Liturgy: Praxis & Pistis

A record of the evolving understanding of Christian liturgy by an ordinary Christian who came to faith among the 20th Century great-grandsons of Ulrich Zwingli. Having left his cradle faith for more sacramental and liturgical climes (yet, still within classic Protestanism), Brother Quotidian seeks to understand the impact of liturgy on Christian spirituality and maturity, and to engage the critical comments, suggestions, and contributions to his quest from others he encounters on the same road.

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Location: North Texas, United States

A Christian since 1970, married since 1981, four-time father; vocational Christian minister; and, currently a priest in the United Anglican Church.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

After a very long hiatus here, I'm returning to blogging, but not at this one. This blog started with great intentions, and perhaps a passable beginning. But, it also started just before the main work of pastoring St. Athanasius Anglican Church took off.

I was swamped. I kept thinking I'd get back to blogging on liturgy. Two things have gotten in the way:

1. Lots to do.

2. I began learning more than I could "process" sufficiently to make coherent posts. I kept putting off putting down what I had been learning, until I felt I understood enough to make sensible comments.

And, here we are.

Meanwhile, I have fired up a new blog on a topic I have pretty well developed ideas about. You can find it here:

I still think I will take this blog back up again. But, now I know better than to say when!

Fr. Bill

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Chant Psalms While You Work!

With apologies to Larry Morey, I've had the following ditty running through my head the past couple of weeks:

Just chant psalms while you work
Lala La, la la la la.
Put on that grin and start right in
to chant psalms loud and long
Just chant a merry tune
Lala La la la la la.
Just do your best
and take a rest
and chant your self a psalm.

When there's too much to do
Don't let it bother you,
forget your troubles,
Try to be
just like a chanting chick-a-dee

And chant psalms while you work
Lala La, la la la la.
Come on get smart,
tune up and start
to chant psalms while you work

This adaptation of the ditty from Snow White applies to me recently on three counts ...

First of all, I've had Anglican chant on my mind a lot since I posted the last blog entry. Since May, I have been giving a group of low-church Protestants who up till then had never chanted a single syllable a crash course in singing the Psalms using Anglican chant. This has required me to distill the technique to very simple instructions, to select (or compose) simple, melodic chants (usually double-chants), to sing them to the class, and to encourage them to sing with me, to teach them how Psalms are to be pointed for chanting so they can understand the pointing marks, and then to follow me as we chant through Psalms and the canticles of the Prayer Book.

The project has given me tremendous encouragement, for it validates what I had suspected all along: that Anglican chant is peculiarly suitable for congregational use precisely because it is so quickly learned and easily remembered. After only about 10 sessions (mostly the "follow along while I sing" kind), the class can now pick up a pointed Psalm or canticle and sing it to any of the eight chants we've learned. Last night, I gave them the pointed text for the Benedictus from the 1928 Morning Prayer service, with no music, and chanted the first line to one of the chants we had learned a couple of weeks ago, asking them to join in with me on the second line and to continue through the canticle if they could. All of them joined right in, and we sailed right through to the end without a bobble. I was ecstatic. These are ordinary Christians with absolutely no experience of chant in their Christian pasts. If they can pick this up as quickly as they have, anyone can.

Along with this involvement with chant, I've found myself engaged by a couple of correspondents who have asked just the right questions to get me to answering them. One is a young woman of Jamaican origin, living in London, reared in a Pentecostal Baptist communion. She candidly acknowledges that the practice of chant -- so foreign to her cradle faith – has always held a kind of fascination for her, one she has never been able to explore. Another correspondent is a Presbyterian law student who hopes to resurrect the practice among his PCA brethren (and, I’m sure, the sistern too). I’m not surprised to find him hinting that it is probably going to be an uphill battle, particularly when I find it to be so among those who are supposed to be the home of Anglican chant.

Second, my second daughter’s wedding to my godson is now only two weeks off, and our household is in full tilt wedding mode. As I find myself presiding over everyone who’s making this event happen, I also find my plate threatening to run over on the floor.

Third, in the midst of all this, a sudden mad-dash across the continent to take advantage of a cheapo air fare and the discovery of a business which purchases the contents of closed churches, monasteries and convents. It looks like a prime opportunity to acquire the altar vessels for the Anglican parish we are planting in our community.

Guess what is not getting much attention? You guessed it. This blog.

I am thinking a lot, and I’ve even begun writing, on the next blog entry, a defense of the practice of chanting the Psalms, cabbaging on to the work of William Law to the same end a quarter of a millennium ago.

Look for something on that [crossing fingers hopefully] in the week after the wedding (August 14).

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Chanty Music's Got to Go!

First a word to the dozen or so folks who read this blog (And, thank you! As long as I know that someone’s reading it, it keeps me honest in certain ways).

For a while, I’m going to be writing about something that goes by the name of “chant” or “plainsong.” Neither of these terms are exactly synonyms for each other. And, as I’ll shortly attempt to demonstrate, “chant” probably does more to retard the practice among Christians than anything else. At any rate, chant (as I develop the term in the next few blog entries) is a feature of Biblical (and, therefore, best) worship that has fallen on hard times. The good news is that maybe, just maybe, what chant used to do for worship (and worshippers) is “missed” at some deep level, so that the prospects for its return to Christian worship during the remaining few years of my lifetime look good.

At any rate, if you’re reading this blog, and you happen to think chant stinks in a burning paper bag, then you might want to take a vacation from this blog for the next few weeks. Or, you might want to read anyway, in case I can change your mind.


I learned to chant (a story for a later blog entry) several years ago, and it had become a regular feature of my devotional life, particularly during Lent, when I would chant through the Psalter on Monday through Friday, five psalms a day. Like any prudent wife, mine was not going to get in the way of a husband’s efforts to cultivate a regular, healthy devotion to Christ. But, I discerned that she was also not particularly taken with the idea of chanting through the Psalms. So far as I could tell, she thought the practice was “one of those things he does,” and she knows I can have a penchant for the slightly bizarre. So, one day I asked her what came to mind when she heard the word “chant.”

Our conversation shed light on her less than enthusiastic appraisal of the practice, and it alerted me to the need for serious apologetics for chanting. You see, I was set on planting an Anglican parish in our small town, a place that has more familiarity with dwarf-tossing than Psalm chanting. After all, everyone around here has seen the dwarf-tossing sight-gag in The Two Towers. Very few have ever heard the Psalms sung in English to Anglican chant.

To get an idea of what I was up against, I decided to do a little field survey. I chose two groups – both of them internet forums where I had established some sort of identity. One forum was populated by people whose Christianity was apt to be familiar with ecclesiastical chant than otherwise – a forum populated by conservative Episcopalians and/or Anglicans, with a smattering of Roman Catholics and Orthodox (usually former Episcopalians or Anglicans). The other forum is populated far more by people similar to those who form the core of the new Anglican parish I’m planting: Christians whose cradle faith (or whose last decade or more of Christian fellowship) is formed by the Zwinglian/Anabaptist stream from the Reformation.

