Rev. David Ketter
You Can’t Negotiate With a Liturgist
One of the clichés of seminary humor (at least in the Anglican/Episcopal world) is a joke that has trouble with aging: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?
Know the answer? No?
You can negotiate with a terrorist.
If you do get it, that tells me you are either clergy, too close to your clergy, or are conversant enough with liturgical minutia that you are a bit like those guys at Comic-Con debating about the most revolutionary episode of Star Trek. At risk of removing the humor from the joke, it points us to the oft-intractable opinions of those who conduct and lead services of Christian worship inAnglican congregations. That heady unwillingness to change the “way we worship” transcends the churchmanship debates, and whether one considers themselves “high church” or “low church” or some kind of “convergence” of traditions, at the end of the day, we don’t do change or adaptation. There are several reasons, some of them legitimate, for this kind of endurance:
1. The tradition of Prayer Book liturgy is a time-tested resource for discipling people in the way of Jesus to be those who are pursuing repentance, receiving grace, and confessing faith in their day-to-day lives.
2. The structure and content of Prayer Book liturgy is a refuge and continuing protection
from abuses experienced in the context of free church worship. There’s some great resources and powerful worship being done in free churches, but many “converts” to the
Anglican way have scars connected with the way the churches of their youth did things.
3. Prayer Book liturgy is beautiful. It cannot be denied that there is an aesthetic dimension to the loyalty that many feel for the Prayer Book services as practiced in their
congregations. That beauty may even play some role in their own faith journey.
Be that as it may, what stands is the reality that for those in the Anglican tradition, the sense that we have a united prayer tradition that has endured to the present day in some recognizable form is both comfort of its strength and orthodoxy, and liberating in the various places in the world that we go. That an Anglican in Pittsburgh (United States) can visit and worship God in the Church in Jos (Nigeria) with a few adjustments for local custom is both attractive and compelling.
Of course, that kind of unified tradition and blend of local custom existed in the synagogue worship of Jesus’ day, too. Moses and the Prophets were read every Sabbath in every city (Acts 13:27, 15:21), and the prayers of God’s people in the midst of their pagan neighbors were heard regularly. It was consistent enough for it to be part of Paul’s evangelism plan: attend worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and at the moment after the Scriptures were read, when a speaker is invited, proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of those promises.
But the very Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in the Cross and Resurrection, and empowered by the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, signaled the end of a single culture encountering God. The Book of Acts signals the outward movement of the Kingdom as, first, a Samaritan, then an Ethiopian, followed by a Roman centurion, and then numerous others in Syria and the world beyond Judea encountered Jesus and His liberating kingdom. The Church in Antioch’s early leadership bears witness to a community that was diverse in its leadership (Identifiably Jewish, Greek, and African origins), obedient to the Holy Spirit, and confident that God’s grace was to be proclaimed without exception to every people group.
This diversity remained throughout the history of the Church—neither the liturgy of the Didache, nor the worship described by Justin Martyr, nor the practices of Holy Communion outlined by Hippolytus of Rome or John Chrysostom claim universal authority over the Church. Yet the testimony of the Early Church is that we have, indeed, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” and a common prayer that is offered for the life of the world. And in that common prayer, Christians throughout the ages have testified to that promise of Revelation 7:9-10 (ESV): “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The Church indeed has a common prayer, and many languages and cultures. The invitation is to offer our prayers together.
Bring the Glory In
There is a case to be made for a biblical theology of multiethnic worship, but that is a subject for another day. What is at hand for us is to recognize the unique question we have as Anglicans in North America in this time and place. The Anglican Church in North America is in the final stages of development for its 2019 Book of Common Prayer. The project has produced rites in three languages so far. The principles that guided the Prayer Book task force have everything necessary to retaining the American Anglican liturgical praxis as its been understood since 1789 (when the first American Prayer Book was published). Our challenge is to practice that tradition—which is predominantly Anglo-American and has, in the main, been practiced by the upper echelons of our society since the Great Awakening—in a way that is open and receptive to the contributions of people of color. Can we Anglicans worship as a Church in a way that is not codified by white visions of churchmanship like “catholic, evangelical, and charismatic”? The Black Church tradition in North America has biblical and liturgical strengths and rhythms that we need to learn from. The persistent witness of Asian Christians in North America falls too frequently beneath our awareness. There are lessons to be learned from one another, and the richness of Christian faith and the expressions of God’s grace are manifold within the context of our many cultures, languages, and families of origin.
I have heard a number of white American Anglicans brag about the Scottish origin of the epiclesis (the prayer to the Holy Spirit) in the Holy Communion rite. It’s a point of distinction from the “strictly British” 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Liturgical theologians, seminarians, and Facebook warriors can argue the value of that all day, but it’s there. What we are invited into in this season and time in the life of the Anglican Church in North America, is to envision a future where someone will brag about contributions to our liturgical life from Black, Asian, Hispanic, multi-racial sources. We are invited to realize and to taste yet a little more of the Kingdom of God, to say, “We learned to sing _______.” and “We started to pray _____ together.”
I can’t say what that future will look like. But I can give an example of taking steps toward it. I serve as a church planter in Ambridge, PA—a little rust belt town north of Pittsburgh on the slow recovery road from the loss of the steel industry over 30 years ago. Our mission primarily serves a subsidized housing community that is diverse. Over the past few years, we have gradually incorporated liturgical worship into our discipleship with the children of the community. That has included the Lord’s Prayer, the suffrages from the daily office, and the liturgies for Baptism and Holy Communion. We’ve struggled from the lack of a musician, but have not let that mean we have no music. The songs mainly come from the Gospel and spiritual traditions, so we’ve
learned classics like “Glory, Glory (Since I Laid My Burden Down)” and “This Little Light of Mine” a capella. We sang the core three verses of “This Little Light of Mine” for weeks before we learned it well. But one evening, one of the kids asked if we could add a verse: “Jesus is the Light/ I’m gonna let it shine.” We sang it and it was beautiful. This is how worship develops: we gather, we share what we’ve received, worship with it regularly, and the tradition grows with the contributions of people as they grow in their experience of Christ’s love. That means we contribute from the places and experiences that we
come from, and we gratefully accept and honor the contributions of our brothers and sisters. And someday, we’ll be a richer Church, more deeply-grounded in the Gospel of grace.