Yearly Archives: 2011

CWOB and the Diocese of Connecticut

This resolution passed at the convention of the Diocese of Connecticut:

Resolution #10: year-long Dialogue on Communion of the Unbaptized PASSED AS AMENDED

This resolution was much debated as well. It started with an amendment to change “open communion” to “communion of the unbaptized” for clarification. which passed.

Final language: RESOLVED:  That the 227th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut declares a year for theological and catechetical reflection, dialogue, discussion, conversation and listening among parishes of this diocese on “Communion of the Unbaptized” [welcoming all, baptized or not, to Holy Communion]; and be it further,
RESOLVED:  That the laity make their voices heard to the bishop and clergy as they explore this sacrament.

Couple of things here…

First, I’m wary of the words “dialogue” and “conversation” in the Episcopal Church. This generally seems to be shorthand for: “We know better than you on this topic and we’re going to have a ‘dialogue’ until you see the error of your ways and agree with me at which point our dialogue will be done.” I will be very interested to see what form this “dialogue” takes. What sort of theological and catechetical material will be used to guide the reflection?

Who really will get to have a voice at the table?

…And that brings me to my second thing…

What the heck does that last line mean? Let’s take another look at it: “That the laity make their voices heard to the bishop and clergy as they explore this sacrament.” What is the rhetorical purpose and the political valence of this sentence?

Two options immediately present themselves.

The first is a simple and straight-forward wish that all orders of ministry will have an opportunity to have a say in the matter. Well, yeah—isn’t this kind of the point of our whole process? Isn’t this how our polity is different from the COE and other Anglican churches? Perhaps I’ve been in church circles too long but this seems a little too much like wide-eyed naivete; I’m feeling something a little disingenuous here…

The second is a sneaking suspicion that the appeal to “the laity” is an attempt to stack the deck. I truly believe that the current argument around CWOB is neither a theological nor a sacramental argument. Instead, it’s an issue of identity that rests primarily upon an emotional appeal. That is, I think it’s less about theology and a lot more about how we perceive ourselves and shape the face we offer to the world; CWOB advocates intend it as a message that we are open, inclusive, and welcoming. I have no problem with framing ourselves this way–but CWOB is not the way to do it!!

Are the folks behind this line thinking that the laity will be swayed more by this sort of an emotional appeal than a theological one?

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see more resolutions like this popping up a conventions going forward . This will be a very important resolution and “dialogue” to follow over the coming year.

Media and Meaning

Over at Seven Whole Days, Scott Gunn has posted a very interesting reflection on the church in the age of social media.

There’s no question that social media has already had an enormous impact on the shape of the global religious landscape and will continue to do so. In fact, I’d attribute most of the church splits and schisms over the last decade as being driven either in part or completely by social movements fostered and enable by new media. As far as I’m concerned, the Episcopal split and the formation of the ACNA would not have happened if blogs and blog networks had not been able to focus opposition to 815 and gain/create a critical mass willing to leave.

On the other hand, I know I personally have met and been nurtured by a wonderful group of people—some I knew or have come to know offline, others not—through social media interactions, most notably  this blog.

I just want to make two quick points.

First, from a systems-perspective, the problem of our age is not access to data. We have too much of it. We’re completely awash in information. Some of it is useful and important—some of it less so.The problem of our age is the analysis and organization of data into useful—and comprehensible—chunks.This is one of the broad functions of social media. No-one can sift through all of the news/information/books/essays/thoughts/etc. out there. It’s simply not possible. What social media does is, essentially, to serve as a crowd-sourced filtration and data organization device. Our friends and acquaintances access some bits and post or pass on what seems most meaningful to them. Social circles feed and amplify certain themes, stories, and concepts. We’ve got to use this tool but at the same time be very aware of the shadow-side of this strength: it’s really easy to get caught up in your own echo-chamber where all you hear are the kinds of stories, news,and statistics that reinforce what you already think and believe. As more and more of us rely more and more on the internet for our news and locus of critical reflection, we must also be intentional about cultivating friends and acquaintance who can challenge us enough to keep us from being locked into a simple and simplistic way of thinking and processing.

Second, when social media gets discussed, it usually means Facebook and Twitter. I think it’s fair to say that there has been a certain decrease in blog activity over the last several years—especially since the rise of Facebook. But I must strenuously protest: blogs have their place!! There are two things that blogs do better than Facebook. The first is the retention of a surface anonymity. Anonymity online is a source of liberation. It enables us to say and do things we can’t with a name attached. Yeah, I know—that can be a Bad Thing, and trolls will always be with us… Nevertheless, sometimes people need anonymity to provide a critical space for their own growth and reflection. Some of my favorite bloggers either are or were anonymous. I was semi-anonymous for a while myself. I don’t think it’s always a problem, and find it healthy for those just growing their wings.

The second thing that blogs can do that Facebook can’t is to provide a forum for the thoughtful essay. The essay genre is perfect for blogs. Facebook, not so much. If we are going to engage in thoughtful, compelling reflection, we need more space to develop a substantive body of thought than Facebook and Twitter provide. The best route is, of course, integration: using Facebook and Twitter to circulate pull-quotes that lead readers into the blog. (Not I do this myself, of course, but I still think it’s the best way to go…) In the article referenced above, Scott+ linked to a Reflections edition focused entirely on New Media. As I scanned the table of contents, I didn’t recognize the name of one person as a long-standing blogger of note. To me, that’s a serious oversight. You have people writing on the new media—but you leave out one of the central platforms? Hello?

Naming Spiritual Communities in the Sarum Rite

I was thinking aloud a few days ago about the liturgical act of acknowledging the dimensions of our spiritual community. It occurs to me that a quick glance at the Sarum Rite will give some really interesting examples of what I mean… (Note: most of the things I say here will be broadly applicable to the Historic Western Liturgy—I’m just focusing on the Late Sarum because it gives a nice nailed-down example that I can conveniently point to.)

First, there’s the exercise of the capitular office. Four major things happened here. First, it was the monastic/cathedral daily check-in meeting. Second, there was a reading from the Rule or the Fathers. Items three and four are the reason I’m bring it up. Third, it was a list of obits that identified anyone in the community’s records who had died on that day. Fourth, the hagiographies were reviewed for the saints who would be celebrated that evening and the next day.

Before Mass on Sundays there was a procession. That procession would include the following prayers bid by the priest “in the mother tongue”:

 “Let us make our Prayers to God,” [here was sometimes added, “Our Lord Jesu Christ, to our Ladie S. Mary, and all the Company of Heaven,”] beseeching His Mercy for all Holy Church, that God keep it in good estate, especially the Church of England, our Mother Church, this Church, and all others in Christendom.” [Here sometimes was added, “For our Lord the Pope, for the Patriarch of Jerusalem, for the Cardinals.”] “For the Archbishops and Bishops, and especially for our Bishop N., that God keep him in his holy service. For the Dean or Rector, or all other Ministers, that serve this Church.” [This was sometimes varied “For your ghostly father, and for Priests and Clerkes that herein serve or have ferved, for all men and women of religion, for all other men of Holy Church.”] For the Holy Land [and the Holy Cross], that God deliver it out of the hand of the heathen; for the Peace of the Church and of the earth; for our Sovereign Lord the King, and the Qyeen, and all their children. For [Dukes, Earls, and Barons, and for all that have the peace of this land to keep], all that have this land to govern. For the welfare of N. and N., and all this Church’s friends. [For all that live in deadly sin.] For our brethren and sisters, and all our Parishioners, and all that do any good to this Church or Foundation. For yourselves, that God for His mercy grant you grace so to live as your soul to save, and for all true Christian people.