In both groups, I asked this question: “Please write down the first three things that come to mind when you hear the word ‘chant?’ ” I make no claim for scientific validity or reproducibility, but the responses are suggestive. Here is my analysis of the responses I received:


I expected the responses to be a certain way, and indeed they were. Liturgical Christians’ responses were peppered with references to real ecclesiastical singing and its performance by clergy and laity alike. Zwinglian Christians’ responses (with one exception) made almost no reference to anything Christian.

The one association with the word “chant” which was common to both groups was “Gregorian” or some variation on what that word would denote. I take this to be a result of the on-again, off-again popularity of CDs of Gregorian chants, done by monks of various religious orders which have showed up on the music charts from time to time. Such CDs are a curiosity in many people’s CD collections, and everyone has a friend who plays a cut from such a CD once in a while.


As noted above, Christians from communions that are robustly liturgical (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, high-church Anglicans, conservative Lutherans) made far more associations between “chant” and a style of singing at church, whether by clergy, laity, or both. One of the most complete responses of this type was this:

(1) Kieven Chant... the normal liturgical chant of the outer caves of the Kieven Caves Monastery

(2) Valaam Chant... normal chant for the brotherhood of Valaam Monastery, Lake Lagoda, on the Russian/Finish border

(3) Obichod Chant... Imperial Russian court Chant, circa 1900... Other things that occurred to me: Byzantine Chant, Benedictine Chant, Jerusalem Chant Serbian Chant, etc.

In an explanatory note, this respondent noted that each of the three styles of chant were regularly used in his parish worship.

After references to specific styles of chanting (Gregorian being the most common), liturgical Christians mentioned things associated with those who sing this way, including the following: monks, brown robes and white ropes, priests, priests who should not chant, priests in training. Next most commonly mentioned were the places where chanting occurs: church, worship, dark churches lit by candles, religious singing, monasteries.

Least mentioned were non-Christian or non-religious persons or settings: Navajos, Indians, Tibetan monks, Buddhists


Among these kinds of Christians, excepting the word “Gregorian,” most of the ideas or concepts called to mind by the word “chant” were from the realm of the non-Christian or the non-religious. Most often mentioned were Tibetan or Buddhist monks. After them, most mentioned were Indians (American and Far Eastern), Hindus, pagans. Among the frequently mentioned nonreligious ideas were these: pep rallies, nursery rhymes, baby-talk, skipping rope, advertising [from jingles, perhaps?], and rap.

If one ignores the term “Gregorian,” the vast majority of associations with the word “chant” were non-Christian and non-religious.


So, is it folly to plant a smells-and-bells-and-chanting parish, beginning with people who have the non-liturgical backgrounds coupled to these varied, non-Christian, or non-religious associations with “chant?” Should I go forward with my attempt to lay ecclesiastical chant at the very foundation of the parish worship in spite of these associations? So far, the attempt is going swimmingly, and I’ll have more to say about that in later blogging. For now, I’ll make a few observations from the survey:

Most evangelical Protestants are chant-free. Among the kinds of people I’m working with (from backgrounds utterly devoid of any experience of Christian chant of any sort), the word “chant” is virtually an unchristian idea. Even when they think of “Gregorian chant,” and even if they happen to find Gregorian chant pleasant to hear, they nevertheless perceive it as something alien to their experience and expectations as Christians. Bible reading is part of their experience and expectations of Christian spirituality. So also praying. Or preaching. But chanting? Bosh.

This poses something of a problem for me if I attempt to make chanting the Psalms as common an experience and expectation as Bible reading or praying or preaching. Why? Because the mere word “chant” immediately tosses all sorts of higgledy-piggledy ideas onto the table.

What to do? For starters, I’m using the term “plainsong” instead of “chant,” even though plainsong in the narrow sense is just one kind of way to sing Psalms, a way very different from highly melismatic Mozarabic chant, for example. I’m safe in saying this, because Anglican chant has far more in common with plainsong than otherwise. It is, indeed, a variety of plainsong, created expressly for use by congregations at worship. So, "plainsong" will do as a start.

American evangelical Protestants have lost something precious. Clearly this is an opinion that can only be held by those for whom chant is as much of their worship as Bible reading, praying, or preaching. What’s been lost among 21st Century evangelical Protestants (and, evidently, it’s been lost for a couple of centuries now) is more than an antique musical style. Styles come and go, and there is no reason plainsong singing of the Psalms should not sooner or later enjoy a renaissance. Except for one thing: plainsong chanting of the Psalms requires one to think of music and words in a way that seems to turn the singing universe upside down. And, if you cannot even conceive of such an “upside down way of singing,” you will never to adopt the style when it comes back into fashion. You will not even think that chant is something which anyone would ever suppose could be fashionable.

Chant’s place in the Church’s life of worship is presently occupied by choruses. In the interests of full disclosure, I acknowledge two things:

  • I find 98 percent of religious choruses in church worship today to be grotesquely banal, comically trite, and pathetically saccharine. My friend Steve calls them “sacred ditties, projected on the wall,” and that’s one of the kinder things one might say about them. Ask me another time, and I’ll tell you what I really think of contemporary choruses, especially the ones built on verses or phrases from Scripture.

  • On the other hand, I also acknowledge that these choruses enjoy huge popularity, a fact that has brought me near despair more than once.

Reflecting on chant (and many things connected with it which I will discuss in later blogging) I begin to see an explanation for the popularity of choruses, reasons for this popularity that do not require the singers to have the religious sensibility of vanilla custard and the aesthetic sensibility of dirt. Song and word enjoy a symbiosis that anyone can sense, whether or not he can expound it. I suspect that this symbiosis is weakest for the metrical hymns we ordinarily sing in church, and potentially the strongest in chant or plainsong. Contemporary choruses may be a kind of blind lurch in the direction of chant, a sort of pining for something imagined but never actually “missed,” because one has never sung the song one wants most to sing.

What makes this picture less bleak is this: in spite of the loss hinted at above, in spite of the pitiful substitute one finds in contemporary choruses, Christians can still long to sing a song they have never sung, and they have the lyrics already in their Bibles. But, now I’m at a place where I will be covering ground already covered by others, and so I’ll go back over that ground in the next blog when I try to give a freshened up answer to this question: “Why chant the Psalms?”

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Lessons in Liturgy from Dancing

At the end of the previous blog entry, I offered a question – how can a bona fide unity during worship happen for us unless corporate worship is something very like marching, or dancing? The answer, of course, is that something very like marching, or dancing, is required if one is to experience that kind of unity with others, whether in worship or any other enterprise where such unity is sought.

This is no mystery. People have been marching and dancing for millennia, individually and in groups. It is the latter kind of marching or dancing that interests us, for people can march individually (e.g. what you see soldiers doing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC, or at a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace), and people can dance individually, even if they are in the midst of a dancing crowd when doing so. In fact, the kind of dancing you’re most apt to see in a night club these days is that kind of dancing – the dancing which has all the unity of the pile of raked leaves. Yes, everyone’s out there on the floor, writhing, jerking, twisting, or quivering in some vague synchronization to a heavy beat blaring from megawatt speakers in the ceiling. But no one is doing the same dance, exactly the same dance, or their part in an orchestrated dance where each member has a part determined by the whole dance which unifies the dancers.

