Regaining Our Ritual Coherence: The Question of Textuality and Worship in Ecumenical Reception

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Has the "verbal ethos" of Faith and Order, its focus upon the written word as bearer of theological meaning, limited its understanding of worship and its importance in the search for Christian unity?(1)

This important question, recently asked by the Ditchingham group, should be answered in the affirmative. The aim of this contribution is to explain why, from both a theoretical and a practical perspective, Faith and Order tends to emphasize a form of "textualism" and, despite commendable efforts, is struggling to accept the role of liturgy and worship in its theological efforts. The framework is the wider issue of ecumenical reception,(2) in which Faith and Order plays such a critical part.

I take my cue from the two elements of the question raised above. The "verbal ethos" and "focus upon the written word" are dealt with in the first section. I first attempt to highlight the well-known but neglected insight on the role of the receptor from post-structural Second Testament hermeneutics, after which the relation between ritual and textual coherence is explained by drawing on insights from oral theories and studies on the history of writing.

The limited "understanding of worship and its importance in the search for Christian unity" is dealt with in the second section. The crucial role of liturgy and the understanding of ecumenical doxology form the basis for a critical analysis of how Faith and Order missed opportunities to appropriate its own insights on liturgy and worship.

It will emerge that reception is hampered by the present mode in which ecumenical work is produced and mediated. Part of the answer is expressed in the title of this essay. Reception may have a greater chance of success through regaining the church's "ritual coherence."

I. Reception and Textuality

A cynical view of the ecumenical movement might be that it consists of a few professional theologians, mainly from the West, who gather at regular intervals to produce texts of which they themselves are the primary and only real receptors. Although one must consider its full context, it is fair to say that the most important theological results of the World Council of Churches, as represented by Faith and Order, and the pivotal axis of bi- and multilateral dialogues are, indeed, the production of texts. The problem lies with their reception. This is highlighted by randomly chosen examples: the mere "paper status" of the first-ever document produced by Faith and Order in 1937;(3) the repeated frustration over a lack of responses from churches(4) or the slow process involved in getting a reply (up to ten years), with the added problem that consensus reached by representatives is not necessarily accepted by member churches;(5) and the lack of progress in church unification, even in the same confessional tradition.(6)

How can the fresh concept of textuality overcome some of the problems inherent in "the ecumenical production of paper"(7) that lends ecumenism an elitist character, thereby denying an integral ecumenism?(8) I shall briefly, more by way of suggestion than definitive statement, examine insights drawn from reception theory in Second Testament hermeneutics and studies regarding orality and the history of writing.

A. Second Testament Hermeneutics

Although some(9) refer to reception theories in communication models, nowhere in the consulted literature is it seriously considered as making a contribution to our understanding of ecumenical or ecclesial reception. Even a superficial reading of reception theories in specifically Second Testament studies does provide exciting prospects. I focus explicitly on the shift from the historical and structural to the reception dimension of texts, drawing mainly on Text and Reality by South African Second Testament scholars, Bernard Lategan and Willem Vorster,(10) specifically on Lategan's contribution.

A trajectory of hermeneutical theories over the last few decades shows that "[w]e find ourselves in the aftermath of an intense struggle between the historical method and the structuralist approach to the interpretation of biblical texts. …