Melanie C. Ross
Evangelical versus Liturgical: Defying a Dichotomy
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.
Available at Amazon.com
Review by Dr. Rhys Bezzant (Ridley College)
This book defies more than a dichotomy. It also defies the odds, as it ably brings together competencies in systematic theology, liturgical studies, oral history, with an evangelical heart. Ross has written a relatively brief book of around 140 pages, based on her doctoral dissertation, in which she argues that it will not do to persist in making the facile contrast between liturgical and non-liturgical churches. The hegemonic assumption that only certain privileged texts used in worship would qualify that church as liturgically serious is shown to be inadequate. Ross also wants free churches in the evangelical tradition to design their weekly services more intentionally, for which she makes a good case and provides examples of churches already travelling in this direction. Despite contemporary politics and culture creating a “well curve,” in which there is a missing centre, Ross holds out the hope that in matters liturgical, this ought not to be our fate.
Ecumenical scholars in the twentieth century have argued that the deep bass line of worship is a service structure, called the ordo, consisting of four elements: Word, bath, table and prayer. They have therefore criticised the free church tradition for replacing this with a putative ordo consisting of musical warm-up, sermon and altar call. Charles Finney, the great mid-nineteenth century frontier revivalist, is blamed for this departure, which ultimately downgrades the visible and the sacramental. Ross, on the other hand, wants to demonstrate from both Charles Finney and George Whitefield before him, that their ecumenical credentials are actually a precursor to modern ecumenism, and that accusing them of causing decline through their liturgical innovation is to run interference in the analysis of contemporary conditions. “Pragmatism and ecumenism function in the Frontier tradition not as a dichotomy, but as a dialectic of hope and history” (p. 31). The difference between liberal and evangelical churches is the more substantial disagreement on the nature of God’s action in the world (p. 54), not their commitment to the ecumenical cause in its liturgical guise.
From a systematic perspective, Ross critiques the Roman Catholic views of Aidan Kavanagh who advocates the “logical priority of liturgy over Scripture” (p. 60), which would marginalise evangelical expressions of worship. She takes up the arguments of John Webster who highlights Kavanagh’s impoverished pneumatology and Trinitarianism, which in Webster’s understanding animate the church. Most helpfully, she also argues that sacramentalism ought not to guide our ecclesiology, for the Gospel of John has significant insights into the doctrine of church without making the sacraments its centre. Indeed, “the Johannine/Synoptic relationship provides a promising ecumenical lens for understanding evangelicalism’s relation to liturgical Christianity” (p. 79). Drawing on Miroslav Wolf, she also argues that there is something “existentially prior” to the construction of liturgy, namely the confession of faith (p. 86), with the “obligation of openness” identifying the church’s catholicity, not necessarily its textual forms (page 89). The goal of her argument is to try to find common ground: “Evangelical and liturgical scholars alike share a commitment to ecumenism, a nuanced understanding of Scripture that eschews fundamentalism, and a desire to think together about issues of ecclesiology and sacraments” (p. 129).
This book is short enough to be read easily, and dense enough to provide ongoing sustenance and reflection. My own work as an evangelical on the Liturgy Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia have been greatly enriched through reading it. Ross’s labours are bound to bless her students at the Yale Divinity School. Highly recommended.