Drid Williams was a trailblazer in Sydney, Australia, as she was in many other countries around the world. Her formidable intellect not only informed her academic research but also shaped the lives of her protégés. She commanded her group of seven Master of Arts students in the seminar room in the Music Department at the University of Sydney with resounding and erudite precision. Flouting convention, she would exhale smoke across the room and sip black coffee from her flask while expounding the flaws of Cartesian dualism as it refers to human movement. Determined to make us into functioning social anthropologists, she asked us to write about “myself and my society,” “myself and my religion,” and “myself and my family.” We were babes in a thick wood of seminal ideas about the integral relationship of human movement to human language. I struggled to extricate myself from uncritical observation and sloppy analysis. “Think about it,” she would regularly explode with frustration at my naïvety.
I met Dr. Williams when I was beginning my Master’s research into Uniting Church worship practices. I was an ordained minister of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) with a particular interest in the liturgy or rituals of the church. At the time, the UCA was attempting to satisfy the worship expectations of three separate denominations of Protestantism: Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational. As a minister, I was regularly disturbed by the untold variations in worship practice across parishes. I wanted to know what made a ritual, a ritual; or, what made a liturgy, a liturgy. I wanted to understand the anthropological elements of ritual practice. Theological and philosophical explanations were useful to some extent but did not answer my question on a practical or lived level. I wanted to know why we did the things we did in worship and what they meant.
It was at this stage that the Department of Comparative Religions suggested that I contact Dr. Williams, a specialist in the study of human movement and social anthropology. I introduced myself to Drid during a break in her Labanotation class in a basement room in the music faculty. There were half a dozen students scattered around the room. Unfamiliar black markings were on the board, and students were discussing the meaning of a “bow.” I thought, “A bow is a bow, surely.” I was soon to be disavowed of that view.
Drid took me under her wing, explaining I would not be able to find my way alone through the stack of reading I would need to do to get an answer to my question. And I would need to learn Labanotation.
Over the next four years, Drid guided my reading and writing. My modest question morphed into a doctoral thesis, and I was fully immersed in primary research documenting several different versions of Uniting Church worship representing the three denominations. This research was transcribed into Labanotation texts that were analyzed according to Dr. Williams’s theory of action signs, semasiology.
What had been for me an endless random movement of parts began to make sense as I read the movement texts and recognized the relationship of verbal and nonverbal elements in a four-dimensional use of space. What had been out-of-awareness – the use of space and action – was now in full view through the objectivity afforded by Labanotation. I had three separate movement texts of three distinct expressions of worship enacted in the architectural designs of former Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches. I now understood clearly that “a bow or walking” in one context could have a completely different meaning to “a bow or walking” in another context.
The intrinsic value of my primary research was recognized in the UCA, but it challenged received views of the meaning of worship. The use of empirical research methods drawing on a multidisciplinary approach involving social anthropology, semasiology, and liturgical theology was too advanced for the relatively singular approach adopted by liturgical theologians in the UCA at that time, which was symbolic philosophy and theology. Also, reading Labanotation was considered too complicated at best and esoteric at worst. Church teaching on worship referred primarily to the spoken elements, and reference to movement and action in worship were set in parentheses or italics. Newly ordained ministers learned how to do worship by watching rather than by understanding; they were, after all, ministers of the Word.
What I had not reckoned on from my intriguing research and study with Dr. Williams was recognizing the constructed nature of Christian worship. Rather than consisting of a set of fixed texts and actions with ontological overtones, Christian worship consists of a set of repeatable action signs inextricably tied to the linguistic and spatial contexts in which they are enacted. Thus the critical importance of knowing what you are doing in worship. Without informed awareness, the notion of God depicted in worship could be null and void.
As a minister of the Word in the UCA, I was satisfied that my research and analysis had answered my question as to the nature of Christian worship with a focus on the liturgical use of space and action.
Dr. Williams enabled that outcome as my doctoral supervisor. I will always be indebted to her dedication, patience, and trust. Even when we had to communicate via floppy disks across oceans, she remained faithful to her role. I learned many of life’s tough lessons during those four years studying with Drid, but I never doubted her insurmountable optimism in the ability of her students to rise above the morass of lazy thinking. As she often said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” I know I certainly stood on the shoulders of an intellectual giant in Drid Williams.