It is this latter kind of dancing that is comparable to the liturgy of worship. And, the first person to point this out to me was C. S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer. In the very first chapter of that little book, Lewis writes this:

It looks as if [Anglican clergymen] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favor of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain -many give up church going altogether-merely endure.

Is this simply because the majority are hidebound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only entertainment value. And they don't go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament or repent or supplicate or adore. And it enables us to do these things best - if you like, it 'works' best - when, through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God.

There is much that could be unpacked in these comments, and I will no doubt return to them in later blogging (Malcom is the best simple primer on the liturgical mindset I’ve yet run across for popular readers). For now, I’ll merely point to the ways in which worship liturgy and dancing are alike.

Like dancing, liturgy subordinates our individuality to something greater than ourselves. This ought to be a no-brainer, but I mention it first to make a couple of points.

First, liturgy demands a subordination of the individual to the aims and actions of the group if the individual is to participate in the liturgy. Of course, you may attend a liturgy and not subordinate yourself to it. This was true for me the first time I entered an Episcopal church Rite One liturgy. You may attend a Viennese Ball and also not participate in that. Your presence is required for the liturgy (or the Viennese Ball), but your presence guarantees nothing about your participation.

To say that the liturgy “demands” your subordination does not signal coercion. No one is going to compel me to tread on the dance floor when I show up at the Plumber’s Ball in Vienna during Ball Season. In fact, I had better not go out onto the dance floor if I am not there to join the dance. Church liturgies are more gracious in this respect. It is perfectly acceptable to remain in your pew as a spectator while the others are joined in the liturgy.

Like dancing, liturgy does not obliterate the need for individual action. Said another way, liturgy (and dancing) are participatory – you must do something to participate in either. You can’t just sit (or stand) there. Even when the participants are simply sitting there (as, for example, during a sermon), their participation amounts to attending to the sermon. A dull sermonizer may cause you some difficulty, to be sure. It may be difficult to follow someone’s thought when it is wandering and incoherent (same for a woman following a clumsy male partner in a waltz). Or, the preacher may actually commit the equivalent to a dancer’s stepping on his partner’s toes, or guiding her into a passing table or chair.

Doing something with someone (or a whole lot of someones) always entails the potential for discombobulation when one of the someones does not deliver his part in a timely or competent manner. The point: everyone has some part to play, and if anyone’s part is not played well the net result will be a diminishing of the joint effort (whether it be worship, or dancing).

Like dancing, liturgy requires active and constant engagement by the worshipper. Not only must you do something in liturgy (or dancing, or marching), you must pay attention to what you are doing. You cannot sleep; you cannot let yourself multi-task on a psychological level, unless you want to embarrass not only yourself, but also many others. I mention this because some who don’t know what they’re talking about will criticize liturgy as dull and boring, as if it were done by robots. “Dead, dull liturgy” is the nasty name given to those who are worshipping liturgically by those who do not know how to worship at all. It’s like a man with no feet mocking the complex patterns of a marching band, or the elaborate intricacies of a Baroque minuet.

Like dancing, liturgy creates something greater than the sum of its parts. This is, perhaps, hard to appreciate unless you’ve participated in a dance that unites its members in something bigger than themselves. It doesn’t take a membership in a Metropolitan Ballet Company production to experience this. Square dancing, done well, shows the same dynamic. Even something so simple (and often so silly) as line dancing at a Country and Western Saloon will give you a hint of what I’m talking about here. Or, precise close-order drill on a military parade ground. Or, marching in the high school or college band during a half-time show. Watching these things will never substitute for being one of the marchers, or dancers, or worshippers.

Like dancing, liturgy enhances one’s own private experience. This principle of liturgy “works” only for those who know the liturgy so well that their attention is not wholly occupied with keeping themselves engaged. As Lewis put it, if you need to think every second where to put your foot next, you are not yet dancing – you are, instead, learning to dance, or practicing the dance you’ve learned. But, once the steps are known, known so well that your body fairly flows from one step to the next, then one may focus on one’s dancing partner. Or, on God (in the case of worshipping through a liturgy).

This principle (known by all good dancers, and all good worshippers) explodes the anti-liturgical myth that liturgy suffocates individual experience. Liturgy can be fun for exactly the same reasons dancing can be fun. Or, liturgy can stir your soul and reduce you to tears of grief (at your sins), or gratitude (for God’s grace), or joy (at the communion with God Himself). “Cold, dead worship” is another one of the canards bandied by those who do not know how to worship when speaking of those who worship liturgically.

I served as a chalice bearer for many years in Episcopal Eucharists. These occasions allowed me to survey the faces and deduce the demeanor of literally thousands of worshippers as they approach the Lord’s Table. I cannot recall ever seeing anyone I thought to be bored. A sizeable minority seemed genuinely shaken, or burdened by a weight of something which showed clearly in their faces, what old-time Baptist evangelists might have deduced as evidence that the man or woman was “under conviction.” Many more looked to be quietly joyous. Tears were not uncommon at all.

Speaking of tears, when my wife and I first began attending an Episcopal Church, we soon began to rate the services in terms of the number of tissues we used to wipe our eyes and to blow our noses. A three-hankie Sunday was pretty intense, and we experienced a few four and five hankie Sundays at the beginning. Why? My wife and I are not known to be emotional people in public. We’re not “criers” when we feel something strongly.

The best explanation I can offer is to compare ourselves at the beginning of our participation in liturgical worship to someone out-of-shape who joins an aerobics and calisthenics class at the YMCA. Nothing you do in that class is extraordinarily athletic; but, if you are out of shape, doing these unremarkable things gives you aches and pains in places where you didn’t know you had places. In general, strong emotion will make you cry when your spirit is too weak to sustain the emotional impact of some event. Tears are a kind of safety valve, a way to bleed off a dangerous excess of emotional response – and, any emotion can produce such tears. We may cry at excessive joy as well as from excessive fear, or anxiety, or grief, or gratitude, or (paradoxically) from excessive relief. Lift a crushing weight of guilt from a sinner and he will likely cry – not because it “hurts” to be forgiven, but because he is unaccustomed to the welter of emotions that attend a certain pardon from things lying on his conscience, things which he fears may sometime see the light of day.

Liturgy does not suppress emotion. Rather, liturgy generates emotion by the way it focuses the worshipper’s attention on any number of divinely sanctioned truths, and applies those truths to the worshipper’s own soul and situation. The result is frequently emotional, sometimes massively so.

Like dancing, liturgy creates the occasion for truly individual expression. Again, good dancers will know this, and even those who merely observe dancing will see that this is true. The best dancer is the one who never misses a single step or beat, and whose movement through the dance is festooned with small details idiosyncratic to the dancer himself.

C. S. Lewis, in fact, used the word “festoon” to describe how set prayers – those things which the cramped anti-liturgical soul thinks to be confining – are actually powerful generators of individual expression in prayer. In the fifth chapter of Letters to Malcom, Lewis introduces a discussion of these festoonings:

I don’t very much like the job of telling you “more about my festoonings” – the private overtones I give to certain petitions. … I call them “festoons,” by the way, because they don’t (I trust) obliterate the plain, public sense of the petitions but are merely hung on it.

