When “Liturgy” Is Just a Fad…Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Something is happening in American Christianity. It’s not being heralded with trumpets, but there is a small rumble if you listen carefully. Across the country, there is an interest in liturgical worship and its accouterments… and I’m worried.
The “rumble” really began back in the 1970s with people like Peter Gilquist, Robert Webber and John Michael Talbot, all people I knew, respected and worked with. In the midst of an evangelical resurgence these men, along with others, began to explore historic Christianity, especially as it related to worship. They desired more than what they had been experiencing in the “praise, prayer and Bible study” format of most evangelical churches. Their individual journeys started in a similar place, yet each, in the end, found a different church home. Peter Gilquist was attracted by the Eastern Church and began by founding the Evangelical Orthodox Church. Within a a short time, however, Gilquist and most of his followers found a home in the Eastern Orthodox Church itself under the Antiochian Patriarchate. Robert Webber, who really initiated the concept of Ancient Future Faith in his book ‘Common Roots’, found his home in Anglicanism. John Michael made his way into the Roman Catholic Church, engaging Franciscan spirituality and recording music, such as ‘The Lord’s Supper’ and ‘Come to the Quiet’ based upon the normative liturgical life of that tradition.
These friends, and others like them, made their way to something that was ever ancient and ever new. They were not involved in inventing or creating something that was novel or idiosyncratic. In each case, they trusted in the inherent truth and beauty of their respective traditions. Their response, in each case, was to delve more deeply, to understand more fully the home they had found. Each would be involved in contemporary expressions of their traditions, but never at the expense or diminution of those traditions. As Bob Webber once said to me, “People who want to mess around with the Book of Common Prayer – adding this and taking out that – really don’t believe in the liturgical life of Anglicanism. Rather, they believe in themselves and are only using the Prayer Book as a prop. It’s standard American evangelicalism by a different name.”
Now, my friends often tell me that I should be happy that there is a current interest, especially among evangelicals, in liturgical worship and its accouterments, but I remain concerned.
Don Henley, in the ‘Boys of Summer’, wrote, “Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac…” He explained the cognitive dissonance he experienced in this way, “I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead ‘Deadhead’ bumper sticker on it!” I feel the same way when I walk into a Calvary Chapel, or a local mega-church and see an Orthodox Icon hanging on the wall or, more likely, projected on to a huge screen. On the one hand, I’m thankful that there is some sort of interest in such things, while on the other hand I wonder if they have any idea of what the icon signifies… or is it just a “prop” proclaiming a trending, and trendy, “spirituality”. This is not Peter Gilquist embracing a tradition heart and soul, rather, it is following a fad. One might hope that it will lead to something more (as indeed I do) but I have my doubts.
Similarly, while I see some resurgence of interest in liturgical life among some evangelicals, I do not see the embracing of liturgical life, at least not yet.
I think there is a reason for this. To enter into and embrace a tradition involves submitting yourself to that tradition. It is not about you as the pastor or priest. It is not about your charisma, your preaching, or your particular ideas. It is recognizing that you are part of a continuum. It is more than simply having a weekly communion service. It is more than wearing a clerical collar, or stole, or other vestments. It is more than what you call yourself. It is about the life that you lead within that tradition and, it should probably be said, conforming to the requirements of that tradition. Perhaps with time, experience and knowledge, you may wish to present that tradition in a more contemporary manner. In my view, however, that requires a remarkable level of maturity and skill. Most especially, it is not to be done in an off-hand manner.
Now comes the question that is always asked, especially by those who have not witnessed that changes of the last half century – “If you are right about staying true to your own church tradition, why have so many traditional churches and denominations failed?”
The answer is simple and straight forward – Over the last fifty years we have entertained so many divergent ways to make ourselves “relevant” that we have lost, in most cases, our essential identity and, as a result, have become increasingly irrelevant. For Roman Catholics, the liturgical changes of Vatican II were likely needed and, I believe, welcomed. The implementation of those changes, however, were catastrophic to a degree still felt today. Anglicanism, as it became slowly disengaged from the Prayer Book tradition, fell prey to the vagaries of liberal theology and experimental liturgies with individual priests increasingly determining the mode and manner of worship in their parish. This, again, has led to the loss of identity and confusion among the laity and, indeed, among the population at large. The same phenomena may be seen in both the breakaway and mainline Lutheran denominations… and Presbyterians… and Methodists… and…
I think we’ve had enough “fads”. I think it’s time for substance, that is, if we’re willing to embrace it.