The historic liturgical compromise…past and present


The following bits in italics were in the latest newsletter from an Episcopal Church.  They have been excerpted and paraphrased from a very long piece.

Participation in Liturgy: The Episcopal Church, being a body which straddles the line between the Catholic and Protestant traditions, has inherited liturgies which include various types and variations of congregational participation.

Clearly something is not happening on Sunday mornings.  There is An Issue. The organist/choir director is going to change everything with a message in the newsletter.  Anyone who has assembled something from Ikea, knows first-hand reading instructions alone do not get the job done. Any parent or teacher can tell you the same thing.

From the beginning of the English Reformation, The Episcopal/Anglican Church has had to live within a tension that originated in the liturgical compromises that were made at the creation of the English Church.

Thanks, organist guy! That explains everything.  There were compromises made among the ruling elite 500 years ago.  Why with this explanation, I’m now ready to leap off the couch and show up Sunday mornings.

How does the congregation participate in the service?  The first and most obvious way is to respond vocally to the clergy during the spoken parts of the service.

Count me in!  Are we allowed to go off script?  What’s the culture of worship in your parish?  If a parishioner were to say “Tell the truth!” or a simple “Amen”, would that make it as a chuckle – or even a scandal – at your Tuesday morning staff meeting?

The second way is to sing joyfully (and loudly) during the hymns; if you don’t know the hymn very well, read along during the first verse and give the second verse a try. Don’t just stand there!

While the organist accepts that not many people are literate in music, he doesn’t realize that an important part of the congregation does not read at all.  John Bell of the Iona Community is very clear about how powerful it is to employ songs and hymns that are accessible to all, and admonishes us to lead people in song, teach the congregation before the service.  This article also implies that the wagons are circled: if you didn’t get the newsletter, if you didn’t read the newsletter, if you walk in off the street, your voice is not important. And if your voice isn’t important literally, then I would guess your voice isn’t important to this Episcopal church anywhere else.

When the lectors are reading lessons, or the clergy is praying, don’t just listen: pray with them.  When the choir is singing, read the text and lift up your heart in prayer.

Maybe because the clergy and musicians are set up next to the cross and not down with the congregants, they’re unaware that people pray all the time during a liturgy.  “Dear God, don’t make it be Howells again.” Or “Lord, will the sermon address living a Christian life…for real?” Or “Could the choirmaster blow the dust off the one parish copy of Lift Every Voice and Sing?”

What he’s really asking the majority sitting in the church nave to do is make our interior prayer life line up with that of the staff.  Don’t have your worship in the Episcopal Church be transformational, creating an environment where everyone is changed “from glory to glory”. And whatever you do, don’t make space for The One who inspires worship.   No silence, no call to hear the voice of the faithful unless it’s a response from a book or a licensed lector.


The tradition of participation in our church is beautiful and multi-layered. Let us come together to make our worship as meaningful and inspiring as possible.

Who is the “us” that this earnest organist/choir director wants to come together?  It seems to be just the staff.  In this message, he even refers to having the psalm performed by the choir (coupled with a reminder that this is not a performance) while the congregation is told to meditate on the words of the psalm. These are our psalms, handed down to us from the time of David.  Why take them out of our mouths and limit our participation?

How could anyone consider this participation multi-layered?  We are welcomed only when we do what we’re told by the Nanny Church. Sing when told, listen when told, read the script but not the scripture.  Don’t just stand there, but don’t dance or clap either.  Where is the beauty?  Not in the variety of ways God’s faithful people are inspired to worship, only in those who are trained to worship “correctly”.


The saddest irony in this well-intentioned but misguided piece is that people do not learn or change by reading something.  There is a part of the brain that yearns for the spiritual, the liturgical, and it’s not the part listening to a run down on Post Reformation history.  What’s next? Glebes?

From a 2007 interview with Elsie Rempel, Director of Christian Education and Nurture for Mennonite Church, Canada:

How does insight into brain activity shed light on worshiping with children?

Elsie: Sometimes we talk about worship that connects with our left and right brain. But our brain also has a stem and an inner brain that control our actions and emotions. The inner brain is the part that connects with our passions, intuition, relationality, and our awareness of metaphysical connections. It is in this brain part that recent brain research has attempted to track spiritual experience. The inner brain appears to be hardwired for spiritual activity from birth or before, and remains resilient even in the face of Alzheimer’s and other brain disease. We connect with these parts of the brain in the ritual actions, prayers and musical parts of worship.

