Is This Constructive Diversity?: Responding to Cody Unterseher


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

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

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

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

On Liturgical Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liturgical Inequalities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Breadth of Diversity: The Case of Morning Prayer

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

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

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

The Roman and Episcopal Contexts

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

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

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

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

Summing Up

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

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

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

24 thoughts on “Is This Constructive Diversity?: Responding to Cody Unterseher

  1. Derek the Ænglican

    Typically a feeble waving of a thurible during the Entrance rite and its absence at the Gospel and Eucharist. The partial chanting of some items in the Eucharist and perhaps the Gospel but a conspicuous lack of it in other places like the Collect of the Day and Epistle.

  2. Paul Goings

    Dr Olsen,

    I would question whether liturgical diversity within a parish is even desirable, at least in urban or suburban contexts. Perhaps in a semi-rural parish where the pastor feels that he needs to be all things to all men, but even then, do you really want a priest whose heart is with praise bands and theater in the round to have a go at solemn liturgy on an occasional basis? In my experience, the results of such efforts are at best comical, and more often simply painful.


  3. Christopher

    I also think there are folks who don’t map well into these three traditional categories and that few parishes ever meet all of our liturgical desires, so we live with it because we love the people of our parish. What of one who wishes for our traditional Canon to be made available in contemporary English ad orientam with Morning Prayer beforehand and use (and chanting) of traditional Sarum materials (introit, etc.) where these do not fall into propitiatory language?

  4. bls

    I don’t see why it would be difficult to have a variety of worship styles at any one parish; that’s what seems to be developing at mine.

    Worship style is mostly irrelevant, in fact; the direction in which the priest faces is irrelevant to the larger issue, which is (as Derek might say) “putting on the mind of Christ.” This I’d say is possible in many and various ways; if not, then Christianity is not universal. Even Paul wanted to be “all things to all people.”

    The attempt to make irrelevancies absolutely central is what has led to the liturgical wars and the incredible waste of precious time it’s been for everybody over the past XX years.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Mr. Goings (and you know you can call me Derek, right?),
    It’s certainly true that it’s easier to go down the candle than up. The circumstance in the author’s mind, though are the large Roman parishes where they *do* try to be all things to all people and may have to have more disparate groups due to geographical parish factors than our more consumer-driven model.

    I’ll both agree and disagree with you on that one… I agree in that you got me quite right—what matters is putting on the mind of Christ. But the logical implication there is that liturgy is one (albeit crucial) vehicle for formation and theology. As I’m also fond of saying, there are no such things as liturgical changes; rather, there are theological changes with liturgical implications.

    Different worship styles flow from different theologies and, as a result, form those who experience them in specific patterns. Now, many of the differences really are down-right irrelevant. But not all. The trick is understanding a) what theological principles we believe are driving our worship, b) how our worship transmits and forms those principles in the participants, and c) whether we’re reinforcing these formational openings with the explicit theologies we’re trying to communicate. Too much of all of this is simply too implicit at too many places. That is, we rarely take the time to consider what our liturgies are trying to communicate, whether they’re actually communicating that, and whether we’re letting people know through preaching, education, etc. that these are the real and central reasons why we do what we do.

    Of course the three are fluid, they’re helpful in the large-scale, less so on the small scale.

  6. bls

    Well, yes – but pews or no pews? Facing East or not? Chant or not? Altar against the wall or not?

    These are not in any way central to the liturgy – yet they’ve been made central. I don’t think we disagree much, to be honest; liturgy IS important, I agree. It’s just that what the “leadership” often “takes time to consider” is baloney.

    Same old thing, really….

  7. bls

    (I’m trying to say that things that are really a matter of taste – and as we know, there’s no disputing it! – have been put forward as matters of “liturgical correctness.”

    It happens on every side, too.)

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    Hmmm—but who gets to decide which is which? Is East-facing or people-facing merely a matter of taste? I’d suggest that there are different theologies at work, rooted in how we understand the presence of God within the midst of the gathered Body of Christ.

