by Lisa G. Fischbeck
An open letter to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music
For those who like change and uncertainty, this is an exciting time to be Church. The Spirit is moving, nudging us off of our complacency, calling us to consider anew our customs and our ways. It seems as if nothing is too sacred for us to re-examine: marriage, the Eucharist, ordination… Now the General Convention has called for a process for a comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. This is good.
As early as the fifth century, the church proclaimed Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of praying is the law of believing, or more commonly put, “as we pray, so we believe”. This means if you want to know what Episcopalians believe, you study what and how we pray. It also means that how and what we pray not only expresses what we believe and also forms what we believe. Because of this understanding, liturgical sacramental churches do not change their liturgy unadvisedly or lightly, but rather choose words and actions prayerfully and expertly, carefully scrutinizing any proposed innovations.
The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, where I get to serve as Vicar, was launched in the Diocese of North Carolina in 2003 to be a church for those who are not likely to be drawn to a more established way of church, for those who have never been to church or whose experience of church was long ago. As a result, when we plan our liturgy we are ever mindful of two characteristics of our congregation. First, many were not raised in regular attendance of the Episcopal Church. Second, many will not attend more than once a month.
From our beginning, therefore, we have been keen to create a liturgy that is welcoming, informative and “user-friendly”. We don’t do “Power Point”, but neither do we have Sunday bulletins. So we announce and explain a lot as we go along. We don’t want to interrupt the flow of the liturgy, but we do want people to be able to be formed by it. So we script our information as much as possible, repeating the same guidance and instruction week after week. These explanations become, in effect, part of the formation, as those who come regularly hear them over and over again, while those who come less often really need them.
Faith traditionally formed by the liturgy is formed slowly, over time, the worshipper marinating in the liturgy Sunday by Sunday, Season by Season, year by year. Words become familiar and comfortable, they are “inwardly digested”, shaping thought, faith and action. Seasonal changes can be subtle – a psalm tone in minor key rather than major, the Kyrie instead of the Gloria, purple instead of green vestments.
But our liturgical creed, “As we pray, so we believe”, may not be true for those who only participate in our liturgy 6 to 12 twelve times a year, as is increasingly the case in our early 21st century landscape. With a once-a-month attendance pattern, a “regular” attender may only hit one Sunday in Advent or Lent, and only experience the Day of Pentecost once in three to five years.
By the time the next “new” Book of Common Prayer comes out, we will be yet another generation away from weekly church attendance and the formation it brings. Increasing infrequency of attendance calls us to sharpen our liturgical tools.
Those who brew the liturgies in our future congregations need to be really clear about why we do what we do when the people gather. Every bit of it. Just as important, we need to help people know why were are doing what we are doing with verbal guidance and instruction, Sunday by Sunday, season by season, year by year. We need to work, hard, to explain it and teach it, not just in what is written in the bulletins (if there are any) or on the Power Point screen (if it is there), or in the rubrics of the rites.
In order to do this, welcoming scripts may need to be written, offertory sentences may need to be expanded, and announcements may need to include more.
It is my earnest hope that in whatever notes accompany future rites in a future Book of Common Prayer, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music will include notes that recommend, encourage, even expect explanatory and descriptive commentary, carefully crafted and tightly edited, to explicate those rites.
Less frequent attendance requires more frequent explanation if lex orandi will continue to lex credendi in the century ahead.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the Vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC.