Why church?

by Kathleen Staudt

A recent NPR story about Americans’ widespread claim that they believe in God but not “institutional religion” has left me feeling impatient (read it here) and I’m trying to tease out why. Part of it is that this is just more of the same discussion that we’re having within the church about what needs to change to attract the next generation — too often I think it goes to “how do we get more people to come to church?” i.e. it remains about institutional survival. Further, I’m starting to think that when we listen to those who are offering critiques of the church from the “spiritual but not religious” perspective, we are listening to at least two different streams of thought — both important, but worth distinguishing because they’re different audiences for our witness, if we decide that witnessing to the gospel is ultimately going to be what we’re about. On the one hand, there are those who have left the churches they grew up in or attended for many years because they are disillusioned by the controversies, the fighting, the focus on institutional politics rather than on God. Those are the people who say, rightly, that they are not hearing in church the transformative gospel that Jesus proclaimed, the Gospel that calls us to change and grow for the sake of a broken world. They can say that because at one time or another they did hear that gospel, probably in church — but they now see churches that seem to have lost their way.

On the other hand, there are the Seekers and the unchurched, people who were not raised in any religion and who are curious about what Christianity is all about. Some of these folks wander into churches and encounter the gospel in something they hear, or in the experience of worship — but many others I’ve talked to have been just puzzled: they have basic questions about why we do what we do, why we use the words that we do, and often no place to take those questions. I’m wondering how many of us have a good answer, if someone who is disillusioned, or unchurched or puzzled by religion asks us: “What’s the point? Why Church at all? (I should note that a young person, Jacob Nez, has already opened this discussion on the Café with his “Why are Youth in Church” – read it here: so that gives me courage to pose the question positively for all of us).

Why do I keep going to church?

What is it, for me, that makes the desire to worship so strong that it doesn’t matter whether services are sometimes boring or people in churches are fighting? I wonder if this is the place to start, rather than looking at marketing strategies or polling or tweaking of our Sunday practices: What is our testimony, those of us who do keep showing up, week after week, for worship? Why church at all? I’m asking that of myself

In an interview reported by Barbara Bradley Haggerty, a churchgoer says that the church “puts skin on God.” “Putting skin on God” – I like that. It expresses what I hope is true: that it is possible for human beings to draw near to be touched by, a mystery that is beyond our full comprehension and in our gathering to lend a human face, a story to that Mystery that we experience as also reaching out to us. That’s the main reason I go to church, I think, even in a culture where it seems fewer & fewer people do so. I want to spend some time each week around people who have glimpsed the same hope, and who express that hope by gathering together, in words, song, bodily movement. Even when it’s inconvenient or I don’t feel like it, even when some of the people irritate me, showing up regularly in this way does me good. I would even say that over the years it has been a transformative practice for me.

The stories we tell, the words we use, the prayers we say in church, if I listen to the words, proclaim that there is something greater than me or even than “us”, the particular people gathered on a given Sunday. When we gather for worship, we are putting ourselves in the presence of something bigger than all of us, and yet people down through the ages have written prayers and hymns to try to touch this experience. I’m a word-person, so in any given week I always listen for words that may speak to me. Often nothing speaks; sometimes what I hear offends me or puts me off — but I remember that these are words that have spoken to others, that are speaking to people who are at worship with me now. And they are speaking of something that is ultimately beyond our words. And there is something powerful about our gathering to listen to these words together, even as we may hear different things on any given Sunday.

For me the practice of going to church is a way of saying, to myself, to God, to the world, “I want to be part of the Better Thing that is still happening, even beneath and within the brokenness of the world around us. And I know that in order for this to happen, I need to keep growing and changing.” The Biblical images of leaven in the world, a lamp shining in the darkness, a treasure hidden in a field, all speak to this intuition. The teachings of Jesus and St. Paul call us to be transformed into people who will be a blessing to the world. It’s the churches that have to hold up that vision. That many churches don’t is not a sign of the demise of Christianity, though it may be the sign of the need to shake off some ways of “doing church” that have become entrenched and dysfunctional.

It is also true that a little time spent in governance and leadership in church be very discouraging. And it is a tough time in history to be someone whose livelihood depends on the church as it is currently structured, so it is no wonder that many clergy are disillusioned and angry, though many others are rising to the challenges. We can get so anxious about institutional survival and so embroiled in our own power struggles that we wind up wounding each other and losing track of what we’re doing here. I do understand why so many people leave the church and decide they can live the teaching of Jesus better outside it, undistracted by the human ugliness that is so particularly distressing in many church “families.” And yet for those of us who stay, the hard work of listening to one another, holding one another accountable and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation is part of what helps us grow in faith. Life in community, with all its messiness, is part of the answer to “Why Church?”

Why this Church?

In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, our Sunday worship is centered on the celebration of Eucharist or “Holy Communion” and that celebration speaks, for me, beyond the limitations of words. It invites each one of us, whoever we are, whatever we look like, however we are feeling today, to come forward and join with everyone else present, and be fed so that we may be energized to bring blessing to the world. The experience of receiving communion with a community of people not necessarily at all “like me” or in the same place in faith, life or culture also raises the possibility of a God who is bigger than any one person’s preferences or beliefs. I sometimes experience that mystery, as an overflowing sense of love and presence, when I receive communion. Sometimes.

