Book Review: Graham Hughes, Reformed Sacramentality

By E. Byron (Ron) Anderson

Graham Hughes Reformed Sacramentality (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2017), 264 pp.

 As I open this review, fair disclosure requires me to note that I wrote a blurb for the book, so I approach it with an appreciative and supportive eye.

As Gordon Lathrop in his foreword and Steffen Lösel in his extended introduction make clear, Graham Hughes was an important voice, though not well known in the United States, in liturgical theology. From 1977-2003 Hughes had taught New Testament and liturgical studies at United Theological College in Sydney, Australia. His earlier book Worship as Meaning (Cambridge, 2003) continues to generate conversation and insight about the work of liturgical theology, especially from the way he puts it into conversation with and draws upon the semiotic theory of American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. Hughes died in February 2015, so Reformed Spirituality provides a posthumous “final word,” made up of chapters and several articles prepared for a book he was working on at the time of death and several articles. I am grateful to Steffen Lösel for his editorial work and Liturgical Press for bringing this to print.

The book unfolds in three sections. The first is an extensive introductory essay in which Lösel provides a clear survey of Hughes’ work and thought, making clear the importance of Worship as Meaning and then locating the arguments of this book in the context of Hughes’ thought. Those not familiar with Hughes’ work will find this essay am especially helpful introduction. The second section is the body of the book, five chapters that develop Hughes’ proposals for a Reformed sacramental theology. Chapters 1 and 2 represent completed chapters for the book and set out his primary argument. Chapters 3-5 draw on preliminary but published studies for the book. The third and fourth chapters circle back to his challenges to “disseminated sacramentality” in the first chapter, with exploration of its historical causes in Reformed history and theology. The final chapter begins to develop some of the implications of his critique for liturgical practice and theology. The final section is the transcript of an interview recorded shortly before his death with William Emilsen, Hughes’ colleague at United Theological College and close friend; it provides a record of the development of the book.

Though the five chapters do, in the end, have a sense of being incomplete, especially when one realizes that the promise at the end of chapter 2 (“to come back to the fact that…sacraments are images”) is never quite fulfilled, they nevertheless provide a distinctive and rich contribution to contemporary discussions about sacramentality. Hughes challenges the ways in which a Reformed disseminated (or distributed or diffused) sacramentality—where awareness of God and the sacred are located in everyday experience—has shaped the sacramental understanding of many Protestant churches and placed them in danger of “secular colonization by modernity.” It leads to what Hughes calls a “desacralized Christianity.” In the context of our growing eco-consciousness, such a position also has a tendency to take on pantheistic characteristics.

Uncomfortable with this position, Hughes takes on what he calls the “uncertain place” of materiality in the Reformed tradition, arguing that material physical forms—sacramental things—have a necessary, even canonical, place in the church’s life and practice. The church needs to “identify particular physical forms and structures as trusted and trustworthy carriers of the divine” (7). Disseminated sacramentality needs to be balanced by a “condensed” sacramentality, through which our awareness of the sacred is found in specific trusted material actions, our physicality is acknowledged and engaged in Christian worship, and our encounter with God is given physical form. As he notes, “matters of the spirit turn out to be elusive…[but] substantial forms…both allow and demand accountability” (9). The elusive become increasingly matters of intuition and places for self-projection. The specificity of condensed symbols provides a reference point from which “to interrogate the surrounding cultural mores and values…to assess the surrounding culture” (34). For Hughes, it is the sacraments of the church that reveal the sacramentality of human life, rather than vice versa (47). As he claims at beginning of chapter 4, “the heart of matter is whether, where, and how people encounter some sense of a divine dimension in ordinary lives,” without which the church becomes no more than a group of like-minded individuals or an agency for self-improvement (115).

Perhaps the whole of Hughes’ argument can be summed in in the short phrase “Faith depends on materiality” (168). That very materiality, as he demonstrates through the whole of the book, then requires that we attend to the quality of our relationships to other physical beings and to the material conditions in which we live (158). In other words, sacramentality leads to ethics—but this, too, remains an undeveloped point in his argument.

As Hughes notes himself in the closing interview, “the five [chapters] walk around the topic without ever actually in one single monograph pushing it forward or making it into a comprehensive study of sacramentality” (181). This, I think, is both the book’s weakness and its strength. By returning again and again, as he does, to the question of faith’s materiality, Hughes invites our reconsideration of idolatry and faith, signification and meaning, the physical and the spiritual, and, finally, who God is for us. With such an invitation, we have our own work to do.

E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL.


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