Preliminary thoughts from Peter Toon (June 1, 2008)
It is a common place of modern English that a single human being is referred to as an “individual” (rather than “individual man/woman/child”), whereas animals, from pets to wild lions, are not so named. This is odd and deserves an essay sometime by someone!
While what is referred to as “individuality” and “individualism” may be traced back a long way in western history, the use of the adjective, “individual,” acting as a noun for a human being, has only been common in recent centuries. It is, for example, the way used in the Federal Law of the U.S.A. but not so obviously of all USA State Law and not the way of, say, the law of the German Federal Republic. In the latter the human being as a person in relation is still there taking precedence over “individual”.
The unchallenged use of this word “individual” today for a human being tells us a lot, but not everything, about how human beings (particularly in the West) both see themselves and are seen by others. In the fullest form in 2008 this may be explained as a form of “exclusive humanism” that accepts “no final goals beyond human flourishing, not any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing” (Charles Taylor). I suggest that we can see this especially in the attitude and lives of many seeming nice young persons today.
To put this in a related way, there is general agreement amongst scholars, it seems, that the type of individualism that is dominant today and assumed by the educational system, the media, the fashion industry, Hollywood and so on is “expressive individualism,” which has roots of course in the Romantic movement of yesterday and other sources. Here an individual person is seen as being true to self by expressing and doing what he or she feels is good for him or her, and does not directly harm another. Here old rules about morality, manners, deportment and the like are set aside for the “nobler” purpose of full self- expression and self realization in the name of dignity and self-worth. In terms of the older form of moral discourse, it is obviously judged as wholly self-centered; however, in response this sensibility and mindset does not count the old discourse as valid, because it was not true to the “real” feelings of human beings in their varied and individual forms of living in a complex society.
With this as background, let us, as Anglicans, think about the Bible and inherited Anglican Liturgy and see where individualism is apparent.
1. We can begin by stating that there is no description or commendation of expressive individualism in either the English Bible (KJV, RSV etc) or the English Prayer Book (The BCP 1549-1962 editions). There is selfish, pride and misery but no expressive individualism.
2. However, we need to add that there is what may be called a form of individualism in each in the sense that – always within the powerful reality of kith and kin, family relations and the like –there is the definite call to each and every person to repent, to believe, to trust and to obey the Lord Jesus as a person in his/her own right. “Take up thy cross and follow me…” But the person in decision is not seen as an individual in the modern sense: rather he is seen as a person in relation, a person who by the grace of God in free choice changes his relation to membership of the kingdom of God and ekklesia of God, without ceasing to have real human connections and relations around him. He is always a person in relation even as he acts individually in moral decision in the U-turn to the living God.
3. Turning to the new paraphrases and dynamic equivalency translations of the Bible which have appeared in many forms since the revolutionary decade of the 1960s, we do (if we have eyes to see!) meet modern expressive individualism (usually in a weak form but there) in them in the way in which human beings are situated in relation to God and to their moral lifestyle. Indeed one may say that the very use of the technique of dynamic equivalency leads necessarily to the statement of Christian standing and privilege in terms of human rights and self-worth/dignity before God and man, and away from the Biblical emphasis on responsibility, duty, fear, love, trust and so on. It does so for it seeks to put things in ways that are in vogue today in this place and time.
4. Now to the liturgies which were put together in the 1960s and 1970s and have appeared in official and semi-official forms since then. What is very clear—if one takes a bird’s eye view of their content from 1967 to 2007—is that they quickly move in North America to working with expressive individualism in restricted form as where people are to setting this position out as the ethic of the Gospel. God wills that each of us be what we are according to our individual orientation: and holiness for each of us is only possible this way. At the same time to seek to make sense of having churches, they liturgists of the new order put great emphasis on community (where individuals come together freely for celebration and self-realization), and to this end they emphasize baptism as the entry into a community of equals with a commitment to peace and justice. To be absent from the common eucharist or not to participate fully in it is regarded as a unique sin , for it is to deny practically both community and also self-realization as the way to holiness.
5. Her we have also to make the perhaps surprising point that the only real difference between those whom we think of as progressively liberal (who lead the Episcopal Church) and those who identify themselves as “orthodox,” but yet use in essence the same liturgies from the 1970s era as the progressives, is this: the former take the new innovatory principles all the way (from women’s ordination to same-sex blessings including serial monogamy and the renaming of fornication as holiness etc.), while the latter go in general with women’s ordination and serial monogamy but turn the expressive individualism away from gay sex into more traditional Christian concerns such as a “personal relationship with Jesus” which they believe is true to Scripture and which leads to charismatic style, nonconformity, church growth and outreach. That is “the orthodox” use as much as they can of the 1970s liturgies in a way that has connections with the pre-1960s tradition of Anglican liturgy and common doctrine. At the same time they are decidedly modern, that is post 1960s, in their general mindset and ethos for expressive individualism is part of their reality.
