Friday, April 23, 2010

On Openness in the Process of Liturgical Change

I have just sent the following letter to the Revd Dr Ruth Meyers in her capacity as Chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church. For background on the issue, follow the link in the letter.

Dear Ruth,

I write to you in your capacity as Chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and in partial fulfillment of the friendly promise I made to you when we chatted briefly at General Convention that I would be a thorn in the side of the SCLM during this triennium!

In the spirit of "fulfilling all righteousness" with respect to providing feedback on the trial use calendar commemorations in Holy Women, Holy Men, I want you to know that I have made a commitment to liturgically observing any of these proposed lesser feasts that happen to fall on a Wednesday, which is when my parish has a regular weekday celebration of the Eucharist. So far, we have commemorated the Dorchester Chaplains, Fanny Crosby, and Demby & Delany. Between now and the end of September, we will be observing five more of these occasions, and most likely more going forward, though I haven't yet done that much advance planning. At some point before the end of the calendar year, I will send you a synposis of our experience.

In the meantime, however, I would like to flag an underlying cognate concern that touches not only on HWHM, but on all the work that the commission pursues by way of drafting liturgical texts. When the draft of HWHM was made available in the Blue Book last spring, I observed publicly that the proposed collects aggressively continue a policy of systematically excluding the term "Lord" from new liturgical texts. I have not re-verified my count, so I may be off by a little bit, but at that time, out of 112 proposed new additions to the calendar, only three collects employed the traditional concluding phrase, "through Jesus Christ our Lord."

I think I understand the motivation for this. I am not unfamiliar with the feminist critique of "Lord" as enabling the perpetuation of a patriarchal stereotypes, a "gateway" word, so to speak, that enables a whole array of images that serve to marginalize half the human race and obscure the radical universality of the gospel. While I believe it is possible to offer a cogent rebuttal to that critique, it is actually not my purpose to do so here. What I hope to argue for is, first, transparency and honesty in the process of drafting liturgical texts, and, secondly, as a result of such transparency and honesty, a practical measure of charity and inclusivity for all Episcopalians.

My point about transparency and honesty is that the "Lord" question is a serious theological issue. It deserves to be explored and debated on its own merits, freely and overtly, out in the open, for everyone to see. Instead, my perception of the standard procedure of the SCLM over the last 25 years (since the first revision of the Book of Occasional Services, at any rate) has been to virtually eliminate "Lord" from any new or revised texts, and do so quietly, without announcement or explanation. I can understand following this process in those portions of projects like Enriching Our Worship that have parallel texts in the Prayer Book or B.O.S., and are offered as optional alternatives to the standard rites. In such cases, the avoidance of avoidance of patriarchal or masculine language for God is understood as part of the underlying premise. But that same premise does not apply (or, at least, is not widely understood to apply) in the case of texts that do not have such parallels, and are intended, either in their present form or in a future form, to be the church's standard texts for the purposes to which they apply. HWHM would fit this category, as would efforts like Rachel's Tears, Hannah's Hopes. In these cases, I have trouble not naming the behavior of the Commission as (unintentionally, no doubt) deceptive, for, in effect, "sneaking" language driven by a particular ideology into liturgical texts intended for use by the whole church even though there has not been an open conversation, let alone an emerging consensus, throughout the church about the theological implications of such language.

At the very least, I would encourage the SCLM to be publicly explicit and clear about the policy of systematically excluding "Lord" from any new articulations of this church's worship. Make a case for it, and open the conversation. Beyond that minimal step, however, I would invite the commission to consider recasting the familiar two-track system of liturgical language. Since 1976, we have become accustomed to language that is either "traditional" or "contemporary." Given the blanket rubrical permission for local communities to render "Rite Two" texts into "Rite One" language (of which the Anglican Service Book is a published example), and given the evolution of the environment and parameters of liturgical change since the 1970s, it may now be more judicious to frame the distinction between "contemporary" and "traditional" in theological terms rather than linguistic terms. So, the "contemporary" form of a collect (or other element of a rite) could openly respond to the concerns of those who prefer an alternative to what they perceive as patriarchal or exclusive terms (inter alia, "Lord" and "Father"). The "traditional" form would robustly continue to use verbal forms that have been part of our liturgical inheritance. Such an approach would be both more honest and more charitable, I believe, than to continue what appears to be a practice of slipping in major theological change under the guise of responding to neglected pastoral needs, or adding prayers for new occasions, and the like.