Even more, the Episcopal/Anglican tradition appeals to me because we have always paid a lot of attention to the mystery of the Incarnation, which to me is the most exciting idea that Christianity brings to the table, in the conversation among world religions. (I appreciated Bill Carroll’s post about this on a recent Episcopal Café here.). Frederica Harris Thompsett has called us the “church of Christmas Eve,” and it is perhaps not an accident that even people who do not have a church tradition may be drawn to a Christmas Eve service in an Episcopal Church, or a service of 9 Lessons and Carols during the Christmas season. We celebrate, not just at Christmas but always, the joyful mystery of a God who becomes human, shares our suffering and our joy, and understands our humanity, and calls us constantly to renewed and transformed lives as companions and friends of God. Other Christian denominations also preach this of course — it is the heart of Christian faith. But the Anglican focus on the mystery of the Word made flesh keeps us always rooted in this world, seeking transformation rather than escape, and holds out the hope for the presence and participation in our lives of a God who knows our brokenness and offers Resurrection. And who never gives up on us.

All of this, I know, is holding up an ideal that is far from the reality. But my point is that in addition to looking at what is driving people away from church, it might still be useful to ask those who are still in church, “What is it that sustains you about the regular spiritual practice of church-going, at a time when so many people seem to be leaving or disaffected?” How do you answer the question “Why church?”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

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  1. Bp Pierre

    ” if we decide that witnessing to the gospel is ultimately going to be what we’re about…”

    I found this clause interesting. Have we not already decided this? Are you saying that we should, but we really haven’t?

    Please say more.

  2. Kathy Staudt

    Bp Pierre- you have caught me being snide and I apologize (I thought of taking that clause out but then thought again that maybe we do need to flag the purpose that I thought we have agreed on — I certainly hope that we have decided that witnessing to the gospel is what we are about, but a lot of “noise” around marketing and institutional survival makes it seem, sometimes, as if we’ve forgotten that this is what we’re about. So yes – I hope we do agree on this! And I’m glad you picked up on what I left in as a somewhat unfair sarcastic “aside,” but perhaps one that we deserve, judging how the church seems to be seen by many from the outside.

  3. Kathy,

    I’m glad you didn’t take the sentence out and I think (apart from what most churches will say reflexively) that it’s a real question. What I notice is that Christians (even Episcopalians) talking about what church is for will often find their way to churchspeak answers like “Witnessing to the Gospel” or “Being the Body of Christ in the world.” They’re the kind of answers that won’t take us very deep into creatively critical thinking. “How well are we doing that?” “Imperfectly, of course. That’s the point, isn’t it.”

    You’re doing something in this piece that I really like. My own experience or feeling of it is that you’re bringing your whole self (including your skeptical unbelieving self) into the conversation and trying to make sense for her as well. “Why do we keep doing this?” Spiritually the trap of a pure marketing approach (“what will it take to bring them in?”) is that it ignores that them us is. The part of ourselves that are bored, confused, distracted, resentful… and still longing, impatient for clarity, transformation, wanting to love better, hoping that there’s real reason to hope, trusting God will take our imperfect engagement and practice as the faith it is…” that part of “them” outside of church is in us and wants “witnessing to the Gospel” or whatever other purpose we ourselves might articulate to be spoken in words that make sense to our own half-converted hearts, in other words, that make sense to ordinary human experience.

  4. Kathy, I hope this piece provokes some broad and extended conversation. It’s not always present in our conversations about the church’s “mission” and future. I put “mission” in quotation marks because, when we ask anxiously that church’s mission, as you’ve nailed it here, becomes a covert way of talking about effective fixes for institutional survival. It’s not a conversation that will get us to looking at the mission of God.

    I like the dialogue between this piece of yours and my piece, “Just What is Church for?” published on the At The Threshold website:


    and reposted with the shoemaker graphic on the All Saints Company website:


    The shoemaker image comes up in my piece this way (picking up on your conversation with Bishop Pierre):

    “A shoemaker can describe his work so people barefoot or shod can understand what he does. A hospital emergency room can tell people in good health or ill what the work is. In fact, they can speak to those outside their practice and experience because to communicate, they can put themselves (pardon this) “in the other person’s shoes.” In other words, they can speak simply and directly to a perspective outside their work because they know that there’s wisdom and intelligence both inside and out. (On the question of workable theological language, I’ll offer this hint – shoemakers and hospital ER staff do have their own ways of talking about their work, but they can also speak to anyone in everyday language about what they’re doing.)”

  5. Harriet Baber

    Why church? Because church buildings and ceremonies are the machinery for inducing religios/aesthetic experience. That the point of the whole thing. Church should be the ultimate escape–go into the building, dim religious light, the glint of silverware, fancy costume, elaborate rituals, Elizabethan language–an exotic fantasy world, metaphysical thrills, the woo-woo, an acid trip. Then the church took it all away, shoving the stinking detestable New Prayer Book on us. Flat, dull, “contemporary” services, talky and didactic, quotidian–and the stinking detestable Peace. I don’t go to church any more: I detest that flat, prosaic, moralistic crap and I’m furious at the church for taking away the gorgeous fantasy that so many of us loved. You want people to come? Give us the fanciest, nost lavish possible liturgy, abolish sermons, make it all aesthetics and no ethics–and advertise: come to fantasyland–believe what you will do as you please and enjoy the metaphysical thrills.

  6. Mary Anne Chesarek

    Why church? Why the Episcopal Church? Because people of widely diverse theological and political stances can come together at the altar for communion. No matter what our differences (and some are profound), we can exchange the hand clasp or embrace of peace and stand together. Needless to say, I love the peace. Some priests have tried to limit it, because “it takes up too much time.” To embrace my brothers and sisters in Christ is to see the living Christ. Why the 1979 BCP? Because as precious as the 1928 BCP was, some of its prayers were tongue-twisters. The 1979 BCP gives us a variety of ways to pray and shows us that our talk with God can be in contemporary language. Why go to church at all? To hear how people in other times and places heard and responded to God’s call and to discern God’s challenge to my life.

  7. Bill Dilworth

    Skipping over your observations about rsxapist religion, Dr Baber, I don’t think that dismal liturgy or a focus on morality themselves are responsible for keeping attendance down. Some of the most dismal liturgy out there is found side-by-side with a huge dose of moralizing in the RCC, but their Mass attendance (both Sunday and weekday) is something the average Episcopal parish can only dream about.

    Personally, I think one big difference between ECUSA and some other bodies in the area of attendance is that we don’t really expect people to come. RC’s (and others) are taught that you have to go to church; we tend to wheedle attendance out of members, whereas they tell them to come. Not saying that the answer is hammering away at canon II:1 (“Of the Due Observance of Sundays) – just sayin’.

  8. Check the statistics. The RC church has the highest attrition rate in the US and is only holding its own because of mass immigration from traditionally Catholic countries. And, again statistics, 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants are beginning to drop out.

    If you want people to come to church give them the experience they want. And let the world know that it’s there. We are consumers.

    The church has taken away the liturgy we loved, arrogantly regarded church as a “teachable moment” when they could bully us into signing on with their ethical agendas, and condemned “escapism.” So we voted with our feet. Very simple and very rational. Give us what we want and advertise.

  9. Andybeckcarlson

    Always good when people have an opinion…..even strong ones…in civility.

    Why Church…indeed why? Our Faith walk should not be about the service (whatever the style) we participate in. Our Faith walk ought to be reflected beyond the halls and walls of our structures. Our Faith walk ought to be about our service to others, our care for others outside the building (as well as caring for our own). Our Faith walk ought be be about our relationships with others. If we are no longer visible to the expanding secular world…it is because we have “taken refuge” in the structure of religion…and no one knows us. Why on earth would anyone want to join us if they do not know us (or maybe they do and that is why the don’t come?). A friend said the other day “we are no longer fishers of me, but keepers of aquariums”. I had to laugh at it’s truth. Relationships are built by walking beside someone, not kneeling in reverent prayer – away from those who need to see and to be comforted by our (His) grace and mercy and humility…”be a friend, make a friend, lead a friend to Christ”…when did that not become our “mission”? To which I ask…where are the shepherds who teach, encourage, exemplify, promote and provoke us into the field of folk waiting, dare I say longing, for a relationship. I suggest Ezekiel 34 is a great place to consider.

  10. Bill Dilworth

    I understand that RC membership is slipping, just like other American religious bodies. Membership and attendance, however, are not quite the same thing, are they? Even given their declining numbers, the percentage of RCs who attend Mass seems to be higher than the percentage of Episcopalians who do. (I could be wrong; maybe it’s just relative size that makes it seem that way.)

    If your assertion about the role of liturgical change in our decline were correct, it would stand to reason that the “continuing Anglican” bodies who broke away in the late 70’s over prayer book reform and women’s ordination would be doing a land office business. If either their membership or attendance numbers are bucking the national trend, I have not heard it.

    (NB: I don’t think I’m that far removed from you in your assessment of the current BCP. I’m not enamored of the ’79 BCP myself; the parish I attend uses it only through the filter of the Anglican Service Book, which helps some. And if I never passed the Peace again in my life, that would suit me fine. At least we’re not called upon to hold hands, like in some RC venues…)

  11. Bill Dilworth

    My answer to the question of “why church?” is simply that I believe it’s part and parcel of being a Christian; I go to church because it’s a Christian duty to do so, as unattractive as that may sound. As to why the Episcopal Church rather than another, it has to do mostly with my local parish. A. It takes liturgy seriously; I don’t mean that we’re very grim about it, but that we treat it as something worth doing well. The main Sunday service during the school year is Solemn High Mass, accompanied by the singing of a Schola Cantorum. B. Sermons and homilies usually are built upon the propers of the day, rather than current events. Politics, even national church politics, dont play a major role in our parish life. C. It’s got a pretty good mix of people, like a lot of Anglo-Catholic parishes (although I wish we had more economic diversity).

    I go to church because I believe I have to, but if my parish church were to shut down or get hit by a meteor, there’s a good chance I would not fulfill that duty in another Episcopal parish. I might very well be found at an RC or EO parish.

  12. Of course it isn’t the whole story. Secularism is inevitable because religion is a special taste which, I’d bet, only 15% of humans have. In the past, the rest looked to religion as a pseudo-technology, to make the corn grow, cure disease and get them benefits in this world or the next, and went to church because they were coerced by laws or social sanctions. Nowadays, without the coercion or superstition of course the majority of people are going to drop out. So churches need to accept that, and recognize that their job is to speak to the minority of us who have a taste for religion.

    As for why the continuing Anglican groups aren’t thriving, however great their liturgy, their primary goal is to promote completely wrong-headed, unchristian, homophobic, bigoted policies. They’re a bunch of conservative cranks with axes to grind. And their social program has little appeal to the Episcopal Church’s traditional clientele. The sort of people who like their garbage generally have bad taste as well and prefer Evangelical megachurches.

    I couldn’t deal with these conservative Continuing Anglican groups—I completely disagree with their views on women’s ordination, sexuality and most other moral issues. Sh*t, if I could tolerate this garbage, I’d join the Orthodox Church. If one is a conservative—which I am not—why mess with these silly asses?

