A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Maggi Dawn: What’s Out of Kilter? And Other Questions

Maggi Dawn

Maggi Dawn is a musician, liturgist, author, theologian, a Church of England priest, and associate professor of theology and literature and Dean of Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School. Her books include Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England (DLT, 2013) and The Accidental Pilgrim: New Journeys on Ancient Pathways (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011). These responses are based on an interview with Reflections in August 2017.

On the Reformation’s 500th anniversary …

The temptation is to think we need to protect the traditions that emerged out of the Reformation. We do better, I think, to be inspired by the reformers’ motivations rather than limit ourselves to protecting their legacy. The Reformation began with a few people asking good questions about church – about how it was organized, and how that affected the way people connected with God and expressed their worship. They wanted to look honestly at what was out of kilter. We need that questioning spirit today, taking a good look in the mirror. What needs reforming? What is out of kilter now?

It’s important to remember that we read history backwards, already knowing what happened next. When we think of the results of the Reformation – for instance, that Scripture and hymns were translated into the vernacular – it is easy to assume that was what the reformers set out to achieve 500 years ago. But Luther set out simply to open up debate about areas that were lacking in church life and practice. The surrounding circumstances were a tinderbox ready to ignite, and events exploded, but they did so in a number of ways he didn’t anticipate at the outset.

On media revolutions, then and now …

In the 1500s, the printing press affected the way people imbibed their spiritual food. Our technological revolution is just as powerful, and can positively reshape our forms of worship. There are so many things you can do with screens besides projecting words onto them. I’ve seen moving images projected on church walls that function like a modern-day version of a medieval mural – a very creative idea.

Technology can stir the imagination through its non-verbal possibilities. The printing press made the Reformation highly word-driven, but worship becomes overwhelmed if it is entirely words-focused. Rather like a play in a theater, the words in the book are only the script; the liturgy, like a play, is what happens in time and space, to the people gathered in the room. That is not to suggest we should replace words – they give us precision – but there is more to worship than words alone. I think we need a recovery of awareness of image, light, sound, space – worship that engages all the senses.

On the need for poetic worship …

The reformers famously advocated putting Scripture and liturgy into the language of the day, and we still do that today. But Luther also called for poets. He thought language should be not just pragmatic, but poetic and compelling. It should grab our imagination, our hearts and our nerve endings, not just our brains. Many modern-day liturgies sound committee-written. They might achieve pragmatic goals – for instance, an important social agenda. But that’s not enough. Liturgies need to be poetic too.

On the power and authority of Scripture …

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was still confronting this challenge in the early 1800s. In his generation, there was a huge controversy over biblical authority, caused in part by the discovery of other ancient texts. The Bible was no longer our only source of ancient history, and it wasn’t even the oldest. Coleridge’s insight was that rather than protecting some notion of monolithic authority, or insisting that God dictated the Scriptures word for word, the Bible’s truth and wisdom would be self-evident if people were simply allowed to read it. Inspiration, Coleridge believed, did not mean that God “wrote” the Scriptures, but that these texts had been recognized as a place where the reader and the Spirit of God could find a place of encounter. Thus there is not just one meaning, but layer upon layer of meaning to be drilled from the Scriptures.

On the future of the church, and anxiety about it …

I hope we can all keep asking questions: Am I praying and connecting with God? Am I praying at all? Am I reading doctrine? If not, why not? Do I go to church? Do I need it? Why or why not? Ask and see if the fires ignite. I try to remember that the work of God doesn’t ultimately depend on us. If it is a work of God, it will endure.

Issue Title: 
Reformation: Writing the Next Chapter
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