Ressourcement and Renewal

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This is a guest post from Dr. Eugene Schlesinger, lecturer at Santa Clara University, a Rev. John P. Raynor, SJ Fellow at Marquette University from 2015-2016, author, Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology with Fortress Press. It was originally posted on my former blog, The Liturgical Theologian. Dr. Schlesinger is also contributed a fantastic essay on Fr. Alexander Schmemann and ressourcement in my edited volume, We Give Our Thanks Unto Thee.

Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural post in the new series, “Everyday Ecumenism.” Stay tuned for more fantastic content like this!

Ressourcement or Reinventing the Wheel

Perhaps the most significant event in my theological development was getting fired from the church I’d helped plant, whose culture I’d helped to shape, and to which I’d devoted three years of my life.[1] For the five years between my seminary education and the beginning of my doctoral studies, I served in pastoral ministry. Most of it was at an Evangelical church plant. We were a missional church: seeking to live out a missionary vocation in all areas of life as individual Christians and as a congregation. One of the ways this played out in the church’s life was in a drive to try new things and find better ways of “being the church.”

During my time at this church, I fell in love with the liturgy,[2] and found it to be an incredible source of renewal in my life. As I experienced liturgical renewal, I sought to share this with my congregation, bringing liturgical elements into our worship. While some parishioners found this a source of refreshment, plenty of others found it unacceptable. I was consistently told that we couldn’t adopt liturgy because we were a missional church. Liturgy was “Catholic” (in a negative sense) and probably “legalistic,” and certainly not missional. I could never figure out why liturgical worship and missional ecclesiology were incompatible. Eventually it became clear that my theological convictions and my vision of the church were no longer compatible with this church, and the ministry relationship ended, and I found a new ecclesial home as an Anglican.

Evangelicals and the Reinvented Wheel

As I delved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I realized that so much of Evangelicals’ efforts at finding new ways of being the church were really just reinventing the wheel. For instance, what were multi-site churches with a head pastor if not dioceses overseen by a bishop? But there was a crucial difference, the Evangelical reinvention of the episcopate lacked a coherent theological rationale, and a connection to the historic succession that grants Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican bishops their validity. Beyond this, a historical ignorance had kept us from recognizing what we were doing, and kept us flying blind. We didn’t realize that the church had long ago figured out about bishops, and might have wisdom about how this aspect of the church’s life should be ordered. Instead, we were stuck making things up as we went along.

The impulse for renewal, and even novelty, was a good thing. As Irenaeus wrote, so long ago, Christ brought all newness when he brought himself (Against Heresies 4.34.1). Genuine encounter with Jesus Christ will always result in renewal, and so when church life grows stagnant, something is badly wrong. This lies behind the call for a new evangelization that has arisen within the Catholic Church over the last several decades. But apart from some sort of historical awareness and engagement with the tradition, the impulse towards renewal quickly devolves into novelty for novelty’s sake, and winds up being a shallow renewal indeed.

An Alternative: Ressourcement

And so I thought: What if instead of just making stuff up, we looked to the church’s traditions to find the answers for how we do things? Without realizing it at the time, I was setting out on the path of ressourcement. At its heart, ressourcement is a strategy of retrieval, returning to the sources that lie at the heart of the church’s heritage: Scripture, the liturgy, and the church fathers. In the first half of the twentieth-century, several French Catholic theologians sought to perform such a retrieval in order to breathe new life into the somewhat dry and dusty theological life of the church. Their approach was not well-received at first. It was dismissed as la nouvelle théologie (the new theology), and Henri de Lubac, a key proponent of “the new theology” was censored and forbidden from teaching theology for nearly ten years. History has vindicated him, though, at the Second Vatican Council, he served as a peritus (theological advisor to the bishops), and was eventually made a Cardinal.

Here the point isn’t with the history of ressourcement, though, but the instinct that drives it: a turn to the past, in light of current problems, with an eye to the future.

Eventually I undertook doctoral studies, intent on resolving this question of whether or not a liturgical church could also be a missional church. Certain missional theologians warn that a focus on the church’s liturgical life will distract it from its missional identity and vocation.[3] Faced with this criticism we have three options: we can ignore them, go the dead-end route of wheel reinvention (get rid of the liturgy and find new ways of being the church), or the way of ressourcement, returning to the sources at the heart of traditional ecclesiology and find in them a source of missional renewal.

If we ignore their criticisms, we miss an opportunity for renewal. Even Pope Francis has called for a pastoral and missionary conversion of the church, and called for a re-evaluation of every aspect the church’s life to be sure that we are living faithfully to our missionary vocation.[4] Rather than ignoring these missional criticisms, we need to see them as an opportunity to more faithfully articulate who and what the church has always been.

My book with Fortress Press, Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology takes this route of ressourcement and uses traditional sources: Scripture, the church fathers, and the liturgy, to construct a missional ecclesiology. By returning to the sources, I show that a missionary understanding of the church has always been implicit in them. The presenting problem of missional criticisms of the liturgy proves to be an opportunity to make this implicit understanding of the church more explicit.

The thing I want us to see here, though, is not just the liturgy-mission conundrum I resolve in my book. I think that’s an important problem to address, but I raise it to show the ongoing importance of ressourcement for the church. The church is in need of continual renewal. But the way to that renewal is not by abandoning the past as something “old,” and “irrelevant.” Instead, it’s a turn to the past, in light of our current problems, with an eye to the future. I’ll say frankly, ignoring or rejecting the past is the way for churches to lose their Christian identity, and be subject to whatever cultural whims, personal predilections, or ideological forces they happen to encounter. At the same time, ressourcement is not a call to just “do what we’ve always done,” instead, it’s a return to the past to rediscover things we’ve forgotten, but desperately need to remember

We are not slaves to the past, uncritically repeating what’s come before. But if we ignore the past, we’ll simply be slaves of the present moment, to the spirit of the age. A proper engagement with the church’s tradition brings renewal through the Holy Spirit, who has breathed life into Christ’s body for the last two millenia.

[1] I wasn’t formally “fired” from the position, but I was, essentially shown the door. None of what I’m writing here is by way of complaint against that church. I’ve made my peace with what happened. Instead, the events that led to my departure from the church also set me on the path to discovering the importance of ressourcement.

[2] I’m going to go against my own preference here and use “liturgy” in a more restrictive sense: namely formal, set liturgies grounded in particular texts (such as a Breviary, Missal, or the Book of Common Prayer). Every church has a liturgy, though. There aren’t liturgical and non-liturigcal churches. Some of us are just honest about it. However, it makes for really clunky writing to belabor this.

[3] E.g., John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); Nathan R. Kerr, Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene: Cascade, 2009).

[4] See his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium.

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