WPost discovers the bleeding obvious about liturgy today

Basil Fawlty: Can’t we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? Next contestant: Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject – the bleeding obvious.

Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat (#2.6)” (1979)

The Washington Post reports some progressive Christians are unsatisfied with contemporary worship and are seeking more traditional ways to do church.

The article “Americans turning to ancient music, practices to experience their faith” highlights the sense of incompleteness, of liturgical inadequacy felt by some Christians this Christmas.

It begins:

In our of-the-minute culture, Santa seems old-fashioned. But Christians are exploring far older ways of observing the holiday.

In the living room this week along with the pile of presents, there’s more likely to be a wreath or calendar marking Advent, the month leading up to Christmas that symbolizes the waiting period before Jesus’s birth. Christmas services largely dominated by contemporary music are mixing in centuries-old chants and other a cappella sounds. Holiday sermons on topics such as prayer, meditation and finding a way to observe the Sabbath are becoming more common.

These early — some use the term “ancient” — spiritual practices are an effort to bring what feels to some like greater authenticity to perhaps the most thoroughly commercialized of religious holidays, say pastors, religious music experts and other worship-watchers.

I find this article problematic. On the surface a reader unacquainted with this topic might assume this is a balanced story reporting on a new trend in American religion.

It offers vignettes that illustrate the phenomena and offers four voices to flesh out the story: Ed Stetzer, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber and a “man in the street,” or more precisely a lay Catholic woman from suburban Washington. A knowledgeable Washington Post reader might know that one of these voices is conservative: Stetzer, while McLaren and Bolz-Weber are progressive Christians.

As an aside, why does the Post omit “the Rev” before the names of the three clergy on first mention? And, is Brian McLaren an Evangelical? Is that the label he gives to himself, or is it a descriptor given him by the Post? But that is a battle for another day.

Adding Stetzer into the mix to balance McLaren and Bolz-Weber gives the impression of balance, and the pithy quotes offered by the three would lead one to believe that a cultural-religious trend is emerging in American religious life.

My concern is that this trend is about 175 years old. The article is written from a perspective that the progressive wing of the old main line churches is the fulcrum around which American religious life pivots.

“Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” is an article that has been written several hundred times over the past fifty years, reporting on Christians from non-liturgical traditions entering the Episcopal Church due to its liturgy.

Episcopalians and other Protestants have been entering the Catholic Church since the time of John Henry Newman in large part because of a belief in the inadequacies of their tradition measured against the doctrine, discipline and worship of Rome.

And the Orthodox Churches in America over the past twenty five years  have seen an influx of ex-Protestants who are drawn to that tradition’s “ancient” liturgies and spiritual vigor.

All of what the Post describes about the dissatisfaction some are finding in their “seeker” friendly churches has been reported for decades.

Nor is this a phenomena of movement between faith traditions. Renewing the Catholic Church through the reform of its liturgy was one of, if not the greatest achievement of the papacy of Benedict XVI (from this Episcopalian’s perspective).

When he issued his Summorum Pontificum , allowing the older form of Mass t0 be used once more, Benedict restored to the church the liturgy that had shaped that church’s life for centuries — words that shaped Catholic culture, informed its teaching, instructed its arts and nourished its saints (and even a few sinners).

In a 2006 interview with Zenit, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus spoke of the necessity of reforming modern Catholic worship:

Q: A major theme in your book is the importance of a revitalized liturgy for renewing Catholic life. How do you see that occurring?

Father Neuhaus: Don’t get me started. The banality of liturgical texts, the unsingability of music that is deservedly unsung, the hackneyed New American Bible prescribed for use in the lectionary, the stripped-down architecture devoted to absence rather than Presence, the homiletical shoddiness.

Where to begin? A “high church” Lutheran or Anglican – and I was the former – braces himself upon becoming a Catholic.

The heart of what went wrong, however, and the real need for a “reform of the reform” lies in the fatal misstep of constructing the liturgical action around our putatively amazing selves rather than around the surpassing wonder of what Christ is doing in the Eucharist.

The battle over liturgy and the aesthetics of worship recounted by Fr. Neuhaus is a live topic in many denominations.  But there is so much more to this than the latest liturgical spats.

Carved above the entrance way to a theological college I once attended was the phrase: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The phrase is often expanded to Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Lex Vivendi and interpreted to mean: “As we Worship, So we Believe, So we Live.” Worship reveals what we believe. It is who we are. It is the foundation of our Christian identity.

In an April 15, 2010 address to the Catholic bishops of Brazil gathered in Rome, Benedict said:

Worship, however, cannot come from our imagination: that would be a cry in the darkness or mere self-affirmation. True liturgy supposes that God responds and shows us how we can adore Him. … The Church lives in His presence and its reason for being and existing is to expand His presence in the world.

