This isn’t quite a manifesto—but I get the feeling that it’s headed in that direction…
As I look around at the Episcopal Church, tune in to the chattering at the various levels, I’m feeling like we’re floating a bit. There are some key pieces of who we are that have been soft-pedaled into virtual non-existence.
It’s time for us to do a lot more writing and a lot more talking about core spirituality. For me, “spirituality” means practices that nurture our relationship with God (and with one another through our connection to God) and cultivate a direct experience of God and God’s relationship to the created order. By “core” I mean practices that have a direct and intrinsic relationship to the Anglican expression of Christianity. It doesn’t mean they have to be uniquely Anglican, but it does mean that it should have a deep and abiding connection with what makes us distinctive.
We are a prayer book people. And yet the techniques, strategies, and methods for getting the most spiritual value out of our prayer books have been neglected for quite some time. I honestly don’t recall the last time I heard a good Christian Ed (or other) presentation on the prayer book that dug into the spiritual fruit of the prayer book and how to get at it. In fact, most of the presentations I’ve heard—even from clergy who ought to know better—is about the historical development of the liturgy and how that had shaped what we have now. History is interesting (at least to me) but that’s not what people are hungry for! I believe that what the church needs to hear is how to access the spiritual riches of the Scriptures and the prayer book. In order for that to happen we need to start thinking about it and talking about it—and doing it, of course.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been working through the Myroure of Oure Ladye, a part of the Middle English devotional literature connected to Langforde’s meditations and the anchorite traditions that sought to teach Latin-less lay women the use, meaning, and value of the Sarum liturgies: Mass, Office, and Prymer. These, then, are the precursors to understanding the environment that produced the works of Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and the others. The Myroure not only offers translations, but devotes chapters to what kinds of edification might be found in devotional books and how to get at it, what sort of attitudes are necessary to get the most out of reciting the Offices, practical tips on keeping focused and so on. In short, it lays out for its time, place, and understanding of spirituality, how to get at the meat of the Mass and Office.
Fast-forward to the Victorian era. As ceremonial and a higher view of the liturgy were being re-introduced into Church of England services, a literature arose to explain and champion the spirituality inherent within it. It’s hard to take a dip into the Ritual ‘Reason Why’ without hitting material borrowed from the Myroure. Likewise, I find it interesting that one of the most formative commentaries on the BCP of the period—one still well received today—was written by John Henry Blunt . . . who in 1873 edited the text of the Myroure for the Early English Text Society.
What am I suggesting, then? That the Myroure of Oure Ladye is the fix for the Episcopal Church? Certainly not! Neither are Blunt nor Frere nor Dearmer or others who followed in that line.
No—we need our own books. We need our own thinkers. We need our own spiritualities grounded in our own liturgies that teach us strategies and techniques for what the Myroure did for the Sarum Office of the BVM and Blunt did for the English 1662 BCP. By all means the Myroure and the Ancrene Wisse and Blunt and the rest need to be conversation partners. Just because they don’t fit our tires doesn’t mean we need to reinvent the wheel.
One of the reasons why the Myroure and the Ritual ‘Reason Why’ don’t work any more is that their way of understanding the liturgy was thoroughly repudiated by Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal Movement. What the Myroure and RRW understood to be the point was seen by the Liturgical Renewal Movement as precisely the accretions from which the liturgy needed to be cleansed. Taking as normative the practical level of ritual and ceremonial motion, the sometimes overly spiritualized explanations of the Myroure were jetissoned in favor of the practical purpose and the ideal was described as “noble simplicity.”
An academic generation or more beyond the Liturgical Renewal Movement, we must take stock again. If the last fifty years of biblical scholarship have taught us only one thing it’s that the idea of a single objectively “correct” meaning of any given passage is a deeply flawed concept. Liturgy is no different in this respect. Our attempts to make meaning from and with the liturgy are interpretive acts; we deal in false dichotomies when we force a choice between a spiritual and a practical interpretation. A biblical text can have an historical interpretation, a literary interpretation, a theological interpretation, a moral interpretation, and a wide variety of reader-response interpretations. Typically, one or two of these will take precedence over the others based on the purpose of the interpretive act; the others will remain in the background, offering amplification and/or critique to the dominant interpretation. Liturgical interpretations need to function in the same way. Discussions that suggest that liturgical acts have one meaning (often couched as “the real meaning”) are falling into the modern objectivist interpretive paradigm that sought to impose a single meaning on a single text.
Bottom line—it’s time to go back. It’s time to re-enact Matthew 13:52 and re-examine our old treasure to see how it can be re-purposed for our new environment.
We’re a church, folks. This core spirituality stuff ought to be right in our wheelhouse. The fact that it’s not, the fact that many clergy are at a loss for explaining our liturgies and their implications to our people is a clear sign that we’ve lost focus of what ought to be fundamental.
A network, a forum, a site—something like that is essential to provide a space to think through these issues and to provide a place for people to ask questions and receive answers (or better questions…). I’d rather see something arise organically than try to force it into existence. What are your thoughts?