Brief Book Review: Suffering in Worship

Suffering in Worship: Anglican Liturgy in Relation to Stories of Suffering People by Armand Léon van Ommen

What’s the main point? Using participant observation and interviews within a narrative-ritual model, van Ommen highlights the importance of (and opportunities for) explicitly naming occasions where God suffers with people, so that human suffering might be transformed by God within the community.

Who’s it for? Academics focused on issues of pastoral theology (especially suffering and healing) – not just liturgical academics!  Preachers and presiders – not just those within the Anglican communion!

Who should read this? Academics and clergy, certainly.  Also, all academically-inclined would-be “authors” of the liturgical experience, such as musicians who select songs for worship, and liturgists who craft petitions and other texts for worship.

Why does it matter? Even though not everyone suffers simultaneously, van Ommen notes that “All are vulnerable, all are broken” (139).  Naming our own suffering, especially through lament, allows us to make connections between the stories of God’s suffering and our own. This, in turn, heightens the degree to which healing can be facilitated.

Why is this book significant? Van Ommen argues that the central liturgical themes are 1) restoring wholeness/shalom/peace, 2) glorifying God, and 3) living faithfully.  The reality of human suffering finds a place in the first theme, but the liturgy tends to focus on sin rather than suffering.  In van Ommen’s own words, “the liturgy makes clear that God suffers because of his wayward people and that he suffers for them.  But does liturgy also make clear that God suffers withthose who suffer” (108)?

Quibbles.  My concerns with Suffering in Worship, a revision of his PhD dissertation, are largely structural.  Van Ommen seemed somewhat uncomfortable in the first part of the book (an empirical narrative and liturgical-ritual analysis of Anglican worship, as experienced at four churches in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). It seemed to me as if this part of the book had been heavily edited, but that he was reading the later version in light of its source.  I found his use of data from interviews to be very enlightening, but these were far less frequent than might have been expected, and I wondered whether these had been omitted from the original.  Particularly helpful, perhaps, would have been inclusion some example when describing how worshipers “come with their own stories” (26).   Additionally, while I appreciated van Ommen’s definitions of public, official, and private meanings for ritual (especially the distinction between public and official), I spent a good bit of time trying to re-locate those definitions later, since these were not located in the “Public and private” introductory subsection (with subheading), but in a related introductory subsection occurring two subsections prior.  The result of rearranging some of the material, but not its related parts? And finally, his “Dutch English” (x) sometimes hampered understanding: “His second insight that adds to our discussion is that psychological research shows that only ventilating emotions is not constructive” (112, emphasis added).  These issues, it seems to me, sometimes made reading more difficult that it need have been.

Kudos. For all of the structural quibbles named above, in reading the second part of Suffering in Worship on liturgical theology, van Ommen excels.  We are all too aware that real people are suffering within our communities and congregations. Van Ommen shines a light on the need for intentionality as it pertains to human suffering.  His experiential research demonstrates that suffering people do, indeed, find moments of connection within the liturgy. Frequently, however, these opportunities occur in texts that are not fixed or pre-written, and participants frequently make the connections on their own.  Liturgists (including presiders, preachers, and musicians) should, he argues, intentionally include occasions for lament within the liturgy and within the life of the community as a whole.  Because in doing this, all those who suffer are better enabled to find healing because they “find their own stories in the story of God” (153).

Van Ommen, Armand Léon.  Suffering in Worship: Anglican Liturgy in Relation to Stories of Suffering People.  London and New York: Routledge, 2017.  169 + x pages.


David A. Pitt is Associate Professor of Liturgical and Sacramental Theology at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.

One comment

  1. A promising subject!

    Umm, these Routledge books tend to be a ‘tad’ pricey. My wallet isn’t quite prepared for this amount of suffering for now.

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