Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Shelf Life. . .

A while ago my household dug through to the ends of the pantry in our kitchen and found a few things with expiration dates that shocked and embarrassed us.  On the one hand, I am not the kind of person who pays all that much attention to best if used by dates and wonder if some of those dates are put on by manufacturers who want you to toss out and replace what you have not used recently.  But I do realize that not every food item is equal and some things really are best if used by.

There are things in the church that do have a shelf life and, if they don't have a formal expiration date, they have an informal use by date.  Things in worship should not shout the time frame in which they were composed or written.  As I have mentioned before, some of the fruits of the liturgical movement of the 1970s were dated in topic and style.  Read the old collects for the Roman Novus Ordo (prior to the more recent translations) and you see what I am talking about.  Liturgies that have a shelf life are liturgies not worthy of use in the life of God's people.  They should not be generational and liturgical innovation and change should, by definition, be deliberate and incremental.  You know what I mean, the hermeneutic of continuity (for you BXVI fans).

But the same is true of hymns.  Hymns that scream a date and a time are hymns unworthy of use in the Divine Service.  That does NOT mean that all the hymns need to be hundreds of years old.  It means that when we publish a hymn in a hymnal or commend its use to the churches, it better be a hymn worth singing more than once, more than this year, and more than this generation.  Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to find good hymnody that is modern -- contemporary music by definition has a shelf life.  It wants to be identified with a particular moment and even, perhaps, a particular place.  Like the playlists on our phones, contemporary Christian music is by definition tied to a moment in time and does not meet the expectations of a hymnal meant to last for at least a generation.

I would echo this sentiment for architecture, church art, and vestments as well.  Yes, I went through a tie dyed chasuble phase.  But I have repented and look for that which will fit the next generation without embarrassment or explanation.  You have undoubtedly read my comments about modern church architecture and the not to subtle clues from secular spaces which have little in common with the needs of a sacred assembly.  My own parish had a Fellowship Hall with burnt orange carpeting, lime green walls, electric blue sliding curtains, and bright orange doors and heating ducts.  Yes, it was repainted and needs it again, by the way.  When we build or create something to hit the peak of a trend, we burden our future with our shortsightedness.  And, to be frank, we don't have the money to waste to constantly be in style with the times.  Nor do we have the space in our worship books to waste on things we will sing once and nevermore.

So shelf life is an issue for the church.  We need things with a long shelf life.  Liturgies that last for generations upon generations.  Hymns that speak as profoundly to the next century as they did the century in which they were written.  Architecture that can stand through the ages without worrying about style.  Art that is as authentic and beautiful for the next generation as it was for the last.  Vestments that can be worn a long time without looking old.  So when you look at what the church does, where it does it, and how it does it, that which glorifies God and speaks to the moment best is that which is not married to a style that came and went yesterday.