Sunday, January 29, 2012

Complicating Liturgy: Problematizing Community, Evangelism, and Mission in post-Christendom

“If we don’t, we’re not.”

In words to this effect, an interviewee coming out of the Mass tells anthropologist, Victor Turner, why it is she must go to Mass. Her words capture to my mind the essence of why we Christians are gathered together Sunday after Sunday.

Yet, lately, I have read a spate of suggestions that unless we do it differently, we will be not. And by differently, those doing the suggesting mean complete overhauls. We must undo everything we have done before.

Complete breaks with languages and idioms of our past. Rite I must go. [And even Rite II.] Good-by Schmuecke Dich. [Bach be gone, too.]

And with these breaks we must countenance complete rejection of the liturgically-formed pieties that have fed generations to go forth and serve a world in need. Including the pieties of many currently living. We are asked to dismiss generations with all of their own greatnesses and failures, compassions and sins, just like us in all of our own ambiguities and complexities.

This either/or approach to liturgy sets my teeth on edge because it is quite distinct from a tradition, like the Anglican tradition, or I would suggest, the Lutheran tradition, that has tended to incorporate insights, expand options, and build bridges between liturgically-formed pieties past and present as we go along. This antagonistic thinking is at odds with a canonical approach to liturgy in the same vein Luke Timothy Johnson uses when discussing Holy Writ, an approach that makes us stronger because we have many resources upon which and whom to draw from across many, many centuries. New languages and idioms and theological insights will indeed find their way into our praying—alongside that which and those who have gone before. And after sifting. But they will not pit themselves over and against that which has fed ancestors in faith or current sisters and brothers, but seek development in which ancestors and kin too might recognize themselves if but in glimpses and in which they too would recognize the Jesus who came to them as he does to us and turns us from ourselves.

Recently, Dr Derek Olsen offered a cogent, to my mind, initial answer in a conversation on what it is that we Episcopalians should and should not bring up for negotiation in these changing times. Derek noted that we cannot negotiate giving up our common prayer with the theological commitments as expressed in the 1979 Prayer Book. Another responder suggested that, on the contrary, the Prayer Book must be the first thing negotiated—and fast. And if we do so, young people will show up “in droves.”

[As an aside, to be fair, the languages and idioms of the Prayer Book may no longer be in a language understanded for all comers. Nevertheless, finding languages and idioms that do communicate and maintain the scriptural allusions, inherited resonances, and creedal commitments of those we currently have is delicate if we are not to lose the gains of our current prayers--both in Rite I and Rite II. Finding such languages and idioms is careful work if what we shall have in a “Rite III” is to be heard as development consonant with Rites I and II in keys that communicate the Incarnation in his fullness as he is for us here and now AND as he has been for those gone before us. ]

So, droves. Let me be honest. I don’t buy it. The fact is that there are many other, often more interesting, things most younger people (sometimes, including myself) would rather do on their Sunday mornings no matter how revised, with it, or expressive of current spiritual longings our prayers might become. In fact, I am willing to wager that many of the unending debates about language we Christians are currently engaged in are lost on many who don’t currently go to Church or who have never gone to Church. That isn’t to say these debates aren’t important, but it is to say that making these changes won’t make us less sinners and more saints, less irrelevant and more appealing. That work largely lies in community, evangelism, and mission.

What gets me is the suggestion that we make all of these changes, and if we do so, people will come in droves. This is only verifiable if we make all of the changes and risk losing everything that has made us who we are to-date. Are we willing to take that risk? I’m not. The liturgies that we have in our Prayer Book are the stuff of many hundreds of years of people in ongoing encounter with Jesus Christ by the Spirit to the Father and the simultaneous theological and Christological reflection that goes with these encounters. This simultaneous encounter/reflection being what Rahner termed an ever “mediated immediacy” in which the prayers shape the encounter and the encounter shapes the prayers.

What also gets me about this suggestion is that when we get to brass tacks, many of those telling us we must change everything about ourselves don’t seem to have a common understanding of what that would be. Some say chant. Others say not. Some say Lord. And others say not. And so on. In the mean time, I have worshipped in many Episcopal parishes, and the breadth of variety that touches all of these suggestions is to be found with varying levels of numbers and vibrancy (and numbers are no guarantee of vibrancy). No single formula seems to do the trick if numbers is the measure.

And then yesterday, I read a piece in The Lutheran in which the author claims that unless we change everything about ourselves as insiders, we will keep others away and die of irrelevance.

