Of common prayer and its neglect

Oops. Advent got away from me. Guess I wasn’t doing my job. I had thought I’d write a series on liturgy, but I never managed to get to that. So this post will compress several rants into one.

I’ll cut right to the chase. I have a problem with ad hoc “creative improvements” to the prayer book liturgies of our church. Quite often, these supposed improvements are based on the notion that our liturgy is somehow deficient. I’ve heard people describe it as “boring” or “out of touch”. And so people, usually clergy, attempt to rectify these perceived problems with ad hoc edits.

First, a couple of caveats. I’m talking here about Sunday morning principal liturgies, when Anglicans are expected to use the authorized liturgies of the church. On the Lord’s Day we gather, most of us, to worship using forms of common prayer. There will be communities and occasions when liturgy created from scratch will be appropriate and even necessary. Our rubrics even provide for this possibility, so even those exceptions are in keeping with common prayer.

Second, I’m well aware that liturgy develops over time, and every single one of these developments begins with local experimentation. We need to keep revising our liturgy to remain relevant to our culture. However, the pendulum has now swung to the extreme in which parish clergy too often feel that it’s OK to set aside centuries of practice on a whim.

I think if you want an excellent example of local experimentation in our church today, you need look no further than St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. Nearly everything there is done in a carefully worked out theological and liturgical framework. Innovation is balanced against immersion in the tradition. In fact, much of what they do appears to have novelty to us, but is actually the restoration of ancient practices. One might well object to their practice of communion without baptism, but even that has been worked out carefully — it is not merely a kneejerk attempt to be hospitable or to be nouveau. My understanding is that St. Gregory has worked with their bishop over the last few decades, so they are not going out on a whim on their own, apart from their diocese. And of course, they are surrounded by many more parishes, so if a congregant wants straight-forward Episcopal liturgy, it’s not far away.

This post is about ordinary parish churches which decide to “improve” their liturgy in a much different way. Here’a an extreme case. I know of a priest who found the word “sacrifice” problematic, so she took it out of their parish liturgies. Poof. Centuries of Eucharistic and even Jewish liturgical theology gone. Perhaps it’s a good idea to examine the sacrificial context of Eucharistic theology, but this isn’t the way to do it. Even more disturbing, this priest found the word “savior” to be “exclusive” so she replaced that word with”brother” throughout. At that point, the liturgy of that congregation is, strictly speaking, no longer recognizably Christian. More disturbing, this priest enlisted the congregation in a conspiracy to conceal these changes from their bishop. Whenever the bishop was around, the edited leaflets were carefully collected. That’s dysfunctional at best. And it’s clearly a rejection of the bishop’s authority and a failure to respect the office and the dignity of the person.

Not every case is as extreme. But quite often what might seem like good idea undermines the carefully worked out theological ecosystem of the prayer book liturgies. In nature, if you add or remove a plant or animal species, there are usually unintended consequences. And so it is with prayer book theology. Mess about with it much, and there are usually unintended consequences.

It might be tempting to get rid of the Nicene Creed because it is “off putting” or the general confession because it’s “a downer.” Those are things I’ve actually heard. But each one plays an important role in our historic liturgy and, I would say, in our faith today. There are parishes around which use alternative collects to those in the Book of Common Prayer. Too often, the alternative collects I’ve heard neglect the trinitarian framework of the prayer book collects, while also offering didactic commentary on current concerns rather than theological praise and intercession related to the scriptural themes of the day. This is not to say that the current collects in the prayer book couldn’t be improved upon, but the path to better collects is not through casual efforts in Sunday morning worship.

I know of places which edit the lectionary on occasion, usually to avoid uncomfortable bits of the scriptures. But of course, life itself is uncomfortable at times. Engaging with the more difficult bits of scripture is an essential part of a mature faith. Sorting out the violence in the Bible equips us to sort out the violence in our world. Coddling people does no favors.

Or here’s another one, a seemingly trivial rubric. The prayer book requires silence after the fraction. It is not optional. We are meant to spent a moment, just a moment, in awe at what has happened and what we are about to do. Skipping over that silence rides roughshod on our approach to the Holy Table.

