One thing that I’ve noticed on this blog is a willingness to criticize inflated claims for the liturgy.

As Garwood Anderson has written, our “preferred modes of worship” just might not “carry the formative payload so frequently claimed on their behalf.” Likewise, Benjamin Guyer has written against the heady claim that liturgy “acts upon its participants in such a way that they become better Christians.” He’s also provocatively reminded us that liturgy simply can’t be “a first principle from which we deduce all doctrine.” And we now know that “Christian worship is boring.”

Of course, similar claims have been made elsewhere. The Orthodox theologian Maria Gwyn McDowell has helpfully criticized the use of single actions—the priest’s turning towards us as “bridegroom,” for instance—to make definitive claims about women’s ordination. Not least, that sort of argument is in danger of “reifying the visible without critique”: the liturgy becomes magically exempt from both historical contingency and the failures of the church, even if it proceeds in the absence of joy.

But, properly chastened, can we make claims that the liturgy “works?” Even liturgy with bad music? I wonder if I might sketch, as ecumenically and briefly as possible, the beginning of such an argument. I’d like to start by suggesting, with James Alison (see again the “Christian worship is boring” post), that the liturgy is meant to provide a “long term education in becoming un-excited,” a real “subversion from within.”

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What is it subverting? I’d like to take some brief detours in social psychology to answer this question. First, liturgy subverts some of the roles that we have adopted, consciously or unconsciously. Second, liturgy subverts a desperate tendency that we might have towards authoritarianism.

Famously, in 1971, Philip Zimbardo and some colleagues conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. 22 male subjects who were “stable,” “mature,” and “least involved in anti-social behaviors” were selected to actively participate in the study. Half became “guards” and half “prisoners” in a mock, basement prison. Eventually, the prisoners developed passivity, dependence, and “zombielike” flattened affects. For the guards, “the use of power was self-aggrandizing and self-perpetuating,” and the experiment had to be stopped early.

What had happened to the wayward, once mature guards? Aggression was “emitted simply as a natural consequence of being in the uniform of a ‘guard’ and asserting the power inherent in that role.” As Zimbardo later wrote, “The situation won; humanity lost.”

I’d like to suggest that liturgy should play a role in educating us out of these sort of “roles.” You might not be a “guard” in a mock prison, a corrupt policeman turned academic dean, or some other sinister figure, but the “power syndrome” can nevertheless affect you. Liturgy might have us play different roles, subversive roles.

It’s clear that there is a kind of role-playing in liturgy. In a recent article, Terence Cuneo writes about the liturgy as “reenactment.” We’ll set aside questions about the Eucharist, but there are many other examples of such reenactment. In the washing of feet on Holy Thursday, for instance, an Episcopal priest precedes the action by saying that he or she is acting so that “I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master.” The hymnody in the Orthodox Church for that day includes such lines as, “Let us remain at the Master’s side, that we may see how he washes the feet of the disciples and wipes them with a towel; and let us do as we have seen, subjecting ourselves to each other and washing one another’s feet.”

Obviously, nobody needs an MFA or acting training; congregants don’t have to pretend that they really are in the first century. Costumes, props, and CGI aren’t necessary at all. The point here is to be absorbed by a core narrative through looking from a specific vantage point—assuming a “target role”—so that there is real emotional engagement, so that we just might in fact end up subjecting ourselves to one another. As such, liturgical reenactment isn’t a meticulous and costly historical recreation, but an attempt to create attentiveness through immersive gestures and words. It’s for this reason that Orthodox reenactments, among others, will be sung even if the original events were decidedly un-musical.

Our “target roles” in liturgy should subvert the “self-aggrandizing and self-perpetuating” forms of power concomitant with many “roles” in life. Thus, giving or receiving foot washing, a rather menial act, involves immersing oneself in an act of renunciation of status. And baptism, as James Alison has written, means agreeing “to undergo a lynch death in advance” to become a “penitent former persecutor,” now “reconciler.”