What the Post has picked up round the beltway — what Benedict told the Brazilian bishops — what Anglicans are seeking to find through the Book of Common Prayer, is the divine presence.

Was the Washington Post unaware of the wider context of liturgical renewal and reform? Or is its worldview so narrow that it cannot see anything? Have they only just now discovered, as Basil Fawlty would say, the “bleeding obvious” about liturgy and church life?

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  • Briana LeClaire

    I was baptized, confirmed (the first time) and married at the Episcopal cathedral, my family’s congregation. (My cradle Catholic husband got a dispensation.) I’ve been Catholic for almost fifteen years and couldn’t not be, but my poor kids and the liturgical music they’re growing up on. If I never heard “One Bread, One Body” again, it would be too soon.

    I was kvetching about it once to my parish priest, who was also a friend. He said, quit complaining, you should have been here in the 70′s – then did an imaginary tambourine shake and hip bump. ;)

    I’m no scholar, but after last year’s liturgical reform I noticed the similarity between the “new” Catholic version of the Nicene Creed, and the one I grew up on in the Book of Common Prayer. It only took 500 years to get to the correct English translation, but the CC finally made it, so there’s hope for the music and all the rest of it, right?

    Anyway, great piece. I’ll look forward to more of your writing.

    • PalaceGuard

      I can do without, at the least, the first verse of “Our God is Here”: Here in this time, here in this place, here we are standing face to face? Unless you’re in a medieval monastic choir, you ain’t! Tres dumb. (And as for the questionable theology in the piece as a whole, oi vey!)

  • kjs

    The WaPo article is another indicator of something else that is “bleeding obvious”: the word “evangelical” in current usage is not a meaningful descriptor.

  • Darren Blair

    Have any of the reporters or editors involved in this piece ever set foot in a Restorationalist denomination such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses?

    If the “seeming return to traditional services” (et al) blows them away, I’d love to see their reactions to how various Restorationalists do things.

  • Julia B

    Briana: the new liturgical wording is a return to essentially the English translations available in our old missals back when all Masses were in Latin. And it is similar to the English used when Masses were first done done in the vernacular. The “And also with you” stuff was a 1970s project amidst the folk singing. I have wondered if the vernacular had first appeared during the 1980s instead of the 1960s when faux folk singing (ala Michael Row the Boat Ashore) was popular – maybe we would have got Devo and heavy metal style liturgy. LOL

    • Darren Blair

      Not all attempts at blending popular culture and religious music flop, though.

      A few years ago, Gladys Knight’s efforts at producing LDS-friendly gospel music was received so warmly that she was actually on-stage with the church leadership during an event.

      • Julia B

        Gladys Knight is a real musician. Most of the sing-songy stuff the Catholic Church suffered through in the late 60s and 70s was horribly written and amateurish. If you look at the scores for these things it’s obvious they were transcribed by somebody listening to people strumming guitars who had no concept of real music. There are some very good things being written today. We sing some wonderful gospel pieces. In my youth in the 50s we had some lovely popular-style pieces, but they didn’t replace Mass liturgy. That was the real problem – there has always been a place for popular-style music apart from liturgy. In my own parish we now have actual Responsorial Psalms instead of pop songs. We’re getting back on track. Recessionals and other times are very appropriate for non-liturgical music. I’m just talking about the Catholic sphere.

        • Darren Blair

          A few years ago, I slipped into the local Family Christian Bookstore shop in order to see what they had in stock.

          Among the items that they had in their scant toy section was a batch of toy monster trucks, all of which had the same design.

          Bright red truck body.

          Gold chrome on the metal bits.

          “Victory In Jesus” sticker on the hood.

          Monster trucks, in and of themselves, are OK. Had this just been a plain red pickup truck with the usual chrome-colored chrome and no logos, it’d have been a nice secular toy for kids to play with. But once the gold and the sticker were included, we suddenly had something that was heartbreaking because it indicated that the person who created it badly misunderstood what it meant for Christianity to achieve victory over the world.

          So it is with a lot of what we have in many churches today: the leadership feel the need to go “contemporary” in order to draw everyone in, but in the process of “modernizing” they lose sight of the spiritual.

    • PalaceGuard

      I am so glad to be done with “And also with you”, although I tend to a sort of full reversion, and end up with “And with *thy* spirit”, rather than “yours”.

      • FW Ken

        I did that for awhile. :-)

    • Briana LeClaire

      “When transgression comes along
      You must whip it
      Before you do that habit long
      You must whip it
      When something’s going wrong
      You must whip it . . . ”

      How am I doing? Do you think I have a future at Oregon Catholic Press?

      • Julia B

        LOL That’s really funny.

        • Briana LeClaire

          Later in the shower, I realized “you must whip it” really ought to be “go confess it.” You may carry on. ;)


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