Relevant and Relative

Whenever I meet another convert to the Catholic faith from Anglicanism. I listen as they express extreme dismay and disappointment at the liturgical wasteland that is the American Catholic Church. He criticized the celebrant’s game show style–all chatty and ‘relevant’ and full of jokes. He loathed most priest’s lame attempts to make the words of the liturgy ‘meaningful.’ The Lord be with YOU!  with a huge smile and almost a hug. Next under fire was the sentimental, saccharine music with the heretical lyrics, and the rec room atmosphere of the church–all soft lights and carpet and comfort. Why no cup holders in the pews?

“Why oh why” he lamented “is the Catholic Church in America so awful?”
I think it comes down to this: the historical and liturgical development of the Anglican and Catholic Churches, since the Reformation has been very different. The Anglicans got used to liturgy in the vernacular and they eventually had their own ‘reform of the reform’ in which they learned to celebrate the liturgy with beauty, reverence and care while using the vernacular.
Catholics, in the meantime, continued to use Latin. Then when the floodgates opened at the second Vatican Council the Catholics (many of whom felt that the Latin was totally inaccessible and arcane) went whole hog on making the liturgy ‘understandable’ ‘relevant’ and ‘accessible’. Everything from the old days was considered to be inaccessible, elevated, cut off from the people and all the old traditions and customs were deemed out of touch, out of date and so out the window.
I honestly believe that many Catholics had no idea what most of the stuff they had in church and did in church meant. This includes the priests and bishops. I don’t think they understood the rich history of vestments and architecture and liturgy and incense and sacred music and sacred art and candles and bells and crucifixes and confession and pilgrimages and processions and relics and saints days and the whole vast treasure house of Catholic tradition.
Nobody had explained it to them, and nobody had explained it because nobody could. Nobody could remember what all that ornate clobber was for. Everybody had forgotten about reverence and solemnity and beauty and dignity and they even forgot what worship was for in the first place. They were just going through the motions.
None of it made sense to them. They didn’t know what they were doing or why. Consequently, they were longing for something more relevant, more real and more connected with the people’s lives. The good ones wanted the Lord to touch people. They wanted the people to know the faith and love the faith and to know and love the Lord. So they listened to the Protestant-minded progressives and saw all the traditions and customs as burdens and blockages so they chucked the whole lot. They were like people in an art gallery who don’t understand medieval paintings and so put them out for the garbage man and replace them with Andy Warhol and  Roy Lichtenstein–who are of course, ‘much more accessible.’
In swept the liturgical reforms and everything became ‘relevant’. I can understand what people wanted. They wanted the liturgy to relate to ordinary people and connect. That’s a laudable intention. The problem is, that when liturgy is relevant it is also relative. When you change the liturgy in an attempt to relate to a particular culture, a particular people, in a particular time and place you end up making the liturgy not only relevant, but relative. What you do might be fashionable and ‘cool’ but it soon goes out of date. You know the old saw, “He who marries the fashion of the age will soon be a widower.”
So we now go into the flying saucer churches with big sound systems and carpet on the floor polyester vestments, abstract artwork and an architecture that was clever or cool in the seventies and it all looks as hopelessly out of date as refrigerators in harvest gold or avocado green, bell bottoms, tie dyed T shirts and Scoobydoo cartoons. Then we see the people who are doing music “that will attract the young” but the only people who like it are old. We see priests and religious trying hard to “be relevant” and they are as embarrassing as Uncle Mack with his comb over, suntan, open neck shirt and gold jewelry.
The Anglicans (at least some of them) understood, in the meantime, that the liturgy was timeless and that it should be celebrated thus. Of course I’m aware that I’m painting with broad strokes. There are plenty of Anglicans who were just as wacky and ‘relevant’ as the Catholics. You only have to check out Madame Schori and her gang to confirm that one. Likewise there were Catholics who saw what was happening and tried to stem the tide.
Last thing is this: how do you change it? A better liturgy will change some things, but what really needs to happen is for there to be a fundamental change in what people believe about the faith. We must see the faith as timeless and at once irrelevant in whatever age or culture it finds itself and at the same time the most relevant and necessary thing for the people of any age to hear.

Those who want to make the church ‘relevant’ should realize that the faith, when it is radically lived out will always be both “relevant” and “irrelevant” at the same time. It will be relevant if it is radical and critical of the age in which it exists. In other words, it will be relevant exactly at the point that it seems to be irrelevant and ‘out of touch.’

Likewise, and just as paradoxically, when Christians try to make the church ‘relevant’ that is when it is least relevant, for that is when it has lost it’s chutzpah–in trying to please the children of this age–it will lose all its salt and all its oomph.
And if a dish has lost its salt and a church has lost it’s oomph it’s lost everything. It’s lukewarm and the Lord says he will spit it out.

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