Thursday, December 30, 2004

Choice & Variety in the West and its results in Worship

A word to traditional believers and worshippers & a discussion starter

To look at the homes, cars and clothing of middle-class people in the West is to see a great variety but within certain limitations caused by availability, size, space and so on.

For example, on the outside middle-class homes look alike but on the inside there are differences in terms of decoration, type and layout of furniture, tidiness and so on. With respect to clothing, there is a variety of type, size and color of garments even though there are limits on the variety imposed by such things as the shape of the human body and availability of materials. In terms of cars, most of them have four wheels and an engine but they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and interiors. Concerning food, there are many types, menus and forms seen in homes and in restaurants, but food must be edible and not poisonous!

Variety in availability leads to choice by the consumer and the result of this is variety again in virtually all aspects of western life. Yet the variety is also held together by certain basic rules – the human need for food, clothing, lodging, and transport, the laws of nature as well as the laws of supply and demand.

It is therefore not surprising at all to find that within the practice of the Christian Faith in a western country there is variety and choice, choice and variety. And this has increased dramatically in the post World War II period, even as choice and variety have dramatically increased in society at large with respect to consumerism.

Varity and choice in religion is portrayed clearly in the way in which “worship” is conducted and engaged in. To take the Anglican scene as an example. Between 1960 and 2005 there has been a move from a general uniformity with limited variety through use of The Book of Common Prayer (1662) to a great variety with no uniformity where many local parishes create their own liturgies from both classic and modern sources and others modify the official liturgies. Thus the services of worship in parish churches are as different one from another as are the homes and the dress of the middle-class who attend them.

Similarity and likeness in liturgy was once what was found in a denomination, or a part thereof, and which marked it off from others; but now similarity and likeness are found across denominations – e.g., the generic “charismatic” free style is found in all the major denominations and in the independent “community” churches, and traditional Anglicans have more in common with traditional Lutherans than with fellow modern Anglicans.

Uniformity, or the lesser reality of similarity & likeness, in worship & liturgy are still found in 2005 but in small units (e.g., small jurisdictions/denominations & groups which have a sense of special vocation and a cause to uphold or fight for). The general scene of Anglicanism in the West is one of a basic similarity in terms of (a) rejection of absolute fixed styles, forms and structures and (b) use of freedom to allow local choice to determine the style and content of the liturgy. To cater for such a situation, the national Liturgical Commissions of Churches provide suggestions as to what a service should and could look like and what kind of resources are there to help plan it. In the first volume of Common Worship (2000) of the Church of England, the first service is not significantly a proper liturgy but a suggested structure of a service! This indicates where the emphasis is now and national Liturgical Commissions are seeking to catch up with and to control a little the variety being developed at the parish level. The 1979 Prayer Book of ECUSA had such a provision but not as the first item, but the forthcoming new prayer book of ECUSA will have little formal liturgical uniformity and many provisions for local choice.

To conclude: There seems to be no prospect whatsoever of this situation changing in the short term. Those who believe that a sound and good liturgy is necessary or at least advisable for the worship of God in spirit and in truth and in the beauty of holiness will have to work extraordinarily hard to make converts and to cause their congregations to grow. For they fight against the tide of the power of consumer choice, individualism and variety which currently mark western culture and society and which have entered the mainstream of the churches.

In short, the Extra-Mural Anglican Churches which use a traditional liturgy in a traditional (often a kind of 1950s way) will find it most difficult to grow in size in the next decade even as they have found it difficult to do so in the last. Growth has been more by transfer of members from other churches than by the results of evangelism.

Finally, a Prayer Book Society (defending and commending the traditional Liturgy) will find it is in a constant struggle, ever looking for new ways to seek to convince people “to taste and see” that the Lord is good and that his goodness is known inpart through sound, traditional, orthodox worship.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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