A short while ago, I wrote The Liturgy Matters and read another fine article on Fr David Chislett’s blog Is traditional worship an impediment to evangelisation? The question is a good one. Should we cast out liturgy, sell off our churches and treasures and begin to use the same techniques as political ideologues, salesmen and television stars to get people into a building, preach at them and get them into the mood for conversion to Christianity?
I am out of touch with what goes on in Anglo-Catholic churches of the Established Church in England but the Ship of Fools thread Preserving the English Missal and Traditional Liturgy mostly from the spring of this year is interesting. One view comes out. Preserving or reviving traditional liturgies is described as “museum religion”. What of it?
Museums are not necessary places of preserving dead and outdated things, but keeping us in touch with the past and reminding us that we are not superior to or above history. There have been many changes in the way of running museums over the years. When I was a little boy, museums showed things in glass cases with a minimum of description and explanation. They were stuffy and boring places for children, who associated museums with dull history lessons at school. These days, I have visited some great museums. I particularly think about those preserving the memory of World War II and D-day here in Normandy. There is a sense of getting visitors involved so that learning becomes easier and more stimulating. There is more interaction as modern technology is used. That in churches is expressed with microphones, overhead screens and “praise bands”.
On the other hand, liturgy is not merely a memory of the past or an object for preservation. It is something to be done by human beings according to the particular Sacraments they have received in the Church. The implication of many who do trash traditional liturgy, claiming that it is an obstacle to evangelisation, is that it’s just a show put on for reasons other than strictly religious. Could that not also be said about modern expressions involving technology and the latest musical trends? Is that not also a show?
Some of those participating in the Ship of Fools thread are intolerant low-church, legalistic Anglicans saying that such-and-such is not allowed, or show a fair and positive viewpoint. A few are at the limit of trolling! That is not my concern. The cross section is interesting and shows a lack of unanimity, one cause of liturgical and pastoral problems in Church of England parishes. Perhaps this degree of diversity is a good thing, and no one is excluded, including those who want traditional liturgies for spiritual or cultural reasons or both.
Fr Chislett makes the point that the assumption that traditional worship is an obstacle to evangelism is dated. The movement for cultural relevance has not succeeded in stemming the haemorrhage of numbers of people attending church on Sundays. In some places, it has accelerated the decline. On the contrary, a number of young people are preferring their new discoveries of old-style liturgy without having been indoctrinated as children. Being sober about it, the large majority of young people in the west want nothing to do with churches at all.
We come to consider any kind of relationship between traditional liturgy and popularity of places of worship, attended presumably by those who are committed Christians. Outside Eastern Orthodoxy, there is only a small minority attracted to traditional-rite parishes in the Church of England and Continuing Churches. A more “successful” venue is traditionalist Roman Catholicism in the wake of Ecclesia Dei and Summorum Pontificium or the Society of St Pius X. The reasons, however, do not seem to be liturgical, but rather doctrinal or political.
Few people outside of “fogeys” and aesthetic eccentrics seem to be attracted to liturgy for its own sake. I surmised that the liturgy is now only of interest to communities of the totally committed – monasteries or lay communities inspired by monastic characteristics. It is obvious that more people are going to mega-churches with charismatic and extroverted ministers, praise bands and audio-visual equipment than to monasteries or Anglo-Catholic parishes locked in their “time warps”. That is a clear fact, but I and many others are simply not interested in mega-church Christianity. I would even go as far as saying that if that all there was, I would quickly turn my attention away from Christianity and consider the alternatives. Lord, to whom shall we go?
It is all full of dilemmas, and the most educated of us find it difficult to navigate in a sea full of Charybdises and Scyllas, where the ship has nowhere to sail without being wrecked or running aground. Wherever we turn, someone has a good reason to say we are wrong. We live in a very unhealthy time for faith.
We could let ourselves be blown and buffeted by the wind, or just carry on with what we are doing – knowing that it is all for nothing or for some secret plan known only to God. I prefer to believe the latter in the same way as we prefer to believe in the promises of Christ rather than enter the insanity of nihilism and negativeness.
God himself doesn’t seem to have any preferences this or that way on this question, but we have our preferences and ways to “communicate” with transcendence. One, for some people, is liturgy. Well then, we continue with what we have and treasure it – for where a tiny group is gathered in his name, there he is.