Catholicity and creativity

Way back in August, I wrote about freedom, creativity, and accountability. Basically, I argued that when it comes to the Christian life — and especially in the post, to the church — it’s not all about us. Rather, it’s about Jesus and the world.

After some prompting from a friend, I’d like to look a bit more carefully at one specific aspect of the tension between creativity and our obligations, especially for those of us who have a catholic-leaning ecclesiology. Let’s talk about liturgy! It is important to know, for this purpose, that I have been branded on more than one occasion as a prayer book fundamentalist. About this I have mixed feelings. What is the behavior that has earned me this label? I think we Episcopalians should do what the prayer book says when it comes to our public worship.

Sadly, this is a controversial view within the Episcopal Church. Let me begin with what might seem like a digression. I am profoundly grateful for the diversity within the universal church. I’m glad to count as my sister and brother Christians Pentecostals, megachurch nondenominationals, Eastern Orthodox folks, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and all the rest. Each branch of the universal church has its charisms, and I have been known to recommend other Christian denominations to folks who did not seem at home in the Anglican family. The flip side of my view is that I think it’s important for us Anglicans to be true to our calling and our identity.

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.

What does this mean? Certainly the use of the historic prayer book and formularies helps, but there are plenty of modern liturgical materials which are wholly Anglican. For my money, Enriching Our Worship is as Anglican as the 1979 American prayer book, which in turn is an Anglican heir of Cranmer’s work. So what besides text makes a liturgy Anglican?

If you travel around the Anglican Communion, you’ll encounter a rich variety. Congregations around the world, in my experience, tend to sing a mixture of local music and English (often Victorian) hymnody. There are congregations in which Holy Communion is a rarity, and places in which Solemn Mass is the norm. Churches can be as formal as Westminster Abbey or as informal as a house church.

All that said, it seems to me there are a couple of things that make our worship Anglican. First, there are, in fact, some distinctives of Anglican liturgical life. Cranmer’s own words, written at the aesthetic apex of the English language, are unsurpassed. Modern renderings of them often maintain the general contours of his prose and much of his theology. The Anglican Eucharistic rite, influenced by Roman and Sarum influence, is noticeably different from the pure Roman rite. Even when I have worshiped with Swahili-speaking congregations, I have been able to follow the shape of the service.

The second character of Anglican liturgy is a national (or provincial) expression. The English church has its quirks, as does the American church and the Japanese church. The autocephalous nature of the Anglican Communion is made real in our liturgical life, and that’s a beautiful thing. So, for instance, American Anglicans have a particular nature, and we should be true to who we are. When we Americans try to pretend we are Westminster Abbey, it never quite works.

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.

Before I end, let me issue one caveat. 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.

I welcome your thoughts and conversations to what will surely be revealed as a half-baked post full of unclear thoughts. My hope is that through conversation, we might articulate a more fulsome basis from which to decide how we as a church might maintain our catholicity and creativity in appropriate, Anglican ways.

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10 Responses

  1. Will Westerfield says:

    As a verger, I was taught that liturgy done-well does two things: Glorifies God and brings us closer to God. I agree that care must be given to liturgical expression. I remember a Youth Sunday service in which the confession of sin used the phrase “God, we goofed.” That confession (actually most of the service, I felt) accomplished neither of the objectives.

    THAT said, I think that there is much room for pastoral sensitivity in the rites. The BCP has what some of us refer to as Rite III (Page 400, Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist). However while that is license to express creativity it is not, I agree, license to change the teachings of the Church.

  2. With regard to you list of reasons for “creative” liturgies, I would add: Desire for Inclusive Theology.

    While EOW moves somewhat in this direction for gender and more feminine images of the divine presence, many of my seminary colleagues felt that it was a thin coating of tokenism over a framework of patriarchy.

    On the other hand, the most atrocious liturgies I have ever suffered through were from clergy trying to create “truly [fill in oppressed minority here] friendly” service.

