Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Percy does posture, or: Standing up for Jesus?

Some readers (but not all) will remember an Anglicanism in which kneeling was the done thing. The bidding "Let us pray" was instantly and easily understood as an instruction to kneel, and we did. The opening prayers, the Collect, the intercessory prayers (aka "Prayer for the Church Militant"), the whole of the Thanksgiving and Consecration...if in doubt, we knelt.

One of the messages of the liturgical movement that hit the Church in the second half of the twentieth century was that we had been kneeling a bit too much. It was true. The one-sided emphasis on penitence and submission found in much Anglican liturgy was one of those camels we had swallowed from the Medieval Church while straining at sacrificial gnats. The ethos of Christian communal action implied in the New Testament, and lived out in the ancient Church, was less focussed on individual breast-beating than on the collective celebration of God's grace.

The resulting message had one startling central theme: stand up! We had been used to standing only for singing - presumably for practical reasons related to our diaphragms - as well as for the Gloria, the Gospel, and the Creed. These had left a clue behind about the meaning of such a posture. We rediscovered through the sixties the fairly natural coherence between a theology emphasizing the victory of the Resurrection and the liturgical norm of standing. The new texts and orders that were introduced around the Anglican world - Series I-III, Australia '69, '77 etc, A Liturgy for Africa - all implied or stated their alignment with such different understandings of posture.

Of course it was not all about standing. Each of standing, sitting and kneeling had a place in this revised set of understandings about how our bodies reflect our belief. Standing was for corporate prayer, including prayers of intercession and the Great Thanksgiving. Kneeling was only for specifically penitential or reflective and personal elements, such as private prayer and the corporate confession of sin. Sitting was for readings and sermon only, aside from waiting before and after the liturgy.

This was, however, an incomplete revolution. Even where the liturgical movement took deep hold, there was hesitation, or appropriate variation, about some specifics. Many have remained deeply connected to kneeling to receive Communion, for instance. While some clergy were being actively and carefully taught such understandings of the new liturgies, others were less well trained. And those who had become liturgical-movement purists were not thereby necessarily good educators or effective pastors.

The result is a mixed bag. In the Diocese of Melbourne, Australia, where Percy has recent and decades-old experience, the basic news is of back-sliding and mess. Where in the 1980s parishes of progressive Catholic mood were standing more and kneeling less, what is most striking is how often they are sitting. Without sufficient education or leadership, sitting has become a norm for corporate prayer of intercession in particular. There is no good reason for this at all, but a perfectly reasonable explanation: sitting is the flaccid via media for people no longer sure whether or stand or kneel, or why.

A related phenomenon is the disconnect between the posture of ministers and that of congregation. It is increasingly common that at times when kneeling might still be expected or encouraged, ministers actually remain standing. Example is, as always, a powerful teacher; where ministers do not kneel, people see little point.

Sitting does have its place, we have acknowledged. And there may be circumstances where that place is larger - where, for instance, the liturgy is celebrated with a more-than-usual emphasis on the meditative or reflective, as in the ethos connected with the community of Taizé. Yet otherwise Percy suggests sitting is, in the tradition of the Church catholic, intended for listening and waiting.

Liturgy is based on the idea that the physical disposition of objects, space and our own bodies actually does matter. There may be different specific opinions about posture, but the present indifference and confusion evident in the Australian Anglican Church, and some other branches of the Communion, is not a matter for celebration.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Don't Believe in Worship (2)

[Continued from this essay]

What then could ‘worship’ mean, if we sought to make the term meaningful again?

There are two ways to approach the question from the New Testament. On the one hand, there is the concept and language of ‘worship’, which originally suggests reverent orientation of the whole person towards God. This does involve speech and physical practices including ritual, which may be domestic and personal as well as communal and public (John 4:20, 12:20, Acts 8:27, 24:11); but although such language of ‘worship’ suggests something about the disposition of Christian life as a whole, it says relatively little about the specifics of proper Christian liturgy, except that it should be coherent with the rest of life.

