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Eschew liturgical idiosyncrasy

As a diocesan bishop, I’m in a different church every Sunday. And only on rare isolated occasions do I have anything to do with planning the details of the liturgy. Yes, the clergy are asked to send me an electronic copy of the service bulletin in advance, but any suggestions I make in reply are technical, not substantive. Within certain fairly broad parameters, I try to adapt to local practice and support the pastoral agenda of the priest in charge.

Truth be told, the range of liturgical practice in the Diocese of Springfield is pretty narrow in comparison to the Episcopal Church at large, and narrower still in the context of worldwide Anglicanism. Still, we do have a range: One parish doesn’t own any chasubles, but doesn’t mind if I bring and wear my own. Another appends the Last Gospel and the Angelus to the conclusion of the liturgy. Two are exclusively Rite One, and a couple of others switch back and forth by season. One has had a practice of importing, but with amendment, the Fraction Anthem from the Roman Rite: “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world: blessed are those who are called to his supper.” Most have the announcements between the Peace and the Offertory, but some put them at the beginning or the end. Two have altars that do not permit a versus populum celebration, but another one has a freestanding altar that the rector has recently elected to use as if it were against the wall. And in one place — either endearingly or annoyingly, depending on one’s mood — while the congregation is exchanging the Peace, the organist breaks out into the tune “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

During my sabbatical, I’ve been attending Sunday Mass at local Roman Catholic parishes. There is a discernible range of practice, but certainly less than that among Anglicans. I’ve considered possibly looking in on one of the ELCA churches nearby, but, from what the local bishop tells me, I stand a good chance of being shocked and dismayed by what I find.

These differing liturgical experiences have got me thinking about the tension between the competing desiderata of liturgical unity as a sign of ecclesial unity and local diversity as a sign of proper liturgical enculturation. Or, to put a finer point on the question: When does a desire for liturgical diversity become merely an excuse for anarchy and personal preference?

My own experience suggests that, in each place, whatever is done there is perceived as normative. I suspect that if the parishioners in one of the churches I referenced above were to find themselves in a setting where they did not hear “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” while everyone hugged everyone else in the room, they would find that disconcertingly odd. Surely some of them feel that the way they do it ideally ought to be done everywhere.

I don’t know how the practice got started there. Perhaps an organist just did it spontaneously one Sunday, and lots of people liked it. Or, a former rector may have introduced it, accompanied by teaching about why it should be seen as ideal or normative. (This is a minor sin of some priests: introducing idiosyncrasies and coating them with a veneer of normativity.) Over time, the practice forms the people, who come to believe that this is simply the way it’s supposed to be everywhere and others are just “wrong” in what they include or omit.

Now, might I suggest that liturgical idiosyncrasies are most common among Anglicans on the Catholic end of the spectrum?

There are Ritual Notes/Fortescue Anglo-Catholics, and Dearmerite/Sarum Anglo-Catholics, and old-style “Prayer Book Catholics,” and Vatican II/Novus Ordo Anglo-Catholics, and probably several other shades I am neglecting to mention. Most of these groups maintain fraternal relations outwardly but virtually anathematize one another privately. Each group conceives of its own brand of executing the liturgy of the Eucharist as the aspirational summit for all of Christendom, yet each parish that adheres to one of these schools is but a tiny island in a sea of what is (in their view) substandard practice. And even between two parishes of the same stripe, there are subtle differences in detail. They all profess allegiance to a set of practices that they believe represent a golden age to which it is their vocation to call the larger Church to return, but which is effectively only a sort of Platonic ideal that has never actually been realized.

So, how might we, in the vocabulary of contemporary popular culture, “keep it real”? One marker: we are all accountable to something larger than ourselves, larger than our aesthetic preferences and our personal historical judgments. This accountability is not an idealized abstraction, but something quite concrete.

I, along with most of the authors on this blog and probably most of the readers, am an Episcopalian. I have three times publicly professed conformity to the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” I am profoundly disturbed by a great deal of what the General Convention and the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church have done and said in recent years, and I have not promised to agree with or support those statements and actions. But I have promised, among other things, to conform to the texts and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.

