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Catholicity and creativity


I serve in a province in which it is all but impossible to agree on what it is that we have actually agreed on. Clergy vow and sign that we will only lead liturgy that we have agreed to, but the rules and regulations are such a patchwork of new patches on old cloths that the tears and holes increase week by week. Our diocesan synod passed unanimously with acclamation my motion to ask General Synod Te Hinota Whanui (GSTHW) to set in motion a review on liturgical agreement. GSTHW could not agree to discuss it – so it has been left (one presumes) to be dealt with by the we-never-hear-from-them Standing Committee.

This is the local context in which I read my e-friend Rev. Scott Gunn’s blog post Catholicity and creativity. I set his reflection in the frame of comments that real creativity is encouraged by limits, and agree with Scott that, yes, there are rare exceptions where deep study leads to a community being a growing edge by intentionally rejecting an agreement. I cannot think of such a community here.

So I wish my province had the clarity as the context in which to read Scott’s post. Nonetheless the principles he presents are as true here as there:

…I think we Episcopalians should do what the prayer book says when it comes to our public worship…

Contrary to popular belief, Anglican Christianity has core beliefs. The via media does not mean “all things in moderation.” Not only does the historic Book of Common Prayer bind us together liturgically, but the texts root us in a particular theological context. Our sometimes-erastian worldwide national structure has both liabilities and strengths, but our common life in the Anglican Communion is a beautiful part of who we are.

So I find it distressing when people are quick to jettison our Anglican liturgical life. Mind you, it’s not because I think the Anglican liturgical life is the only way to worship “in spirit and in truth.” Rather, it’s because if I want to have total freedom in my worship, there are branches of the church in which my desire can be aligned with the church’s charism. In other words, if you’re going to call yourself an Anglican, be an Anglican…

My concern is this: too many clergy (it’s usually the clergy who are the culprits) view themselves as qualified to rewrite, reject, or reinvent liturgy for public worship. Forms of service are devised which bear no resemblance to anything Anglican. Prayers are edited to the point where they are no longer Anglican, or in some cases, even Christian. Frankly, most of us clergy aren’t as clever as we imagine when it comes to liturgy, and we should have more respect for the lay folk we serve than the inflict our own predilections on them. Local clergy decide they can do whatever they want, regardless of what the bishop might have said if asked. Or, worse yet, bishops imagine they have the authority to dispense with church order to grant permission for anything that pleases them (or which they are unwilling to refuse). What binds these trends together is a willful flouting of church order. We are a catholic church — in which there is churchwide, synodical, and episcopal authority — not a church where congregations or even individual bishops reign supreme.

Often the fruit of this work is disastrous. I know a priest who replaced the word “Savior” with “brother” because she thought it was “exclusive” to speak of Jesus as our savior. I have seen baptisms in which the candidates were not asked to renounce their old lives and follow Jesus as Lord. Other baptisms have included a rewritten baptismal covenant. (I recently heard a priest say that we should not preach sermons on the Bible because people don’t know the stories and it’s a “burden” for them to be expected to know the scriptures.) The people who did all these things are beloved children of God doing their best to serve in the church. But they have forgotten their calling as Anglican leaders. Why does this happen at all? Let me suggest three reasons:

1. American individualism has infected the church. In a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture, it should not surprise us that church leaders would decide they can go their own way without consideration of others. As a priest, my primary loyalties are to Jesus and the church catholic, not to my own whims. There is no “me” in Christ, but rather “we.”

2. Theological ignorance is rampant. Sadly, many folks simply don’t know enough about Christian theology and tradition. People rewrite Trinitarian formulae without understanding the traditional teaching first. If you’re going to suggest a modalist approach, at least understand the potential dangers of leading people in this direction! People who wouldn’t go sailing without a good map of the reefs seem to have no problem sailing off on liturgical voyages into dangerous waters. Generally, most of the authorized texts of the Episcopal Church — and other Anglican bodies — are carefully thought out. There is a theological ecosystem at work, and when you start messing with it, there are unforeseen side effects. I for one know that I do well to give the texts the benefit of the doubt before I start mucking around with them.

3. We like to shirk our Christian duty. Jesus never said being a Christian was easy, nor did he suggest we’d get our own way. Rather, we are to take up our cross and follow him as leader. When I worship as part of a catholic liturgical life, I am forced to set aside my own desires and to follow the liturgy of the wider church. There are things that are hard for me about our liturgy, but in learning to worship with these challenges, I learn something about obedience. If my first impulse with liturgy is to do things my way, I am not practicing discipleship, which is about following.

It will be argued that God doesn’t care about small details of our worship. True enough. But if I don’t want to worship in an Anglican way, I should not lead people away from Anglican worship, but rather I should find another church home. If I have edited the liturgy to teach something contrary to historic Christianity, perhaps God does care. And perhaps my calling as a Christian is to obey.

