Monday, October 15, 2007

Last Liturgical Dinosaur

The Last Protestant Dinosaur lists 20 Basics of Welcoming Liturgy. Anyone who has heard me talk about liturgy can guess that I disagree with a lot of those twenty points. So let's take it point by point:

1. Stop fighting the BCP. Sure, people in other churches do quite different things in church; but you can't compete with them by borrowing their praxis, so stop trying. BCP worship is the unifying center of Episcopal worship, and insofar as you abandon it, you've abandoned the brand. It is very hard to win converts by alienating the regulars, remembering also that a lot of the "converts" are Anglicans moving in from elsewhere.

2. Make worship the central spiritual priority and the sniff test of everything you do. Hospitality is important; worship is all-important. Everyone is there to connect with God; but the 25% or so of the population who are introverts are going to be put off by too much "hospitality".

3. I don't have too much to argue about point 3. Grubbing for money is off-putting for visitors. On the other hand, calling to much attention to your flexibility makes people suspicious, and can be alienating to the regulars.

4. Open communion sends the message that you don't have standards. Most people can deal with the idea that some elements of the service are for full members only. They will be more willing to make a commitment to Christ if they thing that it makes a difference to do so. (And never mind the strong scriptural justification of closed communion.) A better idea for welcoming the unbaptized is to make them aware that they can come up for a blessing.

5. Don't make a fetish out of holding people's hands. No doubt about it: a completely book-based Episcopal service can be baffling to the first-time visitor. OK: well, this is your big chance to be welcoming! Nothing could be more inviting than to slide into the pew, be faced with this daunting book, and have the person next to you come over to help you get through it.

6. Don't assume that people hate church music. Episcopalians have one of the broadest and deepest repertoires of church music out there in the 1982 hymnal. From what I can tell, a lot of clerics are afraid of it. I get the sense that its immense power threatens them because (unlike the words of liturgy) it isn't entirely within their control. So they try to whittle down as much as possible or dilute it by choosing less powerful styles and hymns.

And don't let anyone fool you: style is very important. It is a stronger conveyor of meaning than the words themselves, as evidenced for instance by the fad some years back for plainsong by those who hadn't the slightest idea what was being sung. If the only music you use is trivial, then you are saying that relationship with God is trivial.

The parish can develop an affection and even a desire for some pretty difficult music, if you let them. If they are treated like musical dunces, they will be so, so don't assume that they can't hack Anglican chanting. (There are simplified versions in the hymnal which nearly anyone can sing.)The thing is that the musical competence of any group of people depends on a dedicated core. If you always go for the lowest common denominator, you will alienate these people, and you will not even acheive that low level unless those people have pretty low tastes.

7. Don't obsess about service length. In my experience, Rite II with music and a congregation of any size is going to go over an hour unless some serious cuts are made. If the service is working, most people aren't going to notice the length; but they will notice if they are being rushed through. The clock-watchers? They can never be satisfied; if the service seems to be taking to long, there is no length which is short enough to ameliorate this. So if the service seems too long, the first question should be "what are we doing wrong?" rather than "what can we cut out?" There should of course be room in the Sunday schedule for a low-fuss/speedy service; but remember that this service is not a sellable option for everyone.

8. There's warmth, and then there is too much warmth. Please remember that about a quarter of your congregation does not want to be hugged by strangers or for that matter be subjected to less intrusive forms of familiarity. Making them feel welcome is a delicate balancing act, because they are more sensitive than most to phony cameraderie and other such performances by the priest.

9. The biggest fat isn't in the BCP. Actual liturgy is almost never "fat"; more typically the problem is in the stuff that isn't in the BCP. Item: the interminal parish announcements. Item: the "peace" in which people leave their pews and go searching the nave for the right person to hug. Item: long explanations of why we are doing things. Item: Instructions that don't need to be announcements. Keeping the extraneous out goes a long way towards "streamlining" the service; and doing so helps keep people more engaged, so they don't think about how it's taking a long time.

10. The readings are what they are for a reason. Just do them and live with them.

11. The prayers work for you, if used properly. Except for Form II, which was broken in the name of political correctness, there's nothing really wrong with the Ps of the P that doing them intentionally wouldn't fix. What I see happening to much of the time, however, is that the overemphasis on immanence renders us incapable of praying TO God in a public setting; we are wont to converse with ourselves rather than bring our petitions before the Divine Throne.

One thing I have seen done which if quite effective is to have the leader stand in teh nave or sone convenient such place and face the altar. Leading from the lectern is deadly and should be avoided if at all possible.

12. Routine is not bad in itself; constant change is destructive. The big temptation with having everything in the bulletin is that it allows clerics to indulge themselves in liturgical dilletancy. An occaisional change can wake people up; but frequent change dulls people. They stop paying attention, because it's easier than trying to keep up.

Also, having people stick their noses in the book opens up the possibility that they will stray from the day's liturgy and look at the rest of it. Missalettes send the message that the book's contents are obsolete and can be ignored.

