General Convention Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music Part 2

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There are a lot of commissions and committees that will be convening, offering formal  reports of their work at General Convention this year.

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Let’s check in on the Standing Commission for Liturgy and Music. In The Episcopal Church, a Standing Commission begins when the elite in a bureaucracy choose a select group of people – other elite – who then make all the decisions when it comes to how The Episcopal Church worships.

How the Episcopal Church worships is the main experience of church for the Average Joe or Jane. It defines Sunday morning, bringing people in the door. Yet no matter what the purpose of a commission or committee, when The Episcopal Church operates under the assumption that it “knows better”, it is one of the diagnostics indicating a church in stage IV cancer. It’s time for hospice or radical therapies.

Closed groups are passé and obsolete. Eighteen people, no matter who they are or where they came from, are not enough to keep their pulse on what’s happening out there.  Moreover, the flow of communication and power structure is all wrong. The Holy Spirit blows where she wills with chaotic power. She doesn’t know from Standing Commissions.  She continues to inspire writers, poets, singers, preachers, composers, musicians, dancers, artists, and those who sit in holy silence.

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The sun set long ago on the notion that prayers have to be “okayed” by a select group. Yet the gate keeping continues. The results can hurt. Gifts are ignored.  People leave, going where they can grow and be appreciated.

If a Standing Commission truly valued its work, and truly valued the Body of Christ, it wouldn’t spend any time generating liturgies and songbooks, but figure out where the disconnect is happening; working to empower all, working to respect the dignity of all. Its members would value curiosity and keen listening skills over resumes and power connections.  It would be scouring the world for resources, creating a lateral network of relationships and ideas.

The leadership of The Episcopal Church needs to be more grassroots than Astroturf.  More of a scout with an ear to the ground than a couple of generals looking at a map. Isn’t that what got Custer into trouble?

The reality is, people are indeed hungry for ways to make corporate prayer more relevant and responsive. People want a spiritual community in which they can be accountable.  All they need are guidelines and the opportunity for dialog. If these standing commissions were doing their jobs, there wouldn’t be the need to publish any more prayer books or hymnals. A BCP Kindle is a dead idea but I’m willing to bet good money it’s being discussed as an “important next step.”  The last thing we need is more codification.  That’s like Western Union working on an improved Morse Code manual while the telephone lines were being put up.

The new Christianity requires more nimble responses, a leadership that evokes and inspires instead of dictates and explains.

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This is not a generation waiting with bated breath for the new prayerbook.

Prayer happens every day all over the world in the lives of believers, seekers, and atheists.  We are all discovering that when it comes to God and living righteous lives, we have more in common with our Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and secularist/atheist sisters and brothers than we do with some fellow Episcopalians.

Jon Stewart defines shared principles in America more than the obscure leadership of The Episcopal Church. (Would someone please tell Gene Robinson that this is not an invitation to do yet another sound and lighting check?)

Instead of the top-down imparting of prayers, follow the other mainline denominations.  Build sites loaded with resources, interconnected, not set in some virtual Siberia on the ECUSA website. Even better, join the party of poly-denominational boards where prayers, practices, videos of services, and repertoire are shared in the spirit of collaboration.

One wonders: has anyone on the Standing Commission for Liturgy and Music been to the Workshop Rotation Model web site?  Educators in every denomination from around the world share curricula and implementation. Sure there’s some sketchy theology, but no commission, bishop, priest, or deputy is my theologian. Like the rest of God’s children, I am working that out with my Creator every single day.

And don’t pass on the guff about standards and theology yada yada yada.  Yes – there’s a whole lot of wacky stuff going on in different churches.  There are churches that don’t have the energy to split, but use the 1928 BCP and have idolatrous relationships with Rite One, sometimes in the shadow of a cathedral spire or a quick public transit ride from 815 Second Ave. There happens to be a system in place to deal with this nonsense: put the bishops to work and actually have them supervise parishes in their dioceses. What a concept. Maybe if parishes had been supervised over the past decade or so, leaving things like pronouncements on sexuality up to psychologists, or do-gooder world tours to Angelina Jolie,  the obituary for the Episcopal Church wouldn’t be on file ready to run.

