Daily Archives: January 6, 2010

Is This Constructive Diversity?: Responding to Cody Unterseher


There’s a new group blog up which looks quite promising. Whether of their own volition or in response to the New Liturgical Movement (or some combination of the two), a group of moderate mainline Catholic liturgists have begun Pray Tell. It’s not exclusively a Roman Catholic endeavor, though—a piece by an Episcopalian went up today.

Fr. Cody Unterseher presents a piece entitled Living with Diversity, Living in Charity. To my eye, it’s a piece designed to gently persuade Roman Catholic readers that liturgical diversity is possible within a given parish without the acrimony and rancor that such change can often inspire; different liturgical “factions” really can live together in peace. As an introduction to Roman readers, it is a calming voice that soothes those who fear social upheaval in liturgical spaces.

I enjoyed his piece and, following the various links, I suspect I’d quite enjoy worship at his parish (hark, a Dearmerite!). However, as an insider, I have some concerns with the picture that he presents.

I have four main concerns which I’ll introduce here, then lay out in detail below. My first point is that he creates an overly irenic picture of liturgical diversity. While he draws a quick sketch of the diversity within American Anglicanism, this diversity is less present in the description of his parish. My second point is that the presentation of the three worship options that he outlines are, in my experience, not considered equal options by the leadership of the parishes with which I’m familiar. My third point is that even this picture of diversity is, in fact, contained within a relatively narrow range for representing the Anglican heritage within the Episcopal Church. My fourth point returns more closely to the topic at hand and ponders how closely the Episcopal and Roman contexts map onto one another.

On Liturgical Diversity

The author begins with a quick nod to the standard threefold division of liturgical styles within the Anglican fold:

Episcopal parishes describe themselves variously as “high,” “low,” and “broad,” terms that reflect both preferences in liturgical style, and degrees of theological commitment to principles articulated during the reforms of the sixteenth century. And in spite of all the headline-grabbing difficulties in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion, there remains a lot of room for positive, healthy diversity in expression, especially on the level of parish life.

He also explains the presence of Rites I and II in our parishes for the benefit of his Roman readers:

When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer appeared, it included two series of services: “Rite I” in traditional (though faux) Tudor-Stuart English, and“Rite II” in contemporary English. Some parishes adopted one, some the other, and some made use of both. Likewise, some parishes adopted a versus populum style of liturgy, with the celebrant facing the congregation over the altar, while some retained ad orientem or eastward-facing worship.

This is a non-controversial assessment of what you’ll find within any given Episcopal parish. What I will raise, here, however, is a point which the author makes but fails to develop. He states here, accurately, that “Some parishes adopted one, some the other, and some made use of both.”  In the first quote above, he correctly notes that “Episcopal parishes describe themselves variously as ‘high,’ ‘low,’ and ‘broad,’…” and that’s the beginning of my concern.

Episcopalians tend to group themselves by parishes. There is tremendous diversity between parishes, but we typically do not find the span originally described—high, low, and broad— and the diversity represented by these factions within parishes as exhibited in their public liturgies. I’ll unpack this further in a moment.

As a demonstration of the irenicism prevalent at his parish, Fr. Unterseher describes the following procedure:

The parish I serve, in a suburb of New York City, makes use of a mix of these styles every Sunday: the early Eucharist is eastward-facing and uses Rite I texts. The principal celebration is also eastward-facing, but uses the modern language of Rite II. And at the evening Eucharist, celebrated in contemporary English, the the congregation gathers closely around all four sides of the freestanding altar. Each of these styles, each of these approaches has historical precedent, and can be justified by sound theology. Moreover, each approach has been adopted for significant and carefully considered pastoral reasons. Taken together, our three regularly scheduled Sunday liturgies represent a large cross-section of American Episcopal worship.

Both the description here and pictures of the parish (look—riddel posts!) make clear that this is a High Church parish. The dead give-away even without the pictures is an eastward-facing principle service. Many Broad and most Low Church Episcopalians would not stand for this—and east-facing Eucharists at Broad Church parishes are rarer than hen’s teeth.

From his description it looks like he has indeed incorporated services of two styles at his parish: High and Broad. The first two are High while the evening service seems to be Broad (gather ’round the altar being a now-classic piece Broad/Progressive ceremonial) and possibly unvested clergy.

Yes, there is a cross-section represented here, but it’s also unusual. In my experience most parishes will strongly identify with one of the three camps, and all of the liturgies will reflect that view. The choices at my current parish, for example are Broad, Broad, and Broad. (This is most evident on the very rare occasions when they think that they’re being “High”—which ends up being a Broad caricature of High.)

One blend which I have seen recently is Broad parishes introducing Low services with worship bands and such. The parish near our house does this as does the congregation where M is at the moment. Tellingly, these services tend to be 1) in two different spaces (it’d be really hard to do “authentic” Low in a sanctuary with riddel posts!) and 2) the congregations tend to be distinct with little cross-over. I’d suggest that Broad can go either way, but that you won’t—and probably shouldn’t—find a Low parish incorporating a High service and vice-versa. And this reality seems to undermine the irenicism Fr. Unterseher describes.

I do congratulate  Fr. Unterseher on achieving the diversity he has at his parish but this does not represent the norm in our church.

