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Why Land Acknowledgments Make Bad Liturgy

As it seems to me, a brief and true definition of virtue is “rightly ordered love.”
Saint Augustine, City of God, 15.22

Land acknowledgments at meetings and gatherings have become widespread in certain circles of academia and the corporate world. Some churches now also use them in worship services. I have reservations about their use in general, but I have grave pastoral concerns about including such in the church’s liturgies.

I’m aware that General Convention 2022 (in its Resolutions C072 and D019) called for the implementation of “land acknowledgment liturgies and prayers to begin any public meetings or worship held in North America.” With deep regret, I have to say — particularly in regard to mandating them in worship — that I found this not only profoundly ill-considered, but also an extraordinarily bad idea. Nevertheless, the phenomenon seems to be taking off, and my sense at this point is that “Resistance is futile” — at least institutionally speaking. But, most certainly, I do resist: respectfully, in fact, lovingly; but also very clearly.

Here are a few qualifiers:

  1. I do not impugn the good intentions of those who have advocated such practices, nor do I wish to cast personal aspersions on those clergy who see things differently than I do.
  2. I believe it necessary to become aware of historic injustices, to ponder most seriously what actions we might undertake to rectify such injustices, and then to work collaboratively, by God’s grace, for “the repair of the world.” And I emphatically include among these what was done to communities from pre-European immigration to this continent by (and in the name of) those of European settlement.
  3. My objections are therefore specially focused on the use of land acknowledgments in regular parish worship, including both what is said in the services and also what is printed in bulletins.

I believe that clergy and churches are responsible, not only for what they think they intend to convey, but also how they may come across. “How will be we heard?” and “How will we be perceived and experienced?” are questions that come with the territory.

To be sure, there are elements, hard-wired into the very heart of our faith that may, at least for some, be difficult or even scandalous: such things as addressing God as Father, and calling Jesus Lord. It would be an essential self-contradiction for the church to eliminate these from our devotion out of fear of giving offense (although such eliminations are well underway, precisely for this reason). Those elements of our historic worship that are difficult for some to receive certainly call for appropriate instruction and pastoral response. But to create a difficulty, not warranted from Scripture or tradition, but from sociopolitical preference (no matter how good that preference might be) and then insist on the non-negotiability of that difficulty is not faithfulness, but corporate self-indulgence.

Here, then, are some of the specifics of my objections to any use of land acknowledgements in worship services:

One: I am acutely aware of the great number of people who have seemingly been told by life, in all sorts of ways, that “they don’t belong here,” and even more that it would be better if they weren’t here at all. Those coming from life stories more privileged, and more secure, often find it difficult to feel what a colossal burden this is, and how it can profoundly color the rest of life. Land Acknowledgments, especially in worship, can come across as shame-mongering counsels of despair. What are people supposed to do, just go away? Feel even worse about themselves than they already do?

Two: “Land Acknowledgments,” most of all in worship, can easily come across as pseudo-penitential acts of self-congratulation. Even if not intended, the impression given is virtue signaling. “We few, we happy few” are so very thankful that we are “not like other people” (Luke 18:11). How good it can feel to “repent,” so earnestly, of other people’s sins, especially when we ourselves are actually doing precious little (if anything) to address the grievances that are ostensibly being lamented. (And it is hard for me not to wonder, if Native Americans do not experience such acknowledgements with at the least very mixed feelings. How many organizations, including churches, making such statements have even the remotest intention of returning the property?)

Three: Land acknowledgments in worship inevitably function as boundary-markers.  Despite the good intentions of those who advocate for them, they are an example of coded language, which works as a very unsubtle sociopolitical dog-whistle communicating that this church, this worship space, this worship event belongs to one very particular portion of the sociopolitical spectrum. In pointed irony, they therefore function over against those not in that portion of the spectrum as a territory-marking claim that the institutional privilege is held by others. And as I see it, land acknowledgments in our worship are but one of a number of increasing practices among us that unwittingly — but very regrettably — establish and enforce a sociopolitical monoculture in our congregations. I see a pattern of less actual “diversity and inclusion” among us, despite our frequent espousals of these noble values. I believe this diminishes us, and most certainly does not serve the gospel.