Thus we’ve got a naming here of a whole bunch of folks—from the saints to the geographically dispersed to the deceased to one another. It does name quite a community to keep in mind.

At the beginning of the Mass itself, we have a form of the Confiteor:

I confess to God, to blessed Mary, to all the saints, and to you, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, by my fault : I pray holy Mary, all the saints of God,  and you, to pray for me.

I’m more used to the modern form where it calls out more of the saints by name, however, Not only does the Confiteor name the saints—mirroring the prayer at the procession—it places them in the proper relationship to us; we pray together for one another.

The beginning of the Canon of the Mass likewise begins with a very clear naming of the gathered spiritual community (rubrics are parenthetical):

…together with thy servants our Pope N. and our Bishop N. (That is to say, the bishop of the diocese only,) and our King N. (The above persons are mentioned by name. Then shall follow : ) and all who are orthodox, and who hold the catholic and apostolic faith. Remember, O Lord, thy servants and thy handmaidens N. and N. (in praying for whom a due order dictated by charity ought to be observed. The priest prays five times : firstly for himself; secondly for his father and mother, that is to say both carnal and spiritual, and for his other relations; thirdly, for his special friends, parishioners and otherwise; fourthly, for all persons present; fifthly, for all Christian people; and here the priest may commend all his own friends to God. I counsel, however, that no one should pause at this point too long, both on account of possible distractions of mind, and also on account of suggestions which may be made by evil angels, as well as on account of other dangers.) and all here present, whose faith is approved, and whose devotion is known to thee; on behalf of whom we offer unto thee, or who offer unto thee this sacrifice of praise, for themselves and for all pertaining to them, for the redemption of their souls, for the hope of their own salvation and security, and who are paying their vows unto thee, the eternal, living, and true God. In communion with and reverencing the memory, in the first place, of the glorious and ever virgin (inclining a little as he says,) Mary, mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ ; As also of thy blessed apostles and martyrs—Peter, Paul, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, and Thaddseus, Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian. Laurence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian, and of all thy saints; through whose merits and prayers do thou grant that in all things we may be defended by the aid of thy protection. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

That initial “together” kicks off quite a clear naming of who all has gathered: the living, the dead, the saints, and anybody else who might not fall neatly into any of those categories.

That’s just a few examples; doubtless many more could be produced. Notice something here: all of these prayers are very much present tense. The point is not that they’re liturgically remembering historical figures—however fondly. Rather, these prayers are naming the current, present members of the spiritual community whether they happen to be visibly present or not.

Now, this rite does a great job with this liturgical naming—when it’s considered as a text. The actual liturgical experience of it would be quite different. The laity would hear the processional prayer in their native tongue;  the monastic or cathedral Chapter would here the capitular office; the confiteor would be heard by the altar party and basically only the priest would have heard the section that starts the Canon. There’s a great ecclesiology present here; the fact that so much of it is liturgically inaccessible to the majority of the physically gathered community does seem a little ironic.

bls: Liturgy, Anglo-Catholics, and the Episcopal Situation

bls has a nice rant up at her place that strikes some real chords with me. Here are a few things that jump out at me and how I’d address them:

The Episcopal Church is mad for “liturgy.”  Over the top, really – that’s all we ever hear about, in fact.  “Liturgy” this and “liturgy” that – everything seems to be about the parade and the pageantry.

Now, listen:  I, like every Episcopalian, love a parade, and I do like pageantry.  I love incense and chant and the whole drama.  But I think in many ways this focus on “liturgy” is just a way of avoiding talking about content.

. . .

I would identify as an “Anglo-Catholic,” I think, generally speaking – on the basis of “liturgy.”  That stuff really speaks to me – the smoke, the chant, the statuary, the movements, the reverence.  I like it.  I was rendered literally speechless – kind of choked in the throat, and not from the smoke – when I first saw it.  And I agree that all this was meant to express a certain point of view – but I do wonder what, actually, the actual content is, at this point.

Ok—The way that I would say it is this: Despite what many people think, liturgy is not a means for avoiding content, rather, it’s a means for performing and embodying content. But that doesn’t mean that 1) we’re doing the liturgy well, 2) we’re doing the liturgy in such a way that lets the content speak, or 3) that those who know better are helping everyone else connect the dots. As she and I have discussed before, liturgy is a major key to all of this—but liturgy is not enough. I’ve repeatedly said about biblical interpretation, the act of interpretation has not been completed until someone’s habits have changed. It’s not enough to read the Scriptures. It’s not enough to come to an understanding. If there isn’t a lived change in your attitude to God, creation, and humanity, then you haven’t finished the job.

I’d say that the same is true of liturgy.

If your experience of God and your relationship with creation and your fellow creatures is not in the process of being transformed on the basis of what’s happening in the liturgy, something is not happening correctly. Process is important here—liturgical formation is a process not an event, and occasional periods of back-sliding is an inevitable part of the process, but if forward progress into love and virtue is not occurring when measured over a period of years, then something is off.

Liturgy is a means of embodying content. And there’s content there a-plenty: the creeds, the narrative of our failures and God’s constancy in the Eucharistic canons, intercession as a way of drawing the whole world into our view as part & parcel of our relationship with the divine, etc. But we’ve got to do the work to connect the dots and between what we do in worship, how this relates to what we believe, and how this changes how we act.

This means that people like me aren’t doing our job to the best of our abilities. We know how these things are supposed to fit together, and aren’t being as effective as we can be about communicating it!

Again from bls:

So I have to ask again: what is the content of our faith? Well, we don’t generally say, I think because we’ve been worried for a long time about offending people. But, as St. Paul has said pretty plainly: Christianity is offensive. There’s no getting around that; we’re not going to convince people that it’s of value by making it seem attractive or elegant or whatever the adjective happens to be. It’s offensive – so we’d better start talking about why that’s a good thing – why it’s a necessary thing – I’d say.  And that means talking about content. (Listen: I myself am living proof of the idea that seeing and recognizing this “offensiveness” can lead to conversion! I’m sure I’m not alone.)

bls had this question up on her blog earlier and not many were willing to tackle it. The question was, how, in brief, to describe the purpose of the church to a non-believer without using churchy language. This was my go at it:

The point of the church is to bring the whole human family to acknowledge reality: that love is at the center of all that is, has been, and will be, (as revealed in perplexing particularity by Jesus, his self-sacrifice, and love’s inability to stay dead [which we call resurrection]) and that our greatest task on earth is to conform ourselves, our community, and our society to the virtues of love, compassion, and justice.

What we as religions and churches tend to argue about is precisely how we define “love” and how we order our lives and societies to best reflect how we understand those virtues.

(Readers of Evelyn Underhill will note a certain similarity here to what she writes in Practical Mysticism.)

Again from bls:

Those who’ve rejected Christianity are, in my experience, rejecting two things:

  1. The authoritarianism and hostility to reform of the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Brain-dead evangelicalism.

