A reason why the episcopal churches aren’t getting the liturgy they would like!

This is part two of my pieces from this conference. It also in part answers why Liturgical Studies has not addressed issues of power. I offer this in the sense of ecumenicity and partly because I am in non-episcopal tradition, I can say things people in those traditions can’t.

Lets get the definition out of the way, by episcopal, I mean ruled by Bishops. So Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism are both forms of Episcopal churches. It is technically possible to have Bishops but not be Episcopal. There are situations where the Bishop is the chairperson of a council that rules rather than the individual through whom power moves.

What I gathered from the process was that basically what they were doing was gathering together a number of people who had studied liturgy, asking them to work on the new edition of the liturgy, then taking it to the Bishops who if they did not like it, chucked it out and re-did the work themselves. What is more if someone higher than a Bishop did not like that, then they chucked it out and re-did it once again.

Three things are wrong with this process:

Poor consultative technique

In my home church, we have an eldership which at times requests a group of members, normally a mix of elders and non-elders, to carry out a piece of work on behalf of the eldership. The assumption when the piece of work is done is that it will be accepted. If it isn’t accepted the first line is not for the elders to do it again, but to refer the task back with a directive request from the elders. Quite often a committee will suggest several routes forward and the elders will select which or ask for more information. To reject it out right given that the elders requested the work in the first place is seen as bad form and only to be done as a last resort. Now if a local church can think that far why cannot a Bishop’s council.

The wrong make up of the committee

You would not set a group solely made up of English Literature students to write a piece of poetry to be performed, or a group made up solely of Historians to stage a pageant, would you. However that is basically what the committees are being drawn from. This creates problem as the concerns of tradition and doctrine are pushed to exclude such things as drama, and performance. Safety becomes the dominant thoughts of those carrying out the task. What is more it is the interpretation of the critique and not that of the lay person participating that is dominant. The fact that there is solely an authorised liturgy to use is also problematic. People just cannot get the experience. I a lay non-worship leading individual has probably written more liturgy than most of the Liturgist in episcopal Churches. I simply have written stuff for weekly services when required and for personal devotions. I started doing that about 9 or 10 years of age; normally I work as part of a group, so I learnt from the senior people.

Power is totally Centripetal

Everything works towards being conservative and going with the dominant power. This has become a highly controlled process,where the central discourse is the only one that matters. Now I am not in favour of a total centrifugal process, that is chaotic, but a centripetal one is conservative, dry and rigid. It really does not have the vitality to survive the changing society around the Church. The effect of keeping thing under this sort of control is not to stop change but to make change huge when it does happen. The fact that any difference from the centre is over-ruled may make for a uniformity but does not make for a healthy tradition. It is alienating those who would support a more tolerant centre and in so doing it is creating a smaller group of people who have power, and a larger group of people who feel marginalised. To be healthy a tradition needs ways of including the insights of those on the periphery.

If the episcopal churches want to produce better modern liturgy, or even create people capable of doing it, they need to:

  • have better self discipline when asking people to write it;
  • widen their committees to include non-liturgists such as poets
  • and develop more open consultative methods so as to incorporate the insights of the laos, the entire people of God.

At present I suspect that this is being handled differently at present within the two traditions. In Anglicanism it is leading to the increased use of non-authorised liturgies, whether it is through the use of evangelical style praise services or through the use of Roman Catholic or historical liturgies. Within Roman Catholicism I would expect a growth in folk devotion and a decrease in the attendance and centrality of Mass.

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