Saturday, July 18, 2015

Please don't write communion liturgies all by yourself...

Not long ago a colleague in ministry posted a question about which Eucharistic liturgies other clergy used. That's a good question for a young clergy person to ask; after all, most progressive seminaries with a low church heritage neither teach liturgics nor show aspiring clergy the art and drama of celebrating the Eucharist. Small wonder so many of our feast days wind up being too wordy, totally boring and aesthetically flat and uninspired. It was a good question.

What surprised me were the responses from other colleagues across the nation: many said that they wrote their own Eucharistic liturgies. Here's my concern - and I confess that mine is an earthy, incarnational albeit high church take on this sacrament - so let me be clear: writing our own Eucharistic liturgies frightens me. 

+ First, I worry about the writer's theology of Eucharist. In many Reformed congregations, to say that we have a limited appreciation of the depth and breadth of the Christian community's historic understanding of the Lord's Supper would be a generous understatement. I am not urging that everyone study Aidan Kavanaugh's Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (a great resource) or spend time with Alexander Schmemann's Russian Orthodox grasp of the ebb and flow of this feast in his The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (another winner.) But I would urge young clergy to work with the Book of Common Prayer (rite two) for a while - and maybe look at what the Lutherans and the Community of Iona have cooked up, too. Read what contemporary feminists have added to the conversation and then make sure to look at Calvin, Luther, Zwingli as well. One of the best new resources is The Wee Worship Book from Iona: it is earth-centered, inclusive, Celtic and filled with poetry and nuance born of tradition. (I can't wait to see the newest incarnation!)

+ Second, liturgies need to be tested for both aesthetics and ethics: where is the discernment taking place in personalized communion texts? Kathleen Norris once observed that many of our contemporary confessions and communion liturgies are filled with so many words - but no poetry - that believers are too often left breathless and empty. Rabbi Harold Kushner recalls the story of a congregation he served where the worship committee wanted to rewrite the ancient prayers for the Day of Awe. They worked hard and long and when the new words were revealed, the community loved them - for the first year. The second year they were used, things felt a little flat. The images were dated albeit modern so they gave them another shot. But after three years everyone decided that the time-tested language of the old prayers were more poetic, nuanced and richer than anything we might create on the spot. Even with a few months preparation, the old words worked better than the new. I think this is valuable to remember, especially for people who aren't artists; more often than not, the old words have been dragged through enough sand and time to wear off the dross. And if you think I'm wrong, watch the marriage liturgy in the move Shadowlands that takes place in the hospital. Without a group effort at evaluating our new liturgies, I fear they are too often shallow when what we need is depth.

+ Third, all liturgies need to balance sound and silence, words and music, movement and rest. Most contemporary, progressive worship resources lean too heavily on words alone because we are obsessed with ideas. These liturgies also tend towards musical responses that may be politically correct but are totally unsingable for anyone but a grad student in musicology. One of the best ways to help our people enter the deepest truths of communion - being together with one another and the holy - is to help them sing deep and hearty. Without this, liturgies fall flat and mostly waste our time. This is where the folk tradition - and church tradition - can become your ally: but you need to know it. If you don't, then find a church musician who does and let them help you. There is powerful, life-changing liturgical music available for our use from all over the world. Make sure you have help in selecting it, however, or else you'll do what too many other clergy do: pick responses based upon the words alone. Please listen to me on this: if your people can't sing it, don't use it! It will kill the Spirit who wants to lift us all into glory.

Two stories to bring this rant to an end. An old Episcopal priest once told me that he had to serve as a parish intern while the rector was away just when the Anglican Church introduced their new prayer book. Over the summer, this young seminarian was charged with helping his congregation embrace the new words. The people were willing and they were kind. They all gave it their best shot - much like many Roman Catholic congregations after Vatican II did away with Latin - with one exception. An older couple asked to use the old prayer book for the funeral of their adult son. They said, "Pastor, we like the new words. We're learning to pray them in our hearts. But I fought in the war praying the old words. We baptized our children with the old words. We had them confirmed in the church with the old words. And when I go to sleep at night I pray to the Lord with the old words. Can we please use the old words to bury our son?" Damn right, the pastor said some 40 years later as he recounted this story to me. I'm down with this in spades!

The other has to do with a young clergy person's recent request for symbols to use in public worship that go beyond the cross. We know that there are hundreds of creative Christian symbols and all have their place. But I was struck by two feelings after reading how many people had rejected the use of the Cross: 

1) the Cross is complex - it is ugly and beautiful both at the same time - and it offers us a way to talk about the upside-down realm of God in startling ways. The Cross is time tested and still hard to use. But rather than chuck it, why not go into the tradition deeper and wrestle with it? Why not let the wisdom of the ages speak with at least as much insight as our contemporary discomfort? 

And 2) why not learn from the heart songs of countless suffering people throughout the world who have seen a glimmer of God's compassion in the Crucifix? Christ on the Cross, in addition to Celtic Crosses and other cruciforms, offer us a way to explore a wealth of theological insights that have nothing to do with ancient Rome's empire. An interesting place to start would be a quiet review of Frederick Buechner's book, The Faces of Jesus.

We don't have to reinvent the wheel. I daresay we should avoid trying to do so all by ourselves, too. Spend time with the New Zealand Book of Worship. Check out what the United Church of Canada has done, too. Create a liturgy writing workshop in your area and bring ideas and samples of new prayers and forms for critique. But please don't just do this work in solitude and then give it to your congregation. As the Spanish poet says, "yo no soy yo": - I am not I - for I cannot see my own shadow. Without others, our blind spots and limitations will be trumpeted in public - and none of us are smarter than the communion of saints. 

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