Lynsay Downs: More than Words

REF 2021

1st in the UK

Divinity at the University of Aberdeen was ranked 1st in the UK for overall quality of research

Lynsay Downs: More than Words

More than Words: learning to love and be loved in return through participation in Holy Communion.

In September 1996, whilst living in Szeged, in South-Eastern Hungary, I entered the Votive Cathedral which I passed on my way to university every morning just as worship was beginning.

People were gathered in the central nave and two priests emerged from the vestry, one attired in the Roman Catholic style and the other according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The gathered people peeled off behind their chosen priests, with the Catholics heading towards the sanctuary and the Orthodox worshippers to a side chapel. Having been entranced by Orthodox worship in the Kremlin five years earlier, I followed the orthodox group, standing at the back of their worship space.

I had been learning Hungarian for approximately six weeks, so was surprised when the priest began to conduct the service in Serbian. I thought about leaving, I had no hope of understanding the service. At that moment people began to prostrate themselves. I realised that this was asking for forgiveness and did likewise. I thought about the colours of the vestments and inhaled incense. I made the sign of the cross, indicating my willingness to receive blessing, whenever the priest drew a cross in the air. I listened to the chanting, concentrating on the various tones; I knew the different tones expressed different meanings, so I tried to discern them. Eventually I was offered bread; I believed I was taking communion (it was probably Antidoran) and returned every week, slowly becoming familiar with the service. I learned to worship without words.

Six years later, as a mother to infants, one of whom would remain non-verbal, I became freshly aware that despite the emphasis most post-Reformation Christians place on the words of the liturgy, the ways in which we use our bodies in worship communicates our theology and contributes to a shared Christian identity. Recognising the importance of the non-verbal aspects of liturgy is essential if Christian churches are to include in their number non-verbal peoples (whether through youth, autism, mutism, ill health or dementia). I hope that through this research I will be able to offer church leaders and theologians a vocabulary for discussing the non-verbal communication of the gospel.

My research focusses attention on the experience of non-verbal worshippers and those who worship alongside them. Supervised by Professor Brian Brock, I will be asking where the attention is drawn when the words of the liturgy are unavailable to a worshipper? In what moments or aspects is the non-verbal worshipper an active participant in communal worship? What gifts and insights are brought to communities blessed by the presence of non-verbal individuals in their midst?

In seeking answers to these questions experience will be in conversation with Biblical stories of creation as well as theological musings from many centuries concerning the power of God's Word; divine communication and the image of God in human beings and human speech.

This is a project first and foremost concerned with a theology of identity. At its simplest level it is asking: Do you love me?

God asks this question of each of us. We come warily to worship echoing back to God, do you love me? Even if... in Derrida's apostrophe, the question hangs in the air, asking the human congregation: Do you love me, even if I have no words?