Or take the peace. I’ve heard, “May the peace of the Lord be always with you,” rather than what’s in the book: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” The first one is a wish. The second is a declaration. Our liturgy intends us to be more confident here.

Inclusive/expansive language introduces its own set of complexities. In many ways, I regret that our current prayer book was completed just a few years before inclusive/expansive language for people and for God was more common. One of the things I like about Enriching Our Worship is that the language is expansive in all sorts of wonderful ways — and sometimes awful ways, but that’s the point of trial use.

Anyway, it’s hard to know what to do with our current liturgies. There are rubrical ways to justify some changes in our texts, even on Sunday morning, provided the bishop has given permission. But there are some standards — some common ways — to make these changes. For example, the text of Rite II unfortunately includes “It is right to give him thanks and praise” in the sursum corda. Pity. A simple, more literal translation of the ancient texts would have provided, “It is right and good.” Period. And inclusive. So what to do? Back before EOW, some people started staying, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” You can see the logic of that. But our common prayer now offers us, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” That’s the common way to say the sursum corda now, not only in the Episcopal Church, but in other English-speaking traditions. So if folks are going to innovate, they should do it the common way. Saying “our” rather than “God” keeps the focus in the right place for that moment. And it flows off the tongue better.

OK, one more. If you read the rubrics carefully, you’ll see that the blessing (which is optional in Rite II, but required in Rite I) is meant to proceed the dismissal. Immediately. The final hymn should be before or after the postcommunion prayer. Or, if you like, you can sing the final hymn after the liturgy proper is complete. But the dismissal is not meant to be orphaned after the final hymn, just before the postlude. I know, that’s what everyone is used to.

The prayer book says it should be done differently. Once you’ve experienced it the way the prayer book intends, you’ll see the organic unity of the blessing and the dismissal (ideally given from the Holy Table). It binds together our prayer and our sending forth. By its placement, this also discourages the often ridiculously demonstrative dismissal. (You know what I mean? When the dismissal is given with more “energy” than the rest of the liturgy combined, so that it sounds campy rather like than a bidding to go forth and serve/rejoice?)

Speaking of the dismissal, the are two bonus alleluias to be added during Eastertide and NOT during other seasons. The point is to kick it up a notch during Eastertide. If the alleluias are used all the time, what distinguishes Eater from other seasons? Done correctly, there is great seasonal variety within our liturgy. In fact, if we allowed ourselves to be embraced by the richness of the liturgical year and all its (authorized) variations, we would see that the liturgy is hardly boring at all.

If your Sunday liturgy is boring, it’s not the liturgy’s fault.

I could go on at great length. My point is that our liturgy is actually quite good. Rather than go off in new and “creative” directions, perhaps we would do well first to master what we have. If you take dance classes, you learn the basic steps first. Chefs start with the basics. When I studied organ, I first learned the play hymns exactly as they’re in the book before I learned to improvise. Our problem with liturgy today is that too many clergy try to cook a soufflé when they don’t quite know how to crack eggs. That’s not quite the right metaphor. Perhaps it is enough to say that it’s not all about us.

The lovely thing about common worship is that it cradles us and strengthens us through the changes and chances of this life. There is great power in the same words prayed by people across all walks of life, across many lands, and across many centuries. There is tremendous depth in the liturgical tradition we have inherited from twenty centuries of the church and five hundred years of Anglicanism. In our disposable culture, I worry that we are in danger of discarding this great treasure.

So next time someone has the urge to be “creative” ask a few questions. And remember, it’s not all about our whims.

P.S. In great restraint, I have left out rants about the daily office, about ordination vows, about how bishops do not actually have the authority to set aside canons and rubrics, and about simple, good taste. You’re welcome.

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12 Responses

  1. Tom Watling says:

    I fear, Scott, that a large number of your readers will accuse you of being stodgy and not with it. As a Methodist,(and former member of the Congregational church) I would have difficulty accepting the apparent control of the litergy exercised by Episcopal Bishops. But you are right in recognizing the “treasure of tradition” and I agree wholeheartedly with your argument.
    P.S. –What about music: traditional vs. pop/evangelical ?

