Teresa Berger: Worship is an ‘embodied’ practice—and always a gendered one, too

Teresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Her research focuses on the intersection of those two disciplines and a third: gender theory. In her new essay in the online Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, Berger takes up the subject of worship as a practice intrinsically related to bodies and gender—a complex matter, both now and historically.

In April, Dr. Berger will be honored by YDS as the holder of the recently endowed Golden Professorship, the school’s first named chair in Catholic theology.

In your new essay for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, you talk about worship as an “embodied” experience and say it is never gender-free. What do you mean by that and to what degree is this acknowledged in church circles?

Everyone who has ever been “at worship” knows at heart what I am claiming here; namely that worship involves not only a supposedly spiritual side but our very bodies: we enter a sanctuary, we sing, we lift our hands in prayer, we kneel, we smell incense, etc.  And as a bodily practice, worship—as all other human practices—is shaped at least in part by how gender is done in a given cultural context and at a given point in time.  How often in North America do you see a man come to worship in a dress?  In other words, broader cultural norms of how we do gender shape how most of us worship, too.  My work sheds a light on this connection historically, as I study how gender differences have marked practices of Christian worship in the past.

What motivated you to explore this issue as a researcher? What do you hope comes of this work?

Questions related to gender differences have been virulent in many Christian communities for decades; think, for example, of the discussions surrounding women’s ordination, inclusive language, blessings of same-sex unions, and ordinations of transgender persons. As a historian of liturgy, I wanted to know what had gone on before, and how gender differences had shaped Christian liturgy in past centuries. I discovered a rich genealogy that, minimally, puts in context contemporary struggles.  

You write that it’s important to trace this history of the interplay between gender differences and practices of worship, and that it provides rich resources for addressing contemporary issues. What contemporary issues do you have in mind, and how does this project provide illumination?

Let’s take an issue like women’s ordination (which might seem settled for mainline Protestant denominations, but these are a minority among Christians around the globe).  I think it is instructive to map how questions and struggles surrounding women’s ministries are as old as the early church; and how at different points in time and in different contexts, these struggles have played out. 

You’ve studied online liturgies. This issue, in fact, is the subject of the talk you are giving at the TEDxYale event. Given what you’re saying about worship as an embodied experience, isn’t cyberspace an adverse environment for worship?

Yes, online liturgical practices might at first sight contradict my claim that worship is always embodied; in fact, these practices are often interpreted negatively because they are seen as “dis-embodied.” My response is that this interpretation is too hasty. Like offline worship, online worship relies on and cannot do without the actual bodies of worshippers.  The online presence of these bodies, however, does not exactly follow traditional lines of bodily presence.  While fingers and eyes tend to be quite busy online, the rest of the body may be sedentary.  On the other hand, the multi-sensory experience of cyberspace and its bodily effects may at times be greater than at a routine Sunday morning worship.  In any case, without at least some bodily engagement, entrance into an online sacred space is not possible. 

You note ways in which reality has long intruded on the idea of a male-female binary in worship practices. What’s something about the early church that might surprise people in this regard?

People may be surprised to learn that many early church communities will have had eunuchs in their midst; in fact the baptism of one such person is depicted in the New Testament itself (Acts 8).  Jesus, too, was familiar with eunuchs and with the different kinds of persons called eunuchs in the ancient world (Mt 19:12).  Moreover, this phenomenon is not a relic of ancient Christianity only. There were castrati singers in the Sistine Chapel choir until the early twentieth century. So, asking how gender differences shaped Christian worship in the past can never simply be about a male-female binary.

As you point out in your paper, many cultures have seen a “crumbling” of their traditional gender systems over the past century. What are the most pressing challenges this has posed for churches?

Churches have had to wrestle hard with what the crumbling of traditional gender systems in the broader culture has meant for the life of the church, its worship, and—most importantly—its proclamation of the Gospel.  At heart, I think that a basic question that has accompanied Christian communities from the beginning is playing out here: Who are we called to be in the midst of this particular culture? Are there elements in these contemporary cultural trends that rightly challenge and call forth a re-thinking of seemingly basic Christian convictions?  What elements in our contemporary culture actually have to be resisted rather than adopted?

People with only a passing familiarity with Yale Divinity School might be surprised to learn that there are Catholic professors on the faculty of this ostensibly Protestant school—like you! What’s the reality of Catholics at YDS?

Catholics are a vibrant presence at YDS, and have been for quite a while now, both as students and on faculty.  Given that more than half of all Christians around the globe are Roman Catholic Christians, there really cannot be any truly ecumenical divinity school without us. :)

March 16, 2015