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.

0 Responses

  1. Hi Mike,
    thanks for the link to Jonathan's article, I have read it & resonate with much that he has written there. My church involvement has largely been with Pentecostal, Charismatic & Evangelical congregations. Since my conversion as an 18 year old way back in 1986 I have seen so many fads come and go, and rather like Jonathan am weary of all the "show" element that can go along with it. Christians of all flavours need a decent catechism, they need sound theology, and they need those things to be a part of what they do when they gather together. We need to mine the depths of our history as the church, understand what it is we believe, not just hope the pastors got it right, or dismiss a deeper grasp of theology as something for Bible College or Seminary students. Congregational prayer, theologically "meaty" songs, and pastoral exposition of historical creeds (e.g. Westminster Confession), – would help us to make disciples I believe.

    I hope I've made sense?

    All the best,

  2. I've run into a number of Ponder Anew articles over the past year or two and I must say I quite enjoy them all. I don't necessarily agree with every point, even if I am coming it it all from a similar perspective of being a traditionalist and enjoying ceremony and liturgy and its meaning and significance for me in worship, but it's always interesting to see someone who seems to do a better job to speaking to the whys of traditional liturgy than many in the pulpit these days who see modernism as the route to demographic stability and renewal.

    I personally pray the offices daily and have resigned myself to the certainty that my parish will never offer evensong, or anything beyond the current Sunday Holy Communion. I attend an OCA Eastern Orthodox Parish for Great Vespers on Saturday evenings for a sense of community and connection to ancient liturgy as I say my evening prayers. It also is an opportunity for services involving worship through all the senses. I worship with my eyes as I follow the movement of the liturgy and through the icons throughout the sanctuary. I worship with my mouth through the prayers and chants throughout the evening (it is fully participatory; the only Anglican opportunity for Choral evensong is with a professional choir that sings to you, rather than affording you the opportunity to lift your own voice to god in worship); with my nose as I smell the incense. I am fully engaged in a way that is difficult to do on my own, and in a way in which it is rare to see on a Sunday morning. I don't particularly feel a cultural connection to Eastern Christianity, but I deeply appreciate that they are willing to still provide worship rooted in these ancient practices.