  2. John Basett says:

    I could give you many worse examples. And what’s so aggravating is that all this happens at clerical whim. One individual cleric decides that his or her preference overrides the judgment of the entire church – including us layfolks. In the free church tradition there is the idea of a pastoral prayer, one given by the minister expressing his or her concerns. We have common prayer instead where the priest speaks on behalf of the whole congregation, NOT expressing his or her concerns. When the authorized words are used even if I don’t particularly care for them (like EP 3) the priest is still speaking for me. Not so when it’s improvised as an improvement.

  3. Chuck Till says:

    I like EOW and I support liturgical evolution, but there’s a process to be followed. Changing liturgy upon one priest’s whim not only opens the door to bad innovation, but it also ignores the role of the laity in joint governance of TEC across the four orders of ministry (lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons). In TEC, although perhaps not everywhere in the Anglican Communion, prayer is “common” not merely because it’s printed in a book but because lay persons have concurred in the rightness of the texts.

    The wise rector or vicar who wants to innovate will have a worship committee of knowledgeable persons who have have the freedom to say yea or nay after prayerful reflection. The priest should listen to them and then take a consensus position to the bishop… who, if he or she is wise, will have a diocesan worship or liturgy committee performing the same function. If an innovation feels like it’s in the Spirit to these persons and committees, it can then be implemented with proper communication to parishioners.

    As a lay person, I hate to say it in these terms, but there is a degree of egocentricity when a priest changes liturgy upon his or her sole initiative.

  4. RFSJ says:

    Scott – well said. as a student of liturgy myself (GTS Th.D. in progress) and a former parish incumbent, I agree with much of what you have said. I also confess to doing a few things in my little rural church that are at best extra-rubrical, such as inviting people up for personal blessings before the final blessing. And since the Divine Office is my focus, I’d be interested to hear your take on the Office too.

    Just one note: You’re correct about the (blessing and) dismissal. the blessings if optional because we have just experienced the most wonderful blessing one can have – no need for another. But I would suggest that if there is a final hymn it actually ought to be before the dismissal, not after. Here’s why: it should be the last ords heard by the congregation. that really is the intent of the dismissal being the final rubric, seems to me. So, if you have a hymn before the dismissal (after the blessing), which is what we have done, the people get the “OK, go on now” as the last thing they hear after the hymn. Not sure how it would work if the hymn were “after the liturgy.” What does that mean? That, it seems to me, degrades the dismissal itself.

  5. Joseph F says:

    St Gregory’s is a good example; they experiment, but they do it with deep reverence for the tradition and do it with the bishop involved. It’s not about one priest knowing ‘better’ than anyone else.

    One problem, I think, is that the “prophetic” has become the theology du jour. Clergy and laity see the whole life of the church in “prophetic” terms and think that, by innovating to be more ‘inclusive’ ‘welcoming’ or just ‘sticking it to that man/woman with the pointy hat and crozier’ they are siding with the oppressed. By watering down tradition or caring more about what people think rather than glorifying God, they become less prophetic, not more.

    What upsets me most is when people and clergy see the liturgy as a show, as a pageant. The highest values then become ‘prettiness’ and ‘comfort’. I’d much rather be lost in wonder, love and praise than sit through a nice little service with some nice hymns.

    I actually would be interested in hearing your comments about the daily office, vows and the like. You haven’t come off curmudgeonly here.

  6. Jean Mornard says:

    Great post! Perhaps this is a rant for another day, but you left out churches who decide to abandon the BCP altoghether, either in favor of some kluged-together “modern” liturgy, or in favor of the 1928 BCP/1662 BCP/Roman Missal/what-have-you.

  7. Laura says:

    I think the key sentence of your rant is, “If your Sunday liturgy is boring, it’s not the liturgy’s fault.”

    I would love to see our clergy have a better understanding of (for lack of a better word) stagecraft, of public speaking, of presence and presentation. And not just clergy, of course, but acolytes, lectors, and lay ministers. I think many people are futzing with the liturgy because they realize something is lacking; but for the most part, it’s not about changing the liturgical words or actions, but in inhabiting them in a meaningful way. My two cents.

