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FYI, part II

January 24, 2009

Continued from In defense of High Church.

We hope to be able to articulate a vision for a modern High Church liturgy that is positive, one which doesn’t rely upon a reaction to Anglo-Catholic excesses for its rationale. It may be formal, and it will most certainly be Protestant, but in the end it will hopefully be expressive of a praxis of worship that is reflective of the godly, righteous, and sober life prescribed for us by the Book of Common Prayer.

Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Our Worship:

1. Why such strict ritual?

Keeping our ritual consistent allows us to move past paying attention to the mechanics of the church service and focus ourselves on the worship of the divine.

Consider this: when you come home, do you always put your house keys in the same place? If so, think about why. This consistency allows you the peace of mind – that is, freedom – to think about the other things in your life. Instead of having to expend energy, every day, trying to find your keys, you can focus on preparing for your day, secure in the knowledge that your keys will be where they belong. The same is true in our worship. Once we know when to sit, or stand, or kneel and the order in which the service flows, we are free to focus on the parts of the service that do change: the lessons from Scripture, the content of the sermon, the meaning of the Psalms, the words of the hymns we sing.

This is formal, but we don’t think that formality is cold, unfriendly, or a bad thing. Properly understood, formality is how we show respect for those whom we don’t know well, and how we make most people welcome most of the time. We are informal with our closest friends and family, taking our shoes off, putting our feet up. Those places where we observe formality tend to be those places where the highest dignity and respect are appropriate: the houses of our elders, benefit dinners, church services, the White House. Some of our mothers used to ask us, “Would you eat that way at the White House?” No, because at the White House we are called to honor ourselves, our state, and the President of the United States who is our host.

The same goes for church: our formal and consistent liturgy is how we show respect for ourselves, our parishioners, and our visitors, even as we show respect to God.

2. Why do you pray out of a book?

We pray out of a book because, as humans, we are not always clear-headed, and the words of the moment are not always illustrative of the breadth of our understanding. This is why sermons and other important speeches are prepared in advance: due consideration is required when we speak publicly about issues of significance, and we believe religion and faith to be most highly significant.

Christians have written down their prayers since the very earliest days, following Jewish precedent in ordering their worship. Indeed, priests and laymen of religions in all times and in all places have codified their beliefs and their prayers in order that they might be repeated, studied, and transmitted to the future. We understand this written heritage – from the Bible itself through texts of the modern day – to be inspired, written and honed at particular moments of clarity of expression. Indeed this is why one writes anything down: to capture the inspiration of the moment and preserve it as a basis for our understanding.

3. Why do you use such old-fashioned language?

Our Episcopal worship is rooted in the Book of Common Prayer, which has been, since 1549, a landmark of formal English prose. With the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, it is the most influential book ever written in our language, and it is a composition of peerless power and dignity.

In a culture as rich as our own, it is not uncommon for particular communities to have evolved peculiar forms of expression: the military has developed over many centuries a linguistic use all its own, as have the courts and legal profession. We have all observed how teenage jargon is, to many adults, incomprehensible, while to the teenagers themselves it allows for an expression of their experience that is in many ways richer that what they could conjure in standard English, with their eighth-grade vocabularies. Indeed, the most historic of our fellow churches observe similar patterns in their liturgical use, from the Latin used in the Roman Rite to the Church Slavonic of Russian Orthodoxy.

The language of our worship, based largely in Tudor English, is by no means unintelligible to modern English speakers. While its cadence is different from the vernacular that most of us hear in our everyday lives, we keep its use out of more than habit. These prayers are English translations of Latin texts dating from the very earliest days of Christianity, and they have been composed with an uncommon felicity of language. With very simple and very elegant turns of phrase, they can illuminate complex theology and put us in mind of the divine, and they possess a power that in itself justifies their continued use: indeed that power demands it.

Consider this: in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Horatio’s utterance at the death of Hamlet has become one of the most famous lines in all of English literature.

Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”1

No one speaks like that today, and very few argue that we should. But is the power of those words in question? Can anyone doubt their ability to transmit Horatio’s sentiment, or quarrel with the clarity with which we understand his meaning? Could any of us say it better?

It has been our experience that confrontation with the unfamiliar is an opportunity for learning and the expansion of our understanding. We believe this not only to be true in our worship, but essential to it: praying in a language outside of our daily speech is cause for us to consider that much more strongly the content of what we say. As part of our church’s mission to be a holy place – a place set apart – it it fitting that we should reserve to worship a language equal to the dignity of our high purpose.

4. Why all the robes?

Our vestments have, over thousands of years, evolved from the everyday dress of the early Church, when the toga was the default garment of the Roman citizenry. While it may seem ludicrous to continue to dress like ancient Romans or Medieval monks or Victorian parsons, one might consider whether what ails the human heart and soul – pain, fear, hatred, doubt, vice – has changed much in 2000 years.

More practically, the distinctive garments of the clergy and the laity in worship set them apart according to their roles in the service. Instead of seeing Mr. Smith and Miss Jones, who swear and drive too fast and drink and smoke, we see priests of the Church. While of course they are still themselves, with all of their faults and foibles, dressing them in the robes of their office allows us to see them through that lens: as servants of Christ trained to preach the word, administer the sacraments, and focus their congregation in service and in prayer.

