One of the many things I rejoice in at this point in time is the fact that I have lived through a time of radical reinvention of something that is extremely important to me. The reason I say “lived” in the past tense is that I am actually feeling confident that the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, and much of what has been attempted and prioritized over the last several decades is now being left in the dust, acknowledged as a bad idea – or, at least rather misled – and we are experiencing a resurgence in the value placed on something that I grew up with as a young boy. Of course this is my opinion. And this is my blog. But everyone likes it when their opinion is ratified by evidence, right?
The subject to which I refer is the way in which we conduct worship in the Episcopal Church. I have read countless articles during the last few years that have expressed in no uncertain terms that millennials, the youth of today, teens…however you want to refer to them…are searching for, responding to, and coming out in droves for a worship experience that offers a sense of mystery, formality, repetition, tradition and quiet piety. In short, everything that I remember having in my church experience as a child.
There were two recent articles that came across my desk this past week, and the first is excerpted below. Click on the link for the full interview with John Piper.
“…anecdotal evidence suggests that many young people are longing for a greater sense of transcendence in their faith and piety than what may be found in services with less vintage than Pixar films. Indeed, I’ve found this to be true in my own interactions with college students. We live in a frenetic age in which much about our daily existence is in constant flux, and therefore I believe many students long for a piety that does not ride the waves of cultural and theological faddism; many long for a piety that transcends the “cultural now,” and thereby provides a place of solace and quiet in a world of noise.”
“It seemed to us that for at least one hour a week out of 168 we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence.”
“Sunday morning we called the Mount of Transfiguration, meaning, an awesome place of glory where you fall on your face almost speechless in the presence of God. And Sunday evening — or Wednesday evening or whatever else you do — is the Mount of Olives, which was the familiar spot where Jesus probably lay down, put his hand on his elbow, and talked things over with his disciples. That is utterly crucial in the church as well.”
My fondest memories of church as a child were, of course, based around singing in the choir. The “total” experience was formative, enriching, powerful, social, mystical and memorable. As the final paragraph above suggests, the main focus of the week, and of our work as a choir, was the Sunday morning eucharist. However, the Friday evening rehearsals, the Saturday weddings, the Sunday evening services, the carol singing at people’s homes, and the trips to the local pub were all part of my busy life outside of school. And I loved it. There was a gentle but highly respectful formality in tone for each Sunday morning – the Mount of Transfiguration, mentioned above – and the other services in the week featured a more familiar but equally valued aura as we experienced the edification that a service of Evensong, or music and readings could offer – the Mount of Olives, mentioned above. My sister and I would often get the giggles during the quiet bits, as very young children, and the temptation to bring the worst out in each other was unavoidable. However, the respect we felt for the occasion was genuine, and this probably contributed to the release of the moment!
Two amusing memories of my perception of liturgical detail come to mind:
- Every time the congregation would respond with “Thanks be to God” I thought they were saying “Thanks, Peter God” since the curate’s name was Peter, and I assumed we were responding to his reading of the collect.
- The rector would give the prayer of invitation to communion – “Draw near with faith. Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his blood which he shed for you. Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” I thought he was referring to the soprano in the choir, Faith Woolston, and assumed that she had written the prayer, because it said at the end, “By Faith, with thanksgiving.”
I didn’t always understand, but I absorbed…
I was always in church. Never in Sunday School. And I realize that this is where my deep-seated love of good liturgy and good music began. I cannot accept that reinvention, reimagining and all of the experimentation of the last few decades has had any lasting value. It is indisputably based upon the notion that it would result in an increase in church membership, an engagement of a broader cross-section of minds and backgrounds, and an enhancement of a mission-driven approach to the church. Mission is a crucial part of the church, however it begins with a worthy worship experience. This important detail has become sidelined, or even lost, along with a ruthless throwing out of the baby with the bathwater, and a general disregard for and divergence from the Book of Common Prayer, as “creative” minds have put their stamp on liturgical expression.
The fact that many young people “long for a piety that transcends the cultural now, and thereby provides a place of solace and quiet in a world of noise” is hugely encouraging to me. I see it first hand in a school chapel environment (distinctly not a place where there is a fiscal urgency to get bums in seats, as they say) where we can offer weekly compline services by candlelight, traditional evensong services, and other thoughtfully and respectfully conceived services which are true to the Episcopal foundation of the school, and are welcoming and inclusive of a student, a teacher or a member of the general public from any faith background.
And so, to the second article that came to light. Again, it is excerpted below, and click on the link for the full article by Fr. Clint Wilson.
“The Church needs to seize upon this cultural moment and pull from the riches of our tradition to meet the longings and desires of the so-called unchurched or de-churched. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here; we can trust our traditions to do more of the heavy lifting of discipleship than our newly baked-up methodologies. For Anglicans, I propose one of the greatest gifts we can give is Evensong.”
My hope is that we are returning to cherished traditions, we are rejecting superficiality, and we are reclaiming a more thoughtful approach to worship. In so doing, we are holding up a standard which is precious, thought-provoking, mysterious, intoxicating and, above all, worthy of the act of worship.
As pianist and columnist Stephen Hough says in his article ‘Do Not Touch Me’: The Wisdom Of Anglican Thresholds.…
“Most religious celebrations gather us around a table of some sort. They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word demanding a response. They want to ‘touch’ us. Choral Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ’s Nolle me tangere – ‘Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father’ (St. John 20: 17). It reminds us that thresholds can be powerful places of contemplation; and that leaving someone alone with their thoughts is not always denying them hospitality or welcome.”
And as Fr. Duncan Dormor – Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge – reflects on the renewed popularity of Anglican choral worship amongst college students…
“Choral compline or evensong provide an accessible and non-threatening space within which young people can think about their lives and become accustomed to the idea of worship — to the possibility that worship might actually make sense.
In some ways, the Anglican choral tradition may well be entering a golden age — not necessarily a fresh, but certainly a refreshed and refreshing expression of Christian worship, fit for purpose in the 21st century.
That may appear counterintuitive, although recent research from the United States, which seeks to identify characteristic types of religious engagement among the young, suggests that a significant proportion of those becoming involved in Christian worship can be described as “Reclaimers”. Like many others, they seek religious experience rather than instruction or dogma, but, unlike some, they reject most of the elements of contemporary worship, seeking instead to reclaim established traditions, finding within them a refuge from the superficiality of much popular culture, and the onslaught of the commercial world.
This thesis finds strong support in the increased engagement with Anglican choral worship, where young people can reconnect with the depths of human experience, in a context that allows, indeed encourages, them to think things through for themselves. Unsurprisingly, under such conditions, many find an intelligent, imaginatively engaged Christian faith compelling.
Yes, the social context of Oxford and Cambridge is somewhat exclusive and Oxbridge college chapels are not parish churches. But there are points here worth considering – the place of non-eucharistic worship in giving space to meaningfully reflect on the Christian story; the counter-cultural nature of traditional liturgy, challenging the hegemony of the market and its culture; the phenomenon of the ‘Reclaimers’, suggestive of the extent to which in a post-Christendom society the Christian narrative can be authentically radical. And all of this, of course, is given expression through the Anglican tradition, which surely speaks of the potential of this tradition even in the midst of our debates and divisions.”
And finally, some wisdom from Ecclesiastes…
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10)