  13. Kathy Staudt

    It is interesting to me that the question as I put it is not the one we are readiest to answer. Hmmm. Just to remind my friends that what I asked was more for personal testimony than diagnosis about what was giving putting others off. My questions were: “Why do you go to church: “What is it that sustains you about the regular spiritual practice of church-going, at a time when so many people seem to be leaving or disaffected?” How do you answer the question “Why church?” That anxious-making question “Why aren’t people coming to church nowadays?” seems to kidnap our efforts to attend to what IS working and feeding us – and there will be many different responses to that more positive question. I am glad to see some here. Would love to see more. As I have indicated I think that our anxiety about declining attendance could be a a distraction from some deeper and more probing conversation I would love to see us have can have about worship, spiritual practice, etc. We use different language explaining it to someone who is not churched, or to someone who is asking the “Why church” question in a challenging way (as in: you’re kidding me: YOU go to CHURCH?”). But there’s an invitation here to personal testimony, and that was really what I was getting at. It is interesting that we find this so difficult. Not perhaps our strongest suit as Episcopalians and perhaps a matter for continued prayer, both personal and corporate. “What is it that sustains you about the regular spiritual practice of church-going, at a time when so many people seem to be leaving or disaffected?” How do you answer the question “Why church?”

  14. OK let me give personal testimony since that’s what you’re asking for. I go to church, when I do, TO GET RELIGIOUS/AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE, i.e. to get a window into the Other World, the power and glory world—contact with the supernatural, peak experience, mysticism. That’s what I want of the church and all I want out of it. That’s the only thing of value that he church has to offer: the secular world provides everything else cheaper and better.

  15. Harriet, I find your response useful. It’s not all I’d say, but I certainly recognize going to church for religious/aesthetic experience. And I trust that I’m hearing what you mean because you’ve said something that a church insider and a completely secular person who NEVER goes to church could understand which is first test I bring to whether we’re doing better than shuffling and rearranging church language without talking about anything. (insider language doesn’t always go nowhere, but when we’re trying to talk about fundamentals it tends to).

    The one intriguing thing I notice in what you’ve said is that by “go to church” I don’t think you’re talking about going into the beautiful building to listen to glorious music and sit in reflective silence. Your first post describes something going on that includes gathering with other people (and doesn’t include passing the peace), and some connection or opening or stimulus that comes from beautiful language. For all the barriers and loss you’ve experienced (also significant and worth a close listening) we’re talking about religious practice and spiritual practices.

    And for reasons very like yours, I regret that what we regard as modern liturgy often evades or undercuts the possibility of aesthetic richness or mystery. I don’t think it has to. And I do think aiming in the direction of beauty is a choice for a set of spiritual practices that we hope to share doing or experiencing with other people.

  16. I am NOT talking about connection with other people. I’m only interested in the presence of other people in church as background, like background music, in the way one likes the presence of other people in a restaurant or a street festival. I don’t want contact with them. And I like singing in a group—no fun singing along. But I don’t want any social contact or interaction with people in church

    As I said, I don’t go to church regularly—I find it boring, irritating, and worthless. I prefer visiting church buildings, where I can enjoy the architecture and furnishings without the hassle. What I worry about is that if and when the church goes down it won’t be able to maintain the buildings.

    Actually, now that I can ask–why do people continually push the “community” and people contact of church? What’s the point? It’s something I totally don’t want, and a hurdle I have to jump over to get what I do want. And forcing me to deal with people really turns me off.

  17. Harriet, I think I understood you. I didn’t use “connect with other people” which suggests socializing. I meant the more neutral “gathering with other people” that I said. Sitting in a zendo with a group of people all facing the wall (a square of people backs to the group) is a way of gathering with other people. Like an early morning spoken Eucharist it’s significantly less demonstrative and extroverted than a typical Episcopal church is for a later service. But respecting one another’s space and quiet is a particular practice of gathering that changes the character of the experience from being in the same space alone (a distinct experience which could also be a practice seeking religious experience).

  18. Harriet Baber

    Not so sure. One possibility is other people as background. But not what I really care for. The best experience I’ve had recently is visiting San Vitale. What matters to me are the buildings and their furnishings, the art. People add to a particular kind of experience, to rituals, but that is isn’t terribly important and I can do without it.

    Id still ask once again, why this empahsis on people, community? I do know the answer I think: it promotes moral behavior and social action. But this is to assume a partiular narrow notion of the springs of action. I’m a left-Democrat welfare statist on independent grounds. And, as a matter of empirical fact, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the Peace, and saying the Creed in the “We” form and all the other garbage the church dumped on us makes people do any better in this regard.

  19. Harriet Baber

    Oh and also if I may add I am furious at being relegated to a dull early morning spoken service. The issue isn’t introspection–I want the flashiest, loudist, most elaborate sung service as possible with the greatest possible amount of smells, bells and noise. I’m furious at being relegated to a dull early morning half assed piece of shit for “the old people–some borning,miserable dull crap.

  20. skinnc

    Long spiel alert !

    I will put my .02 into this discussion. The question Dr.Staudt has posed is: “What is it that sustains you about the regular spiritual practice of church-going, at a time when so many people seem to be leaving or disaffected?”

    On Saturday evenings I find myself already looking forward to the healing I will obtain the next morning from the disjointed experiences of life on this plane. In my case, the evocation of the Holy Spirit is the ‘sine qua non’ of my Sabbath experience.