The readers of this blog are smart enough to know that Mr. Rempel is talking about active participation and that this has implications for all generations who may be seeking a community for their faith.

The Mennonites: I’m so glad The Episcopal Church might be in communion with this denomination. Let’s really listen to what they have to say to us. That would be another thing to give this skeptical Episcopalian hope.

The spine of liturgy and faith


Some good liturgies:

  • During a beach service, the preacher stops his homily mid-way, encouraging everyone to come back with breakfast and eat together. They do, and discuss the meal in the context of John 21: 9 – 4.
  • During the prayers of the people at a different beach service, the children get together shaping an area of sand, placing stones and shells in rows and groups while whispering to each other “For my grandma, for all the dead animals, for frightened children.”
  • A family camping far away from the ambient light of cities and suburbs waits every night for the fire to die down and watching the stars goes through their day together in gratitude.
  • An urban church offers an Agape Meal where everyone shares food.  The hungry attend because they know it is a meal in a welcoming atmosphere.  The prayers of the people include a slide show of a family’s newborn, and a home movie of a man at a piano in his living room singing show tunes as a memorial. The priest shares that this church has made the cross a banquet table.  The wine is blessed and passed around at the tables.  They even offer seconds. 
  • A priest at a very visible, historic parish offers an interactive sermon. A sermon grounded in the lectionary reading for the day, but one that is shaped by questions posted on the Internet and asked by those attending the worship.

Episcopalians at their best respond to the environments the Holy Spirit has brought to them, many times just by opening their senses. At our worst, we are controlling, trying to shoehorn every bit of antiquated Anglicanism into environments which should be open to God’s surprises. 

Experience indicates this is about job validation. For clergy it’s also about validating seminary tuition:  all that money to take liturgy classes…must use everything in the tool box all the time.  

But what if Episcopalians walked in faith, trusting our unique grace?  The grace of responsiveness marrying history.  What if our history, rich in language and music, instead of tradition was the touchstone?  Then every liturgy would be like a sacred jazz concert or poetry slam.  Every person attending an Episcopal Church service would be able to reconstruct the sense of the sacred and holy in daily life. No one would be waiting for the show to start.

Jazz musicians know theory (theology), develop their chops, (liturgical specifics), and ground themselves in the chord changes and melody of a tune (BCP). They collaborate; through improvisation reveal the gifts of each musician as he or she plays.  There is structure, a flexible spine of intention and skill.  Over time, musicians interact with the basic structure of a piece creatively, allowing it to inspire their responses in the moment. It is skillful mindfulness. Each performance changes according to the musicians and the audience.  Every jazz aficionado knows it’s better to see someone live, and that the live recording is different from the studio recordings. 

As for tradition and history, jazz is filled with it yet remains fresh with every performance.  The entire collaborative process itself reaches back into prehistory, encoded into our development as without it, the human race could not have survived.  Riffs and references from all sorts of music make cameo appearances, reverently funny or respectfully acknowledging the communion of musical saints. 

Imagine every Sunday being like a jazz concert.  Those in charge of the liturgy confident enough to be collaborative and allow The Spirit to make herself known.  The entire atmosphere like that of a cabaret. What if the clergy, instead of being the ones on stage, took on the role of supportive club owners and impresarios?

One wonders: with the end of passive, consumer worship, would the trend of passive, opinionated Episcopalians come to an end?  Imagine a church where everyone cares so deeply about worship and mission there is no boundary between Sunday morning and walking a life of faith. 

That’s a church this skeptical Episcopalian has hope in seeing some day.


Church Vestments & Christian LaCroix, not to be confused


So we’re up to the point in the service where the average congregant looks over her shoulder to see a gang of people coming up behind her.  “Smile! You’re a worship community now!”

 There’s the Gospel, held high, with great solemnity.  I muse on what would happen if a congregant ran up to kiss it or touch it in some way as I would see in a synagogue. Is it held high out of reverence for the Word of God? The vibe I get is more like my the memory of Great Aunt Agnes putting her Hummel collection on the highest shelf. “Don’t touch!” 

 Now comes the clergy in their vestments. Formally walking in a straight line, a flotilla of fabric. 

One year, every Sunday, one of my kids took a class just that began just when the worship for an African American church was over.  My daughter was a style conscious teen and as we walked by, watching the display of unique pride and style, she would exclaim “I love this church! Can we go there? It looks like a party.”

