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

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.

This problem of imposed liturgy has become more and more apparent to me when I see younger educated-type leaders in low church traditions don the robes and impose “all in one day” a liturgical tradition upon their low church folk (I had a friend say this to me about a group within the Church of the Nazarenes just recently). They too quickly claim ressourcement, discounting the insights from their own free church history: doing in essence to their own free church history what they have accused their free church of doing to the prior high church traditions that preceded them. A new liturgical fundamentalism has replaced a Biblicist fundamentalism, neither of which I am happy about.

All of this is to put forth my thesis: We should avoid Constantinian liturgy in a post-Constantian world. Let me try to unpack this statement in a blog-like fashion.

Constantinian” refers generally to the conditions of Christendom beginning in the 4th century where through the edicts of the emperor Constantine the church joined hands with the worldly powers to become ensconced into a position of power and influence in Roman society. The church became the official religion and (eventually) the sanctioned culture of society. Yoderians (appreciators of John Howard Yoder like myself) see this as a mistake. Yet beyond Yoder, practically speaking, many of us see the days of Christendom here in the 21st century as long gone (and we say “good riddens”). It therefore makes no sense to carry out systems of liturgy which depend upon Christendom in a post-Christendom context.

Therefore I urge us involved in liturgical renewal to be aware of some Roman assumptions concerning liturgy which we simply cannot depend upon in today’s post Constantinian age:

Constantinian Assumptions We Cannot Depend Upon in Our Worship

1.) Everyone is catechesized. Constantinian liturgy assumes that everyone is catechesized: baptized as an infant, and basically enforced into a system of catechesis and confirmation. These people therefore have intensive training for what’s going on in this liturgy on Sunday morning. Today, we cannot assume anything of the sort. Indeed, it will take great effort to get anyone to come out to even a few sessions that teach on what we are doing at our worship gathering.
2.) Everyone is shaped elsewhere towards this end. Constantinian liturgy can assume that society as a whole is ordered towards Christian purposes. At the very least it is not hostile. The streets lead to the church, the festivals celebrate God, the market place is subordinate to Christ and His gifts, etc. This was Christendom. Therefore, the worship gathering under Christendom is in some sense a continuation in a sense of everyday life as opposed to an act of resistance. Today, in post-Christendom, we are shaped (the other six days of the week) in ways that are directly hostile to what happens at the Sunday morning gathering. Worship that assumes Christendom in these ways (as even evangelical worship forms do) can become quickly enclosed off from anyone who is not already initiated. I believe liturgy therefore must have a “resistance” quality to it. This often makes the community function central. Liturgy must have a binding effect that binds a community together in a Reality (trans)forming event in ways not as necessary in Christendom.
3.) Everyone speaks the same language. Constantinian liturgy assumes the language of thanksgiving and praise, Creator and Redeemer make sense to those in the gathering. These words are so rarely heard today that we cannot possibly assume to just say them and expect people to enter in and make sense. Today, liturgy must be sufficiently translated, with explanatory helps, all which do not depend upon too high expectations that people will devote themselves to elongated catechesis.
4.) The church is in a position of power. Constantinian liturgy makes assumptions about power. I believe the priestly prayer, where the priest takes on symbolism to the point of representing Christ at the Eucharist, has a Constantinian element to it. The way it possibly allows the priest to be separated from the congregation and elevated over the community smacks of a concentration of power that makes no sense via the communal programs of 1 Cor 12, Rom 6 and Eph 4. Here is where I have to move very cautiously here remembering the lessons of previous corruptions of the liturgy that happened here in prior centuries. To me this has Constantinian impulses to it. I see it having the potential to override the community forming-constituting dimension of the Eucharist.

In summary, when liturgy does not take into account the post-Constantinian nature of our situation in the world, it can become separatist, elitist, off putting, and inhospitable. Liturgy can go bad.

Now let me put forth a caveat here. I am NOT A LITURGICAL THEOLOGIAN. So I am looking to learn from others here.

Yet I nonetheless put forth this argument because I believe finding our liturgical way in worship is a challenge in our post Christendom context. It is a crucial and important challenge. We’re dealing with it at the Vine regularly. I believe the worship (liturgy) of God’s church must be driven by Scripture and historical wisdom. I believe some of our problems in evangelicalism today have been because we rejected history and thereby became Scripturally dubious as well. We cannot and should not invent liturgy. Neither should we explain it to death. We (that see the indispensability of liturgical worship and spiritual formation practices) must avoid both the trite liturgical exercises devoid of Scripture and historical integrity as well as high church liturgical “orthodoxy” that is too Constantinian to be workable for those of us who wish to engage a post Constantinian world.

P.S. For an example of spiritual practices (liturgy) engaged in post Constantinian fashion with both Scriptural and historical integrity, see Mark Van Steenwyk’s Missio dei Brevary. Also check out the classic Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology for more help here.

Is anyone else out there dealing with these liturgical issues? Any resources you’ve fund helpful?

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