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.On Christian Doctrine by R. Williams

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).

9 thoughts on “Williams on Liturgy and Giving Our Words Over to God”

  1. Williams is a fascinating read (I’m almost finished his biography). One point I’m hesitant about is that Scripture *is* narrative. Whilst it is a good deal narrative, there is more to it than this–it is a variety of books written in a number of genres (even including law). I wonder if the bald assertion it is narrative tends to homogonise our approach to Scripture.

    Moreover, I’m a little more sanguine about the finality of words than Williams. He tends to be too quick to doubt our words (on pretty much everything). However, surely some words we use in theology are more certain than others, and surely the early creedal material in the NT (say 1 Cor. 15:3-4) we can have a high degree of confidence in. However, other words we choose and use not so. My concern about Williams on words arises from the way he’s handling the Anglican Communion at the moment. (Although rumour has it, he’s thinking of stepping down from the job).

  2. Marty,

    I don’t see Williams doing quite what you suggest in your comment. I read him more as engaging in the spirit of negative theology which warns us about trying to circumscribe God in finite signs–finite signs that always fall short. Also, I think he’s using narrative in a very broad (rather than narrow) sense. He’s quite aware of the different genres found within Scripture and is comfortable with allowing the polyphonic and often dissonant voices to be in tension. In no way do I see him trying to homogenize Scripture. I highly recommend reading the book, and you’ll get more of the feel of what he’s doing.

    Best wishes,

  3. Williams is surely right: “good liturgy does what good poetry does.” Yet, there may be an unintended deception here for good liturgy, like good opera for example, is so much more than its words even as those words are spoken and heard. Good liturgy is a “drama,” a “thing done.” The troubling danger in the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word is that we interpret it as a divinization of words, our own especially. Williams knows all this, of course, as does anyone with a smattering of the complexity of the notion of Logos. I write these words (!) though simply to express the view that we need so desperately to recapture the importance action in liturgy and its symbolic meaning.

  4. Dear Cynthia,

    Ok, thanks for your thoughts. I see from where you’re coming now, and yes, it’s a pertinent point–especially for bloggers. I guess I’m reacting to his idea that we can’t be too confident in our beliefs about God, and hence must be quick to admit our possible error, and be ready to listen to another view. There is no doubt of the danger of over-confidence in one’s ideas about God and concomitant morality. However, as an Anglican myself my concern is that his theology and commensurate practice is leading to great frustration on both sides in the Anglican Communion. There’s lots of listening going on, but no-one seems to feel heard. Apophaticism is a healthy corrective to modern immanentism, but there is always the problem of the other extreme, which Williams has been accused of for many years now, prior to his elevation to Canterbury. Check out this great book on Williams written by some of my good friends:



  5. Hi Marty,

    I appreciate your follow-up comment. I think an extreme apophatic position where one can say nothing is problematic, but I don’t think that is what Williams is suggesting. Nonetheless, I understand your concerns. As I read Williams’ book, he doesn’t come across as one who simply wants to re-write tradition and do away with Scripture. Actually, he constantly appeals to the Greek Fathers, to Thomas Aquinas and actually engages in a good deal of critique of liberal theology.

    I have to check out the book you linked, but I am afraid that I won’t be able to do any reading outside of my assigned reading for another month or so! Oh for the day to be able to read what I want to read.

    Best wishes,

  6. Hi Cynthia,

    I just stumbled across your blog while background reading for Truth and Method.

    I am truly in awe of your contributions. They are scholarly and pertinent.

    I will revisit.

    Thank you for this


Comments are closed.