I have been called a “rubrical fundamentalist” on multiple occasions, with the intent that it be a critical judgment, but I have instead accepted it as a compliment. (Rubrics are the portions of liturgical formularies that give particular directions about the texts and accompanying actions; they are sometimes printed red — hence, the name — but the 1979 BCP and some other sources render them in italics.) Both texts and rubrics are important because they incarnate a solemn covenant that ordained ministers make with one another, and with all Episcopalians, to color within certain lines, for the sake of unity in Christ.

This agreement has real implications. When I celebrate the Eucharist for a saint’s day, I find it enriching to populate the words of the liturgy with the name of that saint. Many of the forms of the Prayers of the People allow me to do that. Eucharistic Prayers B and D allow me to do that. The other Eucharistic Prayers do not. So, if I choose to use Prayer A, I refrain from inserting the name of the day’s saint where it might naturally go, not because doing so would be an offense against some ideal or principle, but because I would thereby be breaking a solemn covenant I have made.

I recently visited a parish in another diocese, which I would describe (fairly, I think) as evangelical, low-church, and theologically conservative. Here’s what I encountered:

  • The entire congregation was directed to recite the Collect for Purity together. Is this a mortal sin? Certainly not. In the Church of England’s Common Worship Order One, it is the rubrical norm. But it is contrary to the rubrics of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and is therefore an offense against church unity.
  • The General Confession began in a familiar way, but veered off in a direction that, while not theologically questionable, departed significantly from the words of the prayer book.
  • The source of the Eucharistic Prayer was not identified in the program, but it was not any form authorized for use in the Episcopal Church. Most disturbingly, it completely lacked an epiclesis (invocation of the Holy Spirit), which is a key component of a theologically adequate Eucharistic Prayer.
  • The Fraction Anthem, while completely scriptural, was not an authorized form. Ditto for the Post-Communion prayer.
  • The program appended the Paschaltide alleluias to the Dismissal, out of season (not an uncommon practice, I realize, but nonetheless a rubrical violation).

Those who plan and lead liturgy are all in some network of accountability. If that network happens to be the Episcopal Church, then the texts and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer are not just a good idea; they’re the law. Take them literally, not just seriously. Otherwise, you are breaking faith with your brothers and sisters with whom you are in covenant.

There’s also a deeper and less concrete context in which we all operate liturgically. I’ll illustrate it with a bit of personal history. In the late 1970s I was actively involved in the liturgical and musical life of the parish of which I was a lay member. The new rector was trying to introduce the rites of the Paschal Triduum as the then “new prayer book” laid them out. In planning the Good Friday liturgy, I advocated — and my view prevailed — that the altar party and choir be attired simply in black cassocks, with the priest donning a red stole at the time of the administration of Holy Communion from the reserved sacrament. It just “felt right.”

And the effect was awesome. It certainly distinguished Good Friday from its surroundings. So when I went to seminary a few years later, and found the altar party in full red Eucharistic vestments for Good Friday, it was quite disturbing. I eventually had to wrap my heart and mind around the fact that there is an infra-tradition — not specified in the prayer book rubrics but nonetheless a real, if a bit looser, network of accountability.

As much as black cassocks might “feel right” to me, the practice I advocated was idiosyncratic, and it was entirely appropriate for me to conform to what, at first blush, I found disturbing. For Episcopalians, the prayer book conveys the tradition. (For others, something else is that vehicle.) But someone who is a steward of the liturgical life of a community has an obligation to dive deeper, to become familiar with this infra-tradition, and let that knowledge inform the way that he or she engages the official texts and rubrics.

I realize that my counsel regarding an infra-tradition skates right up to the thin ice of the sort of rarified Anglo-Catholicism that I critiqued above. Advocates of all the schools I enumerated there believe they are adhering to an infra-tradition of sorts. It’s difficult.

In my 27 years of ordained ministry, I know that I am guilty, knowingly and unknowingly, of the very sort of idiosyncratic liturgical leadership that I am criticizing here. My plea, perhaps, is for more awareness, less parochial insularity, greater intentional accountability, and deeper humility on the part of liturgy planners and leaders. We do not serve our people well when we habituate them to a liturgical ethos that is so finely-wrought that it bears little resemblance to anything they are likely to find anywhere else. Liturgy is one area where being unique or standing out is not necessarily desirable.

“I Gotta Be Me” is not in the hymnal.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the 11th Bishop of Springfield. He acknowledges being a rubrical fundamentalist but denies the charge of grammar pedantry. His other posts are here


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