EMPTY PEWS: WHY THEY SHOULD MATTER TO EVERYONE

 

Declining membership in mainstream Protestant and Roman Catholic churches is of a piece with declining membership in service clubs, scouting, Masonry, public schools, and other institutions that have long been a unifying force in American culture. Respect for authority and tradition and norms that is fundamental to such institutions has come to be viewed as something unnecessary or foolish. Without that cultural foundation, each of us is left to invent reality, meaning, and personal significance in isolation. And so, we flounder in tribalism, we fear and reject complexity, and we are grievously divided.

Developments in mainstream Protestantism, especially the Episcopal denomination of which I am a member, are a proxy for changes that bedevil society as a whole.

Mainstream Christian belief and practice have been the ground of my being from birth, but to continue as that person has become challenging. I am far from alone in that. The church has changed so much in the past forty or so years, that many of us who have hung on are glancing at the exit sign.

Besides repellent changes inside the church, we are derided by the growing number of proud seculars on the outside. All too frequently, any statement that touches on belief or related matters is followed by something such as, “I’m not religious” or  “I’m spiritual, but I don’t care for organized religion.” Such positioning seems to imply that we believers have been duped. We aren’t being burned at the stake – it’s just an annoyance – but I don’t like being regarded in that way, especially since these judgmental seculars usually know little or nothing about that thing they are rejecting. They justifiably recoil at fundamentalism, Pat Robertson, and Focus on the Family as simplistic and more political than religious, but then they go on to assume that all Christians are like that. Our detractors are usually ignorant of church history (except maybe some bits about the inquisition and burnings at the stake), theology, and the richness of the liturgical mode.

In a whopper of an irony, the more people abandon the mainstream church, the more the church encourages the exodus by misguided efforts to be up-to-date, inclusive, and hip in words and practice. It’s the opposite of holding strongly to ancient truths and rituals that are the core of established religion. To be sure, challenges other than liturgical changes exist, but in the main, they were around even when pews were mostly full.

I grew up in a church-every-Sunday Presbyterian family. Not the severe kind, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of my ancestors were close friends of John Calvin.

I was quite comfortable with the way church fit in our life. More than comfortable, actually. It had faults, of course. They ranged from snobbishness to the morally indefensible – Baptists were déclassé, Catholics were abhorrent in ever so many ways, and and African-American inclusion was unthinkable. These were attitudes, not articles of faith, but in my memory they were widespread. (It must be said, however, that the Presbyterianism of my childhood carried the possibility, now largely realized, of overcoming such witless ugliness.)

Objectionable characteristics aside, our religion gave us certainty about who we were, as well as structure for everyday living. It did so by being authoritative without qualification. To be confirmed required memorizing the catechism. Once you’d been drilled on the answers to “what is the chief end of man?” and other fundamental questions, and you said them back to the minister and you were confirmed in the presence of Almighty God and his assembled people, a new life based on premodern absolutes and clear purpose began. At least it did for me.

But in time, I tired of the Presbyterian emphasis on preaching. That, and extemporaneous prayers that often went all over the place, sent me looking for something more to my liking.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I lived for a time in an ecumenical community. I left it with regret when I found I was unable to be a self-supporting student in an elite liberal arts program and still keep up with the community’s reading and lectures on Tillich, Buber, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and others. A few years later, I tried being a Unitarian. It had some of what I was seeking, and in it I was recipient of a singular act of kindness in a time of great need, but it still didn’t satisfy.

In the late sixties, I found my way to the Episcopal Church with its elegant liturgy, sense of the sacred, expansive embrace of symbolism and imagery, and elevated artistry in language, music, and movement. In the Mass, the outward forms, the dance steps of the celebrant and acolytes, even some of the hymns were ancient. I liked that. I still do. Singing songs or saying prayers with unnumbered multitudes who had enjoyed them over a thousand years or more is the surest way I know to experience the presence of God.

I had just begun to learn the structure of the Episcopal liturgy and to memorize the Creed, the Gloria, the General Confession and other parts of the Mass, when I moved from Austin to Iraq. As different as life was in that place, the liturgy at St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad was identical in almost every way to that of All Saints Episcopal in Austin. That uniformity became as essential to my religious life as the sense of sharing the pew with all the company of saints from time immemorial.

Upon returning to Austin in 1968, I was dismayed to find that trial liturgies were being used. Revision of The Book of Common Prayer was afoot. Church leaders wanted the language and outward forms to be more “modern,” and in 1979, a new Book of Common Prayer was adopted. The 1928 version that hewed closely to Thomas Cranmer’s 16th century translation of the Latin services from previous centuries was laid to rest.

The Episcopal church was not alone in modernization of liturgy and practice. It occurred throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion. Most – perhaps all, I don’t know – of mainstream Protestantism joined in. Modernization was at the core of Vatican II reforms.

