"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

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Liturgy Matters: Reflection on a Conversation, and a Plea

The following is an excerpt from "Episcopal Liturgy: A Conversation" published in the Spring 2014 issue of "From the Mountain", the biannual journal-newsletter of The School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.  Seminarian Joe Woodfin interviewed the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander and the Rev. Canon James Turrell, both of the School of Theology, and the Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

What do you think is the most interesting emerging trend in the liturgical life of The Episcopal Church today? 
Alexander: There are two trends that appear to be from different sides.  One is a very clear visible movement to get back to the basics: more traditional structures, approaches, and ways of worship.  This trend is primarily being driven by the youth and young adults.  On the other hand, the generation before them is interested in refreshing, renewing, and reshaping parts of some rites, while still being based in a liturgical tradition.  Both are operating, though, from a common root: a desire for worshipers to participate more deeply in the liturgical and sacramental life of the church. 
Turrell: I think it is people pushing the envelope, making structural alterations and not using the Prayer Book liturgy in the name of ministering to postmodern millennials.  There is a tension there between the need for room for liturgical creativity and the fact that the BCP is what we've agreed on as a church.  It's not clear that some of the creative liturgies have the same kind of historical roots as those that drove the 1979 BCP, nor do they have the same kind of trial use and scrutiny. 
Weil: A trend that particularly concerns me is an attitude toward the BCP that sees it as simply one option among many as a basis for public worship.  A phrase that particularly concerns me is, "We need to move outside the box."  Behind this phrase is the image of the BCP as hopelessly restrictive, a limit to "creativity."  I value creativity, and we need genuinely creative liturgical movement.  But to use an image that was shared with me years ago by the late Bishop of Louisiana -- Bishop Noland -- talking about a different issue, he said, "It seems to me that we need to know the melody before we try to do the variations."

 On the one hand, these observations are disheartening, as they represent voices much more experienced and knowledgeable than my own confirming my own worries about current liturgical trends in TEC.  I view the Prayer Book as "a treasure trove that most of our parishes have only begun to mine" (to borrow a phrase of Dean Alexander's from elsewhere in the interview) and as the most distinctive, solid, and unifying feature of a church that often seems to be all over the place.  The BCP grounds us in the catholic faith, saturates us in the Scriptures, shapes us in a way that is authentically Anglican, and is the clearest explication of "the doctrine and discipline" of the Episcopal Church.  If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, spend some time with the Book of Common Prayer.  So, it deeply concerns me to see a significant proportion of our church "pushing the envelope" by disregarding rubrics, and criticizing the Prayer Book as "a limit to 'creativity'" and "simply one option among many."

On the other hand, it is encouraging to hear that these concerns are shared by influential leaders in TEC.  That these are men who are very directly involved in forming the clergy of the church of tomorrow is even more hopeful.  And I also am particularly heartened by Dean Alexander's assertion that the trend for more structure and tradition in reaffirming the essentials of the faith "is primarily being driven by the youth and young adults."  I've had numerous conversations about this very topic, and it does indeed seem to be true (it certainly is for me, and seems to be so for many of my peers in TEC).  Regarding the trends being advocated by "the generation before," even if I may find them unattractive, I would agree that they spring from a sincere desire to see people more meaningfully encounter God in the Church.  So, if a parish full of boomers who came of age in an era when all tradition and authority was viewed with suspicion (or hostility) finds that a folk mass with gender inclusive language and experimental liturgy speaks to their souls and helps them to experience the risen Christ, I'm not going to cry out against it.  Just please don't justify it "in the name of ministering to postmodern millennials."  Or, as Fr. Robert Hendrickson put it a while back when discussing potential hymnal revision, "don't do it for the kids."  And it may sound harsh, but please, please, don't saddle the Episcopal Church of tomorrow with entrenched liturgical reforms (e.g. Prayer Book revision) that divorce us from centuries of the traditions of the faithful and even may (unwittingly) obscure or blunt the transforming power of the gospel itself.  Some of this "refreshing, renewing, and reshaping" seems dated already, and may be found to be almost useless in another twenty or thirty years.  At that time, the torch of leadership will have been passed on by the advocates of such change, but the rest of the Church will have to live with their legacy, for better or worse.

Peace of Christ.

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