    I would like to hear your advice to those who claim that “the Anglican liturgy is oppressive to minority groups and therefore we have a christian obligation to make radical corrections to it — with out without the consent of an oppressive hierarchy.” (Leader of a Diocesan sponsored mandatory anti-racism training)

  3. Mary Keenan says:

    Wow! I am about 98% in agreement with Scott! But would like to make a couple of points.
    1) Creativity without limits is not really that creative. It is limits that actually encourage greater creativity. (Have you ever seen the huge variety of recipes from just about every culture that are Kosher for Passover?!) Limits are what give your creative efforts a touchstone with the community that will experience and learn from it. This is true of storytelling, visual arts, architecture, and liturgy.
    2) I grew up using green books and zebra books as TEC worked its way toward a new prayer book in 1979. These efforts were so important. Any major changes need to have a relation to what came before, as Scott says. But new forms also need to be used in communities first, because that is the only way to know if they will serve the community well. This doesn’t give free license to change things, but I might be a little more lenient toward experimentation. Especially if the experimentation takes place side-by-side with whatever the established form is.

  4. Steve Carpenter says:

    Mary picked up on something really important b when she said “Creativity without limits is not really that creative. It is limits that actually encourage greater creativity.” Children, even children of God, need structure in which to grow stronger. Eventually they might grow beyond the need for structure. Nevertheless during spiritual formation it is essential.

  5. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman says:

    Dom Gregory Dix would be pleased, as am I, to read your apologia for catholocity (especially trumping creativity) in this day of “celebrity” liturgists – along with everything else that smacks of “narcissism” in the church. I also appreciate the implied respect for something that has gone out of favor (along with obedience); namely church discipline. Here, I do not so much refer to Title 4 – by which some of the clergy to whom you allude can be called on the carpet for “rubrical” violations, but rather, to the greater sense of being “under discipline” as in disciples yoked (bit and bridle) to the Master.

    What about the Sacraments as they are liturgically represented and celebrated? Specifically, Holy Matrimony? What say you on the subject of what has now become the confusing definition of marriage? My own views are found in the final 2012 issue of TLC. Let’s chat!

  6. Here’s a quote from Evelyn Underhill’s “Worship”:

    “[Worship] is not merely a commemoration of the events of the Gospel or other events in the Church’s life, in an artistic form. It is also an actualization of these facts, their renewal upon earth. The Christmas service does not merely commemorate the birth of Christ. In it Christ is truly born in a mystery, as at Easter He rises again. So with the transfiguration, the entry into Jerusalem, the ascension of Christ….The life of the Church in her liturgy, discloses to our senses the continuing mystery of the Incarnation. The Lord still lives in the Church, under that same form in which He was once manifest on earth, and which exists eternally; and it is the function of that Church to make those sacred memories living, so that we again witness and take part in them.

    And the reason for all that is so that we can be, as Steve mentioned, formed to a new way of living. (I disagree with Steve, though, that we ever outgrow a need for this!)

    I would say, in fact, that “creativity” is probably actually a hindrance to that process. If you look at something like A.A. – an organization whose total (and life-saving) focus is “forming people to a new way of living” – you can see why. The Steps never change; people change by means of the Steps. (And there’s something parallel in that, I think, to Mary’s point about “limits”! The Steps are very simple and a seemingly paltry structure on which to build “new life” – yet they are very deep once you enter into them and really attempt to practice them.)

    This isn’t to say that the BCP should never change at all – just that changes have to be made with careful consideration given to the idea of “formation.” It’s not merely “art,” as the quote above points out.

    The other issue is that since the BCP and its rites constitute our only theology (outside the Creeds), changes to the liturgy are by definition always changes in theology. Which is why we need strong theologians to help guide the process, and not just “creatives.”

  7. Melody Shobe says:

    Mary, I’m grateful for your comment that “creativity without limits is not really that creative.” I think you are spot on. One of the things that troubles me is that when people look for a venue for “creative” liturgy, many immediately turn to the Order for Holy Eucharist that Will mentioned above. That Order is intended for special circumstances, and is very broad. Yet our existing Rites (I and II), also contain room for a great deal of creativity within some defined limits. The words of the sermon, the prayers of the people, the offertory sentence, and the blessing can all be adapted and crafted to reflect a certain day or season. There are six different Eucharistic Prayers within the BCP (Prayer 1 and 2 in Rite I and A,B,C, and D in Rite II), and additional options that can be used from EOW. It is my contention that people need to be using the full breadth and depth of the resources WITHIN our tradition before looking beyond our tradition.

    I am also grateful for the comments Michael offered about obedience and discipline. I believe that it is actually good for our priests and our communities, to submit ourselves to prayers that are not exactly as we might have chosen or written were we given free reign. It stands as a reminder that worship is not for ourselves, but for God, and that we do not worship alone, but as a community gathered together across time and location. The prayers that I might not prefer might be those most meaningful to someone else. The liturgy that I might write will not the one that has echoed through the ages and fed my brothers and sisters who came before.

