In the last few weeks, I have been asked about my interest in Anglicanism and the liturgical church three times, I have sat down with two colleagues to discuss what draws me to liturgy and ritual in worship, and I even had a singer/songwriter of “liturgical rock” recommended to me by a friend familiar with my journey. I have fielded questions about this particular aspect of my spiritual life before, but never with this much frequency. It’s coincidence, to be sure, but while I believe in coincidences, I also believe that sometimes there is a connection to the Holy within them, even if such a connection is forged when we simply stop to consider the why of it all.
To clarify, all this takes place after the events described in the “Faith Journey” piece I wrote in 2005, which can be read by clicking on the Faith Journey page at the top right of this blog, or by clicking here.
The first thing that must be understood before one sits down to write about his or her faith journey is that everything matters. There are thousands of moments that I can point to – some obviously more significant than others – that came together to form the person I am today, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually… Therefore, I cannot begin with the typical “It all started when…” line, because the reality is that everyone has a backstory and what affects a person at different points along his or her journey ultimately propel us in certain directions, with certain preferences and inclinations effecting changes in our particular interests. In other words, I count myself part-Anglican now due largely to a particular seminary class trip to a Benedictine monastery, but, in the same way, my experiences at Christ in the Desert were influenced by the specific Southern Baptist tradition and subculture in which I came of age. As Richard Rohr reminds us, “Everything belongs.”
My Anglican leanings are simply a manifestation of something much deeper that has been going on inside me for some time. I am not drawn to Anglicanism as much as I am moved by three specific aspects of worship that happens to drive much of Anglican-style observance. Those three things are liturgy, contemplation and religious symbolism. I will examine the first one in this post, and the next two in subsequent posts.
Rich Mullins once said in an interview that liturgy is something that you “give yourself over to.” It is a thing that “you voluntarily participate in in order to identify yourself with a certain group of people.” He went on to explain that when he visits with a certain group of friends, they must play a particular card game. Why? Because, if they don’t, it does not feel as if they have really met together. In other words, liturgy is the traditions – some obvious, some subtle – that are automatically manifested within an activity or event. In this way, liturgy is not exclusive to older church traditions, or even any religious tradition at all. Families that come together for Christmas or Independence Day participate in liturgy.
However, liturgy as an aspect of religious observance has become very important to me. These days, I am drawn to a specific liturgy because the traditions inherent within it resonate in my heart and mind in ways that nothing else can emulate.
Growing up, I attended a small Southern Baptist church in a small town. The sanctuary was small, the classrooms were small and the youth group was small. The church participated in a specific liturgy in its gatherings. There was always the singing of hymns, the gravely-throated muttering of a deacon’s prayer, a worship service that built up to the sermon, the sounds of a piano and an organ, and, at least a few times each month, the invitational strains of “Just as I Am.” Additionally, there were potlucks in the “Fellowship Hall,” felt-board lessons in Vacation Bible School, and annual gatherings on the church lawn to celebrate the new Sunday School year (which followed the local schools’ year, beginning in late August and closing in early June). This was our liturgy and, as far as the whole community of faith was concerned, there was nothing lacking.
During my teenage years, my youth group became interested in praise and worship music, beginning with songs like “His Strength is Perfect,” “From the Rising of the Sun,” and “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,” but following the movement close enough to adopt anthems like “Shout to the Lord” and “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” into our repertoire. Some of the kids learned to play guitar. Sunday School-like Bible studies became “praise and worship services,” or sometimes we would call them “concerts of prayer.” You didn’t always have to bring your Bible because eventually PowerPoint provided a way to project not only lyrics but Scripture texts as well. During the lengthy stretches of music, you could stand, your could lift up your hands and sway, or you could curl up in a fetal position and weep if the emotion of “The Heart of Worship” affected you in just the right way.
I encountered and engaged in this outpouring of emotion and devotion in college as well. College group gatherings had formed their own liturgy, or, perhaps, it had formed them. Music, music, music, announcements and welcome, music, music, music, prayer, slower music, speaker or group discussion, soft music while emotional speaker intoned a convicting challenge or prayer, music a little bit faster now, a little bit faster now, a little bit faster now…
Go to any evangelical church today, especially one known for its high numbers of twenty- and thirty-something attendees, and odds are that you will encounter a liturgy similar to this. Lately, hymns have been making their way back into worship – albeit with a little P&W funk rubbed on them (thanks, David Crowder and friends) – so you may hear the singing of “Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” or even the “Phos Hilaron,” which some credit the Passion movement for bringing back.
So, what is wrong with this?
Nothing, really. For some people, the emotional kick of the music (be it three songs or thirty songs in a row) is what they’re craving. Combine that with a challenging message (the word “sermon” is out, and don’t even think about using the word “homily”) and the satisfaction of worshipping together with other people close to your age who also dig the music and the look of the place, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a genuine community of believers. Whether you do it up big (Lakewood, Prestonwood, North Point, Mars Hill) or on a smaller scale, the liturgy found in the majority of evangelical churches is not phony. It may very well begin to feel stereotypical, but the thing about liturgy is that what makes the guided experience of it genuine is the person who participates in it. Sure, there are plenty of folks who simply show up and go through the motions of the liturgy they follow, but there are also others who, as Rich Mullins says, give themselves over to it. They allow it to move them.
So, why have I rejected the liturgy described and illustrated above?
Because I spent years participating in it and found that, over time, I was struggling more and more to genuinely connect to God and to the other worshippers in my various communities of faith. While some people were having amazing experiences singing “We Fall Down” and “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” I felt as if I was colliding with walls, not communing with the Almighty. I felt that I might actually have to sing of His love forever if the “worship leader” didn’t wrap it up. For a while, new praise anthems captured me, but eventually, it did not matter if the song was new or old, chorus or hymn – I felt empty. I was not moved emotionally. I was not drawn in spiritually. I was even beginning to have theological hang-ups with some of the lyrics. I did not feel connected to other Christians despite the closeness that my fellow worshippers seemed to be experiencing in the same service.
Simply put, I could find no depth to this brand of liturgy. I was tired of it, and I knew that I would have to find something different if I was going to maintain any sense of devotion to God.
It was at this point that several providential events occurred. At first, I did not see the connection in them, but in the last few years I have begun to recognize their relationship to one another as if it was all some grand conspiracy with me as the pawn. I found another form of liturgy that I could embrace in ways I was never able to assimilate the praise and worship service brand of my youth. It is a liturgy similar to that which is observed in many Anglican, Episcopal and Catholic churches today. It is driven by contemplation and religious symbolism. It is a kind of worshipful magnetism that I will expound on more in my next post…