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.