13. Don't make a fetish out of participation. Anglican churches are clerical, and there's only so much one can take the "curse" off it. And besides, a lot of people will want to minimize their speaking role, and will resent being put onstage when they know it isn't properly their part.

14. No disagreement on that: announcements are always a dead weight in liturgy and should be minimized.

15. Don't sell the entrance rite short. There's a rhythm to the liturgy, and when you start cutting, you alter that rhythm. A lot of the entrance rite is about shifting gears; shorten it, the the shift comes too fast for some people.

16. Communion music is tricky. Anything about communion music is going to be hampered both by those people who absolutely do not want to do anything but commune and pray, and by those people whose response to communing is to sing. Communion hymns can work for both groups as long as the first group doesn't feel pushed to participate.

17. Take sermons seriously and play to your strengths. By that I don't mean that they are all deathless monuments of prose; I'm sure even Chrysostom preached a few duds. But you have to look at how you do them, and not fight against your nature.

Of course, hardly anyone can make a long, rambling sermon work. And hardly any cleric can make an exceptionally informal sermon work either, because it's phony. I personally would have a hard time making a really short sermon, because it just isn't the way I talk. If you've made it this far you've probably noticed that I use a lot of subordinate clauses and compound sentences, because my thinking is centered around gluing things together. The question to ask is: What are people getting out of it? The obvious peril is to fall in love with your own voice, so that you can't stop talking; but the more immediate peril these days is to be so afraid of overstaying your welcome that you never say anything substantial. Which leads to

17.1. Preach to everyone, not just the new converts or the old hands. Again, the traditional fault of preachers was to preach to each other, thus producing sermons that laymen didn't understand. Given the frequency of warnings about this, it seems to me that the other fault is now more common: preaching only to the absolute beginners. The thing about beginners is that nobody is one forever; eventually the old hands will decide that there is nothing to learn from your sermons, and they will check out as soon as they sit down after the gospel.

18. Keep the sermon stunts to a minimum. An unusual presentation has a lot more impact when it is rare. If you indulge yourelf in constant performances, that's how people will see you: as a performer (or worse, a clown) rather than as a preacher.

19. Don't pretend you aren't the presiding minister. You can do some liturgies (e.g. compline) without a specific leading minister. You cannot do the eucharist that way; the most you can do is delegate parts to others. If you are really committed to being anti-clerical, then go join an anti-clerical church. But if you are the rector of an Episcopal parish, everyone can see that your anti-clericism is fundamentally fake. When push comes to shove, you will step in to rule things, because that is how your position is constructed.

And the other side of the coin is that probably most people are quite comfortable with taking a "passive" role, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mainline churches have become uncomfortable with the notion that this kind of participation in the service is also service, even though there is a very, very long tradition respecting that. In a way, the emphasis to the contrary is also a kind of clericalism, because it says that the roles traditionally assigned to clerics are those which are important.

20. Don't mess with the words. And especially not with the creed. If you change the creed, you are saying that you are unwilling to make the same statement of faith as the rest of the church. That is THE most disunifying thing you can do, and it is hugely distracting. The natural reaction is to stop intending the words and try to figure out what the author (that is, the rector) is trying to put over you.

If you can't say the words in the BCP, then it's your job to go find some other church where you can, or to lobby General Convention to change them (knowing full well that you are excluding all the people who cannot bring themselves to say your changed version). But don't inflict your doubts on everyone else.

What is particularly striking to me about this is not so much that I found 18 of 20 points to disagree with, but that some of the attitudes implicit here are so pervasive. Never mind the lack of faith in the church's ancient words, which is completely beyond the pale. The subtext of this and so many other posts and papers talking about Anglican liturgy very much operate from the seeming position that the traditional Anglican liturgy is unsellable. Given that liturgy is about all we have left, one has to wonder whether we will soon be left with nothing beyond a vague sense of superiority. It's not working for the unitarians, and I don't think it can be made to work for us.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Amazingly Vindictive

The Living Church reported that our presiding bishop is insisting that Episcopal church properties not be sold to any competing Anglican group:
”If a building is sold to a congregation, The Episcopal Church as a whole is not so concerned if it’s going to be a community church,” she said, although there must be assurances that stewardship was addressed and that the building was sold at fair market value. “But if a congregation purports to set up as another part of the Anglican Communion, we are concerned about that.”

Heaven forbid we do anything to help our enemies after all. I'm sure the Most Rev'd sees this as simple prudence. After all, a church converted to a nightclub is not nearly the threat that another Anglican church poses. And I suppose nobody took those retrograde Antiochians seriously in the 1920s or anticipated that they would start absorbing Episcopalians decades later. Or perhaps she is confident that aspiring mega-evangelicals or emerging churches (whatever they are) don't present much competition.

Or maybe it's just spite. But whatever it is, it looks exceptionally petty, if not strikingly sactimonious.

(Hat tip to T19 for the link.)