Thursday, February 4, 2016

Liturgical best practices. . .

The sad truth is that the liturgy with its structure and even specific texts is more often perceived as raw material to be kneaded and molded into something by those who plan and lead worship.  It is like a raw, basic dough that must be flavored and shaped.  Some advocate local circumstance as the primary tool when adding accents of taste and pleasing appearance.  Others define it according to personal preference.  Others use denominational identifications to tailor the ingredients to its finished form.  Even those who advocate for liturgical worship often see the liturgy as more starting point than ending product.  In the end the people who may have few things in common start at a common place in making the liturgy personal.  Though I am inherently disposed to being more friendly to those who add than I am to those who subtract, the truth is that both begin with what is there and adapt it.  Even me.  That said, there is something to appreciate about the evolution of the liturgy that has left us with a form that is not finished (Christ has not yet returned) but is itself the fruit of many years use, wisdom, and adaptation.  It is more a finished product than raw material.

Like it or not, educational theory has entered the realm of soft sciences and journal-driven research. Teachers are expected to know scientific “best practices” and follow them in their classrooms. Somehow experts have discovered that two plus two is best communicated at 71.5 degrees and 38% humidity, with 3200K soft-white lighting, with Mozart not Bach, by a teacher who promotes inclusivity, cultural sensitivity, and individual autonomy for each learning style.

Our liturgy is a form of education, and Catholics too have experts who suggest certain worship aids, lighting schemes, boutique liturgies, color palettes, and gimmicks to “shock and awe” the faithful, hopefully spurring them on to become “dynamic” Catholics and buy the next book. Even if these folks don’t claim their materials and approach are the “best practice,” they usually are not advocating for the Roman Rite done well and done obediently. At best, the Roman Rite is seen as the springboard, the point of departure.

I would like to propose that the [Divine Service] is itself the accumulation of two thousand years of best practices. The lectionary, the liturgical calendar, and the rite [itself] all attempt to put Christian teaching into a three-year (or one-year) curriculum, one which is suitable for the young and the old, the wise and the foolish. According to current educational models, this is a preposterous and ridiculous goal, akin to a one-room schoolhouse for pre-K through doctorate. It’s easy to criticize, but the reality is that it works.

It does work.  The best of the generations before have passed on to us form and texts that have proven faithful and usable -- not perfect mind you but thoroughly vetted through the time and experience of the saints who went before us.  Even as I plead for those who pick and choose from the liturgy they view as starting point or smorgasbord, I would also plead for less innovation when it comes to the shape of buildings for worship, the furniture of the chancel, and the general setting in which the liturgy takes place.  Here, as well, history is a teacher and has left us with some solid forms and shapes that have befriended the liturgical action and assisted the voices in the spoken and sung Word, the practice of prayer, the Sacrament of the Altar, and community of those who gather in the Lord's House on the Lord's Day.

My own lifetime has seen a radical departure from the usual shapes of the church's building for worship and left us with many structures that are at war with what goes on inside of them.  If only in the area of carpeting and building shapes that render singing a difficult task we would be better off.  But the reality is that too many chancels are structured as if the distribution of the Sacrament were a rarity rather than the often of the Lord's command.  Lines of sight obscure rather than focus the eye upon crucifix, altar, lectern, pulpit, and font.  Stark walls deprive the wandering eye and restless mind from being recalled to the holy purpose of the gathering.  The focus is on the assembly rather than on what the assembly has been assembled for.  Things that were neat and cool in the moment have left too many congregations with great financial investment in buildings that are unworthy of and unusable for the Divine Service.  Warehouse settings discourage reverence and awe and invite a casual attitude toward what is happening on Sunday morning as if it were merely a religious version of the activity of the mall.

History has bequeathed to us a liturgical form and settings for the practice of that form which assist its function.  The liturgy always has options for season and Sunday that require us to make decisions about what and when but it is not raw material given over to unseasoned hands to flavor and shape.  The buildings we build should begin with what we have learned from the history of God's people gathering for the liturgy and not with a blank slate.  Learning from the past will help us not only serve faithfully the people of this day but bequeath to those to come practice and settings to connect them to what has gone before and assist them in singing the praise of God and receiving His gifts in a new generation.

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