"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Changing Culture, Changing Worship?

I just finished reading Opening the Prayer Book, by the Rev. Jeffrey Lee.  It's part of "The New Church's Teaching Series."  It's the second book of the series that I've read (The Anglican Vision by James E. Griffiss being the other), and so far I've been pleased.  They are well-written as to style, and short enough to read fairly quickly, while remaining very informative.  They're popular, not scholarly, but I've never felt like I'm just reading an expanded version of a visitor's welcome pamphlet; the books strike a good balance between basic introduction and in-depth study.  I recommend.

In the last chapter of the book, Lee writes of "looking toward the future".  He notes succinctly that "One of the identifying marks of the Anglican way is its willingness to engage the realities of contemporary experience."  I would certainly agree.  But's it's another statement from the chapter that I've been chewing on.  Writing about change and revision to the prayer book (something of a continuous reality if we look at history, as Lee documents earlier in the book), Lee references a quote from the late Leonel Mitchell: "Language changes.  Culture changes.  Our worship is conditioned by both and must change in order to remain the same."

This is a thoughtful and challenging statement, and one with a couple of things to unpack.  First is the assertion that our worship is conditioned by language and culture (which, unarguably, are forever changing).  This may seem a bit threatening.  After all, is not our faith "an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast", as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it?  Consequently, Paul writes to the Ephesians that "we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves."  For myself, the idea of a culturally-conditioned worship brings to mind (to borrow from Niebuhr's typologies) the "Christ of Culture", ever-changing (one might say even manipulated), according to the shifting currents of society; not a happy vision, as I see it.  However, I think this is an overreaction.  To say that worship is conditioned by language and culture is not to say that worship is at the mercy of either.  It is, rather, an acknowledgment of what, on reflection, is quite obviously true.  The Christian faith, perhaps more than any other, has at least one foot firmly standing on the ground of this earth, for the whole of our faith points to this Man who walked the dusty roads of first century Palestine.  In the Incarnation, God enters our world and its culture.  Jesus lived within a specific and historically identifiable culture, and while He certainly challenged that culture, to maintain that the early church was not conditioned by its cultural setting is surely an exercise in self-deception.  Likewise, to read the Bible without a basic grounding in the varied cultural and historical backdrops that inform it is to choose to miss out on whole layers of understanding.  The culture in which we twenty-first century Christians live is much changed from that of the first century Roman world.  Not surprisingly, the church has undergone changes as well.

Which brings us to the second assertion of Mitchell's: our worship must change in order to remain the same.  Even the most cursory study of the history of the church will reveal that the church has evolved and changed in many ways over the course of two millennia, with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox (just kidding; sort of).  This in itself is not surprising.  What Mitchell proposes is, I think, a unique way of explaining such change.  On the one hand, it seems reasonable to say that the changes we observe in the church's worship are simply due to the influence of a changing external culture.  While Mitchell acknowledges this to an extent (as per the first assertion), he also claims that there is a very intentional logic behind the change.  The church intentionally changes the outward form of worship in order to keep alive the spirit that lies behind the form.  As the church, we are called to render worship faithfully unto God, and I certainly believe that there are right and wrong ways to do so; a change in the church's established forms of worship is no flippant thing.  But the church is not called only to worship.  As Jesus reveals in His 'high-priestly prayer' to the Father, even though we are not of the world, we remain in it.  And it is in this world that we are also called to follow the way of Our Lord: to love our neighbor, to seek the lost, to make disciples, to stand in opposition to the injustices of the kingdoms of this world, to embrace the cross.  If a particular form of worship, which  empowered the faithful to do these things in another place and time, is no longer serving to facilitate this call, why should that form of worship not change?  Indeed, is it not necessary that it change "in order to remain the same", that is, to continue to enable the church to proclaim and live the Gospel?

The real question, as I see it, is neither to determine whether or not our worship is conditioned by culture, nor whether it should change.  The question is: How do we take part in a continual, intentional renewal of worship in a way that facilitates the mission of the church today while also preserving the integrity of the faith we have received?  At what point does a well-intentioned, missional attempt to change the form of our worship cross the line and begin to erode sound doctrine and the foundations of the faith?  Are there areas in the church today where this line has already been crossed?

What do you think?


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