In a rather overly general and swift dismissal of the pieties that feed many to go forth and serve through their life, work, and loves, the piece suggests that folks must give up what makes them who they are using the insider/outsider trope to guilt us into changing everything. This sort of thinking is a set up for a new round of liturgical warfare in congregations. And that will serve no one.

Like those who suggest changes in language and idiom will solve everything, with due respect, I think the bishop who wrote the piece mistakes liturgy for the hard work of community, evangelism, and mission.

Liturgy, particularly, Holy Communion or the Divine Service, is meant to feed those who are already Christians, and Christians of this or that particular stripe. And before anyone reminds me that liturgy is embedded, yes, I am quite aware that liturgy as actually done in any given context is contextual and cultural in communicating our Risen Lord. I expect to find that cultures have been and are being taken up in liturgies to this task. But inculturation does not mean we will not continue to recognize one another and what we’re doing even across cultural expressions and variations.

And what is this we're doing? Receiving and responding to Jesus Christ who comes to us as word and bread.

Just as our Orthodox kin are masters at inculturation while maintaining shared liturgical commitments across a wide range of peoples, I hardly think it wise to suggest we lose recognize-ability. And who, by the way, are growing in the U.S. without changing a thing? The Orthodox. [And yes, I know that that growth has a complicated story.]

The end result of all of this is that we are in danger of making relevance the wag that tells the god. And then who shall we be?

Now, we are living into post-Christendom. This is neither necessarily the greatest thing to ever happen to us as Churches, nor is it the worst. It is different.

One mistake we often make is to compare post-Christendom with pre-Christendom or Christendom.

Post-Christendom is not pre-Christendom. We who are living into post-Christendom realities are not on the whole prone to sporadic persecutions. On the whole, society is indifferent to us at best and carries a low level hostility toward us at worst.
Unlike Christendom, we are finding ourselves increasingly irrelevant and marginalized and vulnerable. And this taste of low grade marginalization, however, does carry resonances with pre-Christendom. This taste is an opportunity. Yet, who knows now what finally will differentiate post-Christendom from Christendom?

But, let me make a bold claim about our current liturgical expectations: The expectation that liturgy can and must carry the weight of community, evangelism, and mission is itself a hangover from Christendom. Why do I say this? Because only in societies in which Christianity has been dominant and thoroughly a part would we suggest that liturgy should be the most central or primary or initial encounter the unchurched have with us.

Folks in the pre-Christendom era did not join up with the Way because of liturgy. In fact, depending on their locale, they might not have been permitted to join us in God’s Service at all because they might be spies on the look out for trouble-making Christ-followers.

As historian and theologian, Robert Wilken, once noted, Christianity spread because we were the great redistribution society at a time when mystery religions of similar ilk and style disconnected rite and right. Our deacons, like St. Lawrence of Rome, were a hit because they distributed the goods brought to the service to those who were poor and in need, radically undercutting a society that, like our own, reduced most human beings to resource and use and numbers and disposability.

What makes us distinct is that unlike these early ancestors, folks do walk in off the street and join us from time to time. The question I have for us is not how did we change our liturgy to bring them in, but how does who we are at prayer reflect who we are we being with one another, who we are in sharing the Reason for our worship in the rest of our lives, and raising a stink and sharing daily bread in the middle of a society willing to use up and spit out the masses?

How is it we are being actively irrelevant, nay a thorn in the side, to a culture that measures relevance by use, resource, numbers, and disposability?


  1. Are the Orthodox really growing? I thought I had read something about a decline in the OCA, at least. And they are changing - just not doing so liturgically so much. Now that so very much of American Orthodox are converts from evangelical backgrounds and ex-Episcopalians, institutional convertitis is a problem.

  2. Wow does this hit home. My partner and I have been writing about this lately. Check the links below.

    I would like to comment specifically though:

    It would appear to me that any Anglican who wants to get rid of the Prayer Book doesn't understand what it is not the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi. As a Lutheran I have the Book of Concord as my back up to the Bible. This tells me what the Church of the Augsburg Confession believes, and I as a member in that Church. The closest thing that your three leged stool has is the Prayer Book. Please fight to keep it. Don't follow the Lutherans in mucking about and watering down the theology of the liturgy where even the creed is now optional.

    Also don't knock the Anglicans ability to inculturate. Like the Orthodox the Anglicans have room for the culture in which they live. So, in Africa drums accompany the hymns; among Native Americans sage may be an ingredient in the incense. I wouldn't like to see these things transported out of those cultures in to a New York church but they are appropriate and meet in the proper cultural setting.

    Here are the links I mentioned above: