Everything is everything

blog dance

Liturgical dance. Looks good on paper.  Sounds like a good idea in theory. Yet even in the most high-profile worship services it has never successfully been integrated into the liturgy.

Years ago, a priest friend said “Every time I hear the words ‘liturgical dance’ I know there is going to be a LOT of this…” he put his arms out in a form of the yoga sun salute, tilted his head back, and put on a insipid smile.  Over the years, every time I am exposed to liturgical dance I remember his imitation and think “Nailed it!”

What makes the liturgical dance issue so irksome is that despite its potential, it never makes it past a lukewarm imitation of bland modern dance.  The costumes alone look as if they were first used at a high school sorority initiation night or the dance scene from Roger Corman’s “The Undead”.

The Corman analogy isn’t far off track: the emperor of B movies shot it in an abandoned supermarket, shrubbery strapped on the shelving making for an  unusually tidy forest glade.  It is in aisles that liturgical dance takes place, limited not so much by the space of a nave, but by the imaginations of those who are in charge of how the space is used.  Sylph-like dancers in u-necked pastel leotards, floaty chiffon skirts for the girls, long hair pulled back, do the tip toe running step up and down the aisles with their arms in that yoga sun salute.  Always smiling as if in competing for Miss Teen Milwaukee.

It’s not the fault of these dear, young, innocent dancers.  There’s a creepy feeling that the primary agenda is that of the Cathedral matron who underwrites the liturgical dance program and will be acting out in future Standing Commitee meetings, terribly pissed off because no one used the dancers on call.

During one prominent service at the National Cathedral, the poor dears had to carry in flagons the size of stout first graders filled with water,  hoist them over their heads, and stand on tip toe to pour them into a font big enough for an Andean Condor to bathe.  Smiles turned to gritted teeth as the jumbo flagons remained poised over the font until the bishop in charge moseyed down for the aisle for the next bit of the service, oblivious to the pain of the dancers. My long-standing irritation that the Church overlooks workers’ rights – no unions for lay employees with the exception of organist guilds – roiled up. Actors Equity would never allow this.

Like organ music alone, “look at me” vestments, plug-and-play readings and prayers; liturgical dance as it is typically practiced limits our expression of the divine.   We don’t feel like smiling all the time. Most of the human race does not cavort about like three-year-olds at their creative dance recital.

The disingenuousness of liturgical dance was most visible at the Eucharist at General Convention.  The sprites of dance were waving shiny flags, running on the balls of their feet in a manner that would have an early childhood expert call the parents in for a conference to sign up with a physical therapist  for motor development.

The House of Bishops followed with a heavy tread, like coal miners after a day in the shaft.  They had spent 7 to 10 days, working non-stop, no Sabbath in sight – not even on that Sunday.

Instead of the mindlessness, the Episcopal Church needs to embrace mindfulness  particularly in liturgies of which it claims to be so proud. Integrity and integration is not only about The Other – it is about looking around you.

Of all the performing arts, dance in the 20th century stands out as the form devoted to collaboration, strongly evoking the spiritual journey.  Merce Cunningham with John Cage, Lucinda Childs with Philip Glass, grassroots organizations that build community through spiritual dance and drumming circles, drawing on the cultures of  the world.  Even choreographers and companies with an aesthetic bent towards the purely beautiful or predominately emotional have more liturgical fibre to their presentations than what The Episcopal Church is subjected to.

Integration of the arts can be done. A friend called me after a service in late Lent – quickened at the use of liturgical dance.  I thought the call was a joke. “No…it worked. They actually thought about what they were doing instead of bringing out the tippy toe fairies in chiffon.”

The reading was the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  The scripture was passed from person to person in the congregation, each reading different passages,  bringing home the impact the death of a loved one has on family and community. Up front, was a dancer wrapped in a shroud who slowly and intentionally began to break free of the binding cloth.  When the reading was over, she was free from her “grave clothes”.

When David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, I bet it was big and wild – percussive and lyrical; joyous and contemplative and angry; high and low and serpentine.  And I bet he didn’t wear pastel chiffon even though he promised to make himself even more ridiculous in the eyes of the Lord.

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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.