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The age of the Episcopal group session

May 2, 2008

worship_in_the_roundSeveral Sundays ago (April 6th), I visited St. Peter’s Church in Morristown, New Jersey (not pictured), for its main service at 11:15.

St. Peter’s is a parish of some history. Anglicans were extant in Morristown prior to the Revolution, and the congregation was first organized in 1791 and incorporated in 1827. The present church was designed by McKim, Mead, and White and built from 1887-1911. It is one of the firm’s few works in the Gothic idiom, and it is very successful: the nave is broad and the ceiling high and flat, leaving the upward expression chiefly to the walls and windows, and accordingly the overall feeling is of size, spaciousness, and light. The furnishings are of the highest order and are all immaculately kept.

The parish complex includes the church proper, the rectory, and an enormous and solidly-build parish house by Bertram Goodhue. The entire physical plant has been well-maintained over the years, and the parish boasts a large and well-established music program: a very old choir of men and boys, a similar organization of men and girls, one finally of men and woman, and a regular concert series. The tower houses a carillon of 47 bells, and the organ was designed and built by E.M. Skinner and installed in 1930. It is one of the finest organs of its type – or indeed any type – in the country.

On the Sunday at issue, the choir of men and boys was to sing, and thus I went to Morristown.

The experience was enormously discouraging, although it began well enough.

Our usher was a gentleman in late middle age, in blazer and tie, who welcomed us and handed us our bulletins. He was friendly and mannerly, warm without being saccharine or overly inquisitive. In short, he was an Episcopalian.

The first impression of something being quite wrong came when one noticed the printing in the bulletin of “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” in the place of the usual, “The Word of the Lord.” I should not have to explain here the power of language and the ways in which, as Susan Jacoby writes in The Age of American Unreason, “debased speech… functions as a kind of low-level toxin.” (p.7) “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” is, without a doubt, debased speech. “The Word of the Lord” is clear, concise, and strongly-worded, characterized by the values that we all learned throughout secondary-school and college English. The increasingly popular substitute, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people,” is much softer (Spirit instead of Lord), less declaratory, and strives to let everyone know that he is included, that God has not left him out. It is, strictly speaking, in the imperative mood: it is a command. But in its wording, it is much closer to being in the jussive mood, which does not properly exist in English, but which “expresses plea, insistence, imploring, self-encouragement, wish, desire, intent, command, purpose or consequence.” (Wikipedia) It is the pleading character of “Hear what the Spirit is saying…” that makes it more than a command, and less, and this is intentional. One doesn’t want to sound too harsh with people, says the conventional wisdom. We want to be welcoming, friendly, disarming! It should really say, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people, if you feel that you are or would like to be God’s people, and it’s not too much of a bother for you.”

In short, it speaks to adults like many adults speak to children, and in so doing is vastly condescending. Furthermore, it trips over itself and raises issues that were theretofore absent, because calling attention to God’s people raises questions of who God’s people are. To many a newcomer, this is exclusionary, both of the timid seeker and the non-seeking visitor: Am I God’s people? he might wonder. Or, I’m not God’s people, I’m just here for the music. We want the listener to develop a commitment to the story, but we try to backdoor that commitment, to suggest that he already has it. “Hear what the spirit is Saying to God’s people” demonstrates a bad faith in the central text of our own religion. Can the Word of the Lord not stand upon its own merits? Can it not speak for itself? We try to insinuate it, rather than to just offer it: “The Word of the Lord. No qualification. Take it or leave it.”

Other highlights of the service included an initial “Good morning” session after the opening hymn, where the congregation was encouraged to try again because our “Good morning” had not been enthusiastic enough, and a commissioning of the search committee for a new rector, where we were all invited to hold up our hands to join in the blessing. I particularly enjoyed watching the old ladies who hadn’t had their hands higher than their shoulders in 30 years attempt this. But the revulsion that has stuck with me all these weeks later stems from the manner of the invitation to take our seats. Not done was it with a simply stated “Please be seated,” or a hand lowered gently, but with a spurious, beatific smile on the face of the priest and an overly elaborate gesture that looked as if he were unrolling his arms from his body. An affectation, and, all in all, quite vulgar.

If I posessed all of my background except my Episcopal breeding, I would not walk into St. Peter’s in Morristown ever again. Not because of the church building, not because of the music, but because the people leading the service were corny, a characterization made manifest by their belief in and enjoyment of the dubious accretions to the service mentioned above. I – and others like me – don’t willingly become involved with corny people. Why would anyone get up early on Sunday morning for that?

I had had high hopes for St. Peter’s, based on the reputation of the parish, its location in Morristown, and the fantastic quality and careful maintenance of the buildings. Such hopes broke immediately upon the rocks of the clergy leadership, who composed a service that clashed so horribly with the glories of the building as to be irredeemably off-putting. This happens too frequently in the Church.