On the other hand, distinctive practices are attested and urged for Christians. Christians eat at the table of the Lord, baptise, fast, pray, teach (Eucharist: 1 Cor 10:16-17, 11:17-34, Jude 12; Baptism: Rom 6:4, 1 Cor  1:13-17, 15:29, Acts 2:41 etc; Common Prayer: Acts 1:14, 6:4, 14:23, Col 4:2). This list could be expanded to include actions less clearly liturgical, such as practical concern for the poor (Gal 2:10, 1 Cor 16:1-2, James 1:27), which in the ancient Church was strongly linked to communal gatherings.

Many of these actions have ritual elements, such as prescribed forms of words, bodily performances and use of particular objects. Even if these are not referred to as ‘worship’, they can properly be understood as such in the later sense, if the connection is made between such distinctive liturgical practices and the wider demands made of the Christian community to serve God in our whole lives.

The two prominent and distinctive ways Christians have gathered together from the earliest times are the Eucharist (or Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper) and the daily ‘offices’, which in Anglicanism are expressed in the two-fold structure of Morning and Evening Prayer. The Eucharist was and is the most distinctively Christian communal action. 

The fact that much Protestant ‘worship’ is not Eucharistic is an unhappy historical accident; although the Reformers, and later leaders of renewal like the Wesleys, generally sought more frequent communion, they and their contemporaries had inherited a piety that dictated frequent attendance but infrequent participation. Rejecting the non-communicating Masses of Roman Catholicism, they were forced back onto using the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer—good and holy gatherings to be sure—for ends beyond their real purpose, and they became the main Sunday event.

While mainstream Anglicanism recovered the centrality of Eucharistic worship in the 20th century, it tended then to forget the importance of the daily prayer services, with their deeply biblical character, prayerful use of the Psalms, and sacred rhythms of rising and sleeping with God.

While Anglican liturgy will continue to change and develop, if it does not take these two forms of ‘Common Prayer’ as the touchstones for what we do together, the result will certainly not be Anglican, but neither will it be adequately Christian—and hardly ‘worship’ either.

God, Gluten-free?

A satirical version of a pew-sheet that has circulated over the past decade offers advice concerning the options available to the contemporary communicant:
To receive an ordinary, unleavened Communion wafer, kindly wink your right eye as the minister approaches. For a certified, organic, whole-grain wafer, wink your left eye. For low-salt, low-fat bread, close both eyes for the remainder of the service. For gluten-free bread, blink both eyes rapidly while looking at the ceiling.
Blinking aside, this isn't so far from reality in some places. Such announcements arise of course from the prevalence of coeliac disease, which is four times more common than fifty years ago, even taking into account different patterns of diagnosis and reporting. The reason for this new prevalence are not certain, but there is real suspicion that the kind of modern hard wheat we now eat in great quantity, and/or the presence of gluten and other wheat derivatives in other products, has triggered the spread of this auto-immune disorder. There are also much more common, if less critical, forms of allergy or intolerance to modern bread wheat found in a fair proportion of the population.

Anglicans can arguably consider gluten-free options for the Eucharist because the Prayer Book rubric states “it shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten” which allows alignment or correlation with cultural change; but it goes on to say “but the best and purest Wheat Bread that conveniently may be gotten”, both urging conscientious attention to the quality of the bread, and privileging use of wheat. What the tradition seems to have in mind is the desire to use what Jesus used at the Last Supper, instituting the Eucharist. The Lambeth Quadrilateral speaks of “unfailing use…of the elements ordained by him”.

Roman Catholics are officially less free about choosing Eucharistic bread. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (2000) states: “The bread for celebrating the Eucharist must be made only from wheat, must be recently baked, and, according to the ancient tradition of the Latin Church, must be unleavened.”

The insistence that the bread be wheat, noted in both traditions if not held with equal insistence, may well be a historical mistake, if intended as strict imitation of the Last Supper, the accounts of which do not specify of what the bread was made. For that matter, the species of grain known in Jesus’ time are not the same ones we have today; wheat in particular underwent repeated hybridization even in the pre-industrial world, let alone after the more aggressive changes of industrial agriculture and recent plant science, now including genetic modification. So it is not even possible to know exactly what Jesus used, let alone use it.

In slightly later Rabbinic traditions and since, unleavened bread – matzah – is made from the same grains that are otherwise prohibited at Passover, because they create natural yeast cultures and leaven—and hence bread: wheat varieties, including spelt and emmer, as well as barley. In subsequent history, rye and oats have certainly been included in this obligation, although they may not have grown in ancient Judea. Some rabbis included rice. In fact yeast itself is allowed at Passover, since it is involved in the fermentation of wine; but while yeast-derived wine is allowed, grain-derived drinks like beer and whisky are not.

So although it is likely that the bread of Jesus’ Passover would have been made from an ancient wheat variety, it is not stretching things too far to say that other ancient Jews, and hence early Christians also, may have eaten bread made from any of these grains.

Why then the more restrictive view in Roman Catholic circles?

In the Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas argues not only from the superior quality of wheat, and from the awkward ground that Augustine of Hippo had viewed biblical references to barley - which was admittedly cheaper and coarser - as indicating the harshness of the Mosaic Law. This is a little ironic since the insistence on unleavened wheat bread is supposed to reflect the Mosaic Law too!

Thomas' prescriptive advice about wheat apparently carries more wheat weight in Roman Catholicism than the ambiguity of the biblical texts. Anglicans will object that what cannot be established scripturally ought not to be insisted on for all and everywhere, even if customary for some. While wheat may be very appropriate matter for the sacrament, it is dubious to conclude that St Thomas' preferences and St Augustine's attitudes to barley (and to Judaism) should trump provisions at the Eucharist that have their own real claim to historical authenticity, and make sense in the present.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Don't Believe in Worship (Part 1)

‘Worship’ has become almost a meaningless term in some places; and where it does mean something, it now often has little to do with those distinctive practices whereby the Christian community across history has expressed and renewed its relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.

The problem is most profound in newer Church settings where ‘worship’ is equated with ‘music’, and ‘worship leaders’ are conductors or accompanists, rather than preachers or priests. Yet even Christians who belong to Churches of clearly sacramental character, such as Anglicans, may well see their liturgical actions simply as aesthetic options chosen according to preference for a certain activity or style.

It is then unsurprising if we find ‘worship’ events becoming more akin to sales meetings, arena concerts or whatever other cultural forms are available for adaptation, rather than recognizable forms of Eucharistic celebration or daily prayer.

Even fairly recently the English word ‘worship’ referred to reverence and service (cf. ‘with my body I thee worship’). In present Western Christianity however, this meaning has been lost, and ‘worship’ tends to mean whatever people do in Church on Sundays. Similarly 'service' has lost the earlier meaning of 'divine service', and refers to a meeting rather than a disposition.

So ‘Worship services’ (two vapid words combined in a desperate effort to mean something!) might seem to be constructed just to suit our tastes or passing preferences, rather than as particular activities characteristic of the Christian community across its history.

The possibility that our liturgy might really be ‘worship’ has to do then with how well we integrate it into the whole of life, lived faithfully and authentically – in Church as well as out of it. For Christians that does involve some characteristic patterns and actions.

If instead we make aesthetic preferences or ‘worship needs’ (as one recent publication called them) the determinant of liturgical practice, this certainly contradicts any real ethos of Christian worship; for if ‘needs’ are understood as the pre-existing wants of the participant, rather than either as the imperative to exist or act in a certain relationship to God, or as continuing faithfully in practices founded on Jesus' example and teaching, we are wasting our time or worse.

Of course Christians do and should borrow some elements of newer cultural forms, critically and carefully; Percy is not pleading here for a particular aesthetic of traditional liturgy, but for recognition that liturgy is founded on core actions and patterns, on scripture and bread and wine and prayer.

We can and should adapt forms; but if the core actions of our liturgies are not made more profound and more prominent in the process, then the result is a failure. We therefore need to pay as much or more attention to the real core or substance of specifically Christian liturgy, rather than to the trappings in which it is presented. Here we might have to admit that both traditional and commercialized forms of Christian gathering often fail equally, if differently.