This is by no means an excuse to avoid awareness of historic injustices in the Americas in the wake of European settlement, and the rectification of such, wherever and whenever possible, in the here and now. (Such injustices were profound indeed, and with serious consequences to this day.)

Dut at the heart of it, my objection to the use of land acknowledgements in Christian liturgy is that they import into our worship a distinctly secular modal of sociopolitical expression. They do not draw from the only authentic ultimate source for that worship: the Holy Scriptures.

Anglicans have never endorsed the “Regulative Principle” (the idea that the church’s worship may only contain what is explicitly described in the New Testament). Nevertheless, we historically have affirmed that the Scriptures are to be the source and standard — the divinely given fount and frame — of all our worship. It’s significant that our Book of Common Prayer has been called “the Bible set to prayer.”

Other modes of expression certainly have their places in human life. But they never will have the particular normative authority, for us, of the Scriptures. To be sure, the Holy Scriptures — humanly speaking — reflect particular times and places. Yet we have received them as the decisive Word of God that they are, addressing all human times, places, and circumstances. The Word of God, both Incarnate in Jesus Christ, and written in the Scriptures (which are his enduring prime witness), is the Particular that encompasses the universal. This is always true for us, but nowhere more so than in worship.

Of course, this is not at all to say that Christian liturgy never can specifically name acts — or patterns — of human injustice, including the call to repentance and rectification. Sometimes these are very necessary. But when doing so, the manner, tone, and wording must not communicate the usual ubiquitous sense in secular political discourse these days, of “us versus them” — the division of people into the distinct social categories of those we shame and those we congratulate. (The shamed wind up, predictably, being “the others,” and we, the congratulated.)

The Scriptures most certainly do give substantial warnings to the advantaged, the comfortable, and the powerful. But the Scriptures also — as we consider the whole sweep of their witness — address us, at the heart of the human condition, as beings in radical solidarity with one another:

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:22b-24)

It is a serious mistake simply to equate the church with the kingdom of God. But the church’s worship is — and is meant to be — an inbreaking, here and now, on earth, of that kingdom.

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Outside of Lent and Eastertide, this is what the Book of Common Prayer (1979) places at the beginning of every Eucharist — with good reason.

Certainly, when the church gathers, it is to do so with deep respect to time and place, and all those abiding in that time and place. But the use of secular land acknowledgements, with their immediately recognizable coded language, especially at the beginning of a service, will convey to many that it is not the church which has gathered, but a sociopolitical affiliation.

If the church really needed a land acknowledgement, how about one that our faith actually gives us?

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)

The Rev. Adam Linton is a retired Episcopal priest, canonically resident in the Diocese of Massachusetts, now living  in Montana. He served parishes in Illinois, Utah, and Massachusetts, and as Deputy to General Convention 2006.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I cannot agree with the thesis of this article. I can’t speak to the North American context but here in Australia there is little controversy about acknowledgments of country and they do not tend to include penitential language or shaming. I find the suggestion that these acknowledgments are somehow divisive to be rather tendentious, and certainly not representative of my local context.
    Acknowledgement of country is something that First Nations Christians here have asked us to do, and many churches therefore respectfully acquiesce.
    I agree, it ought not to be part of the liturgy proper. Most times that I have experienced an acknowledgement in church it comes before the Invocation, and thus outside of the formal liturgy proper.
    Church notices also have no part in our formal liturgy yet regularly appear in all sorts of positions within the liturgy. I suggest that an Acknowledgment of Country is a far more important gesture than notices, and very worthy of prefacing services and gatherings in our churches.
    This comment is written from the land which God gave to the Kaurna people (Deuteronomy 32:8).

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