For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. (II Timothy 4:3-4)
These verses of scripture certainly can be—and have been—used as a cudgel to beat up on one’s ideological foes, and most often, I suspect, in disputes between professing Christians. It is not my intention to weaponize them once again. Yet, they do mean something, and that phrase “itching ears” has long fascinated me. It bespeaks a propensity—one that all people share, I would say—to look and listen selectively, paying attention only to those data that tend to corroborate our prejudices and bolster our inclinations.
Having itching ears is less of a problem for some sorts of Christians than it is for others. The followers of Harold Camping, having been assured that all churches are apostate, are at liberty to scratch their itch by divesting themselves of their worldly goods in anticipation of being caught up in the air to meet Jesus barely 72 hours from when I write. Others—Anglicans, for example—are by definition accountable to an array of constraints that make treating the itch more of a challenge. We have scriptures, creeds, sacraments, and liturgies that the current generation did not invent, and which all—of whatever stripe of ideology or churchmanship—agree cannot be lightly tossed aside.
Lightly, that is.
From time to time—more frequently now that I am a bishop—I find myself in situations of corporate worship with other Episcopalians. Whether it’s sitting in a pew on a rare Sunday off, or attending a meeting or conference or the like, I have come to expect that what I find when I step into the worship space will probably not be a straight-from-the-book BCP service. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. On occasion, it’s one of the authorized supplemental texts from Enriching Our Worship, but not often. And, of course, there is the unauthorized but widespread informal emendation of Prayer Book language to render it more palatable to various sensibilities (“And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever…”, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord”, “Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel [and Leah]”). But I’m not actually talking about this sort of thing either (although, arguably, it deserves to be talked about).
No, what I have in mind are worship services that are cobbled together not quite on the spur of the moment, but almost. They appear on a printed sheet or booklet, so presumably some amount of thought has gone into them. They’re not exactly confected from whole cloth, because very often they incorporate substantial material from a Prayer Book rite (“Scenes from Morning Prayer,” some of them might be called). But they are almost invariably at a time of day for which there is an appropriate Prayer Book office. So, one wonders, why not simply use what we have? From whence comes the need to tinker?
Two factors immediately suggest themselves. One is a fairly widespread aversion in some quarters to traditional liturgical language that is considered sexist and/or patriarchal and/or insensitive to non-western cultures and thought patterns. The other is a practical concern to integrate worship with the particular objectives or ethos of a conference or retreat.
I wonder, however, whether a major contributing factor, and perhaps the major contributing factor, is simply … boredom. Itching ears. We are an over-stimulated society. We are addicted to constant change. Popular culture (music, fashion, entertainment media) is in a state of continual flux. Technology evolves so rapidly that the cycle of obsolescence keeps getting shorter and shorter. “Yesterday’s news” is no longer a euphemism but a literal descriptor. Should it be a surprise that people who exist in, and are formed by, secular culture would carry their conditioning with them into the councils of the church?
Of course, the status quo is not always worthy of acceptance. The fact that we see so much amateur DIY worship at church functions is indicative of the generally low level of knowledge of the inherent character and telos of liturgy, as well as formation in the praxis of liturgy, even among those who are supposed to be the stewards of the church’s worship (i.e. bishops and presbyters). Mind the (Catechesis) Gap, we might say. Only the gap is more like a canyon.
So it’s an uphill struggle, but, I hope, worth the effort. I don’t expect much to change any time soon. But as we begin to collectively “get it” that we live in a post-Constantinian age, that our mission (yea, our survival) depends on our developing effective counter-cultural strategies and language and intellectual habits, perhaps our liturgical tradition will be more widely appreciated for the anchor that it is. Perhaps it will someday be seen as not quite so boring. Perhaps it will even be known to be balm to our ears.