Williams on Liturgy and Giving Our Words Over to God
As Rowan Williams explains, Scripture is narrative, but it is a particularly interesting kind of narrative, since it “weaves together history and liturgy” (On Christian Theology, 7). The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not only talked about, but he is spoken to. He is praised; He is worshipped in song and poetry; He is addressed in prayer. Not only in Scripture and the liturgy, but also in works like Augustine’s Confessions we find this interplay of speaking about God and speaking to God; yet, in each of these instances the discourse involved is open to the other and willing to be attentive to and challenged by what the other has to say.
The language of worship ascribes supreme value, supreme resource or power, to something other than the worshipper, so that liturgy attempts to be a “giving over” of our words to God (as opposed to speaking in a way that seeks to retain distance or control over what’s being spoken of: it is in this sense that good liturgy does what good poetry does). This is not to say that the language of worship itself cannot be starkly and effectively ideological; but where we find a developing and imaginative liturgical idiom operating in a community that is itself constantly re-imagining itself and its past, we may recognize that worship is at some level doing its job. That is what the overall canonical structure of Jewish Scripture puts before the reader; and insofar as the New Testament portrays the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as something which opens up an unprecedentedly direct and undistorted language for prayer, praise, “sacrifice”, and so on it is to be read as reinforcing the same point. The integrity of a community’s language about God, the degree to which it escapes its own pressures to power and closure, is tied to the integrity it directs to God (7).
Our words about God are not final, not comprehensive, but ought to remain open-ended and receptive of new meanings (not just any meanings of course), just as we remain open to what the Word has to say to us. The words we hear in Scripture and in the liturgy may require us to amend, alter, or give up not only certain ways of being but also certain ways of speaking (about God, others and our world). Thus, the theologian must resist, to borrow a Nietzschean metaphor, a tendency to allow his/her theological discourse to become a columbarium, and hence, a language of death, rather than words of life. Or as Williams puts it from a slightly different but related angle: “Language about God is kept honest in the degree to which it turns on itself in the name of God, and so surrenders itself to God” (8).