    In the church I attend, I have finally found all I’ve been seeking(a tall order, if you knew me.) I sense the Spirit in the reverential handling of the Holy Book from which the celebrant reads the Gospels. I sense the Spirit in the reverence with which the celebrants attire themselves – lavish, yet not vulgar. I sense the Spirit in the reverence with which all approach the chancel and altar. I sense it in the calm yet glowing faces of fellow congregants at the sharing of the Peace. I sense the continuing effect of the Spirit when I observe faithful, committed and lighthearted parishioners going about the stewardship of our communal body at commission gatherings and parishwide events.

    Most important perhaps is sensing my own self-worth when I find the Spirit indwelling in me. How does this happen? I don’t know, but I like it. (And I could rattle off a list of things I’d like a bit different to suit my sensibilities, but we know which fallen angel that kind of attitude comes from.) What we have at my parish is just good enough to keep me coming back for more. In fact, I am very fortunate to be able to say it is plenty good enough.

    Let me add this: when my churched OR unchurched friends hear me referring to an experience at my church, I see a certain look cross their face that tells me they too are yearning for what I have. And I yearn to share it with them. I do that. . . but as gingerly as possible. Acting it out by being the hands and feet of Christ, rather than speaking it out, seems to be the ticket.

    Thank you for this discussion. I’d love to hear more from other readers too!

    [Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Please sign your name next time.]

  21. Bill Dilworth

    Dr Baber, I don’t think that the emphasis on community is quite as Machiavellian as you seem to think. Humans are social animals, but lots of us live daily lives that are disjointed and isolated. For them, church might be one of the few places that they actually interact with others outside of the marketplace, a level where they are not treated as means to an end. I think that’s one reason people often speak of community when speaking about the experience of church worship (theological considerations aside).

  22. That’s exactly what they were pushing: I was there during the Prayer Book revision process, went to meetings and “workshops” on it, and still possess copies of the Green Book, the Zebra Book and the Blue Book.

    I agree that different people had different agendas, but one of the goals a number of influential liturgical revisionists had was to make liturgy a teaching tool. And there were 3 themes they were especially interested in inculcating: (1) corporate good-individual bad: community, community, community—“the horizontal dimension”, (2) be happy and stop feeling guilty—expunge overly “penitential” features of liturgy and, if possible, minimize kneeling which was “a penitential posture” and (3) make church less churchy to show that religion is part of Life, not just for Sunday.

    I agree that this wasn’t what everyone was up to, but quite a few were and their aim was to “use psychology”—not Machiavellian, but patronizing. Insulting. Nobody was enthusiastic and, at one conference there was open revolt: nobody wanted the garbage the priests were dumping on us.

  23. Bill Dilworth

    Dr Baber, you’re right that Prayer Book reform was advanced by people who had, in many cases, specific agendas. But I thought we were talking about why people cite the community aspect as an important draw to church today, not the history of the Liturgical Movement. I find that people talk about the community facet of Christian worship even in bodies that wouldn’t know the difference between the Zebra Book and a zebra – the Orthodox, for instance.

    The idea of community was not absent from the way the Episcopal Church spoke and taught about liturgy before the process of liturgical reform began, either. The revisers and reformers picked it up and ran with it, but didn’t originate for them. What they did was take one aspect of liturgy and give it (IMNSHO) the undue prominence that you can still witness in those Episcopal parishes that deal with the Eucharist exclusively as a communal meal.

  24. The liturgy always draws me back – gathering with others to break bread – even when we sing poorly but with gusto. The heart of people for keeping the church going, doing liturgy whether gathered on the beach (see link) with a guitar or in a huge cathedral with paid musicians – all good. It is the rhythm and flow – praise, scripture, sermon, creed, prayers, confession, eucharist, thanksgiving — it is like breathing and as essential for me. People who come and stay say – I felt like I had “come home.”

  25. It’s interesting how hard we find it to listen to one another’s experience. Harriet’s story of Trial Use and her strongly expressed frustration at present experience are worth hearing and adding to our picture as we think about spiritual practice.

    She remembers some of the expressed agenda of our reformers in the late 60’s and 70’s. They (along with reformers in the RC, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other churches) did have some specifics that could have been framed as adding possibilities to experience, but often (good caution here) did get expressed or at least heard as “what we want people to experience.” That’s not a full practice perspective. Are we trying to manipulate people or engineer a particular experience? “Should” people “want” to experience togetherness? What’s the difference between Sunday liturgy and a pep rally (or one of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies for that matter)?

    I offered Harriet that people (sometimes including me) seek early Sunday morning liturgies because a different kind of being with other people is what invites their openness to experience of God or the holy. Harriet’s response (still solidly experience based) was anger that the early service is often austere to the point of being barren and can feel like the place for those whose religious sensibilities are judged archaic or irrelevant.

    I thought of responding that other things are possible. Harriet wants more spectacle (and I have been profoundly moved by Russian Easter Vigil and by Timkat and St. George’s celebrations in Ethiopia – plenty of spectacle). But she’s also saying that beauty is part of what she seeks. And I’m hearing a built up disappointment that what we DO in church seems to dismiss the value of beauty and hold up an ‘ought to’ of casual, chatty togetherness.

    As we attend to shaping liturgy as a practice, to attend to the things we do together to welcome and even provoke people’s experience of the holy there’s a range of different ways of doing that together. What opportunities are we offering for self-forgetfulness? Are we giving people opportunities to be inward and receptive or wildly, ecstatically alert but inexpressive, still, even silenced?

    I do value The Peace. And the gentle interchange that sometimes happens when people catch an eye on the way back from communion. Sometimes, visiting an unfamiliar church, I find the announcements the holiest and most authentic thing I experience, something that touches and draws me in even as a stranger. We can hope for and may experience moments of awe, of delight, of deep grounding and openness to something beyond ourselves in the whole range of things we do together in the liturgy.

    But I’m also hearing Harriet telling us a piece of her experience that’s valuable. A ‘norm’ of chattiness, formulaic friendliness, often in the guise of calling the assembly a “family” can hold mystery, awe, beauty, and the sense of something larger or even other than ourselves at bay.

    A friend sent me this fascinating brief video, a kind of wholly outside church look at liturgy or ritual and how people are together. It feels like it catches something that Harriet’s posts are asking us to remember that’s beyond moralizing or should or pinned down meanings and gets at wordless bonds and space for people to be themselves and beyond themselves –


  26. The short version. I go to The Episcopal church because I need to spiritually breathe normally. I grew up in a denomination where every time I tried to breathe in, they kept whacking me on the back in the middle of my breath and telling me I did not deserve to breathe b/c I am such a rotten sinner and I should feel so lucky that God put spiritual capital in the coin slot through Jesus I could breathe.

    So then I tried staying away from church b/c I got tired of getting smacked in the middle of my breaths. But life without church was constant exhaling, with only abbreviated chances to breathe in, and never deeply. So I spent all my time being very selfish about my breaths, and not wanting to share…it was still too hard to breathe.

    When I returned after two decades of just exhaling mostly, I was blue in the face. The Episcopal church told me I could inhale as much as I wanted, but my life is not about constant inhalation, I am charged to go exhale in the world. I need to breathe. I need a safe enough structure in which to inhale so I can feel like I got a big enough breath and can come back for more, so I can exhale completely in the world.

  27. Maplewood

    Why do I keep going to church? I go to church, and am involved in church, because I am led by God into God’s Community. Jesus came to proclaim the dawn of the Kingdom of God – his entire ministry was a laser focus on establishing God’s Kingdom, and that Kingdom is expressed and lived in community. I worship in community, learn in community, reach out to others in community, rest in community.

    Why this church? I have concluded that it is one of the best expressions of our lived faith. Our church is based on the three-legged stool of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. We are a people of The Book, we are a people blessed with reason to understand that Book, and we manifest our faith in the traditions of our worship.

    Kevin McGrane

  28. Yeah, you have the pious churchgoers making the noises you want to hear. Aren’t you happy—in spite the fact that an increasing number of us, including me, have no interest in this garbage. Kingdom of God, yap, yap, yap—whatever. And, of course, “community,” yada, yada, yada. How many of us outsiders to you imagine look at this manure with anything other than contempt?

    I did a summer seminar on liturgy a couple of years ago at which we read a fantastic book by Aiden Kavenaugh, describing what liturgy was like in major cities during the 5th century. It took the entire day of a Sunday and encompassed the entire city, meeting in a city square at daybreak, with processions to stational churches all around town. That’s what church is for: elaborate, flashy public rituals. Do that and people will come.

    But, of course, you jerks are too puritanical, to do this. And you don’t want to give us what we want—you want to manipulate us into doing what you want—goody-goody smarm work and little political action projects. Well, guess what, we’re as smart and educated as you are, we aren’t impressed by you, and we don’t give a damn about your crappy moralistic preoccupations. If you want to keep the church operating—which I doubt—give us what we want, not what you think we should want.

  29. Harriet, your anger and frustration seem to be making it hard for you to hear that there’s a variety of opinion and vision even in the thread of these responses. You are raising practice questions. You are asking whether church defines itself self-deferentially. You’re asking what moves people. I think I’m hearing that you mistrust moralizing and moralistic exhortation and manipulation of ritual because it doesn’t engage the best in people’s intelligence, aesthetic sense and misses what actually moves people to make moral choices. I’ve surmised the last bit from your sense that we have (I’d add “often”) discarded what was most valuable and done so without listening to others whose experience also matters. Aidan Kavanaugh’s vision moved a lot of the reformers in the 60’s and 70’s. But what I’m hearing you say is that much of the reform missed the truly public character of liturgy. In fact, in the period of Trial Use it was common to hear liturgy defined as “the work of the people.” Recently scholars have been correcting us (helpfully) and reminding us that in the Greek of the early church litrlurgy meant “public work.” The danger of the mistranslation is evident when we make ourselves, a little group in a closed conversation of comfortably shared assumptions and language “the people.”

  30. Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

    @ Harriet. I think that I get a “little” bit of your distress. I do, to some extent, resonate with what you are saying. There is a certain “something” about the “mystery” of complex and well-executed liturgy. I was thinking as I read some of your posts about something I recall from Karen Armstrong who was writing about the “Mystery” celebrations in the ancient world. People did not attend the mysteries to “learn something” but to “have an experience.” I too have spent plenty of time in church with my eyes “closed” against some new debacle of “friendly” worship.

    That aside, there ARE still places where I think that you might find something of what you miss. I am currently “helping out” as organist in a reviving Anglocatholic parish in urban Phoenix. We have solemn high mass every Sunday. We sing everything but the sermon. We use all of the Gregorian minor propers. We have enough ceremonial that it is not uncommon for our liturgies to last 2+ hours. (Our recent liturgy for the feast of the Assumption ran to 2+ hours and began with a litany of the Virgin in solemn procession with stations and ended with a solemn Te Deum before the sacrament. At the very same time, St. Mary’s is working to help the hungry/homeless, administers an on-site nursing home, has a special outreach to Sudanese refugees and their children, is open/welcoming for LGBT persons, etc. I don’t think it HAS to be either/or. It can be and/both. I sincerely hope that you can “re-find” what you so miss.

