On not being afraid of becoming “Episcopalian”

On not being afraid of becoming “Episcopalian” April 7, 2012

There’s a tiny liturgical movement occurring these days among Reformed churches, and a larger shift happening among Protestant Evangelicals.

Critics of the movement rightly raise the question of whether this is simply another expression of American Christian consumerism: It’s the fad du jour, without any solid rooting in Scripture or tradition. That, as I say, is an open question, a necessary caution. Liturgical interest among Evangelicals might in a decade or two go the way of camp meetings and seeker-friendliness, neither of which entirely disappeared but both of which had their 10 minutes before becoming yesterday’s news.

Critics also worry when they look at the state of “liturgical churches” today. The Episcopal church is a mess, incapable of affirming even the most obvious biblical standards of sexual morality. The ELCA and PCUSA are not far behind. (Catholics and Orthodox have maintained biblical standards, and for that reason tend to be more attractive to wandering Evangelicals.) Aren’t you worried, critics ask, of losing your biblical coordinates?

More generally, the mainline churches are, so it appears to Evangelicals, full of nominal Christians who go through the liturgical motions but don’t know or care to obey Jesus. Aren’t you worried, critics ask, that liturgical Reformed and Evangelical churches will go the same way? Aren’t you worried that liturgical churches makes it too easy for people to hide?

Here I think the critics are almost entirely off-base. And the answer to this criticism is not to say that Reformed or Evangelicals who pursue liturgical renewal need somehow to be both liturgical and anti -liturgical at the same time; the answer is not that Evangelicals should become formal while retaining their traditional hostility to form. That is incoherent, not a way forward but a labyrinth from which there is no escape.

The answer is to say that the “liturgical churches” are not properly liturgical in the first place. In fact, for much of church history the church has not been properly liturgical.

The Christian liturgy is the fulfillment of the liturgy of the temple. The temple was Yahweh’s palace, and the liturgical procedures of the temple constituted Yahweh’s kind invitation to His people to draw near. The liturgical regulations of the temple were protocols of approach to Yahweh. Yahweh brought people to His table, where they were permitted to eat in His presence. At certain times, the priests in the temple read out the Torah to the assembly, and in the synagogues, outposts of the temple courts throughout the land, Israelites gathered to hear Yahweh’s Word read and taught every Sabbath. Israel’s worship centered on Word and Table: Israel came into Yahweh’s presence so that He could speak to them, and so they could take the crumbs that fell from His altar.

Israel approached, entered Yahweh’s courts, but still remained at a distance. Lay Israelites could not enter the temple, or eat the bread of the presence. No one could drink wine in the temple itself. In Christian worship, though, these restrictions and exclusions are broken down. Worship still centers on Word and Table, but now everyone is brought near, equally near, and especially equally near to the table. Properly liturgical, biblically liturgical worship is Scripture-saturated; properly liturgical worship includes the solid food of biblical teaching; properly liturgical worship allows everyone to come to the table every week (“when you come together”). This is the kind of worship that was advocated, but for one reason and another, not always practiced by many of the Reformers. This is the heart of Lutheran liturgics: You want to know where to find God, look for the Word, Water, and Bread, signs of the presence of the Incarnate Son. In a different way, it is also the heart of Calvin’s liturgical theology: Worship is God giving us the gifts of His Word and His meal, and both, Calvin thought, should happen every time the people of God gathered. For the Reformers, that is a “properly liturgical” worship. This was the impetus behind the early English Reformers as well.

But this is not what the church has done historically. Catholic and Orthodox churches retain some of the exclusions of the Old Covenant. For many centuries, the Western church excluded the laity from the table altogether, conducted the Mass in a language that most did not understand, taught little of the Bible. Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants, quickly lost the sacramental side of liturgy, and Protestant worship became an inverted image of Catholic: For a Mass without Word, Protestants substituted a sermon-session without sacrament.

Protestant “liturgical churches” have often failed to conform to biblical liturgical standards: Their liturgies are in the vernacular and full of Scripture, but teaching in the mainline Episcopal and Lutheran churches is notoriously thin and some “liturgical churches” don’t have weekly Eucharist. The two main things that are supposed to happen in worship – the Father speaks and the Father invites us to His table to feast on Jesus in the Spirit – frequently don’t happen at all, and when they do they happen very little. “Liturgical churches” fail in particular to permit God to speak: He is allowed to speak only a few verses a week from the Word, portions of Scripture are never read at all, and preachers spend a good bit of time telling trite anecdotes rather than explicating what God has said to us. (I could add, of course, that many Evangelical churches also fail in these respects: The most biblical churches around frequently include little Bible reading in worship, and many Evangelical churches still do Eucharist very, very infrequently.)

At the church where I serve, we kneel to confess our sins. We chant a Kyrie , the Sursum Corda , and many of the ancient canticles of the church ( Te Deum , Gloria ) as part of our musical ascent into God’s presence. We use Collects, sing the Lord’s prayer each week, say or sing a creed. The pastors who lead worship wear white robes and stoles whose colors change with the liturgical seasons. We have seasonally-colored paraments on the pulpit and table. We are coming to the end of a Lenten season, and we will be telling people over the next several weeks that we are still celebrating Easter, and then we will have an Ascension service. We believe that all of these practices are biblically-based and edifying for the church. We believe it is better for a liturgical minister to be marked with a white robe than for him to be dressed in a suit or a Genevan black gown, better to observe the church calendar than not. These practices are not a matter of taste or merely for aesthetic appeal (though they have their aesthetic appeal), nor are they mere window-dressing. Though we don’t think that white robes or observing the church seasons or chanting are of the esse of the church, we believe that they promote the bene esse of the church. We think these are means for deepening the worshiper’s and the church’s encounter with the Triune God.

A stranger coming into our church might be forgiven for mistaking our liturgy for an Anglican or Lutheran one. Yet I’m not afraid of becoming Episcopalian because our liturgy is not “essentially the same” as an “Episcopalian” (that is, a squishy, Scripture-avoidant mainline) liturgy, any more than Luther’s Deutsche Masse was the “same” as the Catholic Mass because they shared structural similarities. For Luther and for us, this isn’t merely a matter of fresh wine in old wineskins, fresh “con
tent” that leaves old “forms” intact. The new “content” of the Lutheran divine service made the liturgy a different event . As Catholics recognized at the time, something different was being done in the Lutheran Mass: What was being done was Word and Table, God speaking to His people and the Father feeding His people His Son by the Spirit. So, if he sticks around, that stranger who mistakes us for Episcopalians will soon enough learn otherwise, and if he never actually recognizes the differences it won’t matter. God will be speaking to Him and God will be feeding Him whether he understands what’s happening or not. And soon enough he will lose all his fears of becoming “Episcopalian.”


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