Yes, young people do like traditional liturgy

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By Luiz Coelho

I can still remember quite vividly the Saturday before the end of the Lambeth Conference, where I served as a steward. We were invited to a special plenary session at which bishops and their spouses had the opportunity to talk to some of us concerning why we, as young people, still wanted to be members of the Church (In fact, my estimate is that around half of us are following the ordination path and most of the others are actively involved in some sort of Church ministry). It is no secret that churches in general (especially in Western societies) are increasingly losing members of young age, and I could understand that for many of those bishops, it was very vital to hear the voice of the those young women and men who seemed to be so proud of their faith. Maybe what they had to say would help them rescue the unchurched and provide stable growth to their dioceses.

We had, unfortunately, very little time, and only four stewards (out of almost sixty) were chosen to speak for us. They did a good job, but some points, in my opinion, were not touched at all. And since I am in my late twenties, and can still be considered a young adult, I think it would be a good idea to push this conversation forward and foster a discussion on one of the aspects I see young adults articulating more and more interested in: traditional liturgy. And, I fear, many of our bishops have not realized the incredible potential behind this single fact.

The Lambeth Stewards’ Program helped me catch a glimpse of Anglican Youth worldwide. We came from many different countries, backgrounds and social statuses, and we comprised two main generational groups (18-25 and 25-35). However, I noticed that many of us shared a very distinct appreciation for traditional liturgy. Moreover, a disproportional percentage among us -if compared with the amount of parishes compatible with such worldviews- were especially fond of Anglo-Catholic liturgy and ancient Church Music. Yes, I know many probably think we were just “Church nerds”, but these numbers match somehow the data I had before from Episcopal/Anglican youth both in Brazil and in the USA.

What I perceive more and more is that a sizable amount (and in some environments, the majority) of us prefers “old-fashioned” liturgy, and it is not rare to find youth discussing the beauty of an east-facing Mass, the dignifying simplicity of Anglican chant or the pity that Festal Evensong is almost unheard of nowadays. It may also come as a surprise for some to learn that such an interest in traditional liturgical matters is not necessarily attached to conservatism. In fact, among young adults it usually holds hands with an inclusive and socially liberal, yet credal, theology. Even in the few cases where I have ran into theologically conservative and liturgically traditionalist young Anglicans, they have seemed to me to be much more charitable to divergent ideas and more apt to accepting diversity, or even a peaceful co-existence in different Churches, or Church bodies.

One reason behind the popularity of this “movement” among young people is simple, and Derek Olsen beautifully opened the discussion here. I would add a second thought, though; many young Anglicans are attracted to traditional liturgical forms because they offer stability. We have been born in a fast-paced world, and in a short period of time have seen the rise and fall of countries, regimes, technologies, musical styles, fashion trends and even Church movements. At the same time, most of the cultural norms our mothers and fathers fought to liberalize do not apply to us anymore, and only God knows how they are going to be within some years. The world is freer, and it is changing so fast that sometimes it seems to be in a free-fall. The Church, to many of us, is the last glimpse of stability that exists in this post-modern society, and the certainty that its language has managed to be the same for all these years is a key factor for two reasons (among several):

– First, it puts us in an (even more) special relationship with the Communion of Saints, who throughout the ages have used the same responses, anthems and hymns to worship the Triune God;

– Second, because it is a wonderful metaphor of God’s unchanging love and care for humankind. No matter what happens – hunger, fear, war, depression or loneliness – the Church, our safe refuge, will be there with a very familiar and easily recognizable embrace expressed in its magnificent and Christ-centered liturgy.

