By Derek Olsen
A clergy friend, Robert Hendrickson at Christ Church New Haven, has been doing some artwork for his church and putting the results up on Facebook. I can say without qualification that he’s got more artistic sense in his little finger than I have in my whole body because these things are terrific. Simple, restrained, black-and-white photos with just a splash of muted color, these images from parish worship are paired with tag-lines that are clever—ironic, even, as their main target is the young-to-hipster set for whom irony is a native tongue.
The reason why I think these posters are so great is because they do such an effective job at communicating the parish ethos.
Where we participate in corporate worship and the experience that we find there has a major effect on our experience of the Christian life with God and shapes our theology and spirituality. Yes, we all use the Book of Common Prayer, but the question is how we use it. How do we embody the texts of our liturgy? How do we clothe it? How do we own and incarnate the words and phrases to bring them to life in the peculiar particularities in which we live our lives?
The ethos or “character” of a place is a combination of factors. It seems to me that a classic description of the old English Anglo-Catholic stronghold, All Saints Margaret Street, was one attempt to define a community’s ethos: “Music by Mozart, Decor by Comper; Choreography by Fortescue; but, my dear boy, libretto by Cranmer.”
It’s fair to say that an ethos is a combination of:
• Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Clergy
• Attitude and Execution of the Liturgy by the Congregation
The last two cannot be overlooked. Reverent, pompous, attentive, energetic, bored, sloppy: it’s remarkable how one community can project a completely different ethos from another even when many of the other elements are the same.
After hearing and participating in “worship wars” for well over a decade, I think such discussions often fail by being too narrowly focused. That is, people argue over music, liturgy, and ceremonial. But more often I think what they really intend is the overall package—the ethos of a worshipping community—and considering elements in abstraction can’t grapple fully with the issue of ethos.
The posters communicate an ethos. The black-and-white shots depict worship that is traditional—very traditional—yet the faces in the photos and the “voices” of the tag-lines are young. The ethos communicated is of a parish that worships well, that cares deeply about its liturgy and the traditions that inform it. It’s traditional, but not traditionalist; it takes God seriously, and itself a little less seriously.
In and amongst the photos of silver and smoke, we are invited to a mystery. Not so it can be explained away or talked to death—but that we can dive within it and find at the center of the mystery the key to our longing.
(From the comments – here is a link to all the ads. ~ed.)
Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.