Saturday, March 15, 2008

On Liturgy (rant alert)

Maggie Ross recently posted an article on liturgy that is very timely, coming as it does just before Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter. This seems to be a time in the liturgical cycle that is particularly prone to liturgical excess and/or sloppiness.

These comments poked me in a sore spot. Good liturgy should point us at something beyond the experience itself. It should pluck at that something in us that resonates with the heartbeat of god and remind us that we are participants in creation itself. It should make us feel simultaneously part of the congregation present, the communion of saints, and the cloud of unknowing. My standard always was that if I could remember the whole service it must not have been very good. Really good liturgy often caused me to go off on a journey in which I was participating in the service at one level, but was also taken up into another place entirely. I often found myself (unpleasantly) surprised to find the service over.

Liturgy was the one thing that held me in the church about three years longer than I think god would have preferred (judging from the increasing intensity of the internal pressure to move out into the wilderness where I belong). Anyway I continued to disobey the SpiritVoice and go to church for several years because I could not imagine life without regular liturgy.

That was fine for a while. The church we attended offered some interesting liturgical opportunities. At first, I liked it. They mixed it up. Sometimes they had traditional high-church, almost Roman liturgy. Being an old candle-worshipping RC from way back, I loved that. They also had contemporary praise services; it was all I could do not to run screaming from the building when they did those, but DD liked them so I would grit my teeth and sit through them. They sometimes used classical music, sometimes contemporary. It was a nice mix. I liked it a lot.

Somewhere along the line, however they started mixing various forms of worship together. Then they started experimenting with multi-media stuff. They also fell into the trap of putting too many "special" rituals into each service. Pretty soon every worship service turned into something like musical theater (often performances that were about one act too long). Liturgy which was supposed to be "the work of the people" turned into "the people watching the professionals at work." That turned me off, although occasionally they would hit a home run. The prospect of the occasional good services kept me coming back.

The last time I darkened the door was Christmas Eve several years ago. DD was an acolyte. A few days before Christmas Eve she had to attend a rehearsal. I waited in the parking lot, thinking it would be a quick run-through. The rehearsal lasted almost two hours. When she got into the car, she was almost in tears, and very angry. Apparently the rehearsal had not gone well. In addition to going through the whole service several times until they got it "perfect", the rehearal involved considerable periods of the rector yelling at pretty much everyone in what she described as a mean and degrading way. I offered to go inside and tell him how unacceptable that was and then I suggested we just skip the performance. She said she had promised to participate and she would go through with it, but after that she was going to hang up her acolyte's robe. She asked me not to go inside and make a scene. I restrained myself to avoid humiliating her, but I inflicted her with the old "you don't have to take that shit from anybody least of all a priest...." speech all the way home.

The Christmas Eve service turned out to be something like a Busby Berkley musical. It was a multi-media mess with everything but pyro! It ended with the traditional candle-light singing of Silent Night, which would have been nice, but for the fact that they sang it in German. Now, granted, I'm a Zincinnati Cherman who thinks Stille Nacht should not be sung in any language other than German. Unfortunately, we were in Florida and there was apparently only one other person in the congregation who felt the same way I did, the Rector. For me it was beautiful and moving and I got caught up in the first verse. By the time we got to the chorus I realized I was about the only one in the congregation singing. How utterly inappropriate that was! Communal singing is so important to liturgy. Communal singing of Silent Night in the wee hours of Christmas morning is such a cherished American tradition, it made me mad to think that the rector placed his own musical tastes above the needs of his congregation, and robbed everyone but me and the choir of the opportunity to participate in the tradition. I haven't been to church since.

I think this year my Holy Week and Easter observances will include holding all the church-attenders in my heart and praying that their liturgical experiences during the Holy Days will not be spiritually harmful. (In a lot of churches, I think that is as good as it ever gets.)

No comments: