Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"When Shall We Celebrate the Epiphany?" - and other tales from TEC

This post - an "interesting glimpse into our attitudes about the discipline of the church and our expectations of church members" - made me think again about the really formative nature of the Great Church Year.

The fact that almost every clergyperson on the mailing list Scott Gunn refers to said they were celebrating Epiphany on a Sunday, rather than as its own (very important) feast really does say something important, I think.    This is now a standard thing, and I suppose it would be easy to brush off concern about this as "liturgical fundamentalism" - except that we are a liturgical church that celebrates according to the Calendar of the Great Church Year.  When all the feasts are ignored - and the few that get celebrated get moved to Sunday - there really is no more Great Church Year.    And that means that there's little reason to belong to the Episcopal Church, in particular, at all anymore.

Anyway, here are the four major points Scott Gunn made in the post: 
First, the church will not grow by cheapening discipleship. One of the charisms of catholic Christianity is the discipline of following the liturgical year. It is not asking “too much” to expect people to walk and pray in the rhythms of the church year. To be sure, for all kinds of perfectly good reasons, not every person will be able to worship every Sunday and celebrate every Principal Feast. But we do people a disservice when we erase the expectation. We’ve seen the results of “I’m OK, you’re OK” Christianity, and it looks like steady, persistent decline in the church and in individual spiritual lives. The fruits of a serious commitment to discipleship are a growing church and a thriving spiritual life. We should mark the feasts of the universal church at the appointed time and invite people to celebrate.

Second, clergy leaders need to learn that their personal preferences must take a distant back seat to the common prayer — to the discipline — of our church. Whether or not I “like” a particular practice is almost irrelevant. It is the height of clerical hubris to deprive congregations of the richness of our liturgical heritage based on the preferences of the clergy leader. So what if I offer a mass and only a few people come? All who attend will be immeasurably enriched by the experience.

Third, congregations might discover that there is a substantial number of people who are actually eager to celebrate the feast days of the church in due course. In the parish I served, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany on its day with a festive Holy Eucharist with all the trimmings: the Christmas/Epiphany pageant, the reading of the Epiphany proclamation, and the distribution blessed chalk for the blessing of homes in Epiphanytide. Our attendance was often comparable to our Sunday attendance, and many people expressed how delightful they found this occasion to be. It’s a fantastic way to cap off our celebration of the Christmas Season. Before concluding “no one will come,” maybe it’s worth trying. This won’t work in every setting, but I’d bet that it will work on many places.

Fourth, there’s no compelling reason to move the feast. If your congregation chooses not to celebrate all the Principal Feasts, so be it. Simply skip the Feast of the Epiphany and celebrate the Second Sunday of Christmas. One of the Gospel options is Matthew 2:1-12, so you can totally hear and preach about the journey of the magi and sing Epiphany hymns. You can mark this point in the salvation history without compromising the discipline of the church.

I'm totally on board with the point about clergy obedience; it's really not helpful to have a bunch of people in "leadership" (God, how I hate that word!) who do whatever they feel like doing.  We're Episcopalians by choice; we've joined this church for serious reasons - and believe it or not, one of the most important of the reasons is that the clergy are constrained by the Prayer Book.   The calendar and lectionary force priests to deal with the entire church year; this makes it less likely they'll subject their congregations to whatever hobby-horse they might happen to want to indulge.

That's what happens at the mega-church down the street - and we do know that address, if that were what we wanted.  The Great Church Year, by design, allows the faith of the Church to be the primary focus, rather than the whim of the rector.   If you don't want to follow the rules, then why would you want to be ordained in this church?   Those with authority issues should, truly, get some help for that (really:  it will make such a difference to your life!).  Episcopal priests are under authority, by definition - as is almost everybody else in the world, BTW.   None of us gets to do exactly what we feel like doing at work, either.

The thing this all makes clear, though, is this:   Christian faith is a habit.   It's a way of living - and "ways of living" are learned.   It takes time to acquire the habits that slowly form us; this is just a fact of life - a hard one, I guess, for a culture built on immediate gratification.

And the Great Church Year is, to my way of thinking, the primary habit of the Christian life.  It forms us in a very gentle, long-term-persistent way.   It does not insist; it graciously offers a way of life that changes us from the inside out.

At the post, I (once again!) recommended Full Homely Divinity, and its suggestions for following the Great Church Year at home, as a partial solution to this problem - and realized that actually it's a primary solution.   Because once this habit has become grooved - the habit of following the feasts and fasts, as the Church Year moves through its cycles - one's entire way of life is changed. 

And, BTW:  it makes weekly attendance at Divine Service completely natural and in fact a joy - something you don't want to miss.  Private and family devotions won't take away from communal worship; these things will increase attendance at communal worship.

In other words:  we need to stop worrying and talking about church services and start focusing on the Great Church Year and the Christian life itself.    We need to teach the feasts and fasts in-depth - and ways for parishioners to keep them in their own daily lives.  And this is what FHD does: it offers prayers and liturgies and funny little anecdotes and discussion of customs - including recipes for baked goods!  It helps people live the life of faith - and this is the only way, I do believe, that people will come to see how valuable faith is.  

Faith is different from no-faith - and this difference needs to be experienced.

This is not secondary; it's absolutely primary.    The Great Church Year is, perhaps, the Twelve Steps of the Church itself.  Since Anglicanism is minimalist in doctrine, it really needs to be maximalist on this account.  The GCY does offer real, productive practices for individuals throughout the year;  Advent is a time to explore the great themes of Salvation; Christmas is Joy; Epiphany lets us move into the mystical; Shrove Tuesday (if we encouraged the practice it's named for) and Ash Wednesday are days for Confession.  Lent offers the practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving; the long stretch of "Ordinary Time" is a time for considering the parables; etc.  The collects move through all these themes, and others, and describe the Christian life in all its facets, looking at it from hundreds of different directions.

None of this stuff will happen, though, if the Church Year is thought to be endlessly malleable and subject to whatever whim we happen to have at the moment.    It is being slowly and inexorably deformed by the choices we're making; we are all becoming C&E Christians.

Listen:  I stumbled upon the Great Church Year and its central, formative nature almost entirely by accident!  I started going to St. Mary's, and looking at the chant propers in the leaflet when I got home.  I started attending Lauds at the local convent, and writing Chantblog to talk about the things I was learning.  I started following the feasts and fasts and seasons in depth, in other words - and now I do it automatically.  If my parish closed - and we're getting warnings that lots of parishes will close - I will still do this, and still be able to worship, following along as the seasons pass.  If I move, and my local parish celebrates only U2Charists, I will still be able to celebrate according to the calendar.

But I simply wouldn't have found any of this without having stumbled into it - so to my way of thinking it needs to be engaged with and actively taught in the parishes now.

Derek's been talking about "prymers" and lay devotions for years now; to me, FHD is analogous in our contemporary context. 

This is where we need to put our emphasis, IMO; this is what "Episcopal evangelism" looks like.

Remember that Urban T. Holmes wrote, “....when Anglicanism is at its best its liturgy, its poetry, its music and its life can create a world of wonder in which it is very easy to fall in love with God.”  And isn't that what we're here for - for the sake of the love of God, that is?

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