  31. Ah yes here we go again: instead of taking what I have to say seriously your response is “angry women—I feel your pain—let’s find you a nice parish where you can feel good. Must be PMS or menopause—let me pat your hand, Dearie”

    So, if you were moved by Aiden Kananaugh’s vision, how come you didn’t organize processions through the streets and stational liturgies? Huh? How come instead of making liturgy flashier, fancier and more public you made it deader, duller and more private—a crappy little social event within our “church family.” And oh yes all that democratic stuff about the “work of the people,” while you shoved this stinking shit we hated on us. Why are you surprised that people dropped out?

    My program is very simple. Stage the most elaborate, exotic, high church liturgical extravaganzas you can and spend every available cent advertising them. And, every week, process through the streets in fancy dress swinging incense, singing, and chanting in incomprehensible ancient languages.

    You’ve tried everything else and the Church is still dying. Why assume a priori that it won’t work? Why not give it a shot? How ‘bout it? And if not, let’s hear why not. Let’s get it out on the table.

  32. Ann Fontaine

    Dear Harriet Baber — sorry you don’t like our “stinking” liturgies — you are not the only person in the world. People are dropping out because of fighting (both ends of the spectrum), lack of fear of social disapproval, or fear of going to hell if one did not attend, not because of any of the things you mention. (look at Kirk Hadaway’s stats) Last year we are showing growth again. Some of us feel the presence of God regardless of high, low or in between, music of all sorts. Go gather a church you like and stop dumping on the rest of us. Some of us don’t even like high church and incense (or are allergic) – the church grew with Morning Prayer and Eucharist when a priest was available. Your program to me sounds like a precious pretentious show and nothing to do with God and following Christ. Call us stupid, or whatever. I don’t see any of the things Jesus called us to do in your program.

  33. Bill Dilworth

    Well, Dr Baber, if you’d come to the Annual Mass of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament this year, you would have been treated to an outdoor procession of the Blessed Sacrament. We had most of the things on your check list. I don’t recall if the hymns sung outside were in English or Latin, though.


    But really, if you want to be taken seriously and with respect you might consider doing the same to others. At the risk of incurring your wrath for excessive moralizing, “Do unto others” is still a pretty good rule of thumb.

    Taking Donald Schell to task for not staging “elaborate, exotic, high church extravaganzas” is just too much, by the way. It’s been a while (25 years) since I’ve attended a Eucharist presided over by him at St Gregory of Nyssa’s, and it wasn’t completely my cup of tea, but one thing it was, was exotic high church extravaganza. Please stop acting as if everyone still active in the Episcopal Church were an enemy of beauty and mystery.

  34. IT

    I’ve written at length elsewhere about what it is to be a church-going non-believer. I have a cultural connection to a high-church liturgy, and even before marrying my wife, it was not unknown for me to pick up Evensong for the aesthetics. And one of the best things about being married to a thurifer these days is that wafts of incense accompany her home. 😉

    But the thing I’ve really learned about is community. Even if I don’t share the doctrine, I share a lot of other values. I’ve met interesting people and been challenged to engage the world outside of my usual boundaries. This has been healthy and and opportunity for growth.

    So, I have learned a lot from being part of church. And, there’s a vulnerability in becoming part of community, where you can’t hide, where what’s going on in your life is visible to people who see you every week. i have argued before that the loss of this community among others is a contributor to the polarization and partisanship in our civic discourse.

    So it seems to me to have “Church” without Community just turns it into performance. It may be a satisfying aesthetic experience, but it’s just theatre. And what’s left, when the actors clean off the greasepaint?

    Finally, I resonate with this quote from William Deresiewicz who writes,

    I no longer divide the world between believers and nonbelievers. I divide it between fundamentalists of both kinds and (for lack of a better word) liberals of both kinds. Liberal Catholics, Reconstructionist Jews, various kinds of mainline Protestants: people who understand religion the way that I understand art, as a source of spiritual wisdom and moral guidance, not literal truths about the physical world. The content of my atheism hasn’t changed. What’s changed—what continues to change—is the way that I live it.

    Susan Forsburg

  35. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Dr. Baber, I have read some of your columns in The Guardian and found them good. I appreciate that you say that one need not be religious in order to do ethics.

    Where is your evidence that what you want is what everyone else wants? Do you seriously propose that the Middle Ages be revived in the Twentieth-First Century? Is this not another failed project, doomed from the start? where is your evidence that the leadership of the church are a bunch of uncaring, leftist atheists? This part of your discourse sounds like a citation of The Wall Street Journal.

    How does the “I” get conflated as “we?” And how does it then become I/We against the pious church folks?

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  36. Maplewood

    Ya know folks, I just don’t think what Harriet is looking for will be found here, so, for my part, I’m not responding.

    BTW, I had the chance to attend a conference led by Sarah Miles this weekend, and she showed some video of the liturgy at St. Greg, and it was extraordinary! I loved it.

    Interestingly enough, my wife did not. She said in the car later on, “I don’t think I’d care for it. I think I’d find it overwelming. I like order and things in neat rows. All the movement and apparent lack of order is disorienting.” I might also mention that my wife is about 5″ 2″ and finds crowds “smothering”.