Lewis then goes on to expound the festoons he attaches to phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. As we read Lewis’ discussion, we find discover that the Lord’s Prayer – prayed repeatedly in worship service after worship service over the years of his Christian pilgrimage – has occasioned a complex development of Lewis’ own spiritual maturity. Consider, for example, Lewis’ comments on “Thy will be done:”

My festoons on this have been added gradually. At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God’s will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. … This interpretation is, I expect, the commonest. And so it must be. And such are the miseries of human life that it must often fill our whole mind. But at other times other meanings can be added. So I added one more.

The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God’s will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given “the same mind which was also in Christ.”

… But more than that, I am at this very moment contemplating a new festoon. Tell me if you think it a vain subtlety. I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean?

Are these the thoughts of someone whose repeated praying of exactly the same words hundreds and hundreds of times has put him in a rut? Quite the contrary.

What we see in Lewis’ experience with praying the Lord’s prayer – and this will be true of one’s use of any part of the liturgy, not just the prayers – is a paradox which only liturgy possesses: the more complex and “set” the liturgy, the greater the room for individual embellishment by the participant in the liturgy. Lewis’ festoons are like small improvisations in a dance, improvisations which demand for their context the stability of the liturgy they festoon. An accomplished artist knows that improvisation has the greatest effect when the strictures of art are slavishly followed. The most thorough-going compliance to standards affords the greatest freedom for novelty. The liturgy-impoverished soul will never understand this. It is like asking a blind man to appreciate how three colors – and only three colors – afford the possibility of zillions of colors.

Like dancing, liturgy only gets better the more you do it. On April 15, 1751, Peter Manigault in London wrote to his mother back home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was learning the minuet, and this is what he wrote:

I have learned to dance almost six Months, & as I have a great Inclination to be a good Dancer, am resolved to continue learning a few Months longer, I am to go pretty often this Summer to an assembly at Chelsea, in Order to compleat myself in that genteel Science. I have been three or four times this Winter, at an Assembly at Mileud: the first time I danced a Minuet in public, my Knees trembled in such a Manner, that I thought, I should not have been able to have gone through with it, however by taking all Opportunities of dancing in Public, I have got over that foolish Bashfulness. [see endnote 1 below].

I certainly felt that way the first time I attended a thoroughly liturgical service. First, I watched attentively for several weeks. The “dance steps” of Anglican worship were easy from the pew (stand to praise, sit for instruction, kneel to pray). And, the other “steps” were not difficult to execute: genuflecting, bowing, making the sign of the cross in two different ways, depending on where in the liturgy one was. Timing seemed tricky at first. I could not anticipate where the next occasion for bowing or crossing oneself would occur; but, it was no big deal to simply copy what others were doing around me a second or so after they did it. It was very much like learning to waltz by mimicking walzers, though easier. And, of course, the Prayer Book was a huge help. There were the words we all used for our prayers, for our praises, for out adoration, for confessing our sins, for receiving absolution, and so on.

Still, it all felt so weird to someone reared in Southern Baptist Spartan spirituality. It made me feel very self-conscious at first. But what worked for Peter Manigault worked for me. Taking every opportunity to worship with others who were comfortable with liturgical worship soon had me “over that foolish Bashfulness.” It simply took me a while to get my eyes off myself (no one else around me cared two figs, which was another lump for me to digest).

And, now it all feels as comfortable as a well-broken in pair of shoes. And, all the blessings described above (and many more to be described later) are mine, routinely.

[1], from Mabel Webber, “Peter Manigault’s Letters” [to his mother in Charleston, SC] The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 31/3 (July, 1930), 277.

Monday, June 21, 2004

The Unity of Raked Leaves
& A Marching Platoon


When I was a young pastor, fresh out of seminary and merrily engaged in the care of my first flock, I ran smack into a problem which eventually brought me to the flock I am now beginning to shepherd 25 years later. After a 25-year long false start, I’m starting over again.

The reason is very simple, and I think I can expound it in the next 26 paragraphs. That it should take a quarter century for me to write these few hundred words is telling – you decide what it tells. I’m going to explain what I wish I had known back then. It would have saved me a lot of time, and at this time of life, I feel cheated that those 25 years are long spent and unrecoverable.

About half-way through that first pastorate (it lasted four years), I was sitting at a table with the congregation’s elders, analyzing a problem – or at least what I perceived to be a problem. While our congregation was not wracked with dissension or party spirits or schism, neither were we united. The elders didn’t agree with my assessment (mostly because they didn’t understand what I was trying to explain), so I resorted to an image.

“Men, when we assemble on Sunday mornings, we have all the unity of a pile of raked leaves. We are together in one place, and so are the leaves. And, it’s usually the same thing or things have brought us or the leaves to one place. But, that’s just about it. We are connected, for a little while, by place and not by much else. Even when we’re all doing the same thing (like singing a hymn), I think a good number of us are still acting as lone rangers, along with all the other lone rangers in the room around us.”

Their uncomprehending stares frustrated me, for I knew I had gone just about as far as I was able to go in explaining what we lacked during our Sunday morning worship together. And, trying to describe what is not there is about as difficult a task as you could choose. I needed some other analogy, a positive one, positive in the sense of setting forth a genuine exemplar of what I wished we could achieve as Christians gathered to worship the Triune God of the Bible.

I actually had such an analogy, but I didn’t use it. It wasn’t a religious one (well, okay; neither is the pile of raked leaves), but worse, it was a kind of mystical experience I would be pointing to, one I feared they might not appreciate, one I feared they had never experienced themselves, and (worst of all) one which I feared they might scoff at.

Let me share it here, however, because you are not one of my elders and if you think I’m cracked, I’ll survive that just fine.

I reported for boot camp in San Diego California, at the United States Marine Corps Recruit Depot on October 12, 1968. Placed into a platoon of 72 skin-headed, confused, and terrified slimeballs, we quickly found our psyches being systematically dismantled by the Drill Instructor, before he endeavored to re-assemble us into something useful for the Marine Corps and its missions overseas. Among the few, foundational ideas he strove to pound into our thick skulls was this one: our identity derives from the team to which we belong (in this case, the training platoon). We must never think of ourselves individually, but only in terms of the team, in terms of the unit, a unit to which we made a contribution (obviously), but nevertheless a team which gave us far more in terms of identity than the other way round.

Training us in this idea had utterly ignored our intellect – rather, it proceeded via gutsy, frequently painful, deliberately painful trials. We ate together, we slept together (yes, separate bunks, but into our bunks the same instant, and out them the same way). We showered and shaved together, we laundered our clothes together, we defecated and urinated together, as a group, never individually. We attended class together, got our shots together, received and read mail together, polished shoes together, cleaned our rifles together. I cannot remember doing anything, ever, which was not also being done by all 72 of us at the same time.

When we failed, we were punished together. No, that’s not right – when one of us failed, we all were punished together. And, there was no praise, no reward, unless it was earned by everyone together – which meant we went many, many weeks without praise, or reward.

