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Barbarians at the gate, part II

July 5, 2008

This essay is taken from an email exchange with Dr. Perm, July 5, 2008.

I shouldn’t have given [the quotation] to you out of context, and you’re absolutely right about unity with God in Christ being the prize. Absolutely right. My Eucharistic theology is weaker than yours, but of course I agree. I like the phrase “home identity,” and you’re right about it. WE are the Church. It’s in our nature as Protestants, and it’s why I was so bothered by the scent of some RC-esque piety (they are mindless drones, the Romans).

I’m a little bothered that I’ve been giving the impression that I think that the Church should be a Sunday morning-only activity, so please permit me to amend and clarify my earlier remarks.

I was in church the Sunday after the Choir School graduation, and after Communion, they had the graduates go up to the altar rail, they prayed over them, gave them all crucifixes, the choir sang “Ubi Caritas,” and then we all sang Ora Labora on the way out. It was completely moving, and not only because the choir is good and the building is beautiful. It was the vision of a Church to which I subscribe: one that holds Christianity as a total journey, from baptism to the grave, and with the Church as our gathering place all along the way. It’s where we’re fed. We were well to acknowledge those boys’ rite of passage, to honor and bless them, to put the whole thing within the context of our Christian journey. It’s the Episcopalian version of saying a prayer after winning a football game, and no less (or more) valid. I was inspired leaving the building that morning, and Come, labor on was the right thing to sing. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain? Like Bill Tully says at St Bartholomew’s: the worship is over, the service begins. I agree.

I do, however, think that the Church should in some ways resemble a club. Clubs have barriers to entry, and HEY so does Christianity! Baptism, and repentance. These days, the Church gives out the former freely without demanding the latter. Unlike my Eucharistic theology, my atonement theology is very strong, and I thus belong to a rapidly dwindling minority who believes that we ask forgiveness for our manifold sins and wickedness as a necessary component of our worshipping life. Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, RSV). And let’s not forget Simon and Andrew, but not where Jesus said “Come, follow me.” Look to the next verse (Matthew 4:20): “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They left their nets, their livelihood, their whole world. Everyone forgets this, and the Church doesn’t preach on it often, on the self-denial, on Jesus’ demand for it. It’s not just a radical welcome; it’s radical transformation (salvation) that we seek, and, yes, it’s hard, which is what makes it worthwhile. And so I think it is right of the Church to expect its members to strive after a godly, righteous, and sober life, and to hold to account those who do not. And by the way, this striving is the work of the rest of the week.

Also, I agree with you COMPLETELY about authentic performance practice. It’s not 1789, and nobody wins with a period Communion service (or, God forbid, Morning Prayer). But the question is really over what “authentic” is. Is it whatever comes easiest to the people concerned? If that’s the case, then what is the value of Scriptural or homeletical instruction? Why even have a priest then?

Let me put it this way: isn’t bad singing authentic?

Put another way: are we concerned with authentic content, or with authentic presentation? I argue that the latter is everything. Especially when we’re talking about a religion that must be more than “Sheilaism” (see here), and where most of the content is received, we must find a way to present it to the People such that they can absorb it and make it their own. And so the question is really, as always, about what one thinks of people. Can they get the good stuff?

The guy who followed me [as organist] after I got fired had the VERY SAME choir that I had singing Tallis, Vulpius, and HOWELLS with credibility, he had them singing unison sing-song crap. Because he was a bad teacher. He couldn’t sell them on the good stuff, and he didn’t try, because he took one look at them and decided that they were crap. How insulting, and indicative of the worst kind of snobbery, which I can’t stand.

There was an article in the Episcopal New Yorker last year where the writer compared Rite I with Rite II. All his language about Rite I spoke of it as beautiful and ethereal and peerless but old-fangled. He wrote of Rite II as accessible to the People. The unintentional comparison here was plain: that what is accessible to the People is neither beautiful nor peerless, but therefore common and routine. When put this way, the argument raises eyebrows, but it’s of course what everybody thinks.

Well I don’t. I believe that people, even the People, can understand beauty and power and live with it as a regular part of their lives. I believe that it enriches lives, and that placing our daily routine within a Christian narrative of grace and power is ennobling. It’s why James B. Duke wrote of religion, with education, as being the greatest civilizing influence. I don’t believe in dumbing down, or making more ordinary. And you know why? Because education works. When I first read Emerson in eleventh grade, I thought it was crap. Well it turns out that Emerson was legit; I was crap, and as I’ve matured and grown in understanding, I’ve begun to appreciate not only Emerson as literature, but also the deep strain of the American psyche to which he and Thoreau gave some exposition.

Saying “the remembrance of them is grevious unto us” is different from saying “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent”. And even though it’s a little more difficult in the mouth, I believe it to be ultimately more edifying to the mind and soul, when repeated over a lifetime. I’ve never looked on the old Prayer Book as a relic, because it speaks to me in 2008. Why do we think that “regular folk” (folk being an enormously condescending word (can you imagine government “By the folk, of the folk, and for the folk”?)) can’t digest great things? And why do we think the Prayer Book is unintelligible when hundreds of thousands of English-speaking people willingly go to see Shakespeare every year? Maybe we deserve a tin-can prayer book for our tin-can culture, but I do not feel this way.

Anyway, the Redeemer is an historically Low Church parish, and now they’re going to ruin that beautiful building with the central altar and turn it into another Evangelical-incense waving cyborg, and that bothers me, since these people are the WORST. Vomit.

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