Liturgical Inequalities

Fr. Unterseher does acknowledge that his parish may be unusual (and I think it is) and further states that his parish understands all three of their services as equally valid expressions of worship:

Noticeably absent, however, is the divisive acrimony that often attends communities with multiple liturgical styles. Everybody knows that they are part of one parish, one church, one body. This is not the case in every Episcopal parish, and I won’t pretend that either the church as a whole or the parish doesn’t have fissures around some significant issues. But regarding the parish, I suspect that when it comes to worship, we’ve simply refused to buy into the posturing that so often seems to go along with issues of liturgical difference, and becomes so evident in conversations about liturgical reform. We refuse to suggest that one style is more “authentic” or more pleasing to God than another.

This statement warms my heart. If only this were so everywhere… The situation I’m familiar with where three services is the norm the inequalities are evident and sometimes even stated.

The early Rite I Mass is explicitly for the “old folks” and the assumption and hope is that this demographic and the service will die out together. I find the timing of the service to be the literally marginalizing issue here. It’s very difficult for me as a father to get myself and my girls ready and out the door for a 7:30 AM service. When I wake them up for it, I pay for it with cranky tired behavior later in the day. And yet—this is the service I’d rather attend at my current parish. If I do, then we have to go home and come back two hours later for Christian Ed. Why do few families show up at this service? In my context, at least, it’s because the logistics are torturous.

Interestingly enough when we went to the cathedral in Atlanta, there was a 9 AM Rite I service which led right into the Sunday School hour. The chapel where it was held was always full to bursting and I’d guess it was equally split been the expected “old folks” and families with small children. Despite the big Rite II choral Eucharist going on right across the hallway.

The evening service tends to be the one identified as perfect for children and families and (unlike Fr. Unterseher’s parish) has the “contemporary” music (of the ’80’s and 90’s). Despite this conception the demographic that seems to dig it the most is the Baby Boomers.

What I’m suggesting is that while some liturgical diversity may exist between early, middle, and evening services, not only do the groups tend to be distinct, but the early service with its Rite I language tends to be tolerated as a short-term inconvenience (although I note they’ve held on in most places for lo these thirty years giving the lie to the theory that only old folk like them).

The Breadth of Diversity: The Case of Morning Prayer

The third point I’d like to raise is breadth of diversity represented. It’s a little off-topic from the article itself, but I couldn’t help but notice it… All three of the services at the example parish are Eucharists. As a result, there’s a certain limitation of the true diversity of Anglican liturgy at that. In fact, it demonstrates the way that liturgical diversity has been flattened across the board since the release of the ’79 BCP.

I’m in hearty agreement with and very supportive of the norm laid down by the ’79 book: Holy Eucharist should be the principal act of worship in Episcopal parishes on Sundays and Holy Days. However, there’s no law that says that a parish can’t do both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist. From looking around the Episcopal Church you’d be excused from thinking that such a law is written in stone. One of the key treasures of the Anglican Patrimony has been effectively cut from the public worship experience of Episcopalians over the last thirty years.

A genuine and helpful move towards liturgical diversity would be the inclusion of a Morning Prayer service before the principal Eucharist on Sundays. But that’s not on the radar for 99% of the church.

The Roman and Episcopal Contexts

I don’t know that the Episcopal situation described here maps onto the situation that faces liturgical diversity in the Roman Church. The elephant in the middle of the room is the culture war.

Liturgy is all too often one wing in a broader battle, and outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible disposition. From my outsider’s view, the battle-lines seem to be much more firmly fixed within the Roman context than the Episcopal. That is, some of the most progressive churches I have attended have been High Church—St Luke in the Fields, NYC springs instantly to mind; some of the most conservative churches I have attended have been High Church—Mt. Calvary, Baltimore likewise appears. In the Episcopal Church, liturgical preference does not map directly onto the social and theological beliefs that tend to generate the true acrimony that liturgical wars appear to produce.

Of the admittedly small number of traditional liturgy Roman churches that I’ve visited, and from the discussions I frequent on the internet, traditional liturgy tends to travel with social and theological conservatism. I have not met a progressive Roman Catholic who is for traditional liturgy, the use of Latin, ad orientem celebration, and the usus antiquor.  These are seen as signs of the counter-revolutionaries who seek to depose Vatican II. I can, however, rattle of a list of progressive Episcopalians who favor all of these (with the recognition that our true usus antiquor is Rite I/the 1662 BCP rather than the Traditional Latin Mass…).

It is this cultural divide that makes me most wary of the picture that Fr. Unterseher paints. I need more convincing that the liturgical lines in the Roman Church are more fluid than they appear.

Summing Up

In summary, I think that Fr. Unterseher’s piece presents an idealized view of worship within the Episcopal Church. Charity in liturgical diversity is possible, but is unusual. First, finding actual diversity between parish services is rare. Second, parishes tend to self-select and identify with one style or another. As a result the diversity and charity tends not to have to happen. Third, I’m not clear that our situation maps onto the situation for which Fr. Unterseher is writing. Deeper cultural and social issues afflict liturgical change in the Roman Church in ways that they do not in ours.

There’s one more point that I must make though, and it involves my hopes for further posts at Pray Tell. Most clergy don’t have the liturgical knowledge or interest to make the diversity work—and that’s what Fr. Unterseher didn’t talk about (yet) and where I hope he goes in the future.

From just a quick look at his parish’s website, I notice that the worship page has a succinct explanation of what the Sarum Use is and an explanation of eastward celebration. There’s catechesis going on here! There’s teaching and explanation that 1) these differences in worship actually do exist and 2) there are real reasons why they are different—they are expressing something theologically.  That’s got to happen to make liturgical change, liturgical awareness and liturgical diversity work. I look forward to seeing more on this in the future!