A year ago I had long, straight and dark brown hair. Eventually I had it cut at a very nice salon in Midtown Atlanta, and got a spiky longish bang, with copper brown highlights. Some months later, while in Rio, I had it cut again, and now I walk around with this funky faux-hawk which puzzles people when they see me – “I know him from somewhere, but I can’t remember who he is…” I was different, but my home parish, the Church of the Redeemer in Rio, was the same when I went there after months in the US. It had the same smell of incense permeating the air, the same red old carpet spanning across the aisle, the same velvet curtains, and even the same 15-minute delay which is so common in Brazil. I opened the same blue 1962 hymnal and was blessed by having my favorite hymn, number 238, as sequence (lyrics by a deceased Brazilian priest, based on the icon of Christ in Majesty, adapted to the tune Kingsfold). I knelt and received the Most Holy Sacrament. They were singing Pange Lingua and, of course, I cried (as usual). It is impossible not to. That was home; that was my family in Christ. Yes, I changed; the people in that church also changed; even the priest changed… but those special moments did not. They reassured me of Christ’s eternal love and majesty, the same way they did to me one year ago, to my relatives decades ago, and to the uncountable brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the ages.

What would my reaction have been if I had been presented to a completely different liturgy, with elements from the so-called “pop culture” such as a rock band, drums or new age music? What if the solid and still stable pews had been removed and substituted by folding chairs arranged in a totally different pattern? What if the hymnal, which consolidates centuries of good and theologically profound Church music, had been substituted by the newest folk songs du jour, which are likely not to be known ten years from now? What if my referential, one of the few stable elements of my world, had completely changed? I guess it would have been a calamity to me.

Yet, this is probably the most often heard “solution” for the “problem” of declining youth attendance in our Church.

Personally, I do not think that many kinds of alternative worship -provided it has a good theological background and is offered with a contrite heart- are inferior in God’s sight to traditional liturgy. I even enjoy some of the more “contemporary” liturgies under certain circumstances (such as camps or retreats). I respect those who have found their way with Christ through such liturgical styles, and wholeheartedly support the existence of such groups in Anglicanism, provided they somehow find a way of keeping the common prayer tradition and abide by our doctrines of faith and Church governance. And I can say that many young people agree with me in those points, and that, yes, there are youth involved in those “contemporary” groups.

However, this is not what all young people expect from Church, and I am afraid that many of us are looking for something much more ancient and rich in historical heritage. Can I cite statistics? No, I do not have them, but of course I am a young adult, and naturally I hang out with young people and most of my friends are in the 20-40 age range. This is a very eclectic generation, in my opinion, and it is not rare to find people who can appreciate both hard rock and Gregorian chant, pierced noses and traditional albs, green-dyed hair and fine frankincense. Some of these tastes will not last more than one season; others will stay forever. But very often, we foresee the Church in this second group.

I do recognize that in many aspects, the Church has changed in a good way in the last forty years. Liturgically speaking, some important steps were taken. The Holy Eucharist became central in our Church’s spiritual life, liturgies became more sensitive to cultural settings, we have improved lectionaries and laity have become more involved in liturgical life. The problem, however, is that such advances (which in many cases are curiously a return to very ancient principles) not rarely were accompanied by an extreme iconoclasm towards simple liturgical and architectural elements that were not bad per se, and if properly used, could perfectly remain in association with the aforementioned advances (provided those simple liturgical forms are not ‘dumbed-down and condescending as if only priests can think about theological matters). All of a sudden, though, rood screens, east-facing high altars, the act of kneeling (and sometimes the actual kneelers), some musical instruments, traditional chant, and even the Prayer Book format (among so many other things) were equated to the antichrist, and considered the source of all evil in the Church. Here and there, they were practically erased from ecclesial daily life, perhaps in a faster way than the liturgical changes happened during the Reformation.

I understand, however, that all of that was a response to the plea of a previous generation which was suffocated by the evil side of traditionalism, and needed to foster changes in a world that did not want to look forward. Forty years later, however, we are still caught by some of the same questions: “How to attract youth? How to create liturgies that are meaningful to newer generations? How to reinvigorate the Church?” My response to that would be that we went too far in some reforms (mostly liturgical ones) and maybe restoring some of the icons we as a Church broke, allied with the empowerment of youth in the life of the Church would be a great start in attempting to attract some people of my age.

