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Sarah Kathleen Johnson and Andrew Wymer on Worship and Power

Sarah Kathleen Johnson and Andrew Wymer, two Free Church scholars in worship and liturgical studies, break new ground in “Worship and Power”, a book edited with other scholars in this tradition, and celebrate what these insights offer for ecumenical conversation and learning around liturgical authority.

See all episodes in Season 5

Episode Transcript:

Andrew Wymer 00:00:03

For many of us who are first- or second-generation liturgical scholars in our tradition, we're taught in the discipline using other traditions’ books, and there's that tug to become more like everyone else. And so this book emerged out of conversation where we asked, What do we have to offer for ecumenical conversation? And then one of the things we talked about was liturgical authority. 

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:00:28

I’m feeling like as free-church scholars, we might have something to learn, certainly, as we have been from our colleagues, but also something to contribute to this question about worship and power.

Host 00:00:43

Welcome to season five of Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This season highlights the new Worship and Witness book series by CICW and published through Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock. The Worship and Witness series seeks to foster a rich interdisciplinary conversation on the theology and practice of public worship, a conversation that will be integrative and expansive. CICW staff member Noel Snyder, also one of the series editors, and Kristen Verhulst, talk with the authors of the first seven books in this series. We are pleased you’ve joined us in this conversation and we look forward to sharing this learning with you.

Kristen Verhulst 00:01:38

Hi, everybody. Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life podcast. I'm Kristen Verhulst from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. My guests today are Sarah Kathleen Johnson and Andrew Wymer. Sarah is assistant professor of liturgy and pastoral theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa [Ontario], and Andrew is associate professor of preaching and worship at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston [Illinois]. They are coeditors of a new book, Worship and Power: Liturgical Authority in Free Church Traditions, one of the volumes in the Worship and Witness series with Cascade Books that the Worship Institute has been sponsoring and the topic of our conversation today. So Sarah and Andrew, thanks so much for talking with me today. 

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:02:38

Thank you very much for having us.

Kristen Verhulst 00:02:41

So let's start at the beginning. What's the story behind the book? Why did you two come together and want to put it together? 

Andrew Wymer 00:02:48

Well, I guess I'll start, Sarah, if that's OK with you. I suspect that there's stories behind the book, so I'll give my version, and then Sarah can jump in. But I think the real story behind the book is the emergence and organization of a really solid group of free-church scholars of worship in liturgical studies, and also here thinking of the North American Academy of Liturgy, in which folk from the free church have been a significant minority for a long time, not equally represented alongside some other traditions. So this book project emerged out of this group and asked questions that were really exciting for many of us who are first- or second-generation liturgical scholars in our tradition. We're taught in the discipline using other traditions’ books, and there's that tug to become more like everyone else. So this book emerged out of conversation where we asked, What do we have to offer for ecumenical conversation? And then one of the things we talked about was liturgical authority. And here we are, years later, able to talk about an artifact that represents that emerging group. 

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:04:08

I would definitely affirm that emerging group of free-church scholars and especially Andrew's role in convening a meeting surrounding the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy that brought this free-church group together for the first time six or seven years ago now. For me personally, and maybe I'll reflect on it on that level having heard some of the shared story, I've often found myself as many free-church liturgical scholars do at that intersection in dialogue with other traditions, studying in Roman Catholic university, studying Anglicans as the subject of much of my research, and even attending the Anglican meeting equivalent to this free-church meeting at the North American Academy of Liturgy, and realizing in those contacts that we were navigating questions of power and authority very, very differently in the Mennonite Church, and especially in my work on Mennonite worship resourcing at the denominational level in Canada and the United States, and just finding myself asking very different types of questions than my Anglican and Episcopal colleagues were in their meeting about prayer book revisions and feeling like as free-church scholars we might have something to to learn, certainly, as we have been from our colleagues, but also something to contribute to this question about worship and power.

Kristen Verhulst 00:05:27

The book is new, just out there, but what has been some of the initial response and some of the feedback you're hearing, even maybe from some of the chapter authors?