    There are ways to change and add to our liturgy. I engage in those ways, both by using creativity within the given limits AND by advocating for changes to our liturgy at the appropriate places and times in our Church’s governance. Until then, it is a good spiritual discipline to submit myself to the worship of the Church.

  8. Derek,

    Thanks for the nod toward our work at St. Gregory’s. As I think you’ll know, I think the substance of this posting is wonderful. I’m particularly grateful to have you remind us so strongly that creative rests in obedience and community, something foundational to our theology, and also something that becomes clearer by the day in scientific observation of people together, innovation, and the breaking in of grace. Authentic, life-giving innovation is always rooted in tradition. We are most open to the Spirit as we remember and take to heart the wisdom of those who have known and be faithful to Spirit before us.

    A high point of my own experience of Anglican liturgy in Africa was a liturgy at Christ the King in Soche, a neighborhood or town within Blantyre, Malawi. What they’d made from what the SPG missionaries had given them was a remarkably coherent synthesis of Africa and Victorian (as you say), but included some 19th century Anglo-Catholic sources that took that contribution beyond Victorian in a way that confirms the grace you’re writing about here.

    In a three and a half hour long Chechewa liturgy where we didn’t understand a word, the flow and logos of the liturgy was completely clear and familiar. Hymnody was more African than Anglo, but all clearly belonged to the congregation who sang with great energy (and listened to one another wonderfully, so it was singing together). Ritually it was moderately Anglo-Catholic. And one of the joys was the bits of plainsong, Merbecke, and Anglican chant sung in a voice so natural to that congregation that I was deeply touched by something that sounded utterly unfamiliar and new and then suddenly break open to old, familiar, and loved. The mix also included Afro-pop, congregational dance gathering up the offerings of the several local communities (like base communities) that made up the whole congregation. Some of the singing was unaccompanied, some accompanied by drums, and keyboard. Some was choirs, some congregational, sometimes dividing mens’ and womens’ voices.

    My other wish, predictably I suppose, is to remind us that one distinctly Anglican charism is borrowing and in particular, we’ve been a Western Church that’s steadily borrrowed from the Christian East, beginning with the Egyptian influence on Celtic Christianity, Sarum’s Eastern borrowings or partial inspiration, and most recently in the continuous adaptation from the Eastern Church that the Anglican Reformers began, that inspired Lancelot Andrewes, the Non-Jurors, the first American prayer book, and all American BCP’s since. In fact, I’m told that Massey Shepherd said (probably in the early to mid 1980’s) that if you lined up every Anglican Prayer Book from 1549 on a shelf in chronological order that you’d see a steady and continuous borrowing from the Christian East, a bit more in each BCP. I know this is tricky territory and there’s something paradoxical in saying this, but there is a way that what’s distinctly Anglican about Anglicanism is that we have been more concerned about being open to and learning from the life and wisdom of the undivided church historically and the whole global church in the present moment than we have about what makes us special, different or unique.

  9. Rob Scot says:

    Amen and amen! Thank you, Fr. Gunn (and all commenters) for this encouragement. The liturgies of our BCP are such an incomparable treasure. Headline-grabbing disputes about human sexuality and litigation over property notwithstanding, I believe this is the great challenge facing the Episcopal Church in our time: to re-focus and renew our church by grounding ourselves in the catholic faith. How fortunate for us that all we need do to accomplish this is to form our common life and worship in accordance with the authorized liturgies of our Book of Common Prayer! The BCP is itself grounded (purely saturated) in the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the catholic faith — the wisdom of the ages. In our reckless, scattered modern societies, we need such wisdom now as much as ever. I do believe that to be truly grounded in such a tradition is to be grounded in the very life of Christ.

  10. sandi says:

    I liked your blog. I am currently a part-time Divinity student. In my 20s I left the Anglican church for the Pentecostal church as I really enjoyed the more evangelical approach to worship and even though they don’t have a service book they do have a liturgy. I rambled around different denomination and even spent time at a feminist theological school. Yes I am back in the Anglican church, I like the rich liturgy. I strongly believe to be creative with liturgy one must first have a strong grasp of the historic context and development of the Anglican Liturgy. This can be done by lay or ordained people. It doesn’t happen over night rather it happens through a series of conversations you know about developing a deeper community.

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