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?”
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