Now, a momentary digression – the unity we seek with one another in worship does not need to be achieved through the tools available to the drill sergeant in the Marine Corps, although I will note in passing that shared suffering produces much unity, among both Marines and the saints. I am resorting to my boot camp memories for three reasons: (1) it was expressly designed to forge a unity of identity and action among us thoroughly individualistic recruits; (2) this goal was pursued by constant and never-relenting focus on unity of action; and (3) our abiding failure to be unified produced a hungering and a thirsting for unity that became voracious.

A crisis arrived one evening at about the two-thirds mark in our 16 week training. By this time we had learned enough of the basic “steps” and movements of marching to stagger through a miserable parody of parade drill, a parody because our bumbling lack of precision was highlighted at each and every step, miserable because every time 72 heels struck the pavement we could 72 thuds, compacted together in time but still distinguishable from one another.

We had marched and marched and marched, night after night after supper, while our drill instructor sang a gravelly cadence, richly interspersed with long, blisteringly profane denunciations of our marching as a mob instead of marching as a single man. It was mid-November and the parade ground was dark. There was no moon, and the distant lights emphasized the murkiness through which we plodded, 72 sputtering heels, accompanied by the acrid scorn of the DI’s cadence.

We were all near to drowning in despair when a miracle happened. Like a rifle shot, all 72 right heels struck the darkened parade ground the same instant. It was followed by an anguished mushy muffle of 72 left heels hitting the same asphalt in 72 different slivers of time. But 72 hearts had leapt out 72 chests to hear that single sole slap the pavement. The hair on our ears prickled. And, then it happened again. Just once. But we heard it, and it was a noise we had made. A single unmuffled crack. Seventy-two hearts were near to bursting with longing.

Again. Crack.
And again. Crack.
And again. Crack.
And again. Crack.

The drill instructor’s voice was silent. We were in the darkest part of the parade ground, heading into the inky blackness of a thick stand of trees that shaded any light from the distant horizon. We didn’t care. We weren’t watching. We were listening as if our lives depended on whether or not the next sound was a Crack. Crack. Crack. We hoped it would never stop.

And, then we heard a sound that truly pierced our hearts with a joy so strong it scalded us. Low, from the rear of the platoon, the Drill Instructor’s low, lilting voice began to sing cadence over the sound of the blows drumming on the pavement. Softly at first, as if anxious to disturb something so fragile as the sound of 72 heels striking the ground in a single, sharp cracking slap. But we had it. At long last it was ours, and there was no way we would turn loose of it.

And so his voice grew stronger, fuller; long, insistent phrases flowing, skipping above the confident crack, crack, crack. Until he was in full song, a powerful, coursing current of gorgeous, manly syllables with no meaning other than to crown the metronomic crack, crack, crack of 72 heels marching as one.

We made a duet in the dark. And we marched like that, and he sang like that for an hour or more. We’d have joyfully marched all night. The next day we learned that all of us had lain awake in our bunks long after taps had faded, savoring the solitary booming beat we no longer heard with our ears, relishing the unity we no longer felt in our feet.

So, …

That’s what I didn’t tell my elders twelve years later. I wasn’t sure they’d understand. The unity of a pile of raked leaves – surely that was accessible. And whether they concurred with the light esteem I gave such unity, they probably understood what I was pointing to.

But, the unity of a marching platoon – that marching platoon – well, I could not have borne their scoffing or jesting about the most electric engagement of unity that I had, up to that point, ever experienced. If I thought I could have gotten away with it, I’d have related to them what I have just finished describing. I remember it as if it had happened last night, instead of 25 years ago. And, to aspire to something at least that wonderful when gathered with the saints in their union with Jesus and their worship of the Father with Him in the unity of His Spirit – well, that may be asking a lot, but surely it is not asking for anything out of the ordinary for Christians.

How do 30 or 50 or 150 or 500 souls pray as one, praise as one, confess as one the faith once given to them, and not to them only but to all the saints? Whatever else the communion of saints means, might it also point to a unity that not only transcends a multitude of souls gathered in one place, but also transcends the multitude that cannot be numbered, that mighty army, terrible with banners, marching down the centuries of time?

How does that happen for us? How can it happen, unless there is something more among us than the unity of a pile of raked leaves? Something which happens very like a marching platoon? Or a multitude dancing?

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Liturgy as Poison

Finally, I’ve gotten this finished! Its delay had nothing to do with the difficulty of the subject matter, which is as plain as the miter on a bishop.

So, here’s a lesson on liturgy from a car wreck …

As a teenager, my aunt was traveling across the Mojave Desert with other family members one evening 50 years ago. In those days, the traffic across the desert at night was pretty thin. Rare even. In the middle of nowhere, a blowout at a most inopportune spot sent the car careening off the road into a desert wash.

No one was killed. All but my aunt were banged up and unconscious. My aunt, however, was merely pinned in the wreckage. The car did not burn, fortunately, but that also meant it was totally dark. And, the horn was blowing. It kept blowing until the battery was exhausted. That probably took over an hour, maybe longer. No one knows, for no one but my aunt was able to hear it.

And, she doesn’t want to remember it. When everyone was rescued, my aunt was relatively uninjured in body, but pretty well brutalized in her mind (by the car horn). For months thereafter, the sound of a car horn blowing would provoke her to uncontrollable crying. For years, she experienced what today are called anxiety attacks, always prompted by the blowing of a car horn, especially a long, steady blow on a car horn.

No one needs a Ph.D. in psychology to understand why car horns (in themselves, innocent things) provoked such powerful negative emotions in my aunt. For her, for the reasons described, car horns became a kind of poison, a toxic trigger, a sensate experience welded to a horrible situation. We have all heard about such things, and perhaps you have your own equivalent.

I know Christians with this kind of problem, except it’s not a car horn, but religious liturgy which provokes all the negative emotions. For them, liturgy is poison.

Of course, liturgy cannot be poisonous, any more than a car horn. But, (as my aunt’s experience demonstrates) it can sure facilitate the effects of something poisonous. Exactly how it does so takes a bit more explaining, more than I intend to go into in this blog entry (more about that when I talk about sacramental dynamics later). For now, however, I simply want to make this point: whether for good or ill, liturgy leaves a brand on us, and that brand is very difficult (perhaps, in some cases, impossible) to remove.

“Branding” is a harsh term, and so it’s not useful to denote the ways that all of us are “branded” by things in our lives which amount to liturgy, and which we would call liturgy, except that these “liturgical” occasions in our lives are not really religious in nature, and do not have the worship of God as their purpose. Consider Thanksgiving Day dinner, for example. Or birthday observances, or national holidays (the Fourth of July in America will do for an example). The observance of these holidays marks us every bit as much as a branding iron would, and the effects are there for us to see, even if others cannot.

My wife, born on December 26, never feels like it is her birthday unless she gets a present to mark that particular day. It makes no difference that Christmas was an occasion for gift giving – that was to honor (even if only mistily) God’s gift of Jesus to the world. To mark her birthday, it takes a gift for her, for that day.

Or consider the birthday cake. Like me, my wife’s birthday is “off” if there is no cake to mark the occasion. One holiday when she was a teenager, she was in the home of a matron whose Christmas celebration included the making of cakes. My wife relates that this matron baked 11 cakes – each one of them a different kind. As family and friends circulated through her home, the cakes were offered to her guests. Here’s the interesting thing – amidst the abundance of cakes, my wife felt her birthday was diminished, because not a single one of those cakes was ever designated as “hers,” the cake to mark her birthday.

