Societas Liturgica, the virtual version

From July 20th to the 22nd, a number of liturgical scholars around the world gathered together in a technologically brilliant congress of Societas Liturgica, the primary ecumenical, multi-lingual and global organization for those engaged professionally and otherwise in liturgical studies. Using the resources (human, financial, and technological) of the University of Notre Dame – which in healthier times would have physically hosted the gathering – the various papers were recorded via Zoom weeks before the event (to be viewed at the leisure of participants leading up to the conference), the keynote presentations closer to the actual dates, and an imaginative use of livestreamed conversations between speakers (both at the “smaller” paper level and with the keynote speakers and their respective respondents). In addition, ND used the “Discord” platform for social gatherings, and interspersed liturgies online with all of the above.

Societas Liturgica is always thematic, and this year it was “Liturgy and the Arts.” From the website, SL described it this way:
“Our 2021 Congress topic concerns the relationship between liturgy and the arts, which we recognize as lively and even volatile. Aidan Kavanagh, in his On Liturgical Theology, describes the church as “immersed in artistic discourse.” In the liturgy, the “world is done rightly,” for the good of the “polis.” The ways that the arts are integrated into the liturgy, the dialogue between liturgy and the arts, is established by history, culture, and theology. At the same time, liturgy and the arts engage one another in a prophetic, a pastoral, and a political dialogue. In this year’s Congress, we explore these multiple dimensions, from the early church to the church of tomorrow, from baptism to death, and from the upper room to cyberspace.”

The keynote speakers addressed the topic from four different ‘corners’:
François Cassingena-Trévedy addressed liturgy as art itself (La Liturgie Comme Poïétique Fondamentale) summarized in a brief abstract: “here, we attend to liturgical action as both inspired and a place of inspiration; as creative, formational and celebratory, yet also holding the potential for transcendence. All of this requires mediation, and Lawrence J. Hoffmann describes the liturgy as “an art which uses other arts” (Worship 94.1, 2020).” Cassingena-Trévedy’s talk was responded to by Arnaud Montoux.

David Brown addressed the arts in liturgy (Liturgical Constraints and Openness in Divine Address), described by the planning committee as “the liturgy is immersed in space and time. For Aidan Kavanagh, this demands that “critique of the sonic, visual, spatial and kinetic arts” be a part of liturgical theology (On Liturgical Theology, 143). Such a critique should be mutually beneficial and must open up the liturgy as an imaginative space.” Gerald Liu was the respondent for this keynote presentation.

Deborah Sokolove focused on liturgy and the arts (Liturgy, the Arts, and the Need of the World), again described by the organizers as “we wish to affirm the great value of discussing aesthetic merit, style, taste, artistic commissions, and the role of the Churches as patrons of the arts. We also explore the lively juxtaposition of liturgy and the arts as an ongoing phenomenon, as well as their ‘tumultuous history’, enacted between the extremes of idolatry and iconoclasm.” Marcia McFee responded to the presentation.

Lastly, Mirella Klomp spoke to liturgy as public art (Ars Iudendi: Urban Liturgies as Public Service in a Secular World), building on “the liturgy has an obligation to be prophetic and to bear testimony, within the life of its practitioners, and its encounters with the secular world. We explore how participants collectively might become “a fitting testimony” (1 Timothy 6:13), as well recovering as the ancient sense of liturgy as ‘work on behalf of the people.’” The respondent here was Dominik Abel.

In addition to these four keynote presentations (and their respondents), there was the Presidential Address, this year by Dr. Bridget Nichols, who worked with images and words to reflect on liturgy in a time of pandemic: “Exile” has become a popular metaphor for the Church under pandemic conditions, and the experience of the returning exiles described in the Book of Ezra comes immediately to mind. The writer describes the lavish scene following the laying of the foundations of the new temple: there were priests clad in vestments and blowing trumpets, Levites banging cymbals, and singers offering choruses of praise to a faithful God. This ceremonial activity drew shouts of praise from the people, but not from all of them. Some of those who returned were old enough to remember the first temple to have stood in that place, and they wept loudly. The combined effect was at once extraordinary and intensely human: “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:10-13 NRSV). There will undoubtedly be both weeping and laughter, and somehow, both responses will have to be acknowledged and honoured.”

Between these primary presentations, there were 37 shorter talks, arranged somewhat by topic in groups of two or three for the ‘real time’ discussion sessions. The shorter talks addressed the overall theme of “Liturgy and the Arts” from very different perspectives, having been accepted as papers because they followed one of the defined 7 research axes which provided some structure to the thematic focus of the congress (papers were primarily situated in and spoke from the anthropological, the cultural/intercultural, the historical, the theological, the pastoral, the prophetic, or the public/political). These shorter papers, as well as the keynote presentations, all crossed over into other areas and took multiple approaches to their own topic, as is to be expected.

Part of the delight of Societas Liturgica gatherings is the international and multilingual cultural perspectives, which are always challenging and eye-opening. The discussion sessions allowed for questions that, at their best, always added the “but, what if” that speakers may not have considered. In spite of the lack of physical presence (so central to gatherings of liturgists) there was in these formal presentations and the ability to participate in focused reflections on the talks a bit of the spark of the in-person gatherings which often culminate in so many tables – breakfast, bar, and eucharistic. Many, many thanks are still owed to the SL council for their work, to the local committee (in huge ways) for making this work as well as it did. There was also much hope expressed for the future gathering in the “traditional way”, Maynooth in 2023.

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