It is this quality of being set apart that is the defining attribute of all of our ministries, and of our worship especially. When we gather in church, it is for a solemn purpose: to offer our praise to God in the best way we know how. It befits this purpose to clothe ourselves suitably.

5. Why is Morning Prayer usually the main Sunday service?

A great deal of the genesis of the Reformation that swept English Christianity in the 1540s was concerned with streamlining the elephantine, inconsistent liturgies throughout England. Particularly, the effect of this distillation was the winnowing and conflation of the eight daily offices into two services – Morning and Evening Prayer – which, together with Holy Communion, became the regular forms appointed for public worship in the Church.

Morning Prayer, with its pre-Christian roots and monastic provenance, lends itself well to repetition, week in and week out. Indeed the prayers of the service are designed, when repeated over a lifetime, to ground us not only in the rhythms of worship, but also – and more importantly – in an understanding of God and of our relationship to him. Consider the words of the second collect:

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.

In one phrase, the whole shape of our faith is laid before us: God is at the root of all peace, and only through knowledge of and service to him do we find exultation. We are reminded of this throughout the service. It is sung of in the collects and prayers, in the Te Deum, a paean to the Trinity, and the Benedictus, which reminds us of our inheritance of salvation. The combination of these component parts balances penitence with jubilation, reflection with celebration, and humility with the boldness that we acquire solely through Christ’s vindication at Easter.

There is much talk these days of “transformational worship,” and indeed this term has become something of a buzzword. The Church hopes that people of all backgrounds and experience will come to it one thing and leave transformed. But too often we expect transformation to strike instantly, and at the first helping, so we try to jam the whole edifice of faith into the single offering of the Communion service, in hope that the total package will hit the uninitiated like a lightning bolt. In doing so, we forget that, most of the time, change happens in minute increments for those willing to work for it, and that it happens over a lifetime. Even for St. Paul, conversion on the Damascus road was not the culmination of his journey, but the start of it, a lifelong questing after righteousness.

So it is with us, and we organize our worshiping life accordingly, using Morning Prayer as it was intended: the regular service for most of the Church, most of the time, designed not for us to take something, to get the handout, but to remind us of where we stand with God and to practice the discipline required of the faith.

We have found also that Morning Prayer is a paricularly strong form of evangelism to the seeker, to the unchurched seeker especially. Other than saying “Amen” and standing, sitting, and kneeling at the appointed times, there is little in the way of complicated logistics. We in the Church forget easily how strange a ritual Communion can be to those from other traditions or no tradition. There is no “altar call” on most Sundays here. Morning Prayer offers what has been termed “gentle evangelism”. Rather than worrying about unfamiliar stage directions, the visitor is given the space to focus his mind upon the readings, the music, the prayers, and hopefully the holy God to whom we offer praise.

Holy Communion remains, as always, our principal service, and it is celebrated on all the major feasts of the Church (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) as well as on certain Sundays each month. But to use it exclusively is to ignore the richness of our liturgy and the suitability of other forms – Morning Prayer – to the weekly work of Sunday mornings.

6. Why does only the choir sing parts of the service that the entire congregation sings in many other Episcopal parishes?

We are fortunate to have the resources to maintain a professional choir and to have it offer continually music of the highest caliber. Given our understanding that we are called to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, using the best of our gifts to the best of our ability in his service, it is right that we should offer worship interwoven with music that represents man’s best output.

Moreover, it is part of the mission of churches such as ours to set high standards of worship and sacred music, and in so doing we honor not only God, but also the aspirations of churches of relatively meager means who strive for quality despite modesty.

There has been a long debate since the beginning of Christianity about the role of music in worship. Even St. Augustine, who famously said that “He who sings, prays twice,” was concerned with the power of music’s beauty to distract the listener from the worship of God.

Part of the argument above – that repetition allows us to internalize the prayers and thus move to a deeper understanding – applies to the place of music in the liturgy: only a small quantity of music consists of extra-liturgical anthems. Mostly, the choir sings settings to music of the regular prayers and canticles, and it chants the psalms. In this way, the undoubted power of the music becomes subservient to the words, for we all know them well. This is the reason why composers have written numerous settings of common texts. Music can highlight particular aspects of familiar words in ways that are unexpected and which draw the listener into a deeper appreciation of well-known phrases.

As for the idea that listening is necessarily passive, we believe that a full life requires something that may be called the “spirituality of attention”. Even the slightest reflection leads us to the idea that attention is the critical act of the thinking Christian at all times and in all places. Attention is active engagement and is opposed to unconsciousness – the condition of mindless action – which is at the root of all our inhumanity. Think of the things that have unconsciousness at their root: from basic rudeness to littering to heinous crimes of passion. So when the choir sings on our behalf, we are called to listen, to be attentive the words, and “our experience of listening will be one of participation, and our experience of participation will be one of prayer.”2

1. Haml. V.ii.370.
2. © Stephen Cherry, 1992

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