We can multiply these kinds of examples all day. Unless our childhoods were utterly chaotic, they possessed a variety of rhythms, connected to festal occasions. And the repeated observance of those occasions, in the company of other family members (often, with neighbors thrown in for extra fun), helped to shape our identities, our expectations of the future, our social equilibrium, our sense of home, our sense of place, our perspective on everything from ants to angels. We are social creatures, and the rituals by which social life proceeds – birthdays, other anniversaries, seasonal experiences, weddings, funerals, baptisms, annual outings to the mountains, or the beach, or to family reunions (the possibilities go on and on and on) – all these “cultural liturgies” form a matrix that creates, shapes, and sustains our identities as human beings.

Now, against this background, let’s narrow our focus to things religious, things that might more obviously be called “Christian liturgy.” And let us consider a certain kind of Christian (I know several personally) …

Benjamin was reared in a Roman Catholic family. His parents faithfully took him to mass every Sunday. It was a pre-Vatican II mass, so it didn’t have the features which make traditional Catholics today groan and mutter curses under their breath. Benjamin was not rebellious as a boy, or a teenager. However, he also was not engaged at any spiritual level with the masses he attended. There were forms aplenty (genuflecting at the pew before entering, signing oneself with the cross at certain points in the liturgy, receiving the host from the priest), but they were by and large empty of meaning.

In college, Benjamin met a campus minister from Campus Crusade for Christ. He was vibrantly enthusiastic about his faith, he exuded confidence in Christ and the gospel, he fearlessly witnessed to his faith to unbelievers (including Benjamin), and Benjamin’s heart was captured. He made a profession of faith in Christ at a rally held in a large private dorm next to the campus. The Crusade staff member took Benjamin as his own disciple, tutored him in the rudiments of the Christian faith, trained him to share his faith with others, and brought Benjamin along with him as he ministered to others and shared the gospel with unbelieving students. Benjamin grew in his faith; he kept growing after he departed the campus. Benjamin is, today, a committed Christian husband, father, and church leader.

And, Benjamin hates liturgy.

When Benjamin visits his mother’s Catholic church he gets the willies. When Benjamin visits a high-church Anglican service, he gets the willies. When Benjamin visits a nondenominational church that sprinkles a bit of liturgy into its worship service (say, for example, the antiphonal reading of a psalm), Benjamin gets the willies. Benjamin avoids liturgical services if he has a chance to do so.

For Benjamin, liturgy is poison. Why?

I knew people like Benjamin before I ever understood why. Almost all of them were former Roman Catholics. Or, former Orthodox. Or, former Episcopalians. Or, former Lutherans. They were all from Christian traditions that have a pronounced commitment to liturgy as a form of worship. Another common feature is this: they all came to a saving, living faith in Jesus outside their cradle Christian communions. And, finally, they all judged the liturgical forms of their cradle communions to be the reason why they never came to faith in Christ. The murky liturgy – murky because it was never explained, never expounded – is often viewed by these kinds of Christians as a positive hindrance to understanding the gospel.

Sometimes, it is another factor which sets one against these traditional forms of Christian piety and worship. Consider, for example, the following statement by a choral director that appears in a blog where the subject is the role of the choir master to the pastor of a congregation:

Church polity, especially that of the Anglicans and Romans, is, for some narcissistic types, an open invitation to abuse the staff. Many a musician has been summarily fired for no good reason, to feed the inflated ego of “Herr Pastor”. I personally do not intend ever again to work in the Anglican church — the church of my childhood — because of their polity, which is very much like “the Divine Right of Kings”. Yes, the pastor does and should have the final word, but that does NOT give him the right to abuse the musicians — passive-aggressive games, etc.

Now, a question: what do experiences like this tell us about Christian liturgy? Before I give an answer, here are some illegitimate answers:

Liturgy is bad for you. I reject this out of hand, because liturgy is the creature of God Himself. Whatever else you say about the Old Testament system of worship, it is robustly liturgical. To suppose that God mandated a method of worship that was intrinsically toxic to one’s spirit is simply wrong-headed.

Liturgy is meaningless mumbo jumbo. I wonder about this. Certainly, an unexplained liturgy might reduce to meaningless mumbo jumbo. And, I have no doubt that a chronic avoidance of explanation lies behind many cases of “toxic” liturgy.

But, suppose you are an alien from Planet Zorg, equipped with an invisibility shield and a little thingy in your ear that automatically translates any alien language into something you can understand. You teleport to earth, materializing (invisibly, remember) beside a man leading a goat by a leash to another man, robed in white, who stands with a large knife beside a pile of wood. The man with the goat puts his hands on the goat’s head and begins to say things like “I have lied to my boss, I have stolen from my brother, I cursed God and man when I ought to have given thanks.” He steps back, and the man with a knife slits the animal’s throat. Its blood pours onto the ground. He heaves the carcass onto the pile of wood, and the whole thing is ignited. The goat-bringer and the goat-slayer stand and watch until nothing but ashes remain. Then the goat-slayer turns and says “Go in peace, my son. The Lord has forgiven you.”

Strange to your alien ears and experience? Let’s suppose so.

Beyond comprehension? Not at all, especially after meditation on what you have seen and heard. Especially after you have seen this enacted over and over. Your understanding may never be complete without a teacher; but, it is poppycock to suppose you cannot puzzle out something authentic about the meaning of the ritual you have observed.

And this very ritual, or several of them fundamentally similar to it, is a staple of Old Testament spirituality. The point: even without instruction, the meaning of the liturgy is not impossible to see, at least in its outlines. And, of course, God made provision for instruction by scattering the Levites throughout all the cities of Israel, rather than giving them a territory to themselves.

If the liturgy of one’s cradle communion is opaque, it is no fault of the liturgy. And, it is not the fault of liturgy that its observers abide in ignorance of its meaning. My children were always asking me, “Daddy, why do we kneel before entering the pew? Why do we bow when the cross passes down the aisle? Why does the priest say ‘The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation’?”

Blaming liturgy for your ignorance of the meaning of liturgy is like blaming your scurvy on oranges because no one ever explained the nutritional value of Vitamin C.

Liturgy hides the truth of the gospel. Liturgy confuses the truth of the gospel. These are the same or different criticisms, depending on whether the critic thinks there is any shred of the gospel buried in the liturgy he criticizes. But, both are contradicted by the simple fact that liturgy, when it is informed and shaped by the Biblical revelation, is the surest way to lodge the gospel firmly in the heart of the Christian. Christian life begins with a liturgy – baptism. Christian life is sustained by a liturgy – the Eucharist. And, if it is a liturgy that follows the shape of the Christian worship in all places through all the ages (excepting certain backwaters of the Reformation), the Christian liturgy of worship will exercise the Christian spirit in a wide array of spiritually wholesome, spiritually edifying, spiritually maturing behaviors – prayer, confession of sin, confession of faith, praise, sacrifice, thanksgiving, intercession for others, receiving the Word of God, learning doctrine, finding correction, being equipped for the work of ministry. All these things are done, and done best, when done with, in, and through liturgy. The particulars I will expound in later blog entries.

