Despite rapidly-rising case levels of Covid-19 around the country and the world due to the omicron variant, the North American Academy of Liturgy held its annual meeting in person at the Westin in Kansas City, MO from January 2-5 this year. After last year’s meeting was cancelled, there was much anticipation for a joyfully in-person event. Sadly, more than half of those who had planned to attend decided (probably wisely) to stay home. Nevertheless, I and about 100 others (double-)masked up, braved the dangers, and met together in Kansas City for three days of conversation about all things liturgy. Even though I have had my PhD in liturgy for a few years, this was my first time attending (more on this below).
The meeting commenced with a vice-presidential address from Todd Johnson titled “To Be Determined.” I have to confess: I thought this was put in the program because Todd didn’t come up with a title in time, but that was indeed the title of the address. Todd detailed the history and founding mission of NAAL, highlighting that the Academy has always sought to foster ecumenical relationships and encourage liturgical renewal across denominational lines. His questions: how will the Academy respond to the rapid changes in the church and in the world today? How will it survive and thrive by gaining new, passionate, and intelligent members from diverse backgrounds, denominations, and religious faiths? As Todd argued, NAAL is at a turning point, and its future is indeed TBD.
NAAL is different from most other academic conferences in that members join one “seminar,” or, group of scholars oriented around an area of study. Most normally stay within their seminar for the duration of the meeting rather than roving from panel to panel. Papers are generally submitted to the seminar ahead of time to facilitate maximal discussion time.
Some seminars moved to Zoom this year, but most did not. My own seminar, “Problems in the History of Early Liturgy,” remained in person, and most of our members were present in person–flight delays and cancellations notwithstanding. I found the seminar format to be immensely productive. Having read and digested the papers ahead of time, our collective discussion flowed organically across the course of the meeting. As we dug deeply into the specific issues raised by each individual paper, we also returned to larger themes again and again, each time with deeper insight.
For example, the seminar had several papers on the construction of early Christian anaphoras. Those who believe that this particular horse has been dead for years (you know who you are) would be surprised at how lively the discussion was. Our group also had a sustained and strikingly relevant discussion about class and social status in relation to access to eucharistic meals. Even the evergreen topic, “how does lex orandi affect lex credendi?” garnered some new perspectives in papers on early prayers for earthquakes and rare Byzantine liturgical scrolls.
Our seminar concluded, courtesy of Lizette Larson-Miller, with a time of meta-reflection on the state and methodology of our seminar and the topics we study. We noted that interest in liturgy–in our case, early Christian liturgy–is as high as it has ever been across academia and the church. Yet those trained in the distinct methods of liturgical studies are rarely called in (or even known!), especially in discussions that take place outside the confines of NAAL and other bespoke scholarly gatherings on worship. The same is often true on the ecclesiastical level as well: trained liturgists (increasingly few and far between) are rarely consulted, even on issues of such importance in our day such as virtual worship and emerging rituals for the sick and dying. Various explanations and remedies were suggested to address these issues, none of which were quick fixes.
Our seminar’s moment of self-reflection was emblematic of this year’s NAAL meeting overall. Whither liturgical studies? Nobody in NAAL disagrees that the study of liturgy is as vital and important as it was during the heights of the Liturgical Movement and the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, but the field has shifted in a myriad of ways. Some might even say it has splintered. Like NAAL, the survival of liturgical studies as a distinct field of study remains “to be determined.”
Our large-group session on equity, diversity, and inclusion laid bare the failures of the Academy to make itself known and accessible to groups that have traditionally been marginalized or underrepresented in the field. Another concern is how financially difficult it is to attend. I can certainly appreciate the financial toll it takes on a small guild to hold an annual meeting at an expensive venue, but the meeting’s price tag, which does not include lodging or airfare, is much steeper than that of other scholarly gatherings. Related to this problem is its system of membership: potential members must attend two meetings as visitors before they are eligible to apply for membership. These twin roadblocks have made it difficult–especially for contingent faculty and young scholars like myself, on tight budgets and with little to no funding available from their home institutions–to participate fully and regularly in the important work of NAAL.
I don’t want to end this report on a sour note, however. The high point of the meeting was the bestowing of NAAL’s annual Berakah award upon Maxwell Johnson. It was a particularly special moment for me as one of his former students, as it was for the many students of his who were in attendance for his moving (and quite hilarious) autobiographical speech. It was a moment of celebration not only for Max but for the Academy as a whole. As was clear from his speech, Max’s life and long career in the field of liturgical studies has touched, in one way or another, nearly everyone at NAAL. I’m sure much the same could be said of many readers of this blog. Ad multos annos!
Thus concludes my report of this year’s annual NAAL meeting. I look forward to next year’s meeting and hope for the Academy’s long-term, sustained growth and success.
 I want to acknowledge that NAAL does provide some scholarships, of which I was a beneficiary, to defray a portion of the costs. I am grateful for this.
Thank you for this update, Mark.
Thanks Mark for your coherent and engaging report – I hoped someone would do this for PrayTell, and here you are!!
Well done, Mark! Thanks for this accurate and insightful report of our recent Annual Meeting. I had hoped to write one but was too busy launching a new, entirely online DMIN program/course this week (Week One now behind me, with seeming success). You’ve done so from a most helpful younger scholars’ perspective.
Myself, I found the deeply reduced number in total attendance (regrettable and understandably inevitable as it was) had the delightful effect of raising significantly the proportionate number of newer scholars among us. Whereas Visitors (whether first-time or returning) often must steel themselves in the effort to insert themselves among the majority of attendees at such annual meetings, what I observed at Kansas City was greater ease in meeting fellow younger scholars as well as veteran members. NAAL leadership (term-limited officers) have for years been working hard to help Visitors enter into what you, Mark, have aptly described as the unique format of the NAAL Annual Meeting, that is, its nearly fifty-year program of each participant spending the majority of the couple days working with peers in one particular seminar.
As Vice President (now President) Todd Johnson astutely observed in his opening night address, NAAL’s founding members’ mission-objective of convening to work in specialization groups to advance liturgical scholarship grounded their establishing the seminar-focused annual meeting. As an Academy, versus a convention, we have valued sharing as a body multiple times at table (hence the registration fee). As with so many things, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus multiple changing conditions gradually pushing our Academy (NAAL) to the point of needing to face courageously how we can continue our mission and enjoy the invigorating collegiality.
I do have a few photos I took at the Berakah Banquet that I’d hoped to share on Pray Tell. I’ll see if the Pray Tell administrative team might be able to insert a couple into your good essay, Mark.
Bruce, thank you for these comments and clarifications. I definitely felt welcomed as a new visitor, and the sense of collegiality was palpable. This was due in no small part to your efforts and those of Courtney Murtaugh, Gennifer Brooks, and Todd. I would love to see some of the photos from the banquet!
As a former student of Max Johnson at St. John’s School of Theology – Seminary, I d love to read his Berakah Award speech. Is it accessible anywhere?