Obedience is not fashionable these days, and it is positively un-American. However, obedience to tradition — even a tradition that is constantly evolving — is very Anglican. Over time, we will change our liturgy, and it is incumbent on us to continue to use the liturgy of the church in which we live, not the liturgy of the church gone by.

With catholic liturgy, there are plenty of opportunities for creativity. Vesture, music, formality, and many other facets of our worship can vary. Sadly, we have imagined that creativity trumps catholicity, and everything about our liturgical life is understood as needing the individual stamp of someone’s ideas of creativity. While creativity has its place — and is even essential — it must take a back seat to catholicity for us Anglicans.

I have written more than once about our idolising “creativity”. I too-regularly receive emails of the approach of, “We tried using ashes for the first time last year on Ash Wednesday, we don’t want to have our services become boring and predictable, do you have another creative idea we can use this year for Ash Wednesday?”

Rev. Scott Gunn’s original full blog post

As no review of our liturgical agreements appears forthcoming, I have embarked on my own reviews:
NZ Anglican Eucharist Requirements
NZ Anglican Marriage Requirements

During this Southern-Hemisphere, Aotearoa-New Zealand, go-slow season sometimes your comments may take longer than usual to get through moderation…

If you have not done so already, I encourage you to “like” the liturgy facebook page.

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18 thoughts on “Catholicity and creativity”

  1. I have thought of starting the Society for the Observance of Rubrics (SOR). Notice I don’t say Obedience of Rubrics. Some rubrics, like some laws in the civil realm, rank higher than others and should be obeyed scrupulously. Some rank pretty low and may be ignored. The question is which is which.

    1. Thanks, Ormonde. Let us know how you go with that. Especially the ranking exercise. Here some are “X does Y”, “…shall do Y”, “…should do Y”, “…may do Y”… Blessings.

  2. It is very freeing when ‘observing’ the General Intructions in the RC catholic liturgy to come to the realisation that the are intructions and that they are general. As such a rubrical approach can turn the GIRM into a germ.

  3. I wonder if some people don’t understand the difference between creativity and novelty. It seems to me that in your example the person is asking for a novel way to celebrate ash Wednesday.
    being creative doesn’t mean doing things differently all the time. in fact that can be so distracting as to kill creativity
    it is about paying careful attention to the world and finding the new within the old.
    so repititon can open the window to all kinds of creative experience.
    after all God creates through repitition of predictable cycles, from which novelty slowly emerges.

      1. I member reading an article while in seminary at SMU of a United Methodist pastor who had been assigned a new parish in a small coal mining town in Appalachia. The coal dust from the mine permeated the lives of these people daily, even to settling onto the clean laundry hanging outside on the clothesline.

        She related how they weren’t all that used to a formal liturgy in their services and that she was trying to nudge things back in that direction. For her first Ash Wednesday there she walked through the town and picked up the little nuggets of coal that were everywhere, which she then ground to use for marking during the service. One supposes that she found a creative way in her homily to share with the parish what she had done.

  4. I tend not to agree, in principle, with Fr Scott’s principles; nevertheless, when applied to real situations, he is rather right.

    In the Western world, the local creativity was never a problem, before the council of Trent. We find lots of sacramentaries/missals that predate Trent, and there are very useful and interesting things therein. It’s about the organic development. Although Trent forbade other Western rites than the Milanese and the Toletan, nonetheless, some other rites still survived in the RC, thanks to some stubborn bishops and priests (eg in Lyons). But, unlike the bad examples provided by Fr Scott, those ones knew theology.

    The Byzantine rite, as a fusion of both the cathedral rite of Constantinople and the uses of the Palestinian monks, was “definitively” set by the Studite monks. But that rite was so unbearable by the parishes, that the duties of priests and cantors was (and still is) also to know how to improve what was written in the books and, in some case, to be able to translate those texts in local dialect. Nevertheless, none touched the texts themselves. The job was to select few morsels out of the huge amount; not to alter whatsoever. This is how, till the present day, practical uses differ from region to region, even from a village to another. Some cantors created new devotions, and those died with them, because those had no big consistency; other devotions survived. This is the organic development.

  5. The reference in your quote to the via media reminded me of Robert Jackson’s definition in ‘John Donne’s Christian Vocation’ that the term “is founded on a geographical metaphor, in which the middle way is said to be taken by those who walk the boundary line between two properties, as though that line were itself a kind of neutral third territory belonging to neither of the other two. But one may also move along the same path by straddling the boundary, placing one foot first in the territory of the one and the next in the territory of the other. In this style of walking, the person asserts that both countries belong to him to walk in, and his own special position is achieved through the third-dimensional via media created by his body as it moves along the space above.” Apologies for the length etc of this quote written in 1970. My point is that whilst walking this via media we can pluck overhanging fruit, or gather something to spice or decorate our liturgy from other traditions (with attributions of course) without straying from the authorised Anglican way of expressing worship. The reformists described seem to be walking in another land.

