Daily Archives: October 30, 2015

Prayer Book Revision and Identity

I’ve been trying to pull my thoughts together towards what I’d like to see out of the prayer book revision plan, but have had a hard time doing so. Yesterday, it finally clicked. A number of different things aligned in my head, and I caught a glimpse of the situation in a way that I hadn’t understood it before.

A key piece of the puzzle here is “identity” and the ways in which our liturgies are understood as a public enactment of who we are as a church, both as an ecclesial body that spans the United States and several other countries and as local embodied communities that make up the church in our neighborhoods.

Here are some of the things that I see connecting…:

  • The current argument around Communion without Baptism. In my latest sizeable piece on CWOB, I clarified further that I believe identity and anxiety are key drivers of this particular movement. The real question that we are wrestling with here is not the obvious one (what is the shape and nature of our sacramental theology?) but an identity-driven one (does the church affirm [at least verbally] that it—and I—am welcoming and inclusive?).
  • The bulletin for Sunday’s installation of Bishop Curry as Presiding Bishop.
  • The notion of “liturgical evangelism.” This can paraphrased loosely like this: If Sunday morning is the church’s cultural moment in the spotlight, then we need to have a service that is going to draw people in rather than turn them away. We need a service where visitors are going to feel comfortable and included, and maybe they’ll actually come back. There’s usually more than a hint of anxiety built into this one because the fear is, if a visitor doesn’t feel welcomed and included, they won’t come back and our church will continue to lose numbers and die…
  • And that fear connects to the sobering reality of how the numbers overall are looking for the Episcopal Church. Here is the latest research on the 5 year trends from 2009-2013 for the Episcopal Church as compiled by our Office of Research under Dr. C. Kirk Hadaway.  Here is his latest snapshot of the demographics of the church based on the 2014 data in both the short form and the long form.
  • Last but definitely not least, I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last week or so considering the second resolve of the prayer book revision plan resolution: “Resolved, That such a plan for revision utilize the riches of our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender and ethnic diversity in order to share common worship;”

So—what’s going on here? How do these things connect together?

One of my axioms is that liturgy is the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology. (Or, at least, it should be. I’ll touch on how and why that can break down a little further on…) As such, there is a direct relationship between the identity of the worshipping community and the liturgy through which it expresses who it is and what it believes. However, identity can be a very vague and slippery thing due to a whole bunch of overlapping scopes and aspects. Furthermore, identity is neither static nor something that can be easily nailed down. Certainly there are some aspects of identity that can be quantified by sets of numbers, but identity as a whole is more of a mental or ideological construct. When we start “acting out of our identity,” then, the questions must be asked: who is the “us/our” and which version of constructed identity are we working with? Furthermore, because identity isn’t static, I think a lot of effort around identity in the Episcopal Church is invested in what I call “aspirational identity”—who we wish we are, who we believe that we can eventually be, rather than who we may actually be now.

Let me break this down in a couple of different ways.

  • There is the actual identity of the local worshipping community. This refers to an identity based on the people are who are physically present in the nave during worship at your local congregation.  Notice that this is a little more precise than “local community.” That’s deliberate. For instance, at the church we recently left, the “local community” included children but the “actual local worshipping community” didn’t as the kids were hustled out of worship.
  • Then there is the aspirational identity of the local worshipping community. This would include all of the people who you really think ought to be in your local congregation and who certainly would be if they just realized how awesome you are. For instance, I know a church in an urban area whose congregants are mostly  older folks who commute in from the suburb they went to when White Flight transitioned the neighborhood from ethnic European immigrant to Black. The urban area has since gentrified and is now filled with young professionals and families with children.  The hope, the aspirational identity of this congregation, is well-stocked with these young folks even though very few (if any) actually darken a pew on Sunday morning. Typically, it is this aspect of identity that gets factored in when liturgical evangelism is on the table. What is it that we imagine “those people” might like? How should we change ourselves so that “those people” will want to come and join us so we won’t die and the bishop won’t close us down?
  • Identity doesn’t just manifest on a local level, though. Indeed, one of the key things that I think we are now and will continue to argue about and fight over is the aspirational identity of the whole church. What could/should the church look like? This is the point where I think the second resolve in the prayer book revision plan resolution is very telling. In the aspirational whole church the seven different aspects of diversity outlined there would be richly and thoroughly represented. As a result, when we think liturgical evangelism and prayer book revision, I see us working around the question of whether a given liturgy will attract and keep the wide diversity (and great numbers!) that will surely follow when we finally “get it right” with our liturgies, all kinds of people do flood in, and our aspirational vision is fulfilled.
  • But, there’s also an actual identity of the whole church to be reckoned with as well. That’s where the statistics come in. They show an actual church that is largely white, aging, and shrinking. And, despite our vaunted liberality—even after the departures of the last decade—only 29% of surveyed congregations identified themselves as “somewhat liberal or progressive” and only 8% as “very liberal or progressive.”


Who is the church that we are revising the prayer book for?


That’s not a rhetorical question or a “gotcha” but an honest question that we need to have clarity on. This is where all that CPE and therapy come in handy—so that we can assess what our true motives are so that we are not working out of our fears and anxieties but actually know what we’re dealing with, what situations we’re envisioning, and why.

It’s this confluence of aspirational and actual identities that I find interesting when I consider the liturgy for the installation of the Presiding Bishop.

Again: liturgy is a public expression of community identity. This event is a Big Deal for the Episcopal Church. It isn’t quite on the scope of a royal wedding, but it is a key point where a certain amount of attention will be focused on us and our church. In this moment we have an opportunity to introduce ourselves liturgically to people who may not know much about us and who we are. What kind of identity does this liturgy enact?

Here’s the thing—this liturgy is an embodiment of the actual worshipping community who will be gathered in the National Cathedral on Sunday. That is, we have Spanish-speaking people, clergy from Native American backgrounds who speak Lakota, gospel choirs from African-American congregations, and the like. We have progressive liturgies like Enriching Our Worship, Prayer 2 which will be the Eucharistic prayer for the service. In a real sense this liturgy will be an authentic expression of that gathered group.

But there is also a significant disconnect between what will occur in that liturgy and the average Episcopal Sunday services in the parts where there is overlap.

I said that liturgy is “the kinetic expression of the gathered community’s theology.” That’s what liturgy ought to be. In reality, liturgy is the kinetic expression of what the people with the control print on the papers that get handed out and what gets enacted in the chancel. Sometimes these two things are exactly the same—that’s what it ought to be. But I’ve certainly been in places where the clergy and/or worship leaders have different notions about theology and its liturgical expression than the majority of the congregation. There’s a paternalistic sense that the leadership knows better, and that they understand their role to lead the congregation up to their more enlightened level. Hence, I always get a little worried when I hear clergy tell me that they’re leading their congregations into a new kind of worship or liturgy; it seems to me their congregations ought to be leading them rather than the other way around… (I’ve ranted before about clergy inflicting their personal spiritual journeys on the congregation, I won’t go into it now…)

Clearly this installation liturgy is intended to be a celebration of the multicultural diversity of the Episcopal Church upon the installation of its first African-American Presiding Bishop. I completely understand that. Not only is the installation of a Presiding Bishop an occasional liturgy (occurring only once every three to nine years) but this particular installation is a unique one—you can only do “the first” once by definition…

But how do we “read” this event, or how will it be read by others?

This is our main public moment for years to come; this liturgy is portraying the Episcopal Church and its liturgy in a way that is dissimilar from what visitors would find in the majority of Episcopal churches they might visit. Do we read this as a unique liturgy celebrated once to mark an important event coupled with a significant milestone, or do we see it as a template for what the leadership thinks our liturgies ought to look like—setting the tone for the desires of the “incoming administration” as we look towards prayer book revision?

To what degree is criticism of the installation liturgy—and I have heard some—related to a gap between the theology of the planners of the liturgy and the theology held by the local communities from which the critics come? (And please note that I am making observations here, not criticisms. Trust me, I’ll make those clear if I decide to do so…)

The participants in the installation liturgy are, I believe, a microcosm of the aspirational identity of the whole church as constructed by those who wield power in the church currently. And why not? This is a vision of the church as diverse, welcoming, and inclusive. But does it necessarily follow that in order to make this aspiration the actual identity of the whole church that an installation-style liturgy must become the norm? We should resist the temptation to draw an easy line between the installation liturgy and the character of a future prayer book; that move is not self-evident. However, I’m sure that there are plenty on both sides who will quickly do so, either fearing that to be the case, or hoping that it will come to pass.

Let’s not forget, too, that this vision only represents one version of the aspirational identity of the whole church. Part of our conflict within the church is about who we are and who we wish to be going forward. Are we the church of the upper-crust, the church for those who have arrived in society? Or are we the church of the liturgical(ish) social justice warriors? Or are we whatever we were when we were back in the ’50s? Or the 70s?

The reality of our situation is that there is a disconnect between the (several competing) aspirational identities of the whole church and the actual identity of our local worshipping congregations.


Who is the church that we are revising the prayer book for?


Until we have some clarity around the answer to that question, we will be working in the dark.