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:
- The authoritarianism and hostility to reform of the Roman Catholic Church.
- 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?
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!