What, then, do we learn about liturgy from those who are allergic to it? Just this: liturgy is incredibly powerful to shape the faith of the soul who encounters it. From those for whom liturgy is a poison, we learn that this power can work for ill as well as for good. And, paradoxically, for some unfortunate Christians (and, of course, I judge them to be very unfortunate indeed), their very aversion to liturgy is a pungent testimony to liturgy’s power to fix belief into a matrix that is very stable, and probably unalterable (except, perhaps, through very severe trauma). In their case, their encounter with liturgy has inoculated them against liturgy. Their lot is like the man who saw so little of value with his eyes that he poked them out with a stick, and then judged that those with eyes were seeing only deceitful mirages.

Can one live without eyes? Of course. I have a friend who is blind from birth. He understands on one level that he is handicapped; but, he does not mourn for having never seen a rose. He and I know that one day he will see a rose, and much more than a rose. And, by God’s grace, he is patient to await that restored vision.

I have friends who have eyes that, nevertheless, do not see. They do not see the things liturgy would show them, they do not receive what liturgy could impart. Where others see grace, and beauty, and heavenly glory, they see only confused mumbo jumbo. I know that one day they will see the grace and beauty and glory, for they will join the Church Triumphant in those luxuriantly liturgical courts of heaven and its worship around the Throne of the Lamb.

Can I help them enjoy a foretaste of the world to come? I honestly do not know.

Unworking the mysterious works of liturgy on the Christian soul is a puzzle I do not know how to solve. But, the intractability of this puzzle convinces me that liturgy is not a game, nor a dilettante’s pastime.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Lessons on Liturgy from Baptists

First a few disclaimers, so no one misunderstands my attitude toward Baptists in this essay.

1. I came to saving faith in a Baptist context. It was the Baptists who taught me the simplest version of the gospel, who taught me who Jesus is, why he came into the world as a true human male, what he was doing on the cross, and how his sacrifice there atoned for my sins. They taught me how his work on the cross redeems me from all my sins, and that his resurrection is a pledge of the resurrection which awaits me at his return to the earth. They baptized me in water (by immersion, of course) in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In all of this, the Baptists were (and, for the most part, continue to be) good catholics. And while we’re on the topic of catholics, you must never overlook the capitalization or lack thereof when I use this word. I know what I’m writing, and I know how to write it. You should take care to note what you’re reading.

2. I kept my Baptist treasures, for they are (as far as they go) the treasures of catholic Christianity. When I departed Baptist ecclesiastical culture for other climes, I was not running away from something evil or perverse; and – this is very important to keep in mind as you read what follows – I took most anything of spiritual value with me when I departed. I needed and sought something that was not found among my Baptist ancestors; but, that means nothing about the good things found among them then (and now as well).

Are Baptists Liturgical?

So, how do I come to point to my Baptist beginnings as containing the earliest roots of sacramental spirituality and liturgical worship which now characterize my Christian faith? Aren’t the Baptists known for eschewing these things? For repudiating these things? Aren’t Baptists as liturgical as Communists are capitalist?

Well, yes and no. Part of the problem here is that Baptists are actually as liturgical as acorns are oak trees. You’ll find as many bells and smells (in the high-church Anglican sense of that idea) in a Baptist church as you’ll find acorns in a lumber yard. But, if you puzzle anything out about the lumber, you might just find yourself backtracking its history all the way to a stand of trees shading a mass of grass which is thick with acorns, some destined to become trees themselves.

What is Liturgy?

Let’s drop the metaphors and get to one of the points here – the word “liturgy” and what it often connotes in these discussions. gives the following definitions of the word:

1. A prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship.
2. The sacrament of the Eucharist.

The second definition is pregnant with unmentioned details which could be elaborated – the kinds of things you’d see, hear, touch, smell, and taste if you participated in a routine Anglican, or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox Eucharistic celebration. And, none of this, certainly not in the forms you’d find in those communions, would ever appear in a standard Baptist worship service.

The first definition, however, “works” just as well for a high pontifical mass as it does for the closing service at a revival at First Baptist Church in Needles, California (where I saw a number of such services as a boy). In this sense, Baptists – or, at least, this or that Baptist congregation – have a liturgy. All liturgies, from pontifical high masses to Baptist Sunday morning services, will have some variation in minor details, but the “shape of the liturgy” will be standard, and some elements in the liturgy are almost mandatory. In my Baptist days, it was the invitation at the end of the preacher’s evangelistic sermon. In fact, the sermon itself, drawn from anywhere in the Bible, was eventually an evangelistic sermon, no matter how far from evangelism the Biblical text might be. This was one of those near-mandatory features of Baptist liturgy.

More Than Just A Schedule

But, liturgy in this elementary sense is more than just a schedule. A schedule has elements, and the elements have an order, a sequence, which is sometimes dictated by the internal logic of the liturgy, sometimes the result of custom. The offering, for example, could appear in many places in a Baptist liturgy. It is usually one of the preliminarys before the preaching of the sermon. Indeed, it “must” be before the sermon, because of the internal logic of a standard Baptist liturgy, which has the evangelization of the lost as its most fundamental purpose. For this reason, the whole service moves toward the climax of the sermon, the invitation. The denouement must be either the wistful prayer of the pastor for lasting conviction on those who did not come forward, or the joyful introduction of those who walked the aisle to profess faith in Christ, to rededicate their lives to Christ, or to move their letter of membership to this particular Baptist congregation. The final Big Bang of the service must be the invitation, and what follows it cannot be allowed to diminish it.

Interestingly, in services which follow the Baptist liturgy as to the elements and their scheduling in the service, but whose climactic moment is NOT an evangelistic invitation, I have sometimes seen the offering moved to the end of the service, after the sermon. The rationale for this, explained to me by those who feel a need to defend this seemingly “unorthodox” practice, is that it affords people an opportunity to “respond” to the preaching of God’s Word by making an offering (ostensibly, out of gratitude).

More Than a Service

What would happen if a Baptist Church decided to drop the gospel invitation? I’ve seen discussions about this, and heard about even more of them. It is not a pretty sight. Why?

Just this – to drop the gospel invitation from the end of the sermon in a Baptist Church would be tantamount to abandoning the identity of the Baptist worship service. “We’re Baptists, for crying out loud! We’re here to preach the gospel. Of course we’re going to keep the invitation after the sermon.”

Of, how about this – some intrepid soul in an old-line Church of Christ decides that the classic prohibition of musical instruments in that denomination should be modified to permit the use of a piano, or an organ. Howls of protest can be expected. Or, if a new Church of Christ congregation is founded on this very departure, you can be sure that other Churches of Christ leadership will roundly admonish, possibly condemn, this departure from Church of Christ identity.

