Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

Deliver us from idiocy

In two articles (here and here) reprinted by the ABC Religion and Ethics site, Barry Spurr bemoans the dumbing down of liturgy in churches, and the endless noise. He writes of

… the seriously damaging effects on people's minds, emotions, social and personal relationships, and - most profoundly - spiritual lives of the endlessly busy, constantly noisy, vacuously chattering, perpetually moving, unignorably intrusive, soul-destroying culture in which we struggle to live.

We exist (one could hardly say "live," as it is a travesty of human life) in a society (for it is not fit to be called a civilisation) in which everything is calculated to prevent the nurturing of a true Christian spirituality (or spirituality of any kind, for that matter).

If there is one verse in Scripture that could be seen to be the very seminal text of all liturgical worship it is that telling imperative in the Psalms, "Be still, and know that I am God." But this is a teaching of which modern liturgical experts are not only ignorant, but terrified…. Without silence and stillness the life of prayer cannot even begin, as any of the spiritual masters down the centuries would testify. One feels like saying to these liturgical busy bodies, "Don't just do something, stand there!"

I agree about the noise, and our fear of silence.  But the detesting of liturgical experts betrays not a problem with language, but a problem with his theological metaphor.

The liturgical experts and consultants who have held sway in the churches for half a century are terrified of anything that is unworldly or otherworldly, on the belief that anything of that kind in language or ceremony will be off-putting to worshippers.

This fear derives from a focus on the unchurched and the young who, the experts simplistically assume, are so grounded in the here-and-now that they are incapable of imagining or even aspiring to imagine any other dimension of existence.

Hence the liturgy must be as much like everyday life as possible, as the fundamental idea of the Christian gospel as a critique of everyday life - presenting a radical contrast with it, not a mirror-image of it - is hopelessly compromised.

There is an element of longing for things past in Spurr’s articles.

I can recall, as a teenager in the 1960s, when the alluringly-entitled Series I was introduced for the communion service, with the intention to reverse the decline in church attendance which had set in, in Western societies such as Australia, after the brief heyday of full churches in the conservative 1950s.

It is probably too much to say that the desire to retain or claim the young was the only motivating force behind the liturgical movement, but it was undeniably a priority.

Nearly fifty years on, I can still recall people saying then, "we must make these changes if we're going to appeal to young people in the future."

Of course, as we know, the liturgical movement has been a complete failure (although many in the Churches are in a state of utter denial about this fact).

I am sympathetic, and yet disagree with Spurr.

As he says, “faith is mysterious, at its very heart. It is not only impatient of rational explanation, but it attempts to contain and constrict the mystery of faith within structures of language.” However he believes “ the vernacular language of modern cultures” is “banal.” Here is the traditionalist, and the sentimentalist.

Throughout the 60s and 70s - as liturgies became more and more iconoclastic in the clergy's increasingly desperate attempts to appeal to the young - the young accordingly stayed away in droves.

Moreover, legions of faithful people were lost to worship because of the changes brought in to appeal to a mostly uninterested and absent constituency.

It does not seem to occur to him that maybe the problem was not the change in worship, but the failure of the metaphors. Maybe what he is really bemoaning is the loss of those who believe in his kind of God.  Or perhaps he can only think of Mystery, what he calls "anything that is unworldly or otherworldly," in traditional theistic terms.  I suspect that no matter how good the poetry, people will not stay in a church which fails to address their need for acceptance, understanding and coherence.

More elegant, "mysterious" liturgy will not help where people can only conceive of a "non interventionist God, who is an it, not a he (or she), and where there is probably no personal survival after death," if that same liturgy still proclaims these things. Vosper criticises the Liturgical movement. But she claims it was "distraction, even an excuse, which allowed the church to avoid dealing with the implications of its theological discoveries. (pp 107)"

I’ve been in packed churches, where the liturgy was shallow, banal, even heretical, but people were loved and respected in word and deed. In some of these places the metaphor was anything but modern. Creation Science and other aberrations were in evidence. But practical love trumped the foolishness for the people there. It well outweighed the banal liturgy.

So Spurr is correct:

Language that tries to provide a quick fix, if one may put it crudely, not only diminishes the mystery of faith but fails to provide the richness of complex meaning and nuanced spirituality without which the experience of belief is immature, uninformed, superficial, even worthless.

But practical love trumps elegant language. And I’d rather have a halting prayer which nonetheless seeks a mystery, than one which with beautiful language addresses a God which is entirely unbelievable.

Andrew Prior Sept 2010


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