The Episcopal Church’s greatest asset, next to the Book of Common Prayer, is its built heritage of the most strikingly beautiful churches in the United States. These sacred buildings are frequently what draw seekers, and so to profane them with affectations and the condescension of pandering is shameful. It is jarring to newcomers, who pass through the gates expecting a human experience equal to the promise of the bricks and mortar. Moreover, it is unjust to our forebears who bequeathed to us these places, purpose-built for worship, and demonstrates a manifest lack of belief in our heirs, to whom we should strive to leave a Church worthy of both stewardship and pride.

The promulgation of well-meaning but inconsistent worship services is indicative of an ecclesiological cheapness, and it is all beneath the dignity of the Church. Again, it bears mentioning that such services are condescending to visitors, in whose supposed interest they are always carried out. In the name of “welcome,” the leadership presupposes that the next person through the door is interested only in fluffy feel-goodism, and is uninterested in and incapable of embracing a thoroughgoing quality. If the answer to the question “Would you order your regular Sunday service differently if you knew that only committed cradle Episcopalians were to be in the pews?” is YES, then this should give one pause.

The Episcopal Church, or rather the clergy of the Episcopal Church, need some therapy, because someone came along and said that growth means pandering, means throwing out the Book of Common Prayer, means suppressing identity in favor of dollar signs in the form of pledges. My argument here would hold no water were this well-meaning but deeply flawed trajectory not an obvious failure. The Episcopal Church, on the whole, is NOT growing. The people who are attracted, nay, comforted by “Hear what the spirit is saying to God’s people,” are not the big pledgers that keep a parish in business, and so the whole effort is a decaying, accelerating cycle of alienating Episcopalians to reach out to whomever. But “whoever” don’t have a buy-in unless their whims are accommodated, and so one must be continually on the move to keep the operation going. The Church thus becomes focused not on the higher needs of the people, but on their petty wants and grievances. One feels for the parish priest trying to preach and teach about unselfish devotion and taking up one’s cross. The clergy should take a look at how miserable the so-called “Me Generation” is, and then think long and hard about the wisdom of making the Church the final convert to the cult of self-esteem.

The Church would do well to take a long, hard look into the mirror and understand a few things. Let us put the Church on the couch.

1. It is not your fault. The Episcopal Church suffers from ailments that are common to all mainline churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic. The sort of people who populated these bodies simply are not going to church in the same numbers as in the past. The educated middle and upper-middle classes have simply found that they do not need religion, and, absent the social custom of going to church on Sunday morning, who wouldn’t rather sleep in?

2. The decline is not due to liturgy, not due to where the altar is, not due to vestments, and NOT due to music. Again, forces outside of the control of the Church have impacted the social fabric and have altered the habits of most Americans. Fewer Americans are going to mainstream churches, but most of those who once did are not going to the mega-churches: they are not going to church at all, so nothing in the foregoing list is a primary contributing factor to the reduced attendance.

3. What sort of Church do you want to be? The answer to this question should not be in terms of large or small, or welcoming or unwelcoming, or traditional or progressive. Rather the question concerns the integrity of the church, the unity of message, operations, and worship, and so the answer should be framed in these terms. Once its leaders understand that the social forces affecting the Church are beyond its control, that it is not the Church’s fault, then the Church can have freedom from the self-recrimination that now so plagues its every move.

Every year, St. Thomas Church in New York holds a conference called Music for the Church, a three day gathering for choirmasters, which consists of master classes, workshops, and an opportunity to watch an organist of some renown work with the Boys of the Choir. Organists come from far and wide to participate, to soak up the expertise of great practitioners and learn something that they might use in their own churches. Giving these organists a standard to which to aspire is a fine thing indeed.

I can’t help thinking of how demoralizing it must be to many organists, or to those who don’t have their head utterly in the clouds, because a great many organists and priests are working at cross purposes. The organist returns home to find his rector believing that the butterfly song is musically “accessible,” able to reach out and of sufficient power both to evangelize and to inspire committed Christianity out of the casual visitor. Bunkum. Of course most churches do not have the resources of St. Thomas: no Fifth Avenue address, no access to big donors, no Choir School. But these are not the chief differences that most organists face when returning to their home parishes. What distinguishes St. Thomas from most churches, indeed from many other large city parishes, is the central focus it places on worship of quality. The services are not conducted at the highest level because of pride or vanity, but because worship is the business of the Church, and it is right that we should aim to conduct our services at the highest possible level. The parish’s wealth should not confuse the issue: sound worship is not dependent upon the depth of one’s purse.