What if Roman Catholics stopped saying the Hail Mary? What if Episcopals decided to practice immersion as the only form of baptism? What if Assemblies of God congregations decided it was better to stop speaking in tongues? In all these cases, the groups would diminish, if not utterly erase, their own distinctive identities. You can enter a Roman Catholic Church service and figure out pretty quickly where you are. So, also, with a Baptist service (though you might need to wait until the end of the sermon to be absolutely sure). So also with many of the old-line Pentecostal bodies; or Presbyterian congregations; or the Lutherans; or the Episcopals. All of these groups have liturgies, just as much as the Baptists, and whatever else these liturgies do, they establish and maintain the corporate identity.

This is the first Big Lesson in Liturgy which the Baptists taught me, though it was many, many years later before I could expound it. Nevertheless, in all the ways that Baptist churches do this, they impressed on me through every sense available to me distinctives which I still recognize as Baptist.

Liturgy as Identity

A separate essay could be composed for each of the points I will mention below. For now, I simply want to list the various elements which go to make up the Baptist liturgical identity.

1. Internal Church Space: Baptists will share their distinctives here with others, of course. But, the pre-eminence of the sermon in Baptist worship means that the gathering space is focused on a pulpit, which is placed central to the congregation’s corporate attention, usually raised high up on a dais. Along with the pulpit in importance is the baptismal tank, often embedded in the wall behind the pulpit, with the choir arrayed between the pulpit and the baptismal tank behind them.

2. Sight and Sound: I’ve mentioned sight in the previous point. The “iconography” if you will in a Baptist Church is plain for anyone to read. And, attending it is a sound drawn from the Baptist hymnody.

I know that “sound” in the sense of a standard Baptist hymnody is an element that is blurring today, with the controversy of “contemporary worship” crossing all sorts of denominational lines (even as the controversies in the area of “gender issues” is doing the same thing). But, in the old days, Baptist hymnals were distinctive. Yes, they sang some songs written by the Wesleys, but that didn’t make them Methodists. The thematic constants were salvation, conviction, invitation, and revival; and, if hymns carried those themes they were sung in Baptist churches. The harmonies, the hymn tunes, the way they were rendered by the pianists (or the organists in the bigger Baptist churches) – it is not too much to say that one could almost identify one’s venue in these places blindfolded.

Finally, there was the sight and sound of the baptisms themselves, the sloshing of the water in the tank, the rushing noise of water pouring off the bodies of those resurrected from their watery, symbolic burial with Christ, the comic sight of women’s hair rendered flat and clinging to their heads where seconds before they were airily curled and waving around their faces. If the robes were white, and therefore translucent when wet, one saw a startling vision of nude or near-nude bodies ascending from the ends of the tanks. Even if the robes were dark, or lined to opacity, the robes clung like saran wrap to the just-drenched bodies.

3. Taste, touch, and smell: This is an odd trio, but their combined effect is powerfully real. Baptist communion was a quarterly thing all through my boyhood, and it was marked (as much as anyone’s memory of such rituals can be marked) more by the sense of taste, touch, and smell than anything visual.

Touch – one’s fingers trying to pick up one of those teensie white pellets without grabbing too many or dropping any as you passed the plate containing them down the pew.

Smell – this was a surprise at my first Baptist communion, and every subsequent Baptist communion recovered for me the sense of surprise at that first one. Baptists (the ones I was always with, anyway) always used Welch's Grape Juice, poured into small thimble-sized glasses, arrayed in small sockets of a large circular tray which could easily contain 50 or more of these thimbles. The trays were covered with a lid until it was time to distribute them. And when the covers came off and the trays were carried by the deacons to the ends of pews, the odor of the grape juice quickly filled the auditorium with a heady, grapish perfume. It was the odor you never experienced anywhere else unless you were quaffing a tumbler of the stuff and had poked your own nose into the glass. Here, the entire space – sometimes a very large space – was inundated with the distinctive smell of grape juice.

Taste – again, the eating and drinking made their marks on memory. What highlighted the eating was the sharp difference in taste between the hard, flavorless pellet and the cloyingly sweet grape juice. One ate the bread first, in an atmosphere charged with the smell of the grape juice, which only served to accentuate the gluey, tastelessness of the pellet. And, on the backside of that odd sensation came the splash of grape juice itself.

Confused Liturgical Identity

The point I’m trying to make may seem so obvious as to be trivial; or so subtle as to be entirely missed by most people. The importance of these elements of liturgy (the very reductionist notion of liturgy I’ve been discussing) can be seen better when one monkeys with them in ways that confuse the interpreter of the elements. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from a recent blog by a fellow named Nate, who recounts a visit to First Baptist Church of Redlands, California:

This is an American Baptist Church. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, it has a beautiful building – it’s definitely no Protestant tilt-up. The church is built in a cruciform pattern and inside there are stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ. Also it has lectern and a pulpit (however both are never used). The baptismal in the back of the church is framed by carved Christian symbols and above the water is a great gold Latin cross with a hand of blessing molded into its center. If this sounds weird for a Baptist church there's more. The pastors dress up in vestments every Sunday with a cassock and stole. They also celebrate communion every intinction no less. Doesn't sound like the average Baptist church I know. If only more Baptist churches would follow suit I might be able to stick around with the Baptists.

For all of their pluses there are some problems. First, can't exactly figure out their order of worship. There is no confession, no absolution, no affirmation of faith, and no scripture readings. … But probably the bigger problem is that there is no clear theological confession that expresses this church’s life together. And beyond this, after talking with one of the pastors, it seems there are some questions with regard to the virgin birth. Now I don't think this is the church's official position but the fact that one of the leaders is agnostic about this issue is frightening.

What the Baptists Taught Me About Liturgy

Yeah, I know. It still grates in the ear to talk about Baptist liturgy, but for now I’m keeping the word liturgy confined to the things mentioned above – the stuff that is routine, regular, many times mandatory, the stuff you can count on for this or that Christian community to look like, smell like, feel like in all the ways one feels when one gathers with them for worship. With these constraints on the word “liturgy,” here’s what the Baptists taught me:

1. We are how we worship. The identity, the personality, the ethos of a Christian community arises naturally out of its worship. Indeed its identity in this sense is established by its worship, and it is maintained by its worship, far more than by its confession (though, obviously, that too is a critical factor).

2. Worship, identity, and confession are all mutually re-enforcing. Baptist beliefs are incarnated, if you will, in their worship, the shape of their meeting spaces, the things they do when gathered together, and the order in which they do them. And, all those “liturgy-like-things” have the effect of strengthening, re-enforcing, guarding, and sustaining the belief that is expressed in them.

3. Liturgy, in this sense and to this end, is a communal thing. The ritualistic character of liturgy is not the point at all. A single individual can perform a ritual, in utter isolation from all other persons. What makes liturgy (in the sense of this essay) powerful to establish, express, and maintain communal identity is the fact that it is the community which jointly participates in it.

Now, students of liturgy or sacramental theology will roll their eyes and mutter “lex orandi, lex credendi;” and, they will be correct to do so. “The law of prayer is the law of faith” is a true principal of communal religious identity. And the Baptists are no more immune from its working in their midst than anyone else. My only point in this essay (which may be laboring over the obvious, I know) is to point out that I learned this principle before I ever read it or heard it from a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic or an Episcopalian (groups who know this principle and know how important it is for the life of any religious community).

Baptists, therefore, taught me some of my earliest, and most important lessons in liturgy. God bless them for it.