But at least the RCC has tried to make a case.  As I’ve said quite often before:  I have RCC Catechism envy.   I admire the massive intellectual tradition of the RCC, and its appeal to reason; it’s very unfortunate that all that has come along hand-in-hand with claims of “infallibility” and the authoritarian tendency.  (By contrast, our feeble Catechism in the back of the 1979 Prayer Book is nothing except embarrassing, at least to me.  More of a problem:  it once again assumes prior acceptance of Christian claims.  It has nothing to offer anybody who doesn’t already accept the basic claims of Christianity – and it doesn’t offer anything really interesting even in that case.  “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”?  OK – but could you please say a little something about these “inward and spiritual graces” that connects our minds with our hearts and souls, instead of just offering bland doctrinal summaries? Apparently we have nothing very deep or interesting too say on the topic, which is mighty sad.)

We need to make a case.  Reformed Protestantism – it seems to me – speaks to the individual modern human psyche, in all its alienation and anxiety.  It does have something important to say – but our case can’t be predicated on Biblical literalism or shallow, “personal salvation.”  It can’t assume facts not in evidence; it must make an argument.

And, actually, I’d tie this line of questioning in with the whole set of questions around Anglo-Catholicism:

I would identify as an “Anglo-Catholic,” I think, generally speaking – on the basis of “liturgy.”  . . .  And I agree that all this was meant to express a certain point of view – but I do wonder what, actually, the actual content is, at this point. . . . And there’s no particular clue in that article, titled “What Is An ‘Anglo-Catholic’ Parish,” about anything else we might regard as content.  It’s all about form:  historical events and counter-reactions, and “ecclesiology” and “how we do things” – i.e., “liturgy.”

I have to believe that one of the major issues here is that Episcopalians who are Anglo-Catholic are going to have a different understanding about the core content of the faith than other Episcopalians. But what and why? There have been a lot of the shifts in the past few years. Many of those who identify as Anglo-Catholic have left and those of us who are still here have yet to take stock and claim our identity. We need to do it clearly and publicly. Most Episcopalians still think of us as “those people who like incense and Mary and closets and who don’t like women.” Is that who we are? If not, then who and what are we? I have some ideas but am still working them out.

I do believe that the Society of Catholic Priests is a good start in this regard. But I think we also need a lay movement that can provide an active and vocal presence to church discussions. What would/could/should this look like?

Again, bls:

We need to make a case.  “Mystery” and “mystification” are two completely different things; we really can retain the former and eliminate the latter, I believe.

Absolutely! The fact that God, the communion of the saints, the sacraments, resurrection life etc. are mysteries to be inhabited doesn’t mean that it’s ok to keep everything nebulous or to use those mysteries as an excuse for fuzzy thinking.

We do have things to offer – but we’re not saying anything that’s very interesting to anybody not already interested!   (And sometimes not even to those of us who are, when you get right down to it.  I mean, when we’re not talking about “liturgy” we’re talking about partisan politics – both of which get my eyes to glazing over these days.)

But the Gospel is very interesting – it’s speaking to some of the most basic facts about living life as a human being on earth – and we just can’t let the opportunity to talk about it go to waste.

I agree entirely!

New Cafe Post: Christ Church Posters

I have a new post up at the Café. It’s on the Christ Church posters that have been floating around Facebook. The creator is a friend of mine, Fr. Robert Hendrickson, who was part of the team who got the American branch of the Society of Catholic Priests up and going. He graciously allowed me to showcase his work because–as I say in the piece–I think they do such a good job of encapsulating a parish ethos.

And, as I see it, this is the kind of ethos that the SCP is trying to foster and that the Episcopal Church needs more of.

Robert has a blog as well and reflects on the posters in these two posts: Worship like it’s 1099 and Christ Church Posters.

Perspective on the Saints

I wrote this a while ago for use on the Cafe, and—given both my current train of thought and the time of year—thought it was worth re-sharing.

One of the approaches that I was specifically trying here was an alternate form of persuasion. That is, there are all sorts of readers at the Cafe, some of a churchmanship not amenable to the notion of saints. My goal here was to make more of an affective or poetic appeal for the concept rather than logical argumentation.


A cold wind flaps my coat-tails and whirls a cloud of dead leaves about my feet as I walk my elder daughter to the bus stop. They rasp voicelessly on the concrete and my thoughts finds them a flock with words, warnings, pleas, spoken—but not understood. A passage of Homer flickers to mind: Odysseus, sword drawn, keeping the rustling flock of shades at bay from the invigorating blood of the black sheep that gives back voice to a fallen comrade, to an ancient prophet, to the hero’s mother—strangers joined only in death. For the dead have been on my mind.

It’s only natural, I suppose—in the most literal kind of way. As the sun rounds another corner, the hours of night overtake the day; the vibrant star’s light dims to watery wintry shadow and, harvest passing, the fields fall fallow—corn stubble awaiting a blanket of snow. The signs of the earth turn to sleep or death. With signals like these it’s only natural my pagan precursors identified the passage from day’s supremacy to night’s to be a passage between worlds, a time when the dead souls return to be blown about our lands toothlessly muttering words, warnings, pleas to the living. With the coming of Christ to the British Isles, the soul cakes were offered to wandering strangers rather than the family dead; flickering faces lit visitors rather than turning away spiteful spirits. For All Hallows’ Eve and All Hallows and All Souls replaced and displaced the former pagan feast.

All Hallows—or All Saints as we know it now (the Latinate “saints” replacing the Saxon with the same sense)—is something of a confusion in these latter days. Who we remember, what we remember, and why has been blurred: sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose. All Saints, All Souls, and the difference between them lie at the intersection of the Church’s musings on Scripture, on the Church Expectant, the Church Triumphant, and the overarching principle of the baptized dead knit into the living Christ.

All Hallows is for the Church Triumphant, those spirits and souls of the righteous who already rejoice in the ineffable splendor of the appearance of the glory of God. For these are those who already harmonize in the great chorus and who unceasingly lay down their petitions before the Throne, praying for we who yet linger here.

All Souls is for the Church Expectant who rest from their labors, who sleep in the earth awaiting the last trumpet when the earth shall flee away, the sky roll like a scroll, and our great company shall throng to the judgment seat.

Images fill my mind, of the Great Judgment, the Last Day, snatches of songs, paintings half- remembered from medieval books on penitence and prayer. Pre-modern in aspect, pre-modern in assumptions, a pervading truth permeates the scenes. It shall not be as they envisioned, it shall not be as I envision and yet…

And yet…

My mind turns to the font and the flood for this is the center of this belief that yea, though they die, yet shall they live, knit to the marrow, the sinew, the bone, knit in the body of the Living Christ. Held in the mind of God, held in the heart of God, whatever our state of wake or rest we are hid with Christ in God.

Today we walked amongst the dead.

As sunlight filtered through fallen lives, my girls and I sat with gravestones.