General Convention, Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music, Part 1

Know business

Mr. Watson, come here, I need you.

There is a story that goes like this: After developing the telephone; Alexander Graham Bell brought his invention to Western Union.  Western Union turned it down, saying they were in the telegram business, not the telephone business.  Had Western Union realized they were in the communications business, there might be an elegant W.U. logo on cell phones.

What business is The Episcopal Church in?  Is it a publishing house, collective of do-gooders, political party, MDG cheerleader, gate keeping hierarchy, or any number of other businesses described in the output from Episcopal/Fox News Service?

What does The Church do that no one else can do?

Answer that, and if The Episcopal Church goes down, at least it will go down knowing its corporate identity and keep some integrity.

Answer that, and maybe, if answered with honesty and accuracy; intention, budget, energy will follow; the whole tide will turn and The Episcopal Church will survive. God willing.

Crossing the “t’s” or dotting the “i’s” of national church publications with exclamation points and smiley faces may distract momentarily, but keeps everyone in denial.

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In July, a few hundred members of the leadership of The Episcopal Church will gather in Anaheim for General Convention.  Those attending will labor hard, there will be a telephone-sized book of resolutions published of which less than 2 per cent of the 700,000 Episcopalians in good standing will be aware.

The head count of members in good standing at the 2000 General Convention was around a million.

We are in an era where a New York minute has been replaced by the nano second, and that sense of change and immediacy is felt on every level of society.  The growth in sharing information collaboratively has brought about a new sense of populism, and global awareness. The organization and success of the Obama campaign is a model for communication on a grassroots level.  Not only has the entire culture shifted, but our neurological wiring has changed.  Our brains are different.

Yet The Episcopal Church conducts business and works on resolutions in a very old-fashioned and frankly silly manner.  At issue is not the collaborative deliberation of the House of Deputies or even the House of Bishops. Bidden or not, God is present. The core of the problem is elitism.  The assumption that in a world of growing populism and collaboration, we, the faithful, are passively waiting to hear from those with positions higher up the Church food chain in order to proceed in our spiritual journeys is foolish. The Episcopal Church accepts it at its peril.

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Another key point: America has evolved into a consumer society.  Unfortunate as this is, it is a reality.  We’re also working harder for less, thanks primarily the inevitability of corporate greed and hierarchical entitlement. So, we don’t invest – time or money – in things in which we have no interest, and we are increasingly skeptical of, if not outright angry at, mega bureaucracy.  Don’t waste our valuable Sunday mornings with dead worship produced by corporate elite. We are leaving without looking back.

Until the next post here’s a message to the leadership of the church: That big fat book will sit on a shelf in a parish office, unopened, until the next triennium.  And when the 2012 book is published, there will be fewer copies to print.

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Strength to run the race…not sit and watch

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Meaningful spiritual gatherings happen daily.  One of the most simple is the sing along. Today is D-Day. The American Songbook is a touchstone for families affected by World War II.  These songs – in the US and the UK – embodied hope in the midst of loss, nobility of the human spirit, vigor, and more. Crafted with accessible melodies and inventive harmonies, drawing on musical cultures that represent the broad scope of the American experience, they inspired generations to run the good race.

If it is possible to re-market the prayer of Morning Resolve from Forward Day-by-Day so that it can be carried around in the pocket of memory like a piece of dark chocolate, the American Songbook from the 1940s might be just the way to do it.  Try and find a time when the “Greatest Generation” sings the songs that defined it and witness a community transformation that cannot be explained by sentimentality alone.

Then there is our music program in the Episcopal Church.

In most churches, it seems entirely divorced from spiritual journey; emphasizing tradition more than history, rigidity more than responsiveness, personal taste of a handful of people more than collaboration and generosity. Sentimentality as an indulgence is scoffed at by the staff – unless the hymn or prayer is a personal favorite.  The anniversary of the priest’s ordination in one local church is celebrated by that priest choosing all her personal favorites. Interesting message to the parish she is supposed to serve.

