Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Prima la liturgia, poi le parole?

Some thoughts of Gawain about the decline in church attendance being the result of a lack of art in the church struck a familiar chord. I was a choir director for a number of years at a Lutheran Church. The Lutherans are a funny lot, liturgically speaking. They have all the liturgical traditions of their closest denominational relatives (Anglicans and Catholics), and yet one would be hard pressed to find this rich liturgical inheritance practiced with any regularity here in Canada.

There is no equivalent movement in Lutheranism to rival Anglo-Catholicism, so the only option for those Lutherans who are more liturgically inclined is to either move to Waterloo, Ontario, where the Lutheran community is large and diverse, and you have great men like Pastor Paul Bosch concerned about liturgy, or, failing that, attempt to bring the liturgical practices that have been there all along, right in pages of the Lutheran Book of Worship they crack open every Sunday, into their own church.

This, my friends, is also known as "pissing into the wind".

For five years, the church pastor and I attempted to bring art and liturgy pack into cold, empty space that was the church. The members of the congregation who were most opposed to these changes also happened to be the most vocal. Support for the reintroduction of weekly communion or the presence of an altar cross would be whispered to us, as though people feared for their lives if their views got out.

The strangest part about the entire exercise was that the main objection to the changes, most of which were very minor, was that we were changing their traditional ways of worship. But here's the thing, and I wonder if others who have been in protestant churches in the past 25 years have noticed the same thing - there are no traditional ways of worship in most churches outside the liturgical orbit of Catholicism. If you asked one group what the liturgical tradition for say, Christmas was, you'd get one answer. You asked another group, you'd get a completely different answer. Many of the immovable "traditions" were things they had only started doing a few years before. Which led us to believe we were working with a blank slate. What a blunder.

So why did they object so much to what amounted to, in effect, a kind of liturgical Counter-Reformation? A return to their own lost traditions.

The only answer we could ever come up with was that they didn't like what they took to be the "Catholicisation" of their church. Most of these people had grown up still firmly under the impression that the Catholics were all going to hell and that a service that resembled theirs would perhaps imply to God that we too were a popish lot, and God might send us to hell too. For celebrating the Eucharist every week. Never mind that in 1997, Lutherans and Catholics signed a document that from a theological perspective, ended the Reformation.


How does one explain this kind of thing? I recognize now that, as someone who wasn’t a Lutheran, just how important these things were to them. What was so important to these people, that were they willing to tear the church apart to keep it out? It was art.

Contrast this with all these wonderful posts over at Heaven Tree about Bali, their culture, and how their life is infused with a kind of aesthetic sensibility, where cab drivers become kings and bureaucrats become gods. Here was a group, upper-middle class and quite worldly, for whom the thought of a more dramatic service or a more colourful church was anathema. These people completely lacked the aesthetic sense so palpable in other parts of the world. For them all that mattered was the Word, and even then, a sermon with too much metaphor and cadence was tut-tutted at coffee hour.

The pastor and I worked to change the services precisely because we believed that if anything was going to “save” the church, it wasn’t going to be jacking up the fees for using the parking lot, or changing more for weddings and funerals (this was the church consensus – revenue generation as solution to spiritual ills). Instead, it was going to be by restoring the active participation of the congregation in the church services they attended. The only way to do this was through a return to the magic and mystery of the ancient rites, because they were the only thing that could attract people who didn’t care for God back into the church.

In other words, we wanted to turn the church into the Bali Arts Festival. And how bad would that have been?


Gawain said...

ALT, great move! i like reading your stuff, but politics bores me (is it a matter of age?); it's great to have your non-political writing broken out into a separate blog which i can throw on my news reader without the need to "weed out"! I am linking to you from "links" and the post you refer to!

Gawain said...

I forgot to comment on your post! :)

I was quite excercised about this issue (fundamentalist hate of ritual/aesthetic pleasure) some time back and wrote about it here.

In fact, back in Feb, I was quite preoccupied with the phenomenon of kalophobia and all the posts surrounding the one I quote here are on the subject.

You see, i don't think it's just hate of Catholics which makes liturgy an abomination; it's hate of pleasure; protestant, reformed religion is supposed to all float in some sort of a high-minded moral sphere, and one way you know you are in moral territory is if you are having a really rotten time.

(Garrison Keillor jokes about it all the time -- we Lutherans suffer, that's what we do).

I really don't know how to explain it. It is a different brain, if you ask me.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

I would agree with you that there's more to this than a dislike of Catholicism, although there is something to not wanting to look Catholic that motivated much of their distaste for these thing.

My own concern is that I actually enjoy church services. We are very lucky in Toronto to have a large anglo-catholic movement, and a number of churches here that allow such crazy things as incense and chasubles in their midst. Some even masses by Palestrina on a regular basis! And they perform them well!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hi, just noticed this. I agree with G, I'd like to read more of this stuff... here's to a new start!

(I was strolling around Westminster Abbey and the neo-Byzantine, Catholic Westminster Cathedral today--the latter wins, hands down!)