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Brought up short

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Brought up short

“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.

7 Responses to “Brought up short”

  1. Fr. Clint Wilson says:

    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 Jamie Smith’s response to Kirsten’s piece (found here: http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2014/08/we-need-more-than-liturgy-agreed.html)?

  2. Fr. Sam Keyes says:

    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 narrative implying that they were ever “strongholds” in this way. I do not know.)

    Perhaps Anglo-Catholics like myself can come across as implying that the liturgy is the sum total of Christian experience, formation, etc. That’s something to be careful about; I’m more wary of it than ever right now because I’m in a place where liturgy can’t do the work that I want it to do because for there are more basic kinds of formation that have to happen.

    At its best, I’d want to say that beautiful liturgy is just about God. It is “useful” to us, but only, maybe, when we’re focused not on its usefulness to us, but on God. Trying to make the liturgy as primarily about something other than God (like our spiritual or moral formation) is always going to present problems. If it does other things, it is only because it is doing a good job of being all about God.

  3. Garwood Anderson says:

    Clint, thanks for this. I look forward to reading Jamie Smith’s response. I’m a fan, by the way. What concerns me is an insufficiently self-critical appropriation of his keen insights born of the enthusiasm of a recent discovery. And I think it is also important to note that many leiturgophiles are exceedingly well trained in the Christian inheritance, but that the people we shepherd do not come to the feast with the same utensils.

  4. Garwood Anderson says:

    Sam, thanks for the gracious reply. Very well said. I’m completely with you, especially the final two paragraphs. I would be interested to know (here or offline) what you picture in terms of “more basic kinds of formation” (not, that is, so much with respect to your parish particularly but in general terms).

  5. Fr. Sam Keyes says:

    “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 to accomplish formation only goes so far. For those of us who grew up in evangelical traditions steeped in Bible and propositional theology, the liturgy provided a much needed center for embodied, integrated engagement with the tradition.

    I do think that one can encounter the “mysteries” in a shockingly direct way even when not prepared by other kinds of Christian teaching. But I think those occasions are exceptional, and, what’s more, they happen more frequently in the kind of “big” liturgical landscapes that are themselves grounded in deep institutions. One cannot reproduce, for example, my own dumbstruck awe at hearing an Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral for the first time as a curious Baptist, in an average parish church. And perhaps one of my most enduring faults is that I keep trying to do so, and failing, because what I need to be doing is just worshiping God where I am (Rowan Williams: “The hardest thing in the world is to be where we are”).

    And there’s probably more to say about the “big” aspects of liturgical life. I do think we need the Cathedral liturgies that blow everyone away — it’s the medieval equivalent of going to church camp — and the sad lack of such liturgical institutions (and their essential professional and artistic components) is one of the saddest things about the American Church (whether RC or TEC or ACNA, the cathedral liturgies tend to feel more like the circus). But those aren’t ever meant to form people in the way that parishes are, and so they’re never a “failure” in that sense. They fail if they do not inspire the small parish with an increased understanding of the dignity of its own worship. (Which does not mean that they are resource collectives telling smaller parishes what they ought to do and how, as if we all need to be exactly the same. Cathedrals and major institutions should be doing exactly what smaller churches could never do.) Sometimes you need to meet God elsewhere to know that he was really here all along.

  6. Garwood Anderson says:

    Clint, I did finally take a look at Jamie Smith’s reply/rebuttal to Kirsten. To be honest, I had read Kirsten to be saying more or less what I thought I was trying to say — maybe my reading of her article was too sympathetic? — which was to express concern for how the championing of the liturgical cause can get appropriated in a naive or overly facile way (to which I might add sometimes with strong dose of self-congratulation!). So I didn’t see it as a direct assault, but, no doubt, if I were him, it would have come off differently. In a sense I’m saying it would be a salutary exercise for liturgical/sacramental Christians to learn from the formational “over-performance” of evangelical Christians and to wonder a bit about the relative “under-performance” of our tradition. As I’ve suggested above, I think those of us who should be doing that characteristically engage the formative resources of our tradition with certain advantages that are probably more rare than we realize. Sam has said that very well above.

  7. Zachary Guiliano says:

    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 worship is always and only a matter of ‘going through the motions,’ then we are not really practitioners” (p. 187).”

    I’m hoping to pick up Smith’s work soon.

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