Here are the questions that need to be asked every year: What is the mission of your church when it comes to music? How honest is that mission?

In other words, if you are in a rural parish, where people are getting hard hit economically and  probably losing the culture that helped their great grandparents get through the last depression , would initiating the Royal Church School of Music chorister program to bring quality Anglican choral music to the “poor ignorant people”? (Some of whom may play fiddle like Eck Robertson and sing in four-part harmony by ear better than the Whites backing up Emmy Lou Harris) be an honest music program?

Is it honest for a bishop born during the Truman administration to preside at a Hip Hop Mass, including language like “my homies and my peeps” in public prayer?

Music programs in the Episcopal Church need to be determined on a parish-by-parish, community-by-community basis.  Liturgy idealogues are cutting the legs off The Episcopal Church. And taking a lot of money with them.

In most urban areas of the United States, there is great emphasis on choristers and chorister programs and chorister traditions which includes hiring at least one professional section leader for the choir.

At a minimum of a hundred dollars a head, the choir is enhanced by professionals who sole purpose is to give this message to parishioners: You’re not good enough.

There will be organists – if they’ve read this far – who will argue about music quality in the service of the Lord.  Take that one outside. Seriously. Take it outside the church.  We could use more musicians in concert halls and nightclubs who glorify the Lord in their music. There are certainly enough nurses, carpenters, teachers, chefs, and caregivers who do when no one’s watching.

These same organists would mock the Hip Hop Masses and the U2charists without realizing they are no different than in intention than their “quality” choral music: they are designed to exclude and make liturgy a performance.  With 20,000 of us leaving The Episcopal Church each year – how’s that working for you?

The church is the gathered faithful looking to renew themselves so they may do the work of  God’s kingdom.  The church is a faith community. And if you look up the roots of community, you will find it means to share one’s gifts.   That means the gifts of the gathered faithful. Not your friends, family, or colleagues.

Too many times, I have had to endure services with choirmasters who put on a show Sunday mornings using our tithes. If I want to throw money at a musician, it will be in a basket for a busker, not for a church music program that excludes the very people it is intended to serve.

The church is not the place for someone to play maestro, or impresario.  If a parish church offers a concert series it should be in the context of  music mission.  Liturgy should not be made like sausage or  by a cabal like Dick Cheney’s secret energy commission meetings. Liturgy and worship belong to the people the clergy and staff are hired to serve.

At the end of the year, the average church that indulges in this expenditure only minimally, could build two schools in Pakistan; offer seventy micro loans for hopeful small businesses in third world countries; save 250 children from dying of malnutrition…you get the picture. Of course during the announcements, after we’ve sat through a performance which costs more than a weekly minimum wage salary before taxes, we all may be asked to listen to a plea for donations towards the Millennium Development Goals.

Your soloists out of that extra cash? Give them a nice send off party and encourage them to get a day job and sing for free – or better still run an intergenerational music development program.  Charles Ives sold insurance and William Carlos Williams was a general practitioner.  Richard Feynman managed to do a lot of teaching about physics and play the bongos. Sheila Jordan worked in an ad agency, using her four-week vacations for international tours.

There are churches who have sincere and wonderful music in their worship.  These are almost always poor churches with no money to build or repair an organ, who encourage faith in families by offering solos to everyone, or  spontaneously break into songs of thanksgiving and praise  in Spanish, Tagalog, Haitian Creole.  Gifts are generously shared here because no one has come and told them their music isn’t “good enough”.

God is always a surprise, always in the least obvious place we look.  These churches will hang on in difficult times because they don’t need more than each other. This gives this Episcopalian hope.  What would offer more hope is when diocesan leadership  listens to how these churches run instead of thinking the best they can do is  offer noblesse oblige by “gifting” the smaller parishes with  advice.