Walnuts lay thick their husks and shells, and we sat and filled bags—much to the squirrels’ chagrin. Down on my knees, I dug out the walnuts, cleared them away with the rest of the parish volunteers. My flirtatious five-year old finding a friend, laughed and skipped as she gathered the shells, laughter pealing like little bells over mossy stones and markers. The other, tired, threw herself upon a marble slab and stared at the sunlit sky. At first I tried to hush and shush them, to remind them of the reverence due this place, and then I thought of the music of voices and of how they rang in this silent space and remembered that we walked among friends. And a trumpet sounded its clarion call, the sound drifting over the waiting stones, but it came from the organ inside of the church that lay at the center of the stones—tuning for the day’s second service. St. Paul’s words then came to my mind: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

No Homeric scene this with the blood of goats and shades that mutter and warn. There is blood, it gives life—but not as the old poet sang. For the cup that we share and the loaf that we break is a sharing in the life of our God. And here in the church-yard we gather as one—those on high, those in sleep, those awake—and we gather at the table that is an altar and a tomb and we share in the mysteries of God. For the communion we share links the living and dead, finds all those knit together in Christ, and invites us to share in the promise of that place, a life hid together in God.

Another Issue with HWHM

I’m working on a longer piece on Holy Women, Holy Men (about which more later) but I think it finally hit me what one of the major problems of one of the central new categories is. I didn’t notice it until I’d fully digested the rhetorical structure of the collects.

One of the tendencies of the new additions is to group like people together and to produce a collect that speaks to all of them. Here are some examples:

Divine Physician, your Name is blessed for the work
and witness of the Mayos and the Menningers, and the
revolutionary developments that they brought to the practice
of medicine. As Jesus went about healing the sick as a sign
of the reign of God come near, bless and guide all those
inspired to the work of healing by thy Holy Spirit, that they
may follow his example for the sake of thy kingdom and the
health of thy people; through the same Jesus Christ, who
with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

[btw—we’re going to ignore for the moment the presence of a “your” in a Rite I prayer and focus on the structure…]

Eternal God, who didst inspire Anna Julia Haywood
Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright with the love
of learning and the joy of teaching: Help us also to
gather and use the resources of our communities for the
education of all thy children; through Jesus Christ our
Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As the heavens declare thy glory, O God, and the
firmament showeth thy handiwork, we bless thy Name for
the gifts of knowledge and insight thou didst bestow upon
Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler; and we pray
that thou wouldst continue to advance our understanding
of thy cosmos, for our good and for thy glory; through
Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, who with thee
and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

Are you seeing a pattern here? This is what I see… At its most reductionistic, it goes like this:

O God, we thank you for A. and B. who were great Xs. Help us to be great Xs too. Thanks.

What’s the problem here? It’s that we’re not just trying to form Xs—we’re trying to form Christians. Whether they were good at their job or not (however holy that job might be), is not the point. The point should be that these specific people displayed the incarnate presence of Christ in their lives and thus were part of the sacramental conversion of all creation.

Liturgical Naming of Spiritual Communities

Our creeds tell us that we believe in “the communion of saints.”

Our Eucharists tell us that, in the consecratory act we are “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven.”

These are important but rather non-specific ways of talking about our larger eccesiology. These two statements remind us that when we gather in the church on a Sunday morning (or other times) for a Eucharist there are more who gather than we see; our “we” and “us” are not simply limited to those physically and visibly present.

The Rite I Post-Communion Prayer may say it best: “we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people…”

Now—“all faithful people” has a pretty wide scope. This helps break open the sense that we are more than the folks in this room, but almost broadens the scope to near incomprehension, not leaving us much better than we were to begin with.

How do we get a concrete sense of who these people are?

The central place where we get a picture of this in an Anglican environment is the church kalendar. Specifying people to be liturgically celebrated in Mass, the Offices, or both, is our primary vehicle for naming the company who surrounds us and joins us when we gather for worship.

In most of the Anglo-Catholic places I’ve been, a litany of the saints is chanted during the procession to the font during the rite of Baptism which seems a particularly appropriate time to be naming the saints who surround us and who have preceded it into the Body of Christ.

In both the kalendar and the litany, the church never claims—should never claim—that its lists are exhaustive. Rather, they are representational. They indicate a tiny fraction of this great host—just enough for us to get a sense of what kind of people inhabit our spiritual community. Furthermore, the Commons of the saints present us with helpful categories for grouping and conceptualize those who are in this company.

So—to summarize—the liturgy’s construction of the sanctoral cycle and sanctoral categories performs a valuable function in terms of giving us a tangible, comprehensible sense of who the church is.

More on this to follow…

SCP Presentation: Theology & Action in the Liturgy

[Note to the reader: This is the text of an oral presentation. Thus, there are no footnotes and the language is informal. The bold and the italics indicate some but not all of the things that I would emphasize verbally.]

 First, let me start off by thanking you for this opportunity to come back and speak to you. I really enjoyed being able to speak to you last year and am honored to come back and speak with you again. So—my thanks to Fr. Cobb, Fr. Hendrickson, and the other folks who were in on inviting me back.

When I was chatting with Father Cramer about this whole topic of the theological implications of liturgical ceremonial, he said: “Great, I’d love to hear something more about that, because I really hate it when people say to me things like, ‘When are we going to stop talking about copes and start talking about real ministry?’” The implication that you hear often times in our church is that ceremonial is something extra, it’s an add-on, it’s additional frippery, and is fundamentally something that can divert us from the work of real ministry. As a result we have to begin with the question of “what exactly is real ministry.” What is our purpose here? What is it that we are trying to accomplish in our work as clergy? Then once we have a sense of that, we can move on to the question of where copes and liturgies and ceremonial fit into the true work of ministry.

This is a really big topic to tackle. We’re only going to able to make a start on it. We’re not even going to be able to get to the “meaning” questions. Instead what I’m going to do is talk a bit about a theoretical framework that gives us a starting point: why all of this stuff matters, then make a practical turn and begin a conversation about only two of the many implications that this framework offers us. And it all starts with this basic question: what is real ministry?

The simplest answer about the work of real ministry has to be this: Proclaiming the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. That is the real work of ministry. Now, that’s a pretty broad mandate. So how do we do this? We could attack this question by looking at all the specific activities the clergy do. However, I think a better direction is to get a sense of the big picture first. As I said last time I was with you, for me the center of our task is described in Ephesians chapter 4. Our purpose is to:

…equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. But, speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is our head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Equiping the saints for the work of ministry, growing into maturity, building up the body of Christ in love.

Now, how does Paul say that we accomplish this? Further on in the chapter he tells us:

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and diluted by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

The transformation of the whole self according to the mind of Christ. The renewing of the spirit of our minds, and clothing ourselves with the new self. Paul is talking about a fundamental transformation here. He’s talking about a fundamental shift with the way that we perceive, interpret, and interact with the world.

However you fell about postmodernism, one of the things that it has brought to our attention is that human beings, as complex reasoning, thinking beings, simply cannot have a direct and unmediated experience of reality. There is no pure, objective, unfiltered, experience of the real. Instead, we have a lens, a layer, a model of interpretation that helps us make sense of our direct inputs and that help us conceptual make sense of what we experience.   Instead our cultures and our languages give us a prearranged system for how to comprehend things and how to fit things together. From the very ways that our mother tongue’s grammar is constructed—the very fact of breaking things into verbs, and nouns, and adjectives and the way that they relate to one another—shapes the way that we conceptualize what we encounter. For instance, the fact that a language has no grammatical future tense matters profoundly when we talk about how people from that frame of reference understand time. It’s not just that our experiences shape our languages; it’s that our languages shape what we experience and how we make sense of those experiences. This is our worldview. So, a worldview is a lens of interpretation that helps us make sense of the world. It’s an understanding of how things fit together that gives us a frame of reference for making sense of our experiences and encounters and relationships.