  9. The young fogey

    Very interesting. Unsurprisingly one of my first reactions as a counter-revolutionary was suspicion, and the extremes an Episcopalian can live with in the same church are not the same as for me (faintly echoing Paul’s point – some theologies and churchmanships are simply incompatible but then again pre-conciliar Catholicism isn’t monolithic like many pro and con think), but Fr U and you have a point. I saw this in action as a teenager at the first full-fledged Anglo-Catholic parish church I ever went to: intact chancel and Lady altar but also a pulled-out side altar for modern-style Masses. Not bad. I’ve long said like Thomas Day (the master who explained why many English-speaking RCs right and left hate high church: many persecuted Irish don’t like the artsy English) that if in 1970 nearly every RC parish church kept at least one Tridentine Mass or a ‘Rite I’ eastward, old-vestments etc. option (now part of NLM’s ‘reform of the reform’ thing) on Sunday, it would have prevented a lot of grief. (Sort of a flip-flop of my first AC church.) That said, that only works with RCs if the diverse, experimenting place is orthodox. The revolutionaries 40 years ago usually weren’t. (In your church Richard Giles seems to like this unconditional-surrender, take-no-prisoners approach.)

    Many Anglicans don’t have the anti-high church baggage of many Irish so you’ll find far more high-church liberals (well, credally orthodox mainstream folk, not just liberals) among them than among RCs.

    I agree with Derek that the assumptions that the old-fashioned service only appeals to the old and the ’80s-’90s one is what the kids are into are laughably wrong. Also, when Pope John Paul II’s indult came out, the few bishops who allowed a Tridentine Mass were often even more sadistic with it than hiding it at 8 in the morning in most parish churches: try 2 in the afternoon in some hard-to-reach convent, funeral home or dangerous-slum parish church.

  10. John-Julian, OJN

    If all of this is true, then I see no sense at all in isolating Rite i and Rite II from each other permanently. It is no help in liturgical education, and no help in widening parishioners’ experience. The only pattern that makes any sense (if one wishes to be clear that both Rites and “valid” and “proper” and “authentic”) is to follow the pattern I followed in my last parish: Rite I at ALL Masses in Advent and Lent and Rite II at ALL Masses the rest of the time. It means we could experience the best of each — Rite I with its personal and penitential aura and Rite II with its corporate and celebrative aura. (Note: Please don’t accuse me of over-simplifying, I know it is not black-and-white between Rites, but it is broadly so.) And it avoids the business of two utterly separate congregations who never share anything. (And, itmeant no one could complain!)

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    That’s an excellent point! I’ve known a few parishes that have done that and I agree, this is a good way to go.

    Furthermore, if two seasons are devoted to Rite I it allows less time for, and a greater chance that, Prayer C will fall out of the rota.

    Wait, did I just say that out loud…?

  12. Christopher

    I disagree with isolating Rite I as penitential and to penitential seasons. I would prefer to see it used at least part of the time during the “soujourn of the Holy Spirit,” that is, After Pentecost. Rite I becomes stereotyped and its complexity diminished by placing it only in those seasons we understand as penitential.

  13. renpaul

    Oddly enough, it should be noted that the Philippine Episcopal rite, which is otherwise American Rite II with modifications, keeps at least one of the Rite I prayers in contemporary English. However, I have it on good authority that even when the 1979 was first introduced around these parts (the Philippine Church was part of the Episcopal Church until 1990) and the local rite was being circulated, many parishes up north still used the 1928!

  14. bls

    To be honest, I don’t think it much matters which way the priest faces. How can it possibly be thought so important that it might determine our relationship with God (which is what making it a theological matter is actually saying, isn’t it?)? That seems very strange to me, at this point – because I experience worship in both ways these days and I don’t find much difference between the two.

    There are all kinds of ways to worship. I almost became a Quaker – but now I like St. Mary the Virgin, and don’t even mind evangelical worship any longer. And I do think “taste” (or maybe “pesronality”?) is pretty central to where people end up. (Didn’t you write something about that not long ago, in fact?)

    We’ve all been so worried about East-or-West for one simple reason: the Gospel wasn’t being preached. Anything and everything else was standing in place of the Gospel being preached. But when that part of a parish’s faith life is strong, the rest just doesn’t seem to matter very much. At least, that’s what I think now….

  15. bls

    (I mean, it’s simple enough to not look, if you don’t want to see a priest facing you, isn’t it? It’s not as if that’s odd or unusual, either; the Orthodox can’t see the priest at their Communion services, AFAIK. Isn’t he behind the iconostasis?

