I don’t know who Jonathan Aigner is in churchland circles. I just now that somehow Twitter, erratic wandering star that it is, led me to his essay on worship this morning and it’s worth a read.
Ironically I read it two days after learning that a church I served as a priest in the last decade has dwindled to the point that it will close later this year. I also learned that another church in my old diocese, once a coveted billet for ambitious clergy, closed just before 2015 ended. There’s a lot of that going around these days. When I was ordained, a friend of mine said that the Anglican Church of Canada is folding up like a cheap suit at an August wedding. Twelve years later, his comment seems prescient, or maybe it wasn’t obvious to me at a time.
How much of this decline is due to demographics? A lot, undoubtedly. How much of it is due to secularism, what Charles Taylor called the age of disenchantment? Surely that has something to do with the decline as well. Others will say that the established churches are paying the price of their embrace of liberal theology. It may be true that the evangelical churches are doing better, but some data suggests they are merely holding their own.
Aigner’s suggestion that the decline of liturgy is also a factor is also worth considering.
Set aside, for a moment, the idea that differences over styles of music and praise are the church`s equivalent of society`s culture wars. Think instead about how the way we worship can influence us, train us, and form us as Christians.
My seminary taught me an old Anglican battlecry, lex orendi lex credendi, meaning roughly ‘what is prayed is what is believed`. As Aigner argues, when we turned liturgy into traditional worship, a menu item at the buffet table of the Christian experience, we lost much. We lost the ability of prayer to shape us week by week, year by year. We traded tradition for fad. We embraced social justice, thinking that it was enough that we advertised our churches as inclusive, welcoming, and ecologically friendly. We didn’t ask ourselves if just community itself would suffice, or wonder what would differentiate such a church from, say, the Sunday morning running club. We innovated and tried to be relevant. Well intentioned women squeezed themselves into dancewear and twirled ribbons up the aisle. One church I visited in Guelph, Ontario (now closed) invited worshippers to pray to the spirits of the four winds, without feeling the need to explain who they were or what they had to do with the triune God. We embraced trendy prayer books from New Zealand or Iona, so no two churches looked or prayed the same.
And we wonder what happened?
Today I see signs of the liturgical revival that Aigner is calling for. A university chaplain in Halifax told me about the popularity of sung evensong with undergraduates at his chapel. At an Antiochan Orthodox parish I attended last Easter, the place was packed, converts mixing with New Canadians/old country Orthodox. At the base where I work, the Roman Catholics are rediscovering the Latin mass.
I respect the faithfulness and piety of my evangelical friends. The church needs them. For me, though I need my own place in liturgy, my own places to respond during the service so I can own the work of the church. I need the eucharist prayed faithfully and seriously by my priest. I don`t want to wonder what will come out of the pastor`s mouth next, or ask myself if I can agree with it.
I may be arguing for a nostalgic, boutique form of church that will never attract more than the educated or the aesthetic. Time will tell. Certainly the old infrastructure of the church will be pared away. Lovely old buildings will continue to close. An epoch will end.
I suspect, though, that what arises next will look much like the liturgical church that Aigner is calling for.