Now when we take this postmodern concept of a worldview, and we put it up alongside Paul’s language about the renewal of our minds, and putting on the new self in Christ, then we begin to realize that we’re entering familiar territory. One way of understanding what Paul is talking about here is that the goal of Christian maturity is inhabiting a fundamentally Christian worldview. Growth into maturity in Christ is a process of learning to perceive the world through the lens of the gospel. Through the transformation of the mind, worldly values are supplanted by gospel values, worldly priorities are challenged by God’s priorities.

In 1984 the Lutheran medievalist George Lindbeck wrote a short little book called The Nature of Doctrine. And in this book he makes the suggestion that faith and doctrine make a lot more sense when we come at them from the right angle. Instead of thinking about the faith as transmitting a set of thoughts that have to be properly thought, we need to start conceiving of the faith as a linguistic-cultural system. Just as our culture enculturates us into a worldview formed by things like our language and our deep cultural symbols, the Christian faith is best understood as a culture and a language that connect the dots to help us understand the relationships between God, the world, and ourselves.

What makes this both interesting and challenging is that we can’t even talk about “a” worldview. Instead, we have to talk about a variety of worldviews or parts of worldviews that press themselves upon us that we have to fit together in some way that seems to make sense. Even this central lens for how we see and experience things is composite construct of a bunch of direct ways of conceiving of and valuing the world. So—a “traditional American” worldview might tell us that family is important; and that in thinking about our decisions and priorities, family should be most important. We’re fed status-oriented worldviews that tell us that what is most important is how important we are, what our title is and the size of our take-home package. Advertisements feed us a consumerist worldview telling us that our worth is equivalent to what we have and that if we have less, we’re worth-less.

To all of these messages, the Gospel offers a word of challenge and critique. Trying to figure our way through incarnate life is hard, but the call of the Gospel is the call to transform how we see, experience, and value things. What does it mean to take seriously the call to the love of God and love of neighbor? “The old self” is Paul’s shorthand for those old ways of making sense of what’s really important, the lusts that we must suppress are much less about sex and much more about our needs and insecurities for those things like money, or status, or safety, that ultimately will not and cannot give us life. As we put on the new self into which we are baptized, we are challenged to revolutionize our experience of the world, to see as God sees, to love as God loves.

Rather than a collection of doctrinal thinking points, Lindbeck’s understanding of the faith as a linguistic-cultural endeavor most clearly engages with this notion of forming a Christian worldview within the body of Christ in order to bring the body to the maturity of Christ. Now, we are formed in many ways in many places, and at many times. However, as Christians who find our primary identity in our baptism, as members of the crucified and risen Christ, and branches of the same vine, our most important and paradigmatic experiences occur when we are together. You can’t be a Christian by yourself! Furthermore, our fullest identity is found when we gather for Eucharistic worship. In the Eucharist, the disparate and scattered members of the body of Christ are held together, are re-membered, forming a physical and literal body of Christ; in the Eucharist, we are most fully who we are baptized to be in community– and participate most deeply in the mystery and promise of baptism. Within our Eucharistic worship, we are given the extraordinary opportunity to participate within the interior life of the Trinity: as the body of Christ we join with Christ in his praise of and self-offering to the Father through the Holy Spirit. What we do in worship is not just to gather together as a community, it’s not just to praise God together, it’s not just to express our identity as the gathered body of Christ, it is to make present an eschatological reality where we foreshadow the full consummation of all in all. This is our moment when we enact most clearly what the kingdom of God is.

Our corporate worship is an icon of the kingdom of God. It’s not just a moment of supreme realization, it’s also practice of our most important paradigm. Our whole life ought to be an act of worship. And, if that’s the case, it’s this glimpse of the kingdom in our worship that gives us the fundamental tools for enacting that kingdom when we’re outside of worship too.

As a result, it’s in this most central experience for us, that the full Christian worldview is best expressed and communicated. The way that worship is constructed and conducted is a presentation of our perspective of what being in the kingdom is like and shall be like. As a result, what we do in worship matters. What we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we do, shapes our understanding of what it means to be a Christian people. The Book of Common Prayer gives us the words. But ceremonial is what gives us the rest.

No matter what else goes on, the first purpose of worship is always just that; our primary priority in worship is always the worship of God. We err when we let anything get in the way of that. Our secondary purpose in worship is the formation of the people of God. Fortunately, these two priorities rarely come into conflict with one another as long as we have the order right. When our worship becomes overly didactic or overly self-congratulatory or overly penitential, this is when we need to ask if we have our priorities reversed. Proper, reverent, intentional worship of God is always primary. Having said that upfront, we can turn now to the questions and issues of formation.

We have a gift in the Book of Common Prayer. It gives us the words and the rites which foreground the values of the kingdom. Our liturgy, standing in continuity the liturgy of the historic Western church, has been crafted carefully for its formative role as well as its central doxological role. What exactly do I mean by this? Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of what we mean by the liturgical transformation of our system of values is the repetition of the song of Zechariah in morning prayer and the repetition of the song of Mary in evening prayer. Zechariah’s words give us a fundamental mission by informing us of God’s gifts. God has given us the freedom “to worship him without fear” and therefore to remain “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Mary’s words give us a fundamental mission by informing us of the value structure of God’s kingdom.

He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.

Our Eucharistic service with its dual emphases on proclamation of the word and a celebration of the sacrament in combination offer the mystery of God’s presence in our midst. But there’s more to worship than just the words!

Whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we intended or not, our decisions about what else occurs in worship inform our congregations about the value structures and systems of the kingdom of God. As a result, we do our ministry best and we attend to a careful and deliberate proclamation of the gospel best, when we are intentional about the ways we worship and the vision of the kingdom that we incarnate there. And this is where careful attention to ceremonial comes into play.

So – that’s my first point. Christian ministry is fundamentally about enculturating the people of God into a worldview. The Christian worldview is a vision of the world and its relationships that are structured by God’s values. Because of the central role that worship plays in our corporate identity, worship in general and Eucharistic worship in particular, likewise occupy the central role in how our communities receive and perceive the gospel of the living God.

Now, whenever I start thinking and talking about Christian ceremonial, one of my favorite conversation partners is the Rev. Dr. Percy Dearmer. Dr. Dearmer wrote quite a lot on worship and ceremonial. And always wrote with a considerable amount of vigor and conviction. I don’t agree with everything that he wrote, but I always find him thought-provoking. Although his writings come from almost a century ago, much of it remains relevant and pertinent, partly because he stands removed from some of the immediate issues of our day. In the year 1919, Dr. Dearmer gave the Bohlen Lectures at the Philadelphia Divinity School. The next year these lectures along with some additional chapters, were produced as the art of public worship. At its heart, this book is a heartfelt plea for two key necessities in Christian worship. The first is realism. Worship has to be meaningful and sensible to the people of its age. The second is beauty.