Do not get me wrong, though. I am not advocating any kind of Church-enforced obligatory implementation of solemn high masses. But yes, maybe some communities which would be willing to give it a try should do it sometimes. But do not stop there! Please, allow youth to do something and literally join this stable tradition of the Church. I am pretty sure that many secretly want to swing the thuribles, organize a choir, read the lessons, chant the prayers of the people, lead Evening Prayer or help with Sunday School and Church committees (including the liturgy one). Very often, such positions, which could be shared with – or passed to – youth and young adults, are not. And yes, please try traditional liturgy. Many young people want it, but much more importantly, they want to help make it happen.

Let me end with a final and curious note. Lambeth stewards were awarded with the possibility of organizing a special mass for us and staff people at the Canterbury Cathedral’s crypt. With such an astonishing location and so many liturgical resources, we did our best. Most of us had the opportunity of doing something, whether it was reading a lesson, an intercession, serving as an acolyte, playing the organ or joining the choir. We rehearsed for one week “If ye love me” by Tallis (which was our Communion hymn), celebrant and servers wore a lovely set of silky red vestments and clouds of incense filled that sacred space, as it has been, is now and will be forever.

It was the only service with incense during the Conference, by the way.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”

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Derek Olsen
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Derek Olsen

You're right, B.--the definition of "traditional" is not what's at question here it is a different question.

And yes, there are multiple senses to kneeling--none of which are terribly amenable to contemporary American attitudes whether it's feeling penitential or feeling awe in the presence of another...

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B. Snyder
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B. Snyder

(But thanks for calling attention to the "letter vs. the spirit of the Law." I hadn't noticed that, but I think you're quite right.)

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B. Snyder
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B. Snyder

Yes, that is my point, Derek. To me, the current "early-church" forbidding-of-kneeling stance merely results in an avoidance of penitence altogether - extremely problematic in a faith in which repentance for sins is central. And I find it puritanical, as well, to be honest; what kind of bizarre religion deems it reasonable to attempt to exert total control over its own members' body movements and personal piety?

In any case, kneeling is not only penitential - and there are plenty of New Testament examples of reverential kneeling. This is just what Luiz is talking about in this post, when he mentions receiving the Sacrament in tears; any religion that would forbid this is not worth wasting time on, if you ask me.

I don't agree, though, that we need to pin down what "traditional" means; I don't think that's the issue here at all. As I said above, there's no other word that expresses in shorthand what Luiz has also expressed quite well in longhand; it's a placeholder, that's all.

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Derek Olsen
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Derek Olsen

Huw,

I actually wrote a little piece on the presence of the "no kneeling on Sundays" bit in the Nicene Canons. It true that no kneeling was allowed on Sundays and in Easter--but prostrations between psalms and prayers appeared every other day of the week. That's where the problem lies. We may keep the letter but we entirely miss the sense and purpose if we don't kneel on Sundays. The point isn't that Christians shouldn't kneel. Rather, the point is that the usual penitence for our constant sins can be set aside for the days of high celebration concerning what God has done for us. If I read it right, that's B. Snyder's point---If folk aren't doing the Offices daily in community then they still need that sense of corporate confession to get a true sense of the fullness of the Christian life.

Anglicanism does have an ethos that is distinct from both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox expressions. That ethos itself can be field-guided into different subsets. But just because those subsets exists and because variety exists I don't think it's fair to say that anything can and should go liturgically--that we can draw on *any* past Christian liturgical strand. The Eastern stuff is great---I'll not disagree with you there. But the last direct Eastern influence on the Church in England was Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus in the 7th century. The grand majority of any Eastern ideas were mediated by Western minds and concerns and languages.

Want my definition of traditional Anglican liturgy? It'd be "the text and the music of the Sarum Mass and the Sarum Office as revised by Protestants (with theological convictions from the patristic to the puritan) in the English tongue". How does that sound to you?

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B. Snyder
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B. Snyder

(P.S.: I don't think anybody has mentioned the "default mode of a pious Victorian reconstruction of a medieval fantasy."

Why bring up something that's not at issue here?)

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