A central argument against use of traditional language in the Episcopal liturgy goes like this. Thomas Cranmer translated the Latin services to English so that worshippers could understand what was going on. (Vatican II did likewise.) Therefore – big leap here – it’s appropriate that the language of The Book of Common Prayer be made more like everyday speech. “I plight thee my troth,” for example, must be excised. When Ann and I were planning our wedding, we were told “nobody knows what that means.” We did. And, I submit, most of the friends and family in church that afternoon did. If they didn’t they would have figured it out more or less, and they certainly would have recognized that what was being said up there by the altar was of inestimable weight. Changing from a foreign language to a known language is not the same as changing from ceremonial language to ordinary language. (Anyway, a case can be made for keeping Latin services, so long as they are accompanied by an observed institutional obligation to  teach Latin.)

Except for some deliberate doctrinal alterations, revisionists tend to see changes in wording as merely linguistic and stylistic. That position overlooks much. Even slight changes of wording involve changes of meaning. “Is now and ever shall be” (1928) is different in small ways and large from “is now and will be forever” (1979), and those who rewrote The Book of Common Prayer must surely have recognized this, or they would not have felt the need to make the change. The first phrase suggests inarguable, absolute truth. The latter is ho-hum appropriate to many occasion, but it serves poorly in solemn religious celebration. One can prefer one form over the other, but to see them as the same is mistaken. “In other words” just does not apply.

The descent into everyday language fails to recognize that it is in the natural order of things for all occasions of moment to employ special-purpose language and movement – the opening of a session of court, military muster, athletic contests (after as well as before), graduation ceremonies, swearing-in ceremonies. “All rise”, salute, put your hand over your heart, “raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The revised language and forms are thought to be not just more understandable but also more inclusive. I suspect revisionists were stung by justified criticism that the Episcopal church was mostly a church of well-off, older white people. So, substitute guitars for plainchant and the pews would fill up with poor people, minorities, and the young. Turn the priest around to face the congregation instead of the altar when he’s celebrating Mass. (Never mind that the words of the Mass are directed to God not to those few in the pews.) Change “confession” to “Sacrament of Reconciliation.”) And so on. I’m tempted to ask why those revisionists couldn’t have gone down the street and joined some denomination that derived less meaning from solemn ritual, instead of turning rich traditional Episcopal ceremony into something as insipid as the user agreement one signs before downloading some bit of software. But I suppose that would be thought rude.

It’s not just that I personally dislike the changes. More important, the effort has failed to increase membership. Decline continues apace. Besides that, I suspect that changes in the liturgy have excluded as many people as it has brought in.

The current Book of Common Prayer offers two different liturgies; Rite I (traditional language) and Rite II (contemporary language). Aesthetically, the difference is equivalent to Taps being played on a bugle and on a kazoo. To make matters more objectionable, there are alternate forms available at various points within both Rite I and Rite II. Not only that, priests exclude parts of the Mass and change the order of  service at will. I suppose in time I could get used to a Daily Office and Mass in which Cranmer is but a memory, but I will never get used to not knowing what to expect when I take my place in the pew and contemplate the cross. And – hold onto your hats – yet another prayer-book revision is underway.

Here’s one more weakness in the way we Episcopalians worship these days. Our services require worshippers to read. No longer can we memorize the important parts and recite them by heart the way we say the Pledge of Allegiance or the Boy Scout Oath. Hunting around in a leaflet for the right text and then reading it is an intellectual exercise. Reciting or chanting or singing sacramental statements in chorus is devotional. Besides that, according to numerous sources, around thirty-two million Americans are functionally illiterate. That being the case, dependence on reading in worship is an impediment to Christ’s admonition to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Just imagine sitting through an Episcopalian Mass, if you couldn’t read.

I  point out again that what is going on in mainstream churches is part of a larger cultural shift, an expression of a divisive zeitgeist.

I am not arguing that if my church returned to high ceremony and traditional language and uniform celebrations, that would cause America to become a united people with widespread concern for the common good. But then, because ways of worship are so connected to other aspects of the culture, it sure couldn’t hurt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “EMPTY PEWS: WHY THEY SHOULD MATTER TO EVERYONE

  1. Mary Jane Wilkie

    This comprehensive commentary is excellent, covering all points, and encapsulates my own reactions to all that has happened in the church and the views of society about church-goers. Feminist that I am, I view prayers starting with “Father” as merely a convention. I could just as well start with “Mother,” but I would have trouble praying to an abstract, e.g., “great spirit of the universe.” People often forget that the priest has no authority except what we confer upon him/her. Unless we relinquish it, the locus of authority is always within us. P.S. The only comment I didn’t understand was about ‘self-supporting student in an elite liberal-arts program.” If you would care to elaborate, I would be interested to hear.

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  2. Nancy Garniez

    We have a lot in common, Paul, starting with the Presbyterian to Episcopalian trajectory. A couple of comments: One critical element of the ancient rituals is their awareness of time: celebration of the liturgical year is so tied up with mysteries of time and timelessness. Also, as a classical musician I am horrified at the extent to which individual perception is increasingly irrelevant in intellectual growth: on what basis might one formulate an identity, a point of view, if not grounded in individual perception? The observance of universal ritual ironically fosters self-awareness in ways that the superficiality of faux-pop can never achieve.

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