Dearmer is known for being very direct. He doesn’t pull any punches. And one of the targets of his special ire in this book, are the founders of the Church Revival movement. He writes in particular of their approach towards ceremonial:

in our own Church Revival nothing made the ritualist (as they were rather absurdly called) so angry as to be told that they like things because they were pretty, or revived old customs because they were beautiful. We could hardly sum up that instinctive dislike of beauty better than in such unconscious sentences as these of the judicious historian of The Anglican Revival Dr. Overton: [and here Dearmer cites a passage from Overton]

The real question at issue between the most thoughtful on both sides was not one of ceremonial, but of doctrine. Ritual, apart from its symbolism, is a thing of nought. It was valued by the really earnest man, not for its intrinsic beauty, but for what it taught – taught through the eye rather than through the ear, and therefore, on the Horatian principal, taught more quickly and vividly, and that especially for the poor and unlearned. [end of his quote from Overton, and Dearmer continues…]

Precisely! Nothing could be more clearly put, and this was the defense consistently made.

This infuriated Dearmer! In fact, he saw it as nothing less than of the betrayal of the identity of God. In his theology, Dearmer understood God to be the very height of truth, goodness, and beauty. He writes:

Beauty is the manifestation of the Father; and this is precisely what modern Christianity has forgotten. Goodness is also the manifestation of God – the will to goodness is the Holy Spirit; but it is not the sole manifestation, as good people have imagined; for there is yet a third which the Word reveals, and that is truth. Within these three all religion is contained – must be contained.

Dearmer refers us to the wonders of creation, to the beauty inherent in the created order. He reminds us that art is not merely decoration and instead, the search for beauty is tied deeply into the search for truth and goodness. The arts of ministry—preaching, singing, architecture—are arts, Dearmer reminds us. We can either do them well or we can do them poorly; we can either choose beauty or we can settle for whatever comes out. However, should we choose to settle for whatever comes out, we are compromising the spirit of the God who created all things wonderfully.

Dearmer doesn’t come out and say this, but in his argument for the importance of beauty in worship, he is tapping into one of the deep themes of Western philosophy. Ever since Plato’s Symposium, thinkers have recognized the interrelation between beauty, goodness, and truth. Diotima’s speech to Socrates presents a pathway beginning with a human love of beauty that reaches to a divine love of the good enacted through the virtues. The wise woman of Athens presented a pattern that has informed philosophers, theologians, and mystics for generations and, as heirs of that company, we would do well to heed her words.

Beauty, then, should be a key concern as we craft our worship. Not simply an external or an add-on, beauty is part of our central witness to who God is and to what God is like. From the most minute details of creation we can discern that God cares for beauty, and that beauty through symmetry leads us into a deeper quest for other spiritual goods.

I have to confess, that in his critique of the church revival movement, Dearmer is likewise critiquing me. I, too, am guilty of backgrounding beauty in order to foreground doctrine. And I accept his critique. On the other hand, I have two critiques of my own to offer Dearmer’s words.

The first is to note that the situation has changed. In Dearmer’s day, his struggle was the acceptance of beauty at all. The Evangelical party was in ascendance, and the Broad Church party followed them in matters of vestiture and ceremonial. Our situation in the modern Episcopal Church is a little bit different. In our context, the Broad Church party has widely adopted a plentitude of colorful vestments. However, this ecclesiastical fashion statement may occur within a void; in some cases there seems to be no recognition that these beautiful things have any import beyond their beauty. If Dearmer’s struggle with the Church Revival was that they attended to doctrine with little concern for beauty, our struggle may well be an attention to beauty with little concern for doctrine. Dearmer rightly reminds us, however, that in such cases at least the beauty is present, and witnesses silently to the glories of God.

My second critique of Dearmer is a little more substantive. I see great value in his Trinity of characteristics of God: truth and goodness and beauty. However, I believe that one of these lacks a certain precision. And I’m looking at you, beauty. Beauty is an aesthetic experience and while I agree that beauty is intrinsic to God, I believe that there is another aesthetic category that more truly and properly leads us to the heart of God.

Before I go there, let me pause and restate my second point. Following Dearmer, I too see beauty as an essential witness to the identity of God. Beauty is not an add-on or an accessory to Christian worship. Rather, it needs to be an intentional and intrinsic part of what we do when we worship. We need to look for and craft beauty into our liturgies and our ceremonies, not as an extra, but as part and parcel of our proclamation of the gospel truth. That’s point 2.

Right around the same time that Dearmer was giving his Bohlen lecture, a German theologian and student of comparative religion was also working on a book. The name of this book was Das Heilige and it would be translated into English as the Idea of the Holy. The year was 1917 and the author was Rudolf Otto. One of the issues that was directly confronting Otto was rationalism. Liberal theology was in the ascendance and thanks to Ritschel and his students the proclamation of the Christian faith was in danger of being reduced to nothing more than “morality touched with emotion.” Otto pushed back against this tendency. Not that he wasn’t a rationalist himself, but he was able to realize that a purely rational religion is missing something fundamental. Instead, he argued that religion in general and Christianity in particular must hold together both rational and nonrational elements. The subject of his book, was the nonrational aspect.

Otto begins with the word “holy” but immediately turns around and states that the modern meaning has suffered semantic drift. That is, the word no longer means what it used to; it has acquired, through familiarity, a slightly different meaning than its original referent. It is this original referent that he tries to find. The word holy has acquired too much of an ethical sense. Conventionally, the term “holy” refers to a high standard of behavior. Holiness is how someone acts. What Otto argues is that there was a more primary and original meaning that lacks the ethical element which now predominates in the word. Instead of trying to reset our understanding of the word holy, Otto chooses to give us a new word, a word that is capable of recapturing the original meaning of holy. Thus he coins the word “numinous”.

This is a brand-new word, having at its basis the Latin word numen which in classical Latin means God or divinity or divine will. It sounds kind of like “luminous” and kind of like “ominous”, and in truth has something in common with both. The numinous for Otto, is an objective characteristic – it’s a special something that a being possesses – that can be recognized because of the subjective feeling it evokes in those who experience it. A key point here is that Otto is not talking about a feeling, he’s talking about thing that causes a feeling.

In his book, Otto works through the characteristics of the numinous by means of a brief Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. I don’t think that I need to go through everything that he says but a brief thought or two on each of these words may prove helpful.

First, mysterium. For him, this is what Karl Barth calls the “Wholly Other,” the Entirely Other. This is the recognition that we are in the presence of something that goes beyond our everyday existence and frames of reference. Second, tremendum. This has three basic aspects to it. The word tremendum comes from the Latin base tremor meaning fear, but not quite the same fear as being afraid. English has the word “awe” that used to lay at the heart of our words awful and awesome which hit closer to his meaning then fear. It’s the awe of awesome used properly that Otto is trying to point us to. Tremendum also contains a majesty, an overpoweringness that is the experience of being in the presence of immensity. It is a fullness of power and being. Tremendum also contains an energy, urgency, and vitality. This is not something dead or static, but living, moving, and active.

As a brief aside – one of the reasons that I love the horror author H. P. Lovecraft, is that he so faithfully evokes in the depiction of his horrific elder gods like Cthulu the mysterium tremendum. This sense of divinity quite apart from any ethical quality. In fact, his creations are actually either amoral or immoral, but in these descriptions he is able to capture and convey what Otto means by the numinous better than any other author I know.

Where Otto goes in a different direction from Lovecraft, is with that second descriptor fascinans. Otto doesn’t just stop at tremendum. Where Lovecraft’s elder gods are often described as repellent, Otto uses fascinans for that characteristic of the divine that draws us to itself. This is the attraction; wonder and rapture are all connected to this fascinans. Feelings of love and grace and compassion and mercy are mingled together with the elements of the mysterious and tremendous; there is that which pushes us away by means of its grandeur and its immensity, but at the same time we are impelled towards it by awe and wonder.

