent historical research has rendered increasingly difficult to demonstrate. With regard to the title: in spite of what is often said, the original sense of the word leitourgia—public service—does not imply a community activity. Individuals performed public services [e.g., producing dramatic performances, paying taxes, serving in the military, paying for garbage collection]. However, a Christian understanding of liturgy is not determined by etymology. So, the title is unfortunate, though I suspect, in order for the book to "work," the author had to find a way of acknowledging that the church's worship is as much a human artifact as it is a theological reality.
A final observation or question: How does the study of liturgical texts relate to the work of the social-historian of liturgy? This is an important question to ask, what with some of the gratuitous fiddling around with words and images of various so-called "renewing" projects that can only dilute any "confessional" or "orthodox" understandings of Christian faith, making of it instead some sort of pious meandering into what can only be "the black hole of the self."
But in the end, I do not wish to detract from the contribution that Senn has made. He has written a useful book that can help broaden our sense of what constitutes liturgical history. Liturgical historians seek to understand the evidence they have, be it historical, textual, literary, or the archaeological remains of buildings, furnishings, and artifacts, as testimonies to what is per se a living event in which God and human beings have come together in ways that are faith-forming, faith-sustaining, and life-giving. And, Senn's book is refreshingly free of any over-determining "theory" as well as of any overbearing hermeneutics of suspicion that can accompany books of this kind. He has instead immersed himself in the material at hand. In so doing, he has given to students of the church's worship a resource or a point of departure for better understanding what has occurred in this event over time, not to mention our own time.
Michael B. Aune,
Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary