Liturgy in Migration: Is Liturgy a Migrant? (And Why the Answer to that Question Matters)

Moderator’s note: This post is part of our short series “Liturgy in Migration.” This series is based on the new Liturgical Press book Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace.

Why might one wish to conceive of liturgy – its history, practices, and contemporary developments – through the lens of migration? What particular insights are garnered through such an approach? Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace offers answers to these questions. The book consists of fourteen essays, most of which grew out of a 2011 conference organized by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) and its program in liturgical studies. This conference, titled “Liturgy in Migration,” offered diverse case studies of liturgical migrations, both past and present.  Rooted in an expansive view of the field of liturgical studies — a view fostered by the interdisciplinary character of the ISM — the conference highlighted traditional liturgical topics and also paid attention to material and visual culture as well as to musical traditions, all key dimensions of liturgical life. The book that grew out of this conference matches this expansive vision, ending with a chapter on the migration of liturgical practices into cyberspace.

What lies behind the appeal of interpreting liturgy through the lens of migration?  To begin with, migrations are writ large into our contemporary world and thus simply a part of the cultural context in which liturgy is celebrated. The International Organization for Migration estimates that close to one billion people around the world are migrants, owing to economic reasons, political unrest, humanitarian crises, natural disasters, environmental displacement, human trafficking, and individual choice (and these are only a few of the complex causes for the startling number of migrants worldwide). Of course processes of migration are not a new fact in history. The last hundred years of rapid globalization have simply made such processes a dominant feature of contemporary life. In the last quarter century alone, the number of people on the move worldwide has doubled, from 100 million to nearly 200 million people. And processes of migration are expected to intensify in years to come, leading some to think of our times as the “age of migration.” In tandem with these processes, religious traditions and their worship practices are also crisscrossing the globe. For example, Islam has grown in Europe, African-originated churches in North America, a Japanese Buddhist group in Brazil. And together with Christian hymns and global songs, a host of other phenomena circulate globally, from cultural trends, technological advances, and diverse knowledges to most material goods be they raw, finished, discarded, or inadvertently released. Finally, there is the contemporary large-scale migration — especially of the digital natives — deeper and deeper into Cyberspace and constant connectivity. One of the goals of Liturgy in Migration was to show that such global crisscrossing is true also of liturgical practices, both in the contemporary context of globalizing flows as well as in the manifold migrations of liturgical history. As we planned the initial conference at the Yale ISM, we imagined such migrations to stretch from the entryway of the Upper Room to the edges of Cyberspace (and thus already stumbled across the subtitle for the later book).

At the same time, in making use of the category of migration as an interpretive lens for the study of liturgy, both the conference and the book are part of a larger discursive map on which migration has surfaced as an important marker. Not least in theological circles, the theme of migration has been of growing interest. The journal Concilium, for example, dedicated a volume to exploring Migration in a Global World in 2008. The same year saw the publication of a collection of essays that offered “theological perspectives on migration.”[i] Two years later, Gemma Tulud Cruz published An Intercultural Theology of Migration, providing a theological interpretation of a particular contemporary migration, namely that of Filipina domestic workers.[ii]  In 2011, the cover of a leading Catholic magazine promised its readers “A Theology of Migration,”[iii] and William T. Cavanaugh’s book, critiquing a modern transfer of devotion from the church to the nation-state, appeared as Migrations of the Holy.[iv] A year later, Elaine Padilla and Peter Phan edited Theology of Migration in the Abrahamic Religions.[v] Conferences dedicated to religion and migration have also been on the rise. Our 2011 ISM liturgy conference was preceded by a 2005 conference titled “Sex and Religion in Migration,” which examined how religious and gender identities arise and develop in relation to one another in the context of globalization. In 2011, Erfurt University’s theological faculty organized a conference on “Liturgy and its Contribution to the Integration of Migrants.” And in 2012, a conference hosted by the University of Salzburg’s Center for Intercultural Theology and Studies of Religion focused on “Migration as a Sign of the Times,” bringing into conversation critical analyses from both the social sciences and theology.