Yesterday, Mother Takacs’s presentation did a wonderful job of teasing out some of the particular aspects that Otto specifically points to. As we listened to the different interpretations of the Sanctus, you could almost pick out where certain ones championed certain aspects. Just sitting there listening to those, Byrd’s Sanctus gave such a feeling of mysterium. With the upward spiraling notes on “sanctus” itself, it literally lifts your consciousness to a different place and points to the transcendent. There’s no doubt that the Macmillan Sanctus was tremendum. It really did convey that sense of a vital immensity before which your best option is full prostration. And the warmth of the Faure and the adoration of the Palestrina gave us the fascinans.

Thus, Otto uses the word numinous to capture this aspect of God which we can identify and relate to by means of this feeling that experiencing it creates within us.

If we back up a second, we notice that Otto, while being a modern rationalist in a philosophical sense, is actually conducting a wildly postmodern exercise here. In essence, Otto is confirming exactly what Lindbeck is arguing. Otto is creating a new piece of language that, by its creation, enables us to have a discrete kind of experience. He introduces a new linguistic phenomenon that helps us to better comprehend the Triune Being at the heart of our gospel proclamation.

Now, what does our identification of the numinous add to our discussion of Christian worship? I would argue that much of our ritual action grows out of prescribing direction for the human encounter with the numinous. As we look through the holy Scriptures, we can identify certain times and places that are indelibly marked by a numinous character. It is almost impossible to read the sixth chapter of Isaiah, and not understand what we mean by the numinous.

There are also some descriptions of the numinous in the Old Testament where the mysterium tremendum definitely outweighs the mysterium fascinans. When the cloud with its lightnings overshadows the top of Mount Sinai, we see the numinous aspect; when we hear the warning that any person or animal who touches the mountain must die, we are confronted by the tremendum. When the ark of the covenant is carried around the walls of Jericho leading to their collapse, we see the numinous aspect of that artifact gained by its relation to the divine; when in the sixth chapter of second Samuel the ark of the covenant strikes Uzzah dead because he reached up a hand to steady it, we are confronted by the tremendum. In the original descriptions of the garments of the priesthood in Exodus, Scripture tells us that the vestments – beautiful as they may be – are not for the sake of adornment but for the protection of the priests. Chapter 28 tells us twice with the priest must wear them lest they die. The numinous is holy, but this does not mean that it is safe. Holiness, as understood by the Scriptures, is a vital and tangible power – like an electric current. It may provide unfathomable energy, or it can kill.

So, what specifically does the numinous have to do with Christian worship? Can we, should we expect a manifestation of the numinous at every Christian worship? Well, no. We can expect it, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The numinous is not something that we can control; it’s an aspect of God. We don’t control God. What we want to do, though, is everything in our power not to hinder the potential for the congregation to experience the presence of God. We believe that God is omnipresent; God is everywhere. But most of us lack the faculties to experience the immediate presence of God on a regular basis. Worship well-crafted offers an opportunity par excellence for us to experience the face of God. Otto does well to remind us that the numinous is not a subjective emotion that we can manipulate. We cannot manipulate the presence of God. It’s when we try to manipulate that we most fully betray our primary purpose; manipulation cannot be praise. But prayerful worship can make us more receptive to the God who is already within our midst.

Furthermore, our tradition recognizes specific vessels of the numinous. That is, there are specific objects and places within our liturgies where we recognize the presence of God and the possibility of the numinous to be particularly potent. The sacrament of the altar, the altar itself, the cross, even—to a degree—the congregation are all places where the liturgy recognizes that we have the potential to encounter the numinous.

So, that is my third point. When we consider the central characteristics of God, we should consider God to be the height of truth, goodness, and the numinous. The numinous is the otherworldly sacral energy which both frightens us and draws us into the presence of a vital, vibrant God. And it is this last element that has such a defining effect upon Christian ceremonial.


From these three theoreticals: the faith as worldview, our central communication of the worldview in worship; the importance of beauty in worship; and the importance of our recognition of the numinous as central to understanding God, we can begin to make a turn to the practical. There are a lot of different directions that we could go in at this point; unfortunately being limited by time, we’ll only get to go in a few of them. I’m going to make two points as suggestions, as fruitful avenues for approach. We can’t go down them all the way, but I can at least show you where they are.

First off, in light of these principles, I think it’s useful to revisit some of the old arguments, and see where and how they make sense now. One of these is environment. When we come at the question of environment and the vestments by way of a worldview, and worldview as a way of proclaiming and enculturating the kingdom of God, we can see what we do and what the other choices are, in a new light. So for the sake of argument, let’s consider two options next one another. On one hand we have a stereotypical Anglo-Catholic setting and service; on the other hand we have a stereotypical evangelical mega-church setting and service. (My goal here isn’t to put down either one of them—it’s to draw some very big-brush comparisons…)

Our overall impression of the Anglo-Catholic service is that we are encountering things that are initially unfamiliar. In comparison with other buildings, the Gothic church has an odd shape and layout. The ministers are wearing strange clothes. The place is outfitted with crucifixes and candles and thuribles and a bunch of other things you normally only find in a goth shop. The music is played on old instruments. The language and terminology may be unfamiliar; the internal logic of the rite isn’t similar to other meetings were used to experiencing. By way of contrast, the evangelical mega-church does everything it can to feel familiar. The room looks like it may well be a regular auditorium with stadium style seating and potted plants. The ministers are dressed in street clothes and tattoos. They’ve got guitars and a drum kit. Both the language and internal logic of the rite are what you might find in a typical pop concert.

Now – what do these two environments communicate about the worldview that they are expressing? About the proclamation of the gospel in relation to the modern secular culture? The way I read it, the Anglo-Catholic service is foregrounding a theology of the transcendent. The environment is fundamentally and intentionally discontinuous from contemporary culture. The message is that the values and world of the gospel are likewise discontinuous from our everyday secular world. A transformation is required in order to cleave to the mind of Christ. To me, it’s a visual reminder of Isaiah’s words: my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts. Some people will tell us that we’re not being accessible. That’s not how I’d frame it. I’d rather say that we’re bearing witness to a mystery, and inviting people to come and learn about that mystery with us.

The way I read the evangelical mega-church environment, it foregrounds a theology of immanence. This environment is fundamentally continuous with contemporary culture – but with a twist. The message is that the values and world of the gospel can be seen from here, we just may not be there yet. A tweak is what’s needed. To me, it’s a reminder that God is in our very midst. This is accessible, it’s a kissing cousin with modern culture—but my concern is, where and how is the line being drawn? Where is the Gospel demand to something new, something radical?

Now, this is not to say that either one of them have a lock on transcendence or immanence. It’s a matter of emphasis, but also a legitimate difference of theology. We have chosen a different way.

Coming from the perspective of a worldview, understanding our church environment as a culture that is different from but in relation to the secular culture helps us frame some of our arguments in new ways. At one very simple level, you’re either doing things in line with contemporary secular culture, or you’re not. Take, for example, the classic vestments debate. If you’ve been anywhere around liturgical discussions in the church, then at some point or other you’ve no doubt heard one or more arguments about the place and nature of vestments. Should clergy wear street clothes, whether formal or not, or they should wear some sort of sacred vestiture. Personally, I see this as one of the – literally – most visible representations of the relationship between church culture and secular culture. I mean, it’s one of the first things I see and notice about a service after the building.