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:05:38

Well, it's been good to hear a positive reception, certainly about the value of collaborating with one another across very different traditions within the free church for all different social vocations, different geographic and national contexts, that those relationships and reading each other's work and critiquing each other's work has been very valuable. And then celebrating the publication of one another's work too, and being able to draw on it in our courses and in our own scholarship in different settings. This really does fill a bit of a vacuum in terms of free-church liturgical scholarship and also addresses this really essential topic of power. I do hear that both of those components of this publication are really being quite positively received. In my own Mennonite context, it's meant a lot to hear from some of those first-generation Mennonite liturgical scholars, those who have gone before me in denominational worship resourcing and in the Mennonite Theological Academy read the two Mennonite chapters here and say, Yes, this really rings true to our experience. It's really important to be naming this, to be interrogating it, to be asking these kinds of questions and to be starting a different kind of conversation about worship. So that has been significant personally. 

Andrew Wymer 00:06:56

I’ll just add on to what Sarah said. So for those who are outside of academia, the speed of conversation in academia is glacial. So this book came out in March, so as a seven-month-old book, book reviews and more formal engagements are really still emerging. But the two themes that I think echo what Sarah has shared are that folk are excited because they can find themselves represented in this volume in ways that they have not necessarily been able to find representation in conversations around worship. And then the ways in which this volume invites deep conversation on power and authority in our communal worship. Some of us come from traditions that don't naturally think of or critically address power and authority in our worship. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:08:08

What do you mean there by “power” in the title of the book? I also want to work in a definition for our listeners who maybe aren't familiar with the free churches, what that means.

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:08:21

Power is obviously a very contested term in itself that is defined in many different ways. We did not impose a single definition on all of our authors, so contributors use it in different ways that ring true to their traditions and to the theoretical sources they're engaging. But at the most basic level, power simply refers to the capacity to act or to influence. It's pervasive. It's present in all human relationships. It's always shifting. And it can be employed in ways that are either positive or negative. So I think power has this kind of negative connotation, and that's not what we're looking at here. We're just looking at how power-laden relationships are a part of Christian worship as a social phenomenon. And of course, in worship we also acknowledge the power of God and experience God's power at work within and among us as well, but especially to step back and ask who are the people, the individuals, the communities, the larger social entities that are acting and influencing our worship at these different levels?

Kristen Verhulst 00:09:23

And then how about the free churches? To help someone who isn't familiar with that term, what are you talking about there? 

Andrew Wymer 00:09:31

Well, hopefully what we did is breathing some fresh air into conversation about the free church. Sarah and I really, in our definition, stretched “free church” so it could fit more broadly as well as allow for ecumenical overlap so that the way that we define the free church still doesn't render the characteristics of the free church as the sole possession of free churches. But they still are opportunities, each of these dimensions that we pull out, to connect with folks who may have a different perspective on those, but still find those in their own tradition. So the three themes we pulled out are separation from civic intervention, which is a real theme throughout historical definitions of the free church and without which we might not be taken seriously. So this is a core part of what the free church is. Then also there's the historical thinking, like historical residues of civic intervention, so that typically churches that no longer have formal affiliations with a nation-state per se, but are historically emerged from a tradition that once had that, are not categorized as part of the free church. And then we emphasize local autonomy as our second characteristic. That's the idea that free churches are typically very resistant to a centralized ecclesial body telling the local congregation what to do or how to do something. And then we talk about the third characteristic: volunteerism. So this emphasis on earnest, willing participation of the individual as well as the community trying to avoid coercion as much as possible. So in our definition, what we've done is we've carved out a broader space. In the introduction, we do a little bit of a survey, and our introduction allows for us to see the free church in evangelicalism, in mainline Protestantism, and in Pentecostalism. So that's really what makes it unique, is that breadth. 

