“This is unbearable.” It says more about me than I care to disclose that I mutter this unholy complaint so predictably every third Sunday when it is my turn to escort my wheelchair-bound, 90 year-old father to his home church, not incidentally the church of my upbringing as well. It says much more about me than it says about this mid-size (it would be by far the largest Episcopal church in our state) evangelical church that for me the non-liturgical worship commences with this instinctive litany. But I suspect readers of this blog could sympathize with the sentiment. All the usual coordinates are in place to evoke my self-righteous, smart-ass contempt for modes of worship so tacky and trite. I can’t be the only one to notice that these empty songs in which melodies and lyrics compete for blandness do not improve with the endless repetition. I can’t be alone in sensing that the whole “experience” is “without form and void,” a parachute drop into a vague orthopathos. Yet the Spirit (of whom one might expect better taste) broods also over these waters — maybe not also but especially. And the goodness of the Lord is evident at every turn for anyone willing to taste and see rather than study the menu for nutritional values.

Yes, I am an almost classic case of the evangelical on the Canterbury Trail, save, perhaps, for one thing: I am not yet persuaded that my preferred modes of worship actually carry the formative payload so frequently claimed on their behalf. I don’t say that they couldn’t. I just don’t see the evidence that the graceful aestheticism of liturgy “produces” gracious persons or that worshiping in the beauty of holiness makes holy persons. At least not with any causal predictability. I realize that I speak as a heretic in admitting this, not least in my setting, Nashotah House, a seminary community committed to just these practices as the foundation for a rich vision of formation. But, as a sage colleague once put it to me, “Nashotah House is the ideal place for the formation of well-formed persons.” I think that’s right. And I think it is no less true of our churches. There is a formation gap — of the intellect, will, and affections — that renders the profound banal and the holy common. Never mind our theories of “how it works,” more often than not the spark doesn’t jump the gap.

This is why I found Kirsten Guidero’s recent piece for Christianity Today (“We Need More than Liturgy”) spot on and worthy fodder for serious soul-searching as it concerns liturgy and formation. Kirsten (full disclosure: a friend of mine) takes to task what she regards as an eminently intelligent and theoretically compelling account of liturgy and formation.  With some real candor and insight Kirsten is asking the same sort of questions that have been nagging me for a while. I commend her piece especially to erstwhile evangelicals with jaundiced memories of their non-liturgical pasts. Similarly, if you haven’t read James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, I commend it wholeheartedly. I suspect, like me, you will not only find it stimulating and persuasive, you will wish that it were true.

Meanwhile, I am rebuked by the mercy of Christ every third Sunday in the encounter with this Spirit-graced community. It never fails to move me how many people who would never genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament take a knee before my dad’s wheelchair to venerate a lay presbyter — and to love a dear brother in Christ in the final days of his earthly sojourn. This community having once brought me up well now brings me up short. Thanks be to God.

The image is a photo of worship at Grace Evangelical Free Church of La Mirada on January 18, 2009 by Brian A. Petersen and is licensed under Creative Commons.

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10 Comments on "Brought up short"

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2 years 4 days ago
Woody: Great post! I love this line: “I can’t be alone in sensing that the whole “experience” is “without form and void,” a parachute drop into a vague orthopathos. Yet the Spirit (of whom one might expect better taste) broods also over these waters — maybe not also but especially. And the goodness of the Lord is evident at every turn for anyone willing to taste and see rather than study the menu for nutritional values.” I have the same experience whenever I visit churches I used to attend or am stuck going with family. Did you happen to read… Read more »
2 years 4 days ago
Very well stated. I’m reminded of George Steiner’s image (I forget the book, so it’s a tentative attribution) of Nazis listening to Mozart while pulling the gas switch at death camps. The old idea — popular for a time in post-Enlightenment Europe — that beauty makes people good is manifestly false. A less dramatic example is the fact that so many of the old Anglo-Catholic strongholds have gone the way of all flesh. Their sumptuously beautiful liturgies have not held back the tide of various moral and theological trends. (Of course, part of the problem here may be the nostalgic… Read more »
2 years 4 days ago
“More basic” was not very precise, I guess. What you say above is relevant, though: “many leiturgophiles are exceedingly well trained in the Christian inheritance… the people we shepherd do not come to the feast with the same utensils.” I think that’s a good statement of what I meant. Here there’s just a need for more introductory catechesis — my folks here are very smart and well educated in other ways, but they just haven’t had consistent clergy leadership or lay catechists to help them become conversant with the grammar, style, and themes of Bible and creed. And so trying… Read more »
2 years 4 days ago
I think Smith over-reacts to her article in some ways, but one of his quotes in rebuttal is quite key and, frankly, sounds almost like it’s taken directly from the page of the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century, both immediately before and after Vatican II: “Furthermore, I explicitly agree with her claim about how we ought to be engaged in worship: as I emphasize at the conclusion of I[magining] T[he] K[ingdom], “worship requires full, active, conscious participation even if it is also forming us in ways that elude our conscious awareness. If our immersion in the practices of Christian… Read more »

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