Some of these roles might be unconscious. But some might have been chosen and internalized, as a consideration of the complexities of the Stanford Prison Experiment shows.

After all, it is hard to know how to interpret this experiment. While Zimbardo emphasized the power of the roles of “prisoner” and “guard,” suggesting that certain self-aggrandizing postures were automatically assumed in attaining the power of the latter, two British psychologists, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher, have drawn attention to Zimbardo’s leadership role in the experiment. Zimbardo told the guards:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways.

Haslam and Reicher suggest that the Stanford Prison Experiment happened as it did, not because of blind conformity to a role, but because the guards internalized a shared social identity that was provided for them. A very bad shared social identity.

Liturgy must act to subvert destructive roles and chosen social identities alike. But, even if we agree with Zimbardo instead of Haslam and Reicher, the latter two have something further to teach us. It is about authoritarianism.

Haslam and Reicher conducted the BBC Prison Experiment in 2002, which resembled but did not replicate the Stanford Prison Experiment. Here, the prisoners eventually developed a group identity that let them challenge the guards. Then a “commune” was formed. When the commune failed, the prisoners and guards “were increasingly disposed to tolerate a new and much more draconian system of inequality.”

As one exponent of the new and “draconian” regime rather colorfully put it, ‘”We want to be the guards and…make them toe the line. No…talking while you are eating. Get on with your food and get the…hell back to your cell.”

The supporters of the commune were “largely passive in response.” The study was shut down (it’s apparently hard to conduct a prison study that doesn’t have to be ended early).

One lesson, then, from the BBC Prison Experiment is that “it is the breakdown of groups and powerlessness that creates the conditions under which tyranny can triumph.” This can potentially be an ecclesiastical problem, because denominations can come under threat, and, of course, individual churches can painfully fail.

In such difficult cases, I would argue that the liturgy can “work” to prevent our incipient authoritarianism. During the liturgy, the threefold pattern of ministry—bishops, presbyters, and deacons—can be made manifest. Now, it might seem perverse to position hierarchy against authoritarianism. But this must be seen as a different sort of hierarchy.

As Andrew Marr writes about Benedictine patterns of authority (which perhaps have shaped Anglicanism), it is possible to construct a hierarchy that need not be oppressive. The Benedictine abbot is placed in an exalted position so that he does “not need to establish his power by competing with his monastics and beating them into submission.” Furthermore, he “holds the place of Christ in the monastery” (Rule 2:2), so that a monastic who would compete with the abbot has to become more like Christ, which will lead to following the “will of the One who sent me” (John 6:38) and abandoning rivalry altogether. The monastery as a whole avoids forms of status based on worldly ranks.

At least within the liturgy, the presider can hold a similar sort of stable, Christlike position. It is even useful that the liturgy must by necessity have a presider; there is something dangerous about an undifferentiated “people” (see this useful post).

So the liturgy can present order in a time of disorder, when, otherwise, “in order to create a viable order rather than have no order at all,” people might turn to the usual culprits: fundamentalisms, charismatic leaders.

Can the liturgy make you a better person? I’m really not sure. And liturgy, if it “works,” is hardly automatic or immediate. But, in working to purify us of our destructive roles and social identities and heading off the dangers of authoritarianism, perhaps the liturgy can make you a “less bad” person.

The image above is the street artist DOC’s contribution (2011) to “See no evil,” a series of public displays by various graffiti artists on Nelson Street in Bristol, UK. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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This is a great article. I wonder, Neil, if you could say a little more about what you mean by ‘authoritarianism’? It evidently doesn’t mean ‘hierarchy’, but at the same time authoritarianism is unthinkable without hierarchy. Insofar as the liturgical space is a space for emulation – although this emulation only works insofar as all of those involved have some understanding of what or who they are emulating – hierarchy will be present. The priest speaks; the people respond. Even as the people have an active role to play in the presentation of the elements, the responsiveness of the people… Read more »