Teresa BERGER. Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History: Lifting a Veil on Liturgy’s Past.  Surrey, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011, pp. 220. $39.95 pb. ($35.96 Website; also available ebook, hb). ISBN: 978-1-4094-2698-1.  Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105-1096

Maxwell Johnson, Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame (himself co-author of a recent book on Eucharistic liturgies) offers in his endorsement of Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History:

… liturgical history has ignored the reality of gender difference in the shaping of, and the being shaped by, Christian liturgies past and present. 

Why should liturgical history be any different than the history of other aspects of religious study or, for that matter, studies of economics, education, government, families (one of my areas of specialization), or other institutions?  Teresa Berger, Professor of Liturgical Studies at Yale Divinity School, offers a coherent, well sourced (including a complete scripture index) book written in an engaging style that even those of us (like this reviewer) who are not specialized in the field can understand the scholarly and theological problem she addresses and the argument she makes.

            In Part I, “Gender Liturgy’s Past,” Berger challenges the traditional take on history of religious practice.  First, she carefully elucidates four intertwined categories of historical analysis: the past of liturgical practices, the documentation of this past, the historiography of the past, and authorizing claims to the past” (p. 5).  Then she offers a chronology, taking us through the “long twentieth century” before presenting an argument for how histories have been contested, how women (and, I’d argue, some men) have made liturgical history “gender-attentive” (p. 17), and how liturgical questions have moved from “women to gender differences” (chapter 2).

            In Part II, “Tracing Gender in Liturgy’s Past,” Berger offers four case studies to demonstrate her vision of gender-attentive liturgical history.  Those cases address liturgical space and Eucharistic practice, before focusing on gender differences around (literally) bodily “flows” (e.g., menstruation, nocturnal emissions) and the association between liturgical presiding and masculinity.

Berger’s final chapter acknowledges liturgy’s past as a “lasting presence”: “One would have to wear a very thick veil indeed not to see this” (p. 173).   But when she asks: “What happens when Lex Orandi (liturgical tradition) and gender history meet?” she reminds us that she is not primarily interested in visiting the most publically contentious issues (e.g., ordination of women, blessing of same-sex unions), important as those issues are.  Instead, she seeks to highlight the “constant tradition” of “deep gendering” in liturgical tradition, those “places where gender deeply shapes liturgical practice, mostly without being recognized” (p. 173).  She wants the reader to understand, for example, ways in which gender asymmetry−androgyny−is deeply embedded in what most congregants hear as the Word of God, ways in which male actors and their voices are privileged.  Of 300 prayers or allusions to prayer in the Torah, only 10 are clearly attributable to women.  (In a similarly methodical fashion, she addresses the matter of gender differences regarding saints.)

            However, lest the reader of this review come away thinking Berger wishes us to stop at yet another exposé of  “facts,” taken-for-granted assumptions about formal religious practice, she ends with reference to the ancient “Prayer of the Veil.”

We thank Thee, O Lord our God, that Thou hast given us boldness for the entrance of Thy holy places, which Thou has renewed to us as a new and living way through the veil of the flesh of Thy Christ.  We therefore, being counted worthy to enter into the place of the tabernacle of Thy glory, and to be within the veil, and to behold the Holy of Holies, cast ourselves down before Thy goodness; Lord, have mercy on us: since we are full of fear and trembling, when about to stand at Thy holy altar.  (pp. 180-81)

I suppose some theologians will dispute Berger’s admonition that liturgy is not solely of the past.  However, others will find her reference to entering the Holy presence “within the veil” not only emboldening and affirming, but also connecting religious ritual and belief to a living “heartbeat” of liturgical tradition.  This non-specialist appreciates being invited along on the journey.