    Still, the liturgy was very East Orthodox, so to speak, and wonderful.

    Kevin McGrane

  37. Bill Dilworth

    Kevin, I went to St Gregory’s several times while I was being kicked out of the Navy for being asked and having told, as it were. It was before they were in the building they’re in now. The priests and congregation were very welcoming, and even though we aren’t on the same page theologically I’ve always been grateful to have found them then. The liturgy was very impressive; the only thing I found really not to my liking was the dancing. If you want me to dance, even in church, you’re going to have to buy me several drinks beforehand…

  38. Kevin and I were at the same conference last weekend. I saw the vid and thought, “I have to worship there once before I die.” Really love love love the two inscriptions in Greek at the altar there; on one side, “This guy welcomes sinners and dines with them;” on the other, “Did not the Lord share the table of tax collectors and harlots? So then–do not distinguish between the worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and serve.” Gotta go there some day–not to watch a show, but to see how it changes me and how it gets exhaled onto the world.

  39. Mary Anne Chesarek

    While I never wish to disinvite anyone to church, I do have a suggestion for Dr. Baber. If you want elaborate staging, fancy dress and singing in “incomprehensible” language, while you sit in the dark without any interaction with other people, why don’t you just go to the opera, and have a nice glass of wine and a cracker at the intermission? Many of us like the low-church model, in which we can say the psalms and responses, rather than listen to a choir perform while we sit as a passive audience.

  40. Bill Dilworth

    @Mary Anne, people are entitled to worship as they think fit, and I’d never want to drag you kicking and screaming into a liturgical experience “higher” than you’re comfortable with, but your characterization of the congregation at

    choral services being passive is off base. Don’t assume that there’s not a lot of participation you can’t see/hear in services (either East or West) in which choral music plays a major part. I used to think that the congregation in such a parish was akin to an audience at a concert – until I became part of such a parish.

    @Maria, the “share his table with sinners” quote is a pet peeve of mine. Read in context, it has nothing to do with the Eucharist, but arises in a discussion of who is a worthy recipient of charity. Just sayin’.

  41. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Bill, Mary Anne was responding to Harriet’s desire to be just an audience rather than a congregation. A low church model would make it clearer why what Dr. Baber asked for is almost certainly unacceptable.

    Of course, the congregation participates in Catholic liturgy. But an emphasis on letting others do most of the work entails certain risks.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  42. Bill Dilworth

    Maybe, Gary, but I’m not so sure that Dr Baber’s vision of liturgy is even that passive, given the acid trip metaphor she uses and her stated desire to connect with the divine through aesthetics. It’s highly individualistic, admittedly amoral, and doesn’t seem anything like what i recognize as Christianity, but I didn’t get the impression she just wants to sit back and eat bonbons while passively listening to a concert. (My apologies to Dr Baber for having misread her if that *is* what she wants, of course.)

  43. Jessica Stone

    You know, church has been important to me even at the age (twenties) when for some reason it wasn’t expected that I attend. I grew up in a highly religious family, so I’m sure that has something to do with it, but I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition.

    I remember one of the first Episcopal liturgies I experienced, and how I was crying quietly by the end of it. I felt as though a previously unregarded part of my soul had been reached. There was a tenderness in the words, the postures, the music, and the silences. Maria Evans’s metaphor of breath resonates with me. There was a stillness that allowed me to stop being so frantic for a little while.

    Community has also been an important element of church for me, particularly when I was/am living far from home. I am still most fond of my first ex-pat Episcopal parish where the sense of community seemed even stronger than my home parish–and there was far more diversity.

    Beyond the experience and beyond community, there is also the language, the images, the narrative without which my own story, my own life would mean less. Our narrative frames the world that I experience, adds beauty and mystery and order to the everyday. It gives me joy and lends meaning to my sorrow. It is a firm, forgiving source from which to be.

    Why the Episcopal Church instead of a different liturgical tradition? There’s room for differing opinions, not as much emphasis on doctrine, and has a better track record when it comes to women, LGBTQ, and the otherwise marginalized.

  44. Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

    Like many others on this thread, my posting really did not answer the question but was aimed at, I suppose, trying to “help” Dr. Baber. It’s pretty clear that she’s not looking for a “personal” solution and that the suggestion that she makes is beyond any power or desire that I have/will ever have to effect.

    Getting back, however, to the question. Why am I still in church? For a start, most of my most “spiritual” times are in solitude and silence. Spiritual reading, silence, the Jesus Prayer and a self-created form of prayer that I call “active forgiving” along with appreciation of nature are the “meat” of my spiritual life. As someone who dedicates all of his time in church now to helping others worship/pray, there is little time for “me” in that. I spend most of my time planning musical transitions, getting the right pages, playing, etc. I get a little “break” during the sermon, but I appreciate, I think, how much work goes into them, and I again spend the time attending primarily to the message of the day. I have, as it were, vicarious satisfaction in the hope that I am helping an ailing church to revive and grow again, so there is something in that. As for anything else, it is primarily the community (or a subset of the community) of people that I enjoy spending time with that keeps me coming back. My work during the week as a physician leaves little time for “friends” other than the persons that I work with or employ, and that is always a “formal” relationship. Church is one of the few things for which I “get out” and can interact with people simply because I enjoy doing so. We also share some commonalities of thought, ideas, taste, interests that makes it more worthwhile than just “any old” social gathering. In short, I help “put on the show” but it is the interaction with the “audience” that keeps me attending.

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