As you might imagine, given the blogsphere's innate capacity for the dispersion and democratization of discourse, I intend to post this letter in cyberspace. I appreciate your attention to it, and sincerely hope you will share it with your colleagues on the SCLM. Know that I hold the commission's members in my prayers as you pursue your very important work for our church.

Faithfully in Christ,

Dan Martins+

5 comments:

The Underground Pewster said...

Thanks Fr. Dan, keep us posted as to any response or lack thereof, and then when the next set of liturgical revisions come down the pike, flag anything that would indicate a postitive effect of your letter.

Dan Martins said...

I posted the same thing to the HoB/D listserv, and have gotten several responses. Here's my latest on that venue:

I appreciate the responses to my original post on this thread. The comments from ... are all indicative of the sort of healthy conversation that needs to be had over this issue, only in a much wider context and in a more formal and extended manner. I would argue that there is an enormous burden of proof that rests with those who would subvert or dilute "kyriocentric" (thank-you for that word, Zoe!) language. Yes, there are other New Testament images for Jesus the Christ (who is, after all, who we're talking about here; I realize the issue of masculine pronouns and imagery extends further, but my observations about HWHM collects are confined to the Incarnate Logos), but none that are nearly as dominant (pun intended), so much so that "per Dominum Jesum Christum" became not only ubiquitous but normative in the evolution of western Christian liturgy. This is not to say that other ascriptions and attributions cannot legitimately be used (e.g Savior, Redeemer), but they are, I would suggest, the chocolate chips, and no substitute for the cookie itself. "Kyrios Iesus" is the cookie dough, the irreducible raw material of Christian prayer.

That said, it's all rather tangential to my main point, which was not to argue over "Lord" on its own merits, but to observe that a liturgical and theological sea change is being slowly orchestrated *without* the kind of deliberation and consensus which a change of this magnitude deserves. Because there's nothing *wrong* with "Redeemer" or "Savior" (or whatever), communities offer these prayers without being aware (because no one has *made* them aware) of what the prayers *fail* to say, and when it comes to theology and liturgy, what we don't say is often at least as significant as what we do say. If we're going to make this sort of change, let's have a generation or two of explicit discussion among ourselves and interdependent consultation (aka mutual submission in love) with the wider Anglican and Christian world, and then, if a true "consensus fidelium" emerges, make the change. The *wrong* way to do it is to let the change hitch a ride on other less consequential moves (such as augmenting our sanctoral calendar). This is tantamount to the unsavory legislative tactic of attaching a controversial amendment to an important and/or popular bill (though unrelated to the substance of the bill), because the amendment would have little or no chance of passing on its own merits. My plea, once again, is for honest and transparency in our processes.

Walt Knowles said...

Dan,
There's a most interesting article by that arch-conservative former professor at your alma mater and late dean of Sewanee, Terry Holmes: "Theology and Religious Renewal," Anglican Theological Review 62 (1980):3-19. Terry made the argument (among many others) in that article that the 1979 BCP was a major change in theology (that he was--and I am--strongly in favor of), but that the church, in growing anti-intellectualism, was unwilling to discuss. He suggested that ECUSA's unwillingness to engage seriously in real theological discussion would come back to bite us. It has.

As much as I support HW-HM's desire to provide a compendium of people worth imitating, there are way to many openings for theological discussion: from our theology of time, to sanctification, to the place of the whole person in worship, to "kyriology", to euchology in general.

Anonymous said...

I have seen the HOB/D responses to your post (which I do agree with, by the way) and found one particularly telling: Paul points out "the Lord we have is,
after all, benevolent, all-loving, and the bearer of Good News in opposition to bad news.. .also...that we're not to be 'under' this Lord, but are called to be 'like' this Lord. (emphasis mine).
I see this as the path the Episcopal Church has chosen to rise to the level of God; this is demonstrated in the admonition that Jesus is NOT the only way for salvation or eternal life (as proposed by the Presiding Bishop.) Your comments have certainly caused the delegates to show their colors!

DrJoan

David Handy+ said...

I too thank you, Dan, for taking the time and trouble to write and post this fine open letter. The stealthy introduction of ideological innovations such as the elimination of the word "Lord" from collects without open, honest public debate is indeed a serious matter, a grave error that mustn't go unchallenged.

Yet you did it very tactfully, calmly, and reasonably. But forcibly and forthrightly. I admire that, because I must admit that if I were to write a protest to Dr. Myers, it wouldn't be nearly so diplomatically stated. And hence would almost certainly be simply dismissed out of hand as the shrill rant of an extremist.

Keep up the good work in general. And in particular, keep being a thorn in their side.