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:11:46

These markers are something that we frame in terms of spectra, so it's not all or nothing. Each one exists to varying degrees in different individual local communities and different traditions, and that allows for us to take this on a case-by-case basis in terms of thinking about what free churches are. And there are some really obvious examples of free churches, and then there are more ambiguous examples. One of the helpful things about this definition is that it also allows us to think about how some churches that are not historically free churches might be exhibiting more of these characteristics of free churches in our contemporary context, where there is an increasing emphasis on separation from the state, where many denominations are operating more congregationally than they have historically, where there's a declining religious authority, where individuals are exercising more freedom of choice in terms of where where they worship. And as we see those shifts happening societally across traditions, being able to speak about the historical traits of the free church in these ways might allow us to to think about how free-church conversations about worship can contribute to these broader ecumenical conversations about worship as well.

Kristen Verhulst 00:12:58

So what was challenging or maybe exciting, satisfying about bringing together your contributors and the different topics that they wrote about? 

Andrew Wymer 00:13:08

Well, I think the most obvious challenge would be that this was largely compiled during the COVID-19 pandemic, so there were all of those stressors that were placed on everyone's lives and also restricted our ability to gather in person as a group. I hadn't noted that originally, but it just occurs to me now that that really did shape our work. I also hear the satisfying and the challenging as linked in ways. So we had an array of incredible diversity here in this volume—denominational diversity, diversity of social locations—and yet the vast diversity of the decentralized local free churches, so many different traditions, we had to always keep in mind that we only had a small group, really, in the volume, and to keep in mind who's not here as well, and to keep that ever present in our minds. And then I think one of the other challenges that we addressed very early in the conversation before we started writing the book is that there really is a challenge. We've talked already about second-generation liturgical scholars in our traditions, and there's a challenge to claiming your space and to articulating the value of your tradition within a broader discourse. I think we rose to that challenge, and I think that what we have is really satisfying because we claim that; we didn't back off from that. 

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:14:52

I would certainly affirm that from an editorial perspective, there's something so deeply satisfying about reading someone's work and reflecting on it very deeply and reflecting on it in conversation with others, both in the ways that we workshopped each other's work and also as the book was starting to come together. And then to think about how to help someone else articulate their own contribution that much more clearly or as part of this larger conversation, there's something that's just very, very satisfying about that as an editor of individual chapters.

Another satisfying piece, too, was we thought about a lot of different ways to organize this material. And there are many, many ways that it could be organized. But as we sat with it for longer and continued to work with it, the overall structure of the book came out in terms of thinking about the ways that free-church worship can contest power in society, and then naming the ways that power is negotiated in ecclesial institutions that are characterized by this congregational polity, and then considering the potential for individuals to claim power through their participation in liturgical practices. And that structure, . . . it wove together these very different contexts and traditions and experiences and even styles of writing into a more cohesive narrative. I think arriving at that point of feeling like, yes, we're telling a dozen different stories here, but we're also contributing to a common project was an important moment for this book.

Kristen Verhulst 00:16:37

 Of course, you each contributed a chapter. Would you be willing to share what you found especially deeply, personally satisfying about the works that you contributed?

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:16:50

 A pleasure to collaborate with Andrew on the introduction too. I think we did some good things together there about some of the definitional questions that you're asking and some of the larger goals of this book in the place of free-church liturgical scholarship. So that was really a joy to work on. In terms of my own chapter, it is looking at power in the process of shaping a denominational hymnal and worship book for Mennonites in Canada and the United States and using some critical theory from Amy Allen to really unpack the many, many layers of power that were involved in the negotiations around shaping this central resource for a very, very diffused congregational tradition. So that was the focus of my chapter and was in some ways a way to process my work on that project and to do so in conversation with colleagues and in conversation with some really rich theoretical resources. It will hopefully help others also interrogate some of the often invisible practices of power that might be at play in shaping some of the resources they're drawing on in their liturgical practices. 

