Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Traditional Church in the Twenty-First Century: Revitalizing the Liturgy – Part II
By Robin G. Jordan
The liturgy has a horizontal dimension as well as a vertical one. While God is its main audience, the liturgy also has two secondary audiences. The first of these secondary audiences is an audience in the sense of an assembly of listeners. It is the Christian assembly itself, the gathering of believers that meets on Sundays and festivals to celebrate the liturgy. The second of these secondary audiences is an audience more in the sense of a particular group within an assembly of listeners. It is those who are unbelieving or unlearned (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). This secondary audience may be visitors. They may be the baptized children and grandchildren of believers who have not been fully instructed in Christ’s religion and have not openly professed their own faith and promised to be obedient to God’s will.
The liturgy tells the story of God and his relationship with his creature—man. Those who have a part in the liturgy also have a part in the story. Even visitors have a part even though they may not realize it.
This recounting of God’s wondrous deeds is a part of our worship of God. We are honouring and glorifying God by declaring God’s excellencies, by showing forth his praises.
The same recounting of God’s wondrous deeds is also in part for the benefit of the participants in the liturgy, especially those participating in the liturgy for the first time. We are displaying before those whose are willing to hear and see why God is worthy of our praise, our thanks, our obedience, & c. We are also reminding ourselves.
Even the Lord’s Supper is a part of our recounting of God’s wondrous deeds. “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death till he come.” (1 Corinthians 11:26 ASV) We make known what God has done for us through Christ’s death on the cross. We are showing forth His salvation.
When the apostle Paul wrote, ”Let all things be done for building up,” (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV), for “edifying” in the older English translations of the First Letter to the Corinthians, he had in mind these two secondary audiences. 1 Corinthians 14:26 comes at the conclusion of a series of passages regarding the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy. It includes this passage:
“Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:6-12 ESV)
This passage, especially verse 11, and a part of a subsequent verse, “…how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?”(1 Corinthians 14:16 ESV) are often used in arguments against the continued use of the services of the traditional Prayer Book. “Let everything be done for edification” is certainly an important principle in Christian worship and liturgy but does it exclude the use of these services? Are traditional Prayer Book services no longer edifying because they do not use an idiom readily understandable to the younger generations and their language is foreign to these generations? Or can they be used for the instruction and improvement of the same generations? Can the latter learn from them about repentance, faith, praise, thanksgiving, righteousness, and godliness? I believe that if we can help them across the language barrier that these services indeed can be very edifying. Even the language of these services, while it differs from their everyday language, has much to teach them.
For example, the use of the second person familiar pronoun “thou” in addressing God tells us tons about our relationship with God in a single word. See the late Peter Toon’s article, “How Did Cranmer address people at court when Henry VIII was king?” Modern liturgies cannot convey our intimate relationship with God in one word. The English of contemporary everyday speech also lacks the nuances of the English of the traditional Prayer Book. “We pray” does no have the same shade of meaning as “we beseech.”
Previous generations learned the language of the traditional Prayer Book. It is not that distance from our everyday language. It is certainly not comparable to Middle English or Latin. I have studied both languages. What then keeps the younger generations from learning it? Some attributes it to intellectual laziness. The present younger generations are adverse to the work required to learn the language of the traditional Prayer Book. I believe that it is a little more complicated than indolence on their part. They will learn the specialized languages of computer technology and of various sports, putting a lot of effort into doing so. In learning these languages, they, however, see a tangible benefit to themselves, which they do not see in learning the language of the traditional Prayer Book. They do not learn these other languages for their own sake. They learn them because they are useful to them. They learn them so they can make wider use of their personal computer and talk sports with their friends. They have all kinds of motivation to learn them.
The only young people that have any motivation to learn the language of the traditional Prayer Book are amateur theatrical performers and drama students performing the plays of Shakespeare and re-enactors recreating the Tudor and Stuart periods in history at festivals. And, of course, English Majors. These groups form a tiny sliver of the non-churchgoing population. The first group who are sometimes described as “Cultural Creatives” are not known for their church attendance. The second group may attend a church service as a part of a re-enactment. I have seen no research on the church attendance of English Majors.
The challenge for the traditional church is to motivate the younger generations to learn the language of the traditional Prayer Book. The traditional church must offer them something that tangibly benefits them. It must provide them with the motivation to not only learn the language of the traditional Prayer Book but also become a part of the particular church community. Right now the traditional church holds very little if any attraction for the younger generations. Those who are going to church are attending contemporary churches. There any prejudices against the traditional church that they may have picked up are frequently reinforced.
By now you are asking yourself, “But what does this have to do with revitalizing the liturgy in the traditional church?” Doing what we can to give new life and vigor to our celebrations of the liturgy must be a part of any strategy to reach the younger generations. I have attended celebrations of the liturgy that were thoroughly lacking in vibrancy. The service was long and drawn out due to the additions to the Prayer Book text and the particular customs of the parish. The recitation of people’s parts was perfunctory, even rushed. The use of music in the service was unimaginative. The Scripture reading was lackluster and the hymn singing unenthusiastic and at times barely audible. The priest mumbled through his parts, including the additions from the Missal. The sermon was weak on illustrations, Scriptural allusions, and substance and barely held my attention. At times the priest’s voice was a drone. I found myself looking out the window. Even after the service had reached its climax in the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine of the Holy Communion, it dragged on. After the recessional the priest read more prayers from the back of the church. The congregation remained on its knees until the altar lights and the lights on the reredos were extinguished. The words of a former rector came to mind. “Fire worship!” If I were asked to describe the service in one word, it would be “tedious.”
When our celebrations of the liturgy are tiresomely long or seeming long or slow from dullness, they are likely to weary the participants and drain their energy. Existing members of the congregation may keep coming to church out of sense of duty and obligation. The other members of the congregations are their friends and the church service presents an opportunity to chat with them. They may not see them outside of church. They may come to receive communion, having been taught that regular communion is essential to their spiritual well-being and even their salvation. Unless the visitor, however, has some overriding reason to come back to our church, we are not going to see his or her face again. Young people are not going to hang around long enough to learn the language of the traditional Prayer Book, much less to acquire an appreciation of its services.
Our celebrations of the liturgy do not need to be irksome or wearisome. Even a small aging congregation can celebrate the liturgy in such a way that visitors will come away, saying to themselves, “Those folks were really worshiping God. They’re really putting their hearts into what they’re doing. They’ve got something there. I’m going back next Sunday.”
As we saw in the first article in this series, revitalizing the liturgy must begin with the participants’ relationship with God and their prayer life. It is a key ingredient. In the next article we will take a look at what other ingredients are needed to give new vitality to our liturgical celebrations.
Posted by Robin G. Jordan at 10:30 AM