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.