  8. jon white says:

    Scott, I agree with you 99% (I prefer ‘God’ to ‘our’ in the Sursum Corda)and I think you’ve hit on significant issues facing our church. An important one is the too-easy willingness of many clergy to follow their own lights. This undermines the ‘epsicopal’ structure of our polity and is condescending to our congregants. I think clergy should be thinking a lot more about issues of submission and service in their callings. My general impression is that places where people think that our liturgy is insufficient are places where much of the core of Christianity is also seen as insufficient. I was appalled to read a delegate to GC opinion that the Nicene Creed should be relegated to the historical documents. I think Nouwen was onto something when he wrote (In the Name of Jesus) of the desire to be relevant as a temptation akin to Christ’s temptation to turn stone into bread.
    Jon White

  9. Jonathan says:

    I’m with Laura on this point. The liturgy as written (even in the supplementary books, really) is like tofu.

    It is the accoutrements like hymns, vestments, AC additions, and altar party behavior that makes or breaks the liturgy. Style isn’t that important, however. Good liturgy can be folksy or ornate Anglo-Catholic as long as the planners pay close enough attention to (and have enough skill with) the aesthetics of the place, community, and occasion. The point isn’t to make the liturgy pretty, mind you. The point is to make the liturgy right for it’s milieu, which takes at least some careful thought about the nature of the place, community, and occasion.

  10. Scott Gunn says:

    Laura, I like your tofu analogy. And in my post I left out a discussion about all the things you cite, though I’m with you 100%. One problem is that much of “stagecraft” will be subjective, so it’s hard to write much that’s useful in a blog post (at least not without inviting an onslaught of internet trolls). The problem is that too many clergy conclude that tofu is lousy, without trying to appropriately season it.

    With regard to “God” vs. “our” I don’t feel that strongly about it, really. But General Convention — and other traditions — have largely settle on “our” as the choice.

    Tom, you’ve helped me make a good point. The liturgy isn’t controlled by our bishops. In the case of the Episcopal Church, it’s controlled by General Convention. More to the point, we are all formed by it: lex orandi lex credendi. I would actually make the opposite point: our liturgy forms our bishops and not the other way around.

    Still, you are spot on that there is less freedom for local or personal innovation in the Episcopal Church than in many other traditions. I write as an Anglican priest, so I advocate that position. However, I am grateful that within the wider church there are streams which permit more freedom. It’s been the case since New Testament times, and I hope that continues. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m glad that expression exists. However, it is not Anglican.

    Thanks, everyone for a good discussion!

  11. Reverend Ref says:

    Good post, as usual, Scott. For the most part, I’m with you. I could wish for a more inclusive language BCP — I would like to see the five named women in Matthew’s lineage (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary)as part of Eucharistic Prayer C (in conjunction with the God of our named fathers). I could also wish that the committee that put the ’79 BCP together had seen fit to authorize one set of Alleluia’s for celebratory seasons, like Christmas. And a priest who hides unauthorized liturgies from their bishop, well . . . that whole passage about what you do in the dark comes to mind.

    I use all four prayers on a seasonal rotation, as well as both forms of the Lord’s Prayer and other **authorized** variations.

    However, I disagree with you regarding the dismissal. The “Additional Directions” on pg. 409 say that a hymn may be sung before or after the postcommunion prayer, but it doesn’t specify the exact location. The blessing-hymn-dismissal format is still the best way to get the liturgical party to the back of the church and, agreeing with RSFJ, the dismissal should be the final piece of the liturgy that people hear.

  12. Scott Gunn says:

    I think the very best solution is postcommunion prayer, hymn, blessing, dismissal. Then the postlude starts and the procession leads the people out into the world. It is rubrical and elegant.

    Everyone I know who maintains that blessing, hymn, dismissal is best has not tried it another way. And everyone I know who has tried it another way likes that way more. Just sayin’.

    But these surely are small matters in the larger point: the liturgy does not belong to individuals for tinkering. It belongs, as do we, to the whole church.