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Worship: Renewal to Practice by Mary Collins
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Worship: Renewal to Practice

by Mary Collins

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Can Christian liturgical theology be done with little engagement with the revealed Word of God? Or can Christian worship be studied apart from the attributes of the One who is the object of worship? These are the questions linger after reading Mary Collins’ “Worship: Renewal to Practice.”

This review is written in quite a different era than that when the book is authored. The post Vatican II Catholic Church, particularly the part of the Church in North America, and the culture at large have gone through upheavals and great changes in the last quarter century. Many of the issues the book discusses are inevitably out dated. Nevertheless, it is still possible find currency in certain sectors of Christians where their struggles with some of these issues, e.g., feminism, continue to this date.

The book is entitled: “Worship: Renewal to Practice” under a series on worship by the Pastoral Press published in 1980’s. The author, Mary Collins, OSB, is professor emerita in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, where she teaches liturgical studies and sacramental theology. The book is divided into four sections purported about four different aspects of worship:

1. Renewal of worship
2. Study of worship
3. Word of worship
4. Practice of worship

Beginning with a synopsis of the Scottsdale Conference held in 1973, Collins highlights in Chapter 1 her concern that liturgy and culture should inform one another. As such, traditional liturgy in America needs to undergo transformation to remain relevant. In this chapter Collins quoted copiously from other keynoters to the conference, specifically Langdon Gilkey, who employed symbolism in sacramental and theological imports to explain their interplay with culture and ordinary life. In asking “Who are the hearers of the word?” (ch. 2), Collins turns from the ministry of the word to the hearers whose election should end in mission. And therefore the persistent mantra: “your life for the life of the world”.

In chapter 3, the author leaves the strictly liturgical and takes a short excursion on culture, sin, forgiveness, and compassion. She then invites her readers to reacquaint the reflections of Augustine and those of T.S. Eliot as she returns to ponder spirituality, mystery of time, remembering – more specifically, God’s remembering and forgetting. And it is also in our collective remembering of our significant moments that we gain access to “God’s creative, sustaining, healing, and redeeming deeds.” (p. 51)

The second part of the book begins with a study of the work of Victor W. Turner, which focuses on the crux of the subject matter: the symbolisms and ritual process in liturgy. A paragraph in page 62 (“The problem for contemporary liturgical … popular ignorance or rejection of their efforts.”) probably captures best the author’s insight in liturgical renewal. She then delves deep into liturgical transformations by engaging with the work of Langer, Grimes, Bateson, and Geertz in chapter 6. Readers will truly benefit only by consulting further the work of these specialists. Chapters 7 and 8 represent Collins’ further probe into the rituals, liturgical rites, including the Eucharist and their cultural implications. At times, she uses terms such as meanings – affective, normative (pg. 103), or theological (p. 121), mystery without much explications. Using an interesting formulary depiction of the transcendence and immanence of Christ, Collins segways to illustrate the power politics embedded in the Eucharistic assembly.

In the section under “The Words of Worship”, Collins begins by examining the liturgical texts. She then traces the development of ecclesial structures through the early Church by examining the changes in the NT language. She invites her readers to question and reimagine the power structure currently exists in the Church, and advocates a more prominent role for the laity in liturgical ministries. In the thought-provoking chapter on “Inclusive Language”, Collins comments rightly that: “a religious tradition which seems to worship its words rather than the ineffable reality which the words mean to evoke has not escaped idolatry.” Apparently, such temptation to idolize words cuts both ways as those insist on inclusive language ignore the very effable characters that God reveals. The potential distortion (p. 218) to which Collins refers inevitably surfaces even when the divine compassion and mercy are celebrated rather than God’s justice and redemptive power (p. 225).

Collins opens the last section of the book renewing her call for liturgical transformation. She appeals for creativity, both at personal and institutional levels, for new liturgical forms. Chapter 14 turns out to be the bright spot of the entire book, not only because of the display of the author’s usual convictions, but also for her unusual clarity of language. In there she asserts, rightly, that seemingly diametric emphasis between Eucharistic liturgy and ministry on behalf of justice has no place in authentic Christian life, which demands an intricate integration of both. Thus, “the reform and renewal of the liturgy goes hand in hand with the reform and renewal of the church.” (p. 251) Referencing a story by Elie Weisel, Collins first establishes an interesting relationship between suffering and remembering (or memory), and that exacting justice ultimately hinges on the act of remembering or the failure to do so. Eucharistic rites, as Jesus instructed his disciples, are fundamentally acts of remembering, and such acts inevitably evoke in their participants God’s unique way of justice. “The life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus is the true revelation of how God effects justice”, and His way to “intervene on behalf of suffering and sinful humanity”. Therefore, partaking in Eucharistic praxis is a response to the invitation to participate in Jesus’ life of obedience to God and ministering on behalf of justice.

Collins further points out that exclusion of lay congregants in many aspects of Eucharistic liturgy, such as drinking of the Eucharistic cup, may have over time led to distortion in the understanding of Eucharistic praxis and in turn has blunted the Church’s commitment to action on behalf of justice and ministry for the transformation of the world.

Collins closes the book with a chapter on ritual symbols and another focusing on cultures and their interplay with liturgy, particularly as that relates to young Christians.

All in all, this book is a collection of essays or speeches and it reads like one despite the ostensible coherent groupings in the table of contents. It covers a variety of topics the author considers as related to liturgical study. In her effort to explicate the relevancy of Christian liturgy with culture, or with the subculture revolves around clergy and laity, ecclesial polity, roles of male and female in the Church, Collins seems to have steered the meanings of liturgical activities more towards the human plane than to a holy God to whom these activities are performed. It is surprising that a book purportedly on worship has so little to further readers’ understanding about the prime object of worship. In the few instances where the author delves into the essence of spirituality, her language usually slithers towards the esoteric. Those readers who seek to gain insight into Christian worship, especially in the realm of Catholic liturgy, will be disappointed. ( )
  Laurence.Lai | Aug 23, 2013 |
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