Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In the meantime.....

It seems the church no longer has faith in the long-term formative nature of the liturgy, but wishes to provide people some sort of "immediate" experience that will impress them and keep them interested. 

I don't deny those kinds of experiences can be very helpful; I had a powerful spiritual experience early on myself, and it absolutely kept me coming when probably nothing else would or could have.  It gave me a feeling of being "called."  Perhaps this was essential for me, because of the whole gay thing; I doubt I'd have had the patience or forbearance to put up with the church and all its nonsense otherwise.

Of course, that particular issue does not apply to most people.  But, it does demonstrate, I think, that the church needs to provide people with a reason to continue attending while the slow, methodical work of  "formation" goes on.

The word is that English Cathedrals are seeing a pronounced uptick in attendance these days.  This is probably happening for two reasons:  a) the great music and beautiful liturgy, and b) the anonymity they provide.  When I first came around, I preferred going to large churches so I could come and go as I wished, without getting involved in any way.  And of course I loved going to churches with good music; I'm lucky to live in an area where it's easy to find those.  This is a terrific entree to the life of faith - the best of the ways it can reach other people.

The Cathedral thing isn't going to happen in the U.S., though.   We don't have such embedded traditions - and unfortunately, in my experience American Cathedrals are worse than parish churches when it comes to hokey liturgical "innovation."   And Americans don't tend to go to church for the sake of  "the beauty of holiness" anyway; church is much more about "getting saved" in the Evangelical sense - or else a political and/or cultural affiliation or social obligation.  There are other reasons, too, of course - many people do come because they hold to the faith, even if they come for some of the other reasons as well! - but "beauty" isn't generally one of them.  In addition, Americans are impatient, and tend to key on the loudest and latest thing; there's not much appreciation for anything old or understated.

And the liturgy is archaic, let's face it; that's part of the attraction.   (And this, to me, is the amusing thing when churchpeople argue against, for instance, ad orientem.  As if "facing the people" during the consecration of the bread and wine were any less strange and archaic for those outside the church!)

In any case:  the stranger the better, I say.  Do something impressively odd and beautiful, and you'll get people's attention.  It happened for me, just this way, in fact; when I first saw a priest genuflect in front of the altar at the Consecration, I was deeply struck - and impressed - by the reverence of it.  When, at another parish, I first saw the Asperges (the sprinkling of the congregation with holy water at the start of the service), I was literally struck dumb!  I actually couldn't speak; I was choked up by the strange beauty of it all - and I've considered myself Anglo-Catholic ever since. When at a third parish, I saw the Easter Vigil procession - the deacon who processed with the Paschal candle and sang:  "The Light of Christ" (on Sunday morning, BTW, in broad daylight!) - I decided on the spot I would be confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

It pays to remember that people simply aren't used to seeing things like this - and they are striking.  Liturgical actions speak volumes, via often very simple gestures.  Think of military formality, for instance; the military has its own liturgical ceremonies which absolutely do communicate essential ideas.  Here's an example:

Somebody once argued that in fact liturgical churches were always going to have problems attracting at least some people outside the church, because the liturgy was not created for newcomers.   The argument was that evangelicals (generically-speaking) would attract new people, and liturgical churches would eventually get those new people once they'd been evangelical for awhile, but were looking for something deeper.  This makes sense to me.  It means that the full, formal liturgy is for the already-initiated; you don't mess with it because then it can't help these already-initiated people , and in the end nobody's gotten any benefit at all.

But American evangelicals are not convincing many people these days - they've ruined their own reputations with political affiliations and irrationality - which makes a problem down the line for us, if you hold to the above theory.

To me it seems clear to me that the Episcopal Church is going to have to stop perseverating on, and endlessly arguing about, the liturgy and ways to tinker with it - just do it, as they say - and start finding ways to talk about, and teach, the faith itself, and to show people what it's for.

My recommendation?  Use the Book of Common Prayer faithfully - and follow the rubrics - for Sunday services; use "Rite III" at other times, if that makes sense.   Have a dancing, jumping-around, rock mass at night, if that seems like a good thing in your neighborhood; I don't think it would be that difficult to do via the regular liturgy, even!    Or sing Compline on Sunday nights; they do it very successfully in Seattle, getting 500 people - mostly kids - every week.  Start discussion groups for people outside the faith, and teach the faith itself.   Not via the Creed as a standalone - but what the content of the Creed actually means for peoples' lives.  Talk about the human condition - use the world's literature as a text, as it can show us obvious things about ourselves we've simply decided not to see - and about our problems in living; and show how Christian faith responds to these problems.   (As an alternative, just use the world's newspapers - although the problem there is that most of us will not be able to see what they actually tell us about ourselves.)

The Bible is full of absolutely crazy stories; revel in them!  Talk about the nutty characters of the Old Testament, and discuss the almost completely alien-to-us society they lived in, and the wild ideas they had.   Take those stories and have people write midrash extensions of them; play with the literature, and don't be afraid of it.

It has taken me ten years to become liturgically literate, and to be able to derive its benefits on a regular basis.  And I'm very interested in, and dedicated to, the spiritual life - and I had that powerful spiritual experience that kept me coming.  You can try to induce something like that via cool things like chant and incense - not a bad idea at all, I say! - or you can try to talk to peoples' minds and hearts.  Different people are going to be interested in different things.  To me it seems Episcopalians don't really know how to talk about faith, or to convince people why it's a good thing.  Perhaps this is because they do focus so much on liturgy, and just aren't aware of or conversant about what it's meant to do and what it does.

I should also add:  my powerful spiritual experience happened completely outside church; it happened while I was reading and thinking about the faith itself, although with the help of some visual aids.  This tells me that the content of the faith is actually quite important, and that it will help Episcopalians if we can become very conversant in it.

But seriously:  don't continue to mess with the only means of long-term formation we have.  Keep to the liturgy faithfully for your already-initiated, and give other people something that will get and keep them interested in the meantime.   (Hint:  it's not simplistic moralism of any kind.)  Music, spiritual practices, activities and learning for kids (i.e. choir schools, which offer free training and education you can't find elsewhere), deep study of the Bible and other texts, other kinds of literature, art, movies, ideas, history, psychology, service to others, "practical mysticism" and pragmatic practices - use all of these other things to attract, intrigue, and delight people, and to explain how faith can actually work in their lives to help them and make life better for them and for their families.

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