  6. I am intrigued Bosco that having for years found that TEC and its uniformity in liturgical adherence has been held up as a mirror to our slack practice here in ACANZP, the post you cite appears to know of some instances in which TEC’s standards are not adhered to!

    All such instances, wherever they occur in the Communion are a reminder that a very searching question for Anglicans in the 21st century is a central question within the cited post, what are limits to Anglican diversity, how do we agree to them, and how do we disciple and discipline ourselves to remain faithful to them!

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      Your points are important ones, and well put. Especially, when is it OK to break agreements?

      Some others may not hear the care with which you have written your comment.

      I am well aware of what you call some instances in which TEC’s standards are not adhered to – I went expressly to visit one as part of my study.

      Our province has possibly 4% the attendance numbers of TEC. It seems to me TEC is clear about what is acceptable/required, ours is not. And TEC has far less allowable diversity than we do. Our ways of making decisions are relatively similar. So other readers may not notice the care with which you are choosing your words and conclude that because some confusion is evident in TEC, our chaos is acceptable. Hence the care with which I wrote my introduction: we are comparing apples and oranges – but can still learn something from them both being fruit.


  7. It is worthwhile reading the whole post you point to and the example of innovation it approves at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco of which i have some experience. I quote from the Rev Gunn:
    “There are places, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Franciso who have done their homework on liturgical innovation. The work they have done is careful, prayerful, and deliberate. Their liturgical life has a carefully worked-out ecosystem that coheres. I have no problem with places like this, and in fact they are essential leaven in our church life. But for someone to take a bit of St. Gregory’s liturgy and plop it into a new context invites problems. So my objection is not to change, to evolution, or to experimentation. Rather, my concern is careless, uneducated, self-interested “creativity” that denies our catholicity.”
    His last sentence is vital.
    Interestingly the comment on the original site of Donald Schell ,one of the innovators there,would make a probing post in its own right and a question on rigidity.

    1. Thanks, Brian. Yes, I am hoping that those interested in what this post is about will read the discussion here, and go to the original, also reading the discussion there.

      St Gregory of Nyssa is a place I have long had an interest in. I specifically mention it in the “about” page of this site. It is the community that I refer to in my comment to Peter that I was delighted to be able to visit. And I am grateful for the scholarship and friendship of Donald Schell and Rick Fabian. That community’s practice is far from the unreflective novelty for novelty’s sake that we are talking about here, and to make their very rare exception as the driver for such would mock the very creativity within a wide catholicity that their community is witness to.


  8. I think it is also important for clergy and other liturgical leaders to be aware of differing temperaments in the congregations they serve. It seems to me that those who practice what C.S. Lewis called ‘the liturgical fidget’ tend to be people for whom the words and actions in the liturgy are the primary part of their worship experience. Thus they focus in them, and easily get bored.

    Lewis indicated that for him this was not the case. The liturgy was something he was using to connect with God, but in order for it to do that, it could not be constantly changing, or it would be constantly drawing attention to itself and not to God. He said it needed to be like an old shoe, that was so well worn that you didn’t notice you were wearing it and were able to get on with enjoying the walk and the view.

    This is my experience too, and it’s why I find it irritating when people are constantly chasing after novelty. I find it hard to pray through novelty, because I’m still noticing the prayer. I don’t want to notice the prayer, I want to sense a connection with God.

    1. Yes, Tim! I am very much on the same page as you/Lewis. But I think that we Christians (we humans) are constantly confusing means and goal – and that this is one of our primary problems. God is the goal. All else is the means. My (apparent) “focus” on liturgy is accidental (long story – but my first love in such foci is the scriptures). The danger I constantly encounter is the thought that (for me) the liturgy is the primary focus. When I walk in as a visiting worshiper often people think I am there to critique the liturgy – when I’m really there to worship God with God’s people. Like you say, I don’t even want to notice the liturgy – and if I don’t, then it has done its job.


  9. Thank you Bosco for your comments and your later comment about liturgy and your relationship with it. When I first became aware of your posting some comments I made reflected what I thought was an over-emphasis on liturgy. . i realised that this was a misreading of your intentions,
    May I say that that this is one of the most interesting postings on Christianity,and with an Anglican focus on the web.
    In passing we sometimes use the NZ prayerbook . A conceived itis often nore prayerful than our Australian one.
    Greetings and blessings from central Victoria,

  10. ‘I find it irritating when people are constantly chasing after novelty.’

    ugh, it’s not just infiltrated religion but everything it seems.

    When people said stale cold rice and seaweed concoctions was the new good food to eat ( and I love seaweed properly prepared ) I said ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ and how many people have gotten food poisoning and disappointment since?!

    Though talking of CS Lewis he may have started it all in church with his Narnia…people expect an adventure every Sunday- whilst sitting on their backside and being home in time for lunch…

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