Especially since Vatican II and the liturgical renewal movement, there is been renewed interest in this discussion, especially as it relates to the fourth century, the 14th century, and the 17th century. As a result, you’ll hear people making arguments that we ought to be wearing fourth century street clothes instead of 14th century dress clothes, or 17th century church clothes. Because, “the fourth century is closer to the original; it’s a return to our origins”. From my perspective, this argument doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The street clothes question is a modern one: you are either wearing “normal” clothes, or you’re wearing “weird” clothes. Justifying weird clothes by insisting that they are historical street clothes misses the point! The street clothes ship has already sailed. You’ve already made the decision to look outwardly like the current culture, or you’ve made the decision to outwardly not look like the current culture. If the decision has been made to not look like the current culture, then other questions of aesthetics and simplicity versus ornamentation should come into play. Choosing to model yourself upon a particular century is a theological position, but it’s separate from the street clothes position.

So, seeing the construction of our religious culture as a deliberate response to our surrounding culture has important implications for the ways we proclaim the gospel and for what that gospel means. Classic Anglo-Catholic patterns suggest that God and God’s ways are something that have an identity and integrity. We are called to shape ourselves to fit the liturgy .If we try to do things the other way round, we risk missing or mistaking something very important.

We do have to be sensitivity to questions of accessibility. We do have to do everything in our power to assist the strangers and the newcomers to share in our vision of the kingdom. But is there only one way to do that? Do we welcome them as we were welcomed if our means of doing it is to offer them a diminished vision?


To head off in a different direction now, I’d like to return to the notion of the numinous and how our church culture relates itself to it. Let’s think about customaries for a moment. The customary is, at its simplest, the set of stage directions for who does what when. I tend to encounter customaries either as written documents, or sets of verbal instructions that I make into written documents. This way of looking at them and thinking about them is very linear. First we do this, then we do that, then we genuflect, then we stand up, then we head up the stairs and kiss the altar, and so on and so forth. It’s one thing then another thing than another thing. Learning a customary, I find myself ticking items off in my head as I go, and sometimes wondering if I forgot a genuflection, or a nod, or some other such thing.

What would happen if we changed our whole paradigm? What would happened if we were able to break out of list mode altogether?

The majority of liturgical actions performed by the congregation and the altar party in a Eucharist can be broken down by considering three questions:

  • How do we signify what is holy – that which has the capacity to contain and transmit the numinous?
  • How do we behave towards God in the presence of the holy—what are the gestures of respect that we use towards vessels of the numinous?
  • How do we behave towards one another in the presence of the holy—what are the gestures of respect that we use towards one another as we recognize one another as fellow creatures in the image of God and beloved of God?

What we took the list of what a certain person does, and we asked it this question: how does this set of actions and gestures line out for us a geography of the sacred? Liturgical actions and gestures tend to have triggers—they tend to be in response to moving to or through certain places, or when we hear or say certain words… What are the triggers? How do they define space as that participant moves through the physical space. What places and times are we identifying as particular potential for the presence of the numinous? How do our gestures or actions show respect to that numinous potential? If we were to look across all of the lists for a given altar party, do they all describe the same geography?

You know how these lists tend to be compiled—an idiosyncratic server may have picked up certain things from a certain former parish, or perhaps a past rector has left a strong stamp on the liturgy that is observed by some and not the others. Is there an internal consistency to the sacred geographies described by the different lists? To what degree has the congregation picked up on these geographies and participate within them?

Does our ceremonial send mixed messages about who and what we are and about how we act and react in the presence of the numinous? Is there a logic and a coherence to our proclamation that gives a vision for how we behave in the face of the numinous yet does not oversimply, dumb-down or otherwise squelch the rich and diverse ways that we experience and react to God in our midst?

When we start asking questions about sacred geography some practices make instinctive sense. I’m about to enter the nave—it’s a holy place. Perhaps a bit of purification might be nice—oh, look a holy water basin so that, as I cross myself with water, I remember the holiness infused within me at my Baptism…  What aspects of sacred geography are immediately obvious? What aspects are things that we have a responsibility to share with our congregations, place where we have an important teaching role in connecting the dots? What aspects are best left as mysteries to be experienced rather than problems to be explained?

Good ceremonial can do a lot. Good ceremonial can communicate a lot on its own about the vision of the kingdom of God that we are seeking to enculturate. But it can’t do it all. You have an obligation to name the values, to identify the practices, to proclaim with words what the liturgy teaches with deeds. At the end of the day, how we encounter the numinous within the liturgy, presents a paradigm for how we encounter the numinous outside the liturgy. It teaches what to look for, what to feel for, and the clues for recognize the sacred presence in things expected and unexpected.

That’s my final point: It’s not enough to be intentional about the way we design things. It’s not enough to be intentional about how we construct the environments of our liturgies. We have to connect the dots. We have to make sure that our messages and meanings about the gospel, the holy, are sinking in. Let me end by giving you two little exercises you can do at home to see how things are going:

First – it’s worth taking a look to see how your servers, your altar guild, yourself, and other folks treat the vessels after the services are over. Do they treat them like sacred things worthy of respect, or do they handle them carelessly, like something to be tossed around? It’s one thing to treat them with reverence during the service, when everyone’s watching, but what happens when it’s over?

Second – it’s worth taking a look to see how your servers, your altar guild, yourself, and other folks treat the people at coffee hour. Do they treat them like sacred things worthy of respect, or do they handle them carelessly, like something to be tossed around? The difference between the two is clear: the vessels no longer have the blessed sacrament within them. The people at coffee hour – do.

Back from the Conference

I’m finally back from the SCP conference and at the keyboard once again. The conference was wonderful. M and I had a great time, it was so good to see familiar faces and to chat with people that we hadn’t seen in a while. As M remarked to me, it feels like the society is really beginning to gel; real relationships are being built up– as had always been the intent.

This was the first time that the conference had been held outside of New Haven and not at a parish where the convener and the communications director served.  I have to give major props to the Great Lakes Chapter, and especially to our friend and colleague Jared Cramer, for working out schedules and logistics especially when the city of Detroit was foreign territory for most of the chapter members! The biggest structural news, is that, after three years, we have transitions in some of the high positions.  The new convener is Bill Carroll; the new communications director is Chris Arnold. I think there’s a lot of good energy around the society and its mission to be a catholic presence within the Episcopal Church.

As for the presentations, Tripp Norris gave a great account of his experience conducting an Anglo-Catholic church plant. I was unable to be at Bishop Gibbs’ presentation, so I can’t comment on it. The former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold gave a wonderful presentation on the sacrament of reconciliation. Through it, we got to see a side of him that I, at least, had never seen before. He was charming and witty, but his advice also showed a depth of wisdom in catholic spirituality that impressed me.

I thought my presentation went pretty well too. I have put it up on my Scribd account but will subsequently be posting it here for thoughts and comments.

All in all, it was another wonderful experience! I got to see old friends, I got to make new friends, and came away with renewed energy for the work of the catholic cause in the Episcopal Church.