INNOCENCE: ON THE REQUIREMENTS OF LITURGICAL TRUTH,
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
The best liturgy, surely, is the enactment of the most radical
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
of glory" calls the bad good and the good bad. The
"theologian of the cross" says what a thing is.
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
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.