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Our readers asked:

How do cultural innovations within the church start?

Rachel Bundang Answers:

Question:  I was in Africa and saw a bunch of priests and parishioners dancing and the offertory procession went on for a much longer time.  While beautiful it seemed to be much different than my experience of church in the US, Canada, and most of Europe and even Latin America.  Can you tell me how these innovations arose there and what they might be expressing in the liturgy?

We often speak of the Church as universal and eternal, but it is also local and contextual.  As the Church’s territory in the world has expanded over the centuries—through mission, colonization, and other kinds of expansion, whether for good or ill—she has sought to make the Gospel intelligible to the peoples she has encountered.

During Vatican II, Paul VI issued the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) in 1963, calling for reform of the liturgy through enculturation, the better to engage and promote Christian life.  Sections 37-40 lay the groundwork for adapting the liturgy to local communities sensibly.  So, for example, one big resulting change was having Masses said in the vernacular (the local language) rather than in Latin, which remains the official language of the Church.

What you’re talking about in the African church likely reflects an incorporation of native traditions into the expressions and celebrations of faith.  Enculturation continues to be a topic of much discussion, especially in the churches of Africa and Asia:  how do they make the faith and liturgy reflective of their own experience and culture and not just a straight, literal translation of the Church as it has developed in the West?  It considers not just the language of the liturgy, but also other local practices and customs more broadly.  It also acknowledges that conflicts between Church and culture will arise and need thoughtful, prayerful resolution that is true to both Gospel and community where possible.

[For current guidelines on liturgy, see the General Instruction to the Roman Missal (2003), http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/current/GIRM.pdf. ]

Dr Rachel Bundang holds a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary.

The Author : Rachel Bundang
Rachel Bundang is a writer and doctoral student in theology and ethics in New York City.
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  • Joao

    I’ll sound off..1. I tend to take notes, but in the margins of my Bible, not on a seprtaae sheet or notepad. This helps me gain a better understanding of the context of the passages. Since I teach a Home Bible Study, these notes help me to clarify the subjects/topic for my students .2. We have an American flag and a Christian flag. I don’t see this as an issue; aren’t we called to support (not quite the right word) those that have been placed in positions of leadership? The kids in church all know and recite the Pledge of Allegiance (and know what it means).3. This is a loaded question. Infants go to the nursery and children under 4th grade go to Power Hour (children’s church). Otherwise, families tend to sit together, but there are groups, too. Some teens sit together, the young adults/singles sit together, etc. I would say most people prefer that the younger kids and infants go to their respective locations. It is much less distracting for those in the sanctuary, and the kids are being taught the same biblical precepts on their level of understanding.4. No formal liturgy in my church, no historic creed, no recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Not sure why this is, but I would imagine that it hsa to do with the fact that most people don’t take the time to try to understand what they are reciting. As for the significance, I’ve attended churches in the past that recited the Apostles’ Creed and sang the Doxology every week. Unless someone (the pastor?) takes the time to explain them, there is no edification of the church body, and people do it because that is the way it has always been done .

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