There is some disagreement about how proper worship should be ordered. It is natural that this should be so, when the Church harbors Anglo-Catholics, many Broad Churchmen, and a handful of Low Church holdouts. However, there should be general agreement that whatever manner in which one worships, the final production should be marked by integrity and seamlessness, that the hearts and minds of the people in the pews should be drawn out of their daily tasks and baser concerns to finally find their focus upon higher things. Too often, parish priests want – or want their congregation to be able – to have their cake and eat it too. The process of making everybody happy results in worship that is a hodgepodge. It is time to face the music, so to speak: “The Church’s One Foundation” and the butterfly song cannot peaceably co-exist. C.S. Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms that we Anglicans are perhaps overly concerned with taste. Maybe this is so, even 50 years after Lewis’ writing But this is not a failing. Taste, properly understood, is about interest, knowledge, and judgment (discernment!) in equal measure, but with judgment always being the final piece. One sees so much poor judgment in worship, so much callous disregard for obvious and grating discord, so must oversight of the fact that one small change can reduce a service of power and dignity to the mundane, the daily. No one needs to come to church to experience the mundane.

Such small changes are most unsettling because they actually require extra effort. Even in its 1979 incarnation, the Book of Common Prayer is thoroughly composed. It contains everything that one needs for total ministry, from baptism to the grave, and all the Sundays in between. It may seem like one small change is insignificant, but one small change can upset the whole rhythm of a service. We forget that one small change is everything: it’s a golf shot, it’s the difference between nuclear war and no nuclear war.

St. Thomas should hold a similar conference for clergy: Worship for the Church. It is of course unrealistic to expect modest parish churches to maintain the scale that is the daily stuff of St. Thomas. But what should be taught by master priests in that place is that standards transcend scale: power in worship consists not in size but in careful construction, careful attention to detail, and seamless organization. A church service simply cannot be all things to all people, and so it must be one thing to many people, and not nothing to most people. It should be startling in power, and subtle in its methods. Furthermore, when one understands worship to be the primary purpose of the Church, as is understood by the full staff on Fifth Avenue, then one cannot help but view with incredulity how little time is spent organizing and training the many who assist in the services of most parishes. Worship for the Church should and must be a carefully shaped offering, one created not to uplift in the mawkish, Oprah Winfrey sense, but rather to edify by maintaining dignity and regularity and, in so doing, telling the story.

The week after visiting Morristown, I was in Newport, Rhode Island. I woke up early on Sunday to go to the early service at St. John the Evangelist. It is a 1928 BCP parish and sadly one that has recently gone off with the overly-uptight Anglican Communion Network people. It is most unfortunate that, in this day, liturgical integrity should be so often bound to reactionary politics. Not because of female priests and gay bishops is the average Sunday morning Episcopal service an unrecognizable pastiche.

Politics aside, the 8am Communion service at St. John’s was simple and dignified. The mass was east-facing, and although spoken, the priest didn’t merely say the words: he intoned them. Being born and raised entirely after 1979, I lack the proper vocabulary, the proper sensibility to describe the ways in which the service was utterly other-worldly. No peace was exchanged, no morning greetings offered, and the focus, the entire focus was not even upon the worship itself, but on the divine: the Almighty himself and the mystical offering of the Mass. It was almost enough to make one an Anglo-Catholic, and if briefly, I glimpsed what church must have been like in the old days.

Of course, it is not the old days any longer, and such beautiful anachronism is unsuitable to most people in the present. But its sensibility and its power are not antiquated, or should not be.

There was a time not very long ago when the Episcopal Church was populated and run by educated and experienced people. This may be the case today, but one has the sense that these people have lost their faith in the value of education and experience, instead placing all trust in the gut instinct of the ignorant. This must be stopped.

And so we return to question 3 above, put to the Church. What sort of Church do you want to be? In its terror of shrinking pledge rolls and a declining membership, the Episcopal Church forgets its roots: the early Church was but a very few Jews and a very few Gentiles, gathered in secret in humble houses, praying together and sharing a humble meal. Size is not all that matters in the dissemination of the Gospel. Evangelism is measured not by how many people one reaches, but by how well. So we must be willing, in our surplices, to be fewer, if we believe that our message is worthy, remembering always that the true welcome is characterized by neither pandering nor dumbing down, but rather by a willingness to include and educate whomever should cross the threshold, for evangelism and education are one in the same. Such a path requires courage, courage which is not in evidence at the present. Of course no one wishes parishes to be consolidated or to close, but the Church’s discarding of the baby with the bath water has not reversed the trend toward a smaller membership. If we are to die, I would that we die upon our feet.

It is my growing suspicion that maintaining our dignity and not bowing our heads to those who tell us that Episcopalians are stuffy, that worship is about holding hands, that we all need to look to the mega-churches for a lesson in churchbuilding; such confident steadfastness contains the keys to our future, and to our salvation. Let us not forget that it was Christ who gave his back to the smiters. He did this in our stead, for us, so that we should not have to, because we could not have borne it. So who are we, as Episcopalians or as Christians, to cower before ignorance?

Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people?

The Word of the Lord?

Here endeth the Lesson.


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