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Practicing theory – how contemporary theory can illuminate 500-year-old liturgical texts

One very famous result of the Reformation is often summed up in the statement that Luther helped reemphasize the congregation as the centre of Eucharistic practice. Most discourse on the subject highlights this transformation as a theological change but applying contemporary practice theory can help to reveal that the change is also performative at its core.

Altarpiece from Torslunde Church outside Copenhagen, 1561. It depicts the reconfigures Sunday Service in the Danish Lutheran State Church.

How to gain new insights into Luther’s writings
New insights are harder to achieve when they concern texts that have been analysed throughout centuries of academic discourse, as Luther’s writings have been. One approach to arrive at new insights is collaboration, while another involves applying theoretical frameworks which have not been applied previously.

Practice theory reveals the societal dimension of Luther’s reconfiguration of the Eucharist
The claim made here is that a practice theory approach sheds light on Luther’s suggested reconfiguration of liturgical practice – specifically Eucharistic practice – turning it into a space in which a specific confessional-cultural identity is embedded, developed and sustained. Specifically, the introduction of practice theory is valuable in examining the social images and societal dimensions in Luther’s reconfigured Eucharistic practice.

Practice theory and liturgy
Theodore Schatzki, a key figure in contemporary practice theory, claims that “phenomena such as knowledge, meaning, human activity, science, power, language, social institutions and human transformation occur within and are aspects or components of the field of practices.” According to Schatzki, practice is the only valid starting point for investigating human and social affairs, since practice is at the centre of social life; and the same thing applies with regard to religious practice, since relations, social expectations and the social responsibility of individuals are enacted and practised, embedded, sustained and developed in (for instance) liturgical practice. In short, practice shapes people’s behaviour in social settings. Thus, liturgical practice is home to a confessional-cultural identity, and its social and societal images are evoked in practice. 

Practice as key to social structures
A practice theory perspective draws attention to the actual practice involved, the actions and speech acts, what is enacted and how it is enacted, in short: the materiality of practice. Performativity, agents, material objects, spaces and interactions promoting practice are the key to the social structures in any given society. Consequently, the specific claim in relation to liturgy is that the social images enacted in liturgical practice are also involved in society outside the liturgical space.

Methodological challenges in dealing with liturgical texts
One major obstacle arises when practice theory is applied to Luther’s liturgical texts. The research object of modern practice theory is a contemporary, concrete practice. But Luther’s liturgical writings are neither contemporary nor meant as liturgical practical agendas for use in 16th-century Northern Europe. Instead, it would be more accurate to regard them as Luther’s reflections on liturgical practice. As written reflections, however, they do contain a wide array of performative instructions, reconfigurations of material objects, and reflections on space and interaction. One way of operationalising contemporary practice theory in relation to old written sources is to emphasise and illuminate the issues at the heart of practice theory: performative instructions, body, material objects, speech acts, spaces, interactions etc. By turning to this approach, contemporary theory sheds light on some fascinating aspects of a transfiguration of practice, and helps clarify the social and societal images embedded, developed and sustained in the Eucharistic practice.

Examples from Luther
A few examples from Luther’s writings can be used to illuminate this point further, with the space in which worship occurs incorporating a fair number of the theological currents of the Reformation. In the liturgical setting, those who are to receive communion during Eucharist should “gather together by themselves in one place and in one group”, and “the altar and the chancel were invented for this purpose.” It is clear that the location of the participants marks a radical transformation, since during communion ordinary people are allowed to leave the ordinary setting of the nave and proceed to the altar, which was previously reserved for the clergy only. Before this date the altar was only accessible to the laity once a year at Easter because it was the holiest place in the church, where the sacrifice took place. Now this holy place is no longer reserved for ordained priests. The radically new performative directions, preferably enacted every Sunday, are not theological at their core. Luther makes it clear that God does not care where the people stand, “and it adds nothing to [their] faith”. Instead, the performative instructions carry specific social and confessional functions because “the communicants, however, ought to be seen and known openly, both by those who do and by those who do not commune, in order that their lives may be better observed, proved, and tested”. And Luther continues: “participation in the Supper is part of the confession by which they confess before God, angels, and men that they are Christians”. The congregation must incorporate a distinct visibility in its practice, a practice which creates a new social setting in which the participants in the Eucharist form a new unit and all other social characteristics are put aside.

Luther’s “eucharisation” of ordinary life
Participation is supposed to be visible not just in the liturgical space, but also in the ordinary life of the participants. Being a Christian might well involve an individual relationship between God and human beings, but it is simultaneously a public affair, and participation in the Eucharistic practice should be something that colours the participants’ way of life and their social relations in ordinary life. There is, no doubt, such a thing as a Christian way of life, but it is not determined by canonical law or the clergy. Rather it is connected with the common practice of the Eucharist. As such, Eucharistic practice frames relations both vertically and horizontally and can be understood as a eucharisation of ordinary life. As God is hidden but present in “the words, water, bread and wine” of the sacramental practice, so is He hidden but present in the ordinary life of people. The Eucharistic practice provides people with a way of practising faith and living faithfully in society. Practice shapes the way in which people understand both God and their fellow human beings by enacting a specific sociality.

Social practice
Applying practice theory is one way of approaching old texts and gaining new insights. In particular, the social images embedded in both the actual performative instructions and the performative patterns of ordinary life offer an intriguing perspective on the importance of liturgical practice in understanding social structures in the societies in which they are enacted.

This blog is based on the article Eucharist – a social practice? By Jette Bendixen Rønkilde, Laura Bjørg Serup Petersen, Johanne Nørtoft Thomsen, Rikke Dupont Drud Sørensen and Julie Aulkær Andersen. In Studia Theologica. 2018; Vol 71.

This study is a part of a larger research project called An economy of reception? The relation between sacrament and sociality in Lutheran Protestant societies at the LUMEN Centre, Aarhus University.