Title Image

Personally, I love fashion – particularly as an expression of the inner, unique self.  The florid hats in Harlem on a Sunday morning express the theology of uniqueness, creativity, and community. When a Buddhist monk in orange robes and shaved head passes, the world around him or her is changed a bit to contemplate mystery and simplicity.  Similarly the robes of those in other intentional orders express mission and devotion.

An email report on the ordination of a bishop cited the beauty and high drama of the service.  Such pomp – the bishops in all their vestments! – it was “thrilling” she wrote.

First – pomp is not an aesthetic that really works dramatically.  It is the first syllable of the word pompous.  As for dramatic, beautiful, thrilling, and even spiritual – have you seen Julie Taymor’s “Lion King”?

Episcopal clergy have their own seasonal outfits – and that’s fine.  However, many I’ve met imagine this to be a priority – there’s fussiness and attitude about vesting that really needs to be rethought.  Vestments are primarily functional, their presence may not be entirely necessary.  They are a portal to tradition and history and not to be made into idols.

Then there’s the fact that celebrating the Eucharist is not about “look at me” vestments.

We live in a visual culture that morphs every twenty four hours.  The church shouldn’t try to compete, but re-understand its place without losing integrity. And yes, slow down time a bit with symbolic representations of the faith, but cut out the personal preoccupation.

It is with great dismay that we observe too many clergy frequently referring to their love of “playing dress up”; that at Diocesan Conventions the line out the Almy’s booth is a long one and the social justice or faith formation booths have tumbleweed blowing through them; that clergy have consumer identification and self elevation according to whether they use Wipple’s or Almy.


This is playing dress up

This is playing dress up


This should not be playing dress up

This should not be playing dress up


...or this

...or this




You want to turn around in the driver’s seat and say “Cut it out back there!”  Inject a bit of humility to the discussion.  Stacy’s and Clinton’s makeovers on “What not to Wear” have more theology and mission behind them than the fussiness of some clergy. There have been instances of bishops flying to precious medieval European towns to buy particular fabrics for their vestments.  

Let’s consider the lilies of the fields.


....or this

....or this


...or this

...or this

And when a bishop dresses up as a homeless person, equating the outfit with the real condition, something has gone, horribly, obscenely wrong.

Clergy, deacons, choirs – it really doesn’t matter.  When all is said and done, the man-on-the-street who walks into the church does not see the tradition or fine weave on the stole.  He or she is more interested – perhaps driven – to understand cope as a verb instead of a noun.  The internal slide show of pop culture images makes a connection not with the history or tradition, but with science fiction.

Vested, to the average Joe or Jane, most of you look like alien overlords.


To Serve Mankind

To Serve Mankind

And that’s ok. Because as John Wimber said “I’m a fool for Christ. Who’s fool are you?”

You’re an unquestioning Episcopalian to the core if….

Culture check

Culture check

1. You can’t pray without the BCP

2. You think deacons are just a little bit better than lay people, priests are even better than deacons, and bishops are way better than everyone.

3. You think the entire world has its eyes glued on Lambeth and the Lambeth conference but the fact that spellcheck always wants to replace Lambeth with Lambert doesn’t give you pause about Lambeth’s importance.

4. You recommend the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing and don’t notice Episcopalians can’t either.

5. You use the phrase “we are proud of (our organ, rectory, stained glass windows…)” in the parish profile never noticing that pride is a sin or realizing the church is not a building or a collection of things.

6.  You support the MDGs through The Episcopal Church, but your parish has yet to assess its local mission, budget, or energy use and the Rotary Club has been making water accessible or providing education for young women in developing nations for a couple of decades.

7.  When you hear the name Gene Robinson you think of a bishop from New Hampshire and not a Pulitzer Prize-Winning writer for the Washington Post.

8.  When The Episcopal Church offered an alternative sign to “TEC Welcomes You” – The Episcopal Church: We’re here for you – you never noticed that the phrase  was identical to the copy on service signs at Taco Bell.

9. What David Virtue adds to or detracts from public discourse matters more to you than the rise of Glen Beck.

10. You don’t know who Glen Beck is.

11.  You have a fond memory of Gerald Ford’s administration, including the efficacy of the WIN button, because the guy was an Episcopalian.

12. You believe the only people who poke fun at TEC are “conservatives”.

13. You supported Enriching Our Worship for providing liturgies cleansed of sexist language and became a fan of Episcopal Priest Barbie because you think it is a good role model for girls.