Andrew Wymer 00:17:55

I echo what Sarah said about the introduction. That's actually the piece that I'm proudest of in relationship to this volume and that I'm going to use most broadly because it provides some helpful definitions and boundaries for conversations that I think can be tugged into conversations even that don't necessarily directly focus in on power and authority. As far as my chapter, it's always a gift to be able to receive feedback from others who are just as passionate as you about scholarship, about Christian worship, as well as about justice. So the conversation was rich, and it also . . . Even my chapter raises the question of free, but how free, even for free churches, and what can we live more fully into? Maybe what Ron Allen in his chapter calls “the reign of God,” a different, alternative way of being that is more just. And then I have to say too, just at the end here, that collaborative work is hard—very rewarding at times, but also very challenging at times. It was a joy to work with Sarah as a coeditor because when you can be in a collaborative relationship or you're both bringing equal levels of intensity and commitment and energy, it can be really rewarding. And so this is a mode of collaboration that was certainly a challenging task, but it was very satisfying. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:19:43

I see this very much that your hope is this gets picked up as a supplemental text in different courses, perhaps, and it’s beautiful testimony, as you say, to this part of the field that has lots of movement but has been maybe more still emerging and on the sides. So what words of hope or encouragement would you offer to those scholars, young scholars who are in this area, those teaching now, and [what] ways to bless them as they begin their own scholarship and work perhaps related to this topic? 

Sarah Kathleen Johnson 00:20:24

Well, I hope this book provides one resource for helping free-church students understand and shape worship in their own traditions in the classroom. I know my own classrooms are increasingly diverse. At each of the theological schools that I've taught at, there are often free-church students there who are primarily engaging resources from other traditions. So to find ways to provide resources that can allow them to engage within a free-church space, drawing on the voices of research scholars, and in that process to see themselves as people who can also contribute to this type of liturgical scholarship. I see that presence only increasing as free-church traditions grow worldwide, as . . . worship practices that are associated with free-church traditions are increasingly embraced across other traditions as well, practices that might be more informal or expressive. This is an increasing need in our theological schools. So I hope that this . . . This is one resource, but I hope that it also inspires the creation of other resources beyond this volume as free-church scholars continue to engage with the discipline of liturgical studies. 

Andrew Wymer 00:21:37

That resonates, what Sarah said, quite a bit. I would say I would hope from this that young scholars, emerging scholars could see an example of honoring their tradition and deeply engaging their own tradition in ways that appreciate the uniqueness of it, and in so doing, then maybe can even be better ecumenical conversation partners because they're bringing the fullness of themselves to the conversation, which can lead to richer dialogue, clearer juxtapositions, a whole host of rich conversation. There was one thing that one of our contributors, Dr. Chelsea Yarborough, mentioned in one of our early conversations, and I think she was quoting a relative, but she said that “Power unnamed is power abused”—or something like that; it was a variant of that, perhaps. And I think that what this book—I hope what this book does as well is help cue us to power and being intentional about how we talk about it, and then, when we've got it out there and we're looking at this thing and thinking about it, then we can be ethically minded and think about how do we handle this power well, how do we handle this power in ways that attend to systems of power that oppress and marginalize certain groups of people? So hopefully in the naming of power itself, that invites further, richer conversation about how we can be more just.

And then I think as well . . . This is my personal bias and vocation: We also used a Fannie Lou Hamer quote in the introduction. It’s “Until I'm free, you're not free either.” And so just keeping in mind, even as we claim this “free church” title or name, that “free” is emerging, that “free” is fluid and that “free” is contested. And so hopefully through this volume, folks could begin to think more critically about how their own tradition could help us live into a more just future. I know that was very much on Sarah’s and my mind when we included that quote, so: May we all be free. 

Kristen Verhulst 00:24:02

It is a wonderful book, and it clearly leans right into one of the goals of the series, which is to foster rich interdisciplinary conversations that keep pushing people, stretching people. It's a wonderful example of that. So thank you both. The book again is Worship and Power: Liturgical Authority in Free Church Traditions. Sarah, Andrew, thank you very much for joining me today.