    There’s no reason to either look or not look at the priest, actually; the priest is not the important thing. The whole thing is just irrelevant – at least, that’s what I’m thinking these days….)

  16. bls

    (I mean, I stopped looking at the priest months ago, and I’m ever so much happier for it….


    Really, though.)

  17. Derek the Ænglican

    That’s a very good point, bls!

    However, you’re also one who understands what’s going on and is aware of the issues involved. You know that the orientation no longer matters to you theologically.

    There’s a distinction to be made here between physical statements of public theology vs. spiritual growth and the internalization of the principles of the liturgy that I’m unable to wrap words around at this moment.

  18. Christopher


    I will quibble with calling 1662 our usus antiquor in the singular. We’ve went around this before. We’re are lucky inheritors of the Caroline reforms of the 1549 Use through Scotland and then through Seabury. 1662 is not the only Anglican Rite of “ancient” origin in our tradition and it is not our usus antiqor singular. As I reminded and Dr Weil reiterated at my defense, we are blessed for the inheritance because it means we inherited a more catholic Eucharistic theology. It is similar to suggesting a singular and fixed Roman Rite pre-Trent. Part of the recent hoohaa with the Covenant hackneyed history was the uprising those of the Scottish inheritance gave to the suggestion of precisely this idea that 1662 has been and is the usus antiquor.

  19. Christopher


    My comments didn’t seem to go through. At any rate, I will remind that 1662 is not our usus antiquor singular. We’re blessed with 1549 through the Carolines through the Scottish Church through Seabury. As I reminded and Dr Weil reiterated in my defense, because of this we have a more catholic Eucharistic theology influenced by the Orthodox than that found in 1662. Part of the hoohaa of one version of the proposed Covenant was a hackneyed history to which the Scots and their inheritors objected that suggested 1662 as the usus antiquor. For most Anglicans, perhaps, but not all. It would be like suggesting there was a singularly fixed Roman Rite pre-Trent.

  20. bls

    You’re right, Derek – I’ve been through all the rage and angst and have come out the other side feeling quite differently about all this. (Although I’m still quite furious at the Giles’ of the world, who use their positions of power to force their own particular tastes on others, I admit. I guess I haven’t quite stopped looking at the priest, then, have I?)

    I know what you mean in your last para, and I agree – it’s not an easy thing to put into words. Will think about it, too….

  21. C. Wingate

    Lots of interesting points here, and yet there are a couple of key things which seem to be missing. First, at this late date when we say “low” and “high” it’s really time to admit that these don’t map very well to the old churchmanship patterns, so that to refer to a “Broad caricature of High” is to paint over exactly where the caricaturing is happening. National Cathedral is surely, in this age, the locus classicus of Broad, but probably most people who ignore the theology and who aren’t A-C would read their ritual as very High. This suggests that there is another element that is cutting across the ritual per se and adding another dimension.

    At the cathedral it’s rather obviously the theology that is producing that other dimension, but elsewhere it seems to me that the dominating factor is becoming the tension between the solemn and the celebratory. Outside of the liturgical churches the pep rally service is coming to dominate service style, from what I can see; when people break out the guitars, it’s typically in avoidance of the solemn (the Taize style being an exception, from what I gather). In between the two we get the routine, which if I may be permitted a waspish aside seems to be the dominant American Catholic style.

    As several have noted, it’s a reasonably common practice to rotate around the ’79 book in the course of the year. I’d also note that part of the issue is nothing more than bad writing. It seems to me that the current RC English liturgical texts are worse than those of the ’79 BCP, but it isn’t always for want of trying. Take Prayer C (and don’t everyone say “please” at once). Up until the beginning of the final section, it’s trying very hard to be a very solemn prayer: its narrative basically is “you went to a lot of all-powerful trouble to put us on this earth, and all we’ve done ever since is screw it up; yet you never gave up on us.” All that is hamstrung by some terrible writing and shifts of tone in some places, and by the (IMO misbegotten) responsive form.

    It’s a lead-pipe-cinch that fixing any of 1979’s problems is going to get lost in the shuffle of emasculating the text for the feminists (whose relationship to the clerisy inspires me to a lot of unprintably rude analogies). Solemnity will always be endangered as long as “celebrating the community” is raised up as a standard– and I note that the theology behind which way the priest faces has generally tied directly into this. .

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