Contemporary migrations and the scholarly and theological interest in them are, however, only one aspect of conceiving of liturgy as a migrant. The real focus lies elsewhere. At the heart of both the conference and the book dedicated to Liturgy in Migration is the conviction that the category of migration constitutes an intriguing interpretive lens with which to pursue the study of liturgy. The category of migration offers, for example, a new optic for rethinking liturgical developments in history. Such a new lens or optic is of some importance today, as Nathan Mitchell showed in his volume on liturgy in the “Theology in Global Perspective Series,” titled Meeting Mystery.  Mitchell insisted on the importance of a shift of lenses in the twentieth century with regard to how cultural change happens. From a prevalent understanding of such change through the image of “trees” — i.e., growth originates in a root, is vertical, and expands by branching out – contemporary theorizing has moved to the image of “crabgrass” or a “rhizome,” where growth happens through multiple, horizontal, non-linear, and quite random circulations.[vi] The lens of migration for the study of liturgical history in many ways privileges such a “rhizomatic” over an “arboreal” optic. This rhizomatic optic provides an alternative to the lenses that dominated liturgical historiography for much of the twentieth century, especially those of an “organic development” or an “evolution” of rites. These lenses were predicated on images from evolutionary biology and their popularization, now transferred onto the study of liturgical history. The influence of these models remains quite pronounced, for example when liturgical development is described in terms of a “selective evolution,” with weaker variants of the species dying out while the fittist survive. Conceiving of liturgical history in such evolutionist terms has had an effect of naturalizing power: a historical narrative is conjured whose unfolding requires the identification of root elements from which later elements are understood to have branched out. Yet the explanatory power of such a narrative has begun to weaken as contemporary understandings of liturgical development have turned to a more rhizomatic optic (although this turn has not been explicitly theorized as such). Its signs are clear, nevertheless, namely the move away from a narrative of neatly linear development toward an acknowledgement of the starkly fragmentary, disparate, and localized nature of the extant evidence.[vii] Paul Bradshaw, for example, increasingly stressed the silences, absences, and aporias encountered in early Christian liturgical sources. This fits well with what drives postmodern historical analyses: an emphasis on fragmentariness, the mediations of textual representations, discontinuity, and difference.

It would, however, be all too facile to dismiss Liturgy in Migration as merely being in conversation with a currently fashionable theory that, in a few decades, will have exhausted its appeal. For one thing, liturgical studies has always been in conversation with contemporary intellectual trends and theorizing (we have but to think of the influence of models of evolution in twentieth-century liturgical historiography, mentioned above). Liturgical studies, in other words, is always shaped by the intellectual conversations of its own time. The best we can do is to enter into these conversations critically and self-critically; the alternative would be to let these conversations shape our thinking unbeknownst to us. Moreover, the reality of multiple migrations is easily discernible as written deeply into the Christian tradition itself, long before migration theories became a scholarly field of inquiry. Not only are the “migration stories of the Hebrew Scriptures… often the sites where God’s revelation takes place,”[viii] the Gospels themselves stand as a witness to a linguistic migration as they capture the words of Jesus in another language from the one he spoke. The early Christian centuries are filled with multiple migrations, be they missionary travels, journeys into exile (e.g., Athanasius to Trier; Hilary of Poitiers to Asia Minor), pilgrimages (e.g., Egeria), or even professional moves (e.g., Augustine’s relocation to Milan, with its profound consequences for the history of Western Christianity). Liturgical practices and texts also migrated. Two well-known examples are the fourth-century cross-fertilization and osmosis that took place in eucharistic praying, and the ninth-century migration of a model Roman liturgical book north across the Alps at the request by Emperor Charlemagne, who sought to promote a Roman liturgy through royal patronage. This migration resulted in a hybrid Frankish/Gallican-Roman rite that shaped liturgical life in the West. These and similar historical migrations can be brought into conversation with contemporary globalizing liturgical flows. The latter are legion, from Eastern liturgical elements that have influenced Western liturgical reforms to diasporic Ethiopian churches in North America, from evolving Asian American and Hispanic liturgical practices to the migration of elements of Christian worship into cyberspace, not to mention the global spread of Pentecostalism and U.S. mega-churches, or the much smaller international circulation of feminist liturgies.

