Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why Some Conservative Presbyterians Don’t Like Liturgy - Part I

Seven years ago I gave a talk with this post's title at a conference on worship. Since that time I have continued to think about this question. I'd like to deal with this issue again from time to time on this blog. Some of what you find here will be simply copied from that lecture. But after seven more years of experience I do believe it will be necessary to make some corrections and additions to my original points.

I noted at the beginning of my original essay that the title is at once both grotesquely overambitious as well as sheepishly understated. It is overambitious in the sense that it suggests that I might provide some kind of definitive reason or list of reasons for the a- or even anti-liturgical character of much of conservative Presbyterian worship in America. Someone might think, too, that I have some fool-proof antidote for those who have been poisoned against liturgy. I do not pretend to be able to perform either of these miracles.

Despite the provocative title, I have something more modest in view. I will attempt to isolate out of many possible historical, social, cultural, philosophical, theological, and practical factors a few that seem to me to present a strategic challenge to those of us who are working to restore, or better, re-form and implement a Reformed catholic liturgy in our churches.

The title is also timidly understated in that the attitude among many conservative Presbyterians toward liturgy may be much more hostile than the words “don’t like” suggest. Many in our churches, truth be told, are downright afraid of liturgy. They fear it. Some do so out of ignorance or inexperience, or maybe both. They may never have been given any instruction in the biblical and theological rationale for a liturgical service or may simply have never experienced what we are advocating. Their only experience with liturgy may have been at a Roman mass or Lutheran service in which the whole service was mumbled and the congregation's participation was less than vigorous and lively. Others fear it for quasi-historical reasons.

There are, of course, good reasons to fear liturgy, if by liturgy one means simply adopting present-day Roman, Eastern Orthodox, or high Anglican liturgical services. Not everything these communions do, of course, needs to be rejected. Whether we Presbyterians are still justified in rejecting liturgical worship because of its past (and present) associations with Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches is a theological and historical research project that desperately needs attention.

The other good reason to fear liturgical reform is if it means something like repristinating any one past traditional liturgy in the Reformation tradition. The goal of liturgical reform must never be reenacting any particular historical liturgy, be it Augustine’s, Bucer’s, Calvin’s, Knox’s, etc. Our desire must be to reform our catholic heritage according to the Word of God. One Reformed author recently chracterized all liturgical renewals as attempts to “imitate the practices of 500 years ago.” This liturgical romanticism has no place in a genuine liturgical renewal. It is a common straw man in arguments against liturgical reformation. Performing an old, historic liturgy would be the kind of thing an historical reenactment club might do.

The Catholic liturgical scholar Louis Bouyer calls this “liturgical archaeologism.” According to Bouyer, such romanticism constitutes “one of the fundamental problems of the liturgical movement. For no reconstructions of the past—however excellent the period one chooses to try to bring to life—can be achieved without a large admixture of the products of one’s own fancy; and such reconstructions are likely to raise more problems than they can solve” (Liturgical Piety [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1954], p. 12).

As Bouyer warns us in another place, there is always the danger for those interested in liturgical renewal to become possessed by the “spirit of bogus archaeological restoration.” And again: “For if the stubborn rejection of the Church and the world as they are today were held to be the necessary preliminary to any authentic liturgical renaissance, this fact in itself would certainly constitute the most perfect condemnation of that renaissance.” Unfortunately, far too many men in the Presbyterian tradition think that liturgical renewal is reproducing 17th-century Scottish forms or dropping Calvin's Genevan service into the modern world. That is not what I have in mind.

Perhaps we should also note how Liturgical worship and theology have fared much better in what we would consider largely liberal or neo-orthodox Presbyterian churches (like the PCUSA or even the Church of Scotland). This fact alone surely contributes to a confessional Presbyterian's suspicion of all things liturgical. If these churches like liturgy, then it must be bad (see the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Common Worship (1993) and the recent essays on it in Bryan D. Spinks and Iain R. Torrance, eds., To Glorify God: Essays on Modern Reformed Liturgy (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999).

Continue Reading Part II


JATB said...

I recommend the 1946 Book of Common Worship as a negative example: it displays what a lot of Presbyterians do when they try to "go liturgical". Wordy wordy wordy. As a fellow Presbyterian minister recently described it, "Very prolix and stuffy."

We tend to talk everything to death, not realizing that the whole service is sermonic. The 1993 Book of Common Worship is a great improvement in that regard.

BTW it's Iain R. Torrance, not "Ian." As parents of an Iain ourselves, we are sensitive to the wanton anglicizing of that venerable name. :-)

Jeff Meyers said...

Thanks, John. Good comments. Couldn't agree more about the preachiness of so much Presbyterian worship.

RJS said...

I attend the 8am Holy Communion where we used the Book of Common Prayer each week.

As far as I am concerned, there is nothing better. :)