April 20, 2015

The (Mis)Shape of the Liturgy

On the topic of liturgical change, be it dubbed "renewal" or "experimentation" I am on record as being conservative. I'm perfectly happy with liturgy that maintains a specific shape, and even specific texts or a small set of texts. Others prefer a cornucopia or cafeteria of seemingly endless options to be mixed and matched like one of those childhood flip-books that pieces together four different parts of clowns, firefighters, nurses, bricklayers and fashion models to produce comical chimeras. Amusing, but not edifying, to my mind, but clearly otherwise to other minds.

I was conversing with the deacon who serves in my parish, and it struck me this may be a personality trait. I am very familiar with it from my years in the theater. Some actors (such as myself) were and are perfectly happy playing the same role night after night, and finding the "new" in each iteration without changing the text beyond perhaps a different inflection, but being present in the moment, moment by moment, as the fiction slowly emerges into reality -- or as real as the stage can be. (As a side note, that is certainly my experience of reading the Scriptures in the Daily Office for over 40 years. Every reading brings a new insight, but the text hasn't changed; I have.)

But back to personality: some other actors grow bored and start "playing" and making changes either to the text or the blocking, only rarely to good effect. At worse they being to violate the reality of the play and commune with the audience in sly contempt for it. Zero Mostel was a classic example of the downside, and I had the sad experience of seeing him perform in one of his last runs as Tevye; it was deeply embarrassing, and all the more so as he knew it. I saw him after the performance and spoke with him briefly. I was with a company performing The Tempest in the National Parks around Washington DC. Mostel sighed deeply, "I wish I could do that." He was desperately wanting to be able to do that sort of work, but imprisoned by his own need for constant self-amusement at the expense of the other actors and the play -- brilliant on opening night but an embarrassment as the run went on. He walked away a shrunken man, sadness brimming in his eyes, a prisoner in his own self-constructed cell.

I think some clergy and some liturgists are the same -- they can only find excitement in change, not in iteration. The same may be true of congregations. But it seems that imposing variety on those who want constancy and regularity is not a good course. In our hectic, revolving world, the church may be best at offering a still point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

In principle, it is acknowledging that there are some rules, but within the rules creativity is permitted.

I've observed, however, a lack of understanding of what there rules are and why they are there. The collects, for example, use strong, active verbs. They have a formula. Learning how to construct a prayer with attention to the formula is worth while - it's why poets learn how to write a villanelle, for example.

It seems to me that those constructing liturgies have a sense of social justice and politics. They lack a sense of poetry, or a sense of how language is "thick."

I wonder if we're comparing, for example, classical music to jazz. Certainly classical music has some modest tradition of interpretation allowed, and conductors and musicians may adjust - but they know the rules. Jazz musicians still know all the scales.

But then there's also the first step - why are we reading or praying at all? Is it for our own amusement, or because it can become a place where we meet the divine affection? Prayer, in this way, is not performance. I hope.

Ann said...

I am always surprised by the lack of attention to or seeming knowledge of "shape" of liturgy. Changes can go on but with out an understanding of the build up towards the Eucharist or whatever the main point of the service is -- it tends to fly off in all directions.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

I think we need to pay a LOT of attention to this at the upcoming General Convention. There is a reason that the Book of Common Prayer is so difficult to amend--it forms the bedrock upon which the worship life of the Episcopal Church rests. We should be wary of either changing it too much of of piling a host of other liturgies on top of it. We also should not be afraid to carefully update what may be out of date--iteration, not wholesale revision.

John Julian said...

The problem is that good liturgy needs to be used (and used and used and used) before it can even begin to leave its subtle impacts on its practitioners.
The time comes in any marriage when the passion of “being in love” begins to fade. That is when a many (most?) decide the marriage is over, whereas in fact it is when the marriage truly begins— when the passionate goodies dwindle and are no longer the day-to-day framework on which the marriage hangs.
So, too, with liturgy—it cannot serve its purpose unless it is given a chance to seep subtly (and repeatedly and consistently) into the spiritual bloodstream of the Assembly and then alteration begins to happen—in the soul of the worshipers, not in the shape of the worship. Repetition and regularity are the first hallmarks of good liturgy—and the earliest sign that the liturgist-in-charge knows her/his business.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for all of the comments. Let me first of all clarify that this is not about preferring tradition over innovation. I've experienced dreary and wonderful liturgies ancient and modern. My real concern is the "itch" some seem to have to innovate not because there is something in actual need of improvement, but due to their own boredom and lack of being able to find the "new" in the "old" in every moment. I learned this as an actor under the tutelage of a great teacher, John Manlove, who taught theater games and acting at Towson State, and who had a great gift for inspiring "the now" even in repeated performances. That freshness is essential.

Like it or not, there is an element of "performance" in the liturgy -- it is not accident that both Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe gave rise to theater out of religion! So the classical / jazz metaphor can be of use, and may reflect a similar personality difference.

To my mind the best liturgies are a blend of static and variable -- the ordinary and proper have been around for a long time. It is the alteration of the ordinary that should give us the greatest caution.

Whit Johnstone said...

Do we need to accommodate both a preference for liturgies that change radically each Sunday and liturgies that are essentially stable in one Church? I mean, we are in full communion with the Moravians and the ELCA, and we have close relationships with PCUSA and the United Methodists as well. All of those traditions allow for much more freedom for ministers to write their own worship services than we do.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

That's a good question, Whit. I think the reality is that the body of the worshipping community finds its own level in a free society (where there is no "established" or default church) and people will move to the sort of worship environment that suits them.

This is not a problem in a setting (such as a large city) where there is a range from which to choose; I was long ago struck by the fact that in NYC, you can find St Mary the Virgin and St Clements on the same street within blocks of each other --- one a shrine of Anglo-Catholicism, the other a church of laissez les bon temps rouler! But it is a problem in a more "village" setting where there may only be one or two churches in the community. That imposes a degree of restraint on both sorts.

It is common to separate the "liturgical churches" from the "non-liturgical" churches, but even the latter have their "liturgy" in the sense of a form of worship -- even Quakers have a form or envelope that guides any particular meeting.

So being able to accommodate those who prefer variety as well as those who prefer stability is easier in some contexts than others. My own opinion is that TEC ought to remain true to its roots -- which I see as a restrained variety "decently and in good order," but not, as the old Preface says, the "same" in all places.

My biggest concern with the introduction of too much variety is that it often is imposed from above, by clergy who are losing the zest in the repetition of the standards.