14. You wonder why no one’s coming to the Episcopal Church even though you believe TEC “does church” better than anyone else.


Green pastures…because the trees are gone


A bit of back story here:

This blog began as a detailed, provocative response to the question “Where are you going to church now?”  The conceit, if I can stretch the definition of that word, is walking the reader through a typical Episcopal Church service through the eyes of one of the de-churched.

So, if you’re new to this blog, you may want to scroll down and begin reading chronologically.  We’re only up to the processional.

I’m off schedule because last week I actually had to be in church.  It was Good Shepherd Sunday.

There is nothing more direct or guilelessly reverent set in words than Psalm 23.  No bit of scripture more popular and beloved. The prayer is known, and maybe even used, by the unreligious, and it is a recommended text for contemplation in a book on meditation written by an observant Hindu.

The messages contained there may be simple, but they have resonated with seekers throughout history.  Listen for God’s voice.  You are loved. You are cared for. Feel no shame, no fear. Lead a balanced life. All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the well-heeled Episcopal Church with the expectation of entering in to the simplicity this psalm and the message of the Good Shepherd and got handed a 10-page service leaflet on high quality, bleached stock 11 x 14 inch folded paper, fruit of forests and former home of spotted owls.

Can’t make it through the Good Shepherd Sunday without a playbook. He maketh me to lie in green pastures because the trees are gone.

The identical service probably took place in hundreds of Episcopal Churches all over America.  Someone opened The Episcopal Musicians’ Handbook to the appropriate day, choosing personal favorite hymns, ignoring more evangelical or emotional pieces that related to the lectionary readings.  The choirs sang anthems selected by choir directors who asked themselves “What is the most sophisticated piece we can learn by May 1st?”

Remember in The Flintstones when one of animal tools would turn to the fourth wall and in a nasal tone say “It’s a living.”  I can’t help but imagine that’s what’s going on for so many staff members in so many churches.  Liturgy is plug-and-play.  I first heard that expression from a High Church organist/choir director.  That was his goal: plug-and-play.

It's a living

It's a living

In the service I attended, the opening hymn was to the tune of Old 100th (listed as “song of praise”…apparently we must praise with a limit on joy) accompanied by the organ.  Did anyone think to invite the pastoral sound of the oboe, bagpipes, a volunteer cantor shepherding us in song, a simple Iona or Taize congregational chant alternating with readings or poetry?   Did anyone ask the congregants if there was something meaningful to them that they would like to share?  Heck – invite a farmer in to talk about sheep. Or did the resident “expert” clergy serve as an interpreter of this most personal of texts?

Good Shepherd

I remember when my Uncle Carlo died; the viewing was at a home specializing in Roman Catholic funerals.   His widow, Aunt Rita, had chosen the Good Shepherd prayer cards to be distributed that day.  She had prayed it from the moment he had died of a heart attack while taking a nap in the back yard. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear the quickening in her voice as she told me about the Holy Card.  It gave her surety about Carlo’s life after death, and surety about her own life until she could join him.

The plastic laminated prayer card with the kitschy Northern European Jesus was pressed into our hands by her as we left the funeral home. I have mine still not only because it reminds me of that memorial and the passing of someone in the family, but because there is a kind of lateral charism there. The Holy Scripture, the reality of it healing in someone’s life, the treasure that I need to hold on to in case I need it in mine some day.

How many millions have stories about this psalm? Think of how fast, strong , and deep these words have traveled.  Like spiritual DNA. And we go to a worship service to ignore the inner voice of the shepherd, the One who knows us by name, who has knit us together in our mothers’ wombs and knows our stories better than we know them ourselves.

The Episcopal Church worship experience is a little bit like hospital food. The industrial kitchen will whip up a meal for you and even if you don’t enjoy it, have faith that it’s nourishing and healing.

Hospital Food

What can I say about the rest of the service? Dull, robotic worship skirting the most tenderly deep concept in the walk of the faithful: This is a God who cares and with whom you can have a relationship.


David and Jesus had real sheep in mind when they communicated, not sheeple.

After the service, I took a walk with my Bible and prayed David’s psalm with joy, and reverence, and song. I found the still waters, thanking my Creator for every blessing I could, particularly the one of relationship.  Then I went online to see what I missed from Meet the Press.

I won’t make the same mistake this week.

Until then, monika55