Overall, the discipline of liturgical studies – with its profound interest in historical processes, spatial performances, material culture, and bodily practices – seems well positioned to investigate what a scholarly inquiry that foregrounds the category “migration” might yield for our understanding of liturgical life and practice. And liturgical studies has something to gain from the insights garnered through the optic of migration, especially a clearer understanding of how people, practices, ideas, and materials travel and change. Even if one concentrated on contemporary global liturgical flows alone, the terrain is overwhelming. Today, there are more than two billion Christians worldwide (roughly a third of the world’s population) many of whom will be at worship on any given Sunday — whether gathered in an emerging  Methodist congregation in Cambodia, a diasporic Ethiopian church in Boston, a mega-church in Brazil, or an online community in cyberspace. To map the diversity of contemporary worship practices – and the many migratory flows at the heart of them, whether of people, practices, texts, or technologies – is impossible. Yet not to acknowledge this diversity and the underlying migratory flows seems equally impossible. Living in an “age of migration” as we do, liturgical practices have to be understood within this framework, not in occlusion or ignorance of it. This is where Liturgy in Migration comes in, as a first attempt to shed light on this vast terrain. The essays in the collection offer a look at a number of liturgical migrations, past and present, across a variety of boundaries, among them geographic, ethnic, ecclesial, and chronological ones. In a first historical part, we find, for example, an inquiry into the relationship between early Christian and Jewish ritual practices with a particular focus on the festivals of Pesach and Easter, blessings after meals, and liturgies of the Word. Another essay investigates the prayer for the sanctification of the waters, probing the various versions of the text that circulated in the Eastern traditions, specifically in the Armenian, Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Syriac liturgies, with a view to mapping possible migratory movements of the text. A third essay introduces a liturgical migration rooted in reform movements in late-medieval convent culture by studying “nuns on the move” and the liturgical migrations and reforms they instigated. We move to a little known example of migratory movements from the sixteenth-century, namely the formation of a Reformed liturgy in Poland and Lithuania, and then to Methodist liturgical and hymnological materials which migrated as the result of geographic, cultural, and generational circumstances. The historical part of the book is rounded off with an essay on the migration from Orthodox liturgical life in Greece to the liturgy of the Greek American community, with particular attention to liturgical language and architecture. The second main part of the volume moves toward six contemporary processes of liturgical migration, highlighting the impact of Eastern Christian traditions on Western liturgical life, migrations of Spanish and Hispanic Good Friday processions, the transmission of Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical music in the forced migration after the 1974 revolution in Ethiopia; changing Asian American liturgical practices; and the migrations of liturgical practices in missionary movements. An essay on the contemporary migration of liturgical practices into cyberspace concludes the volume.

In all these essays, migration proves to be a constructive optic through which to view both historical and contemporary processes of liturgical transition. The category of migration is flexible enough to allow for different understandings of movement and growth, rather than locking us into an evolutionist, linear model alone. With its more rhizomatic lens, migration thus creates space for thinking broadly about varieties of liturgical movements, some of them not linear, others – especially in the early centuries – no longer discernible in their directionality. In contradistinction to an arboreal lens, this new lens encourages us to see beyond simply linear developments to circular, even random movements, profound disruptions, unexpected turns, and aporias.

One shared theme that emerges in the essays in Liturgy in Migration is this: there is no liturgical development without migratory flows woven into it (even if the most basic flow were only that of time). Just as there is no “gospel” without “culture” — at least not in a way that would allow us neatly to juxtapose the two — so also there is no liturgy that does not already bear traces of migration, maybe most fundamentally in the fact that the Word of Life already meets us in a migration from the original language in which it was spoken and lived. To put this point differently: there is not something called “liturgy” to which then is added “migration.” The two are always intertwined, at least since the doors of the Upper Room opened.

The answer to the question posed in the title of this essay thus has to be: yes indeed, liturgy is a migrant. And liturgy needs to be taken seriously in all its rich and diverse migratory flows.



[i]  A Promised Land, a Perilous Journey: Theological Perspectives on Migration, ed. Daniel G. Groody and Gioacchino Campese (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).

[ii]  Gemma Tulud Cruz, An Intercultural Theology of Migration: Pilgrims in the Wilderness, Studies in Systematic Theology 5 (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

[iii]  America 204:3 (2011).  The cover took up the title of an essay by Daniel G. Groody in that issue: “A Theology of Migration: A New Method for Understanding a God on the Move,” pp. 18-20.

[iv]  William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).

[v]  Theology of Migration in the Abrahamic Religions, ed. Elaine Padilla and Peter Phan, Christianities of the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[vi]  See Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery: Liturgy, Worship, Sacraments, Theology in Global Perspective Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), esp. 3-47. 

[vii]  Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 1-20.  The chapter was substantially rewritten from the first edition.

[viii]  Robert Schreiter, “Catholicity as a Framework for Addressing Migration,” in Migration in a Global World, ed. Solange Levebvre and Luiz Carlos Susin, Concilium 2008/5 (London: SCM Press, 2008), 32-46, here 34.

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