Now I would like to move on to ask how the minority in the Anglican Way, who use the Liturgies and Bible translations of the seventeenth century (KJV and BCP 1662), understand them with regard to this question of self-identity and individualism.
I think I would begin by stating my hunch that it is probably impossible for any person living in the West today to use the BCP and Bible in the way that it was used by the devout Anglican Christian in the seventeenth century. Though the Reformation had given a moral and spiritual impetus to individualism before God in terms of personal, moral decision, the strength of belonging to others in hierarchical and horizontal relations of order was strong and part of the received Christian reality of living. This is assumed by the Prayer Book in the prayers for Monarch and Country, for the good of the Commonwealth and all ranks of persons. It is assumed in the Catechism, in the Marriage Service and in the Services for Ordaining Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Here we are a very long way from either the rugged individualism of the American frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries or the developing expressive individualism of later times, especially post 1960s. It is real but it is carefully restricted for general purposes.
But to continue: It would seem that there are various motives present in contemporary Anglicans who profess a preference for using a traditional liturgy (1662 England; 1928 USA; 1962 Canada). Here are some suggestions.
We know that not a few are moved by the quality of the language and by general aesthetic considerations with regard to the old texts. It would appear that they enjoy these dimensions and possibly never really make an attempt to get inside the general cultural, religious meaning and ethos through and behind the texts. So they can bring to the text a mindset—say of expressive individualism in a mild or strong form—and not sense any real discord, because their attention is to the quality of the text as pleasurable (perhaps credible does not enter in here). And their worship of God and its inner devotion are usually very personal and not themselves topics of conversation. They also love both good music and genuine silence with the liturgy and hate with passion the intrusion of a thing like “the passing of the peace.”
We also know that not a few are moved not initially by the text as such but rather by a cultural social conservatism for which the classic, solid and highly-rated text becomes an external sign of their patriotism and generally Republican commitments. (Note that Rite I in 1979 texts can also function this way.) This is not to say that they do not seek to worship God in sincerity but it is to say that the text as form- of- worship- text is being understand in a way that is not its original meaning. In fact they usually bring to it some or all of their general convictions and feelings about modern social conservatism –e.g., the mindset that is much against abortion and same-sex marriage but wholly in favor of divorce and remarriage-and these topics are very obvious at the coffee hour!.
Then we know that there are those—and they are probably the minority with the minority by far—that welcome the quality of language and aesthetics, who may or may not be social conservative as citizens, and who also truly desire to enter into the Bible’s message and the meaning of the traditional Prayer Book Services, in a real and committed way because they believe that this is a valid way truly to God the Father through Jesus Christ in truth. That is they really want to find truth and worship in truth, as well as with beauty and good order.
To begin to think and act with this mindset immediately makes a person counter-cultural in the sense that he or she has to put aside most of the dominant mindset of western society—expressive individualism, morality stated in terms of rights, and much more. One has to seek to re-imagine or re-envision oneself as a person placed by God in relations of divine order—order within the created world natural law, procreation and families etc., and also order within the kingdom of God and grace, where there is the universal family of God, the eternal household of the Father. Such a task is most difficult and may be impossible in its fullness in the conditions of modern America: and it cannot be pursued alone by a determined person, it has to be a shared vocation with others, perhaps initially in one’s “nuclear family” and in the real fellowship of a committed group or church.
Persons of committed Christian faith, who seek to walk in this way, are of course wholly aware of their context in society and church, and they have to make conscious decisions daily within the powerful context as how they are to live authentically as persons placed by God in required relations of order, in the created and the supernatural realms. And they have to pray for wisdom and discrimination so as not to lose their bearings and become cranks! Certainly the devil is after them as prize targets.
No wonder that very few Christians today in the West stand against the powerful tide of expressive individualism and the universal morality stated in rights. To do so is tough, very tough indeed.
Observation of services of worship in R C, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist and other churches today reveals, in the main, a serious and yet unapologetic dumbing down of what these Churches taught and did a generation ago, and it also clearly reveals a general capitulation to expressive individualism on the one hand and strong push for community feeling on the other. Ministers have often become semi-professional managers of the congregation as community, and also therapists to keep people feeling welcome and a part of the whole developing community. Much of their previous liturgical leadership is shared by the laity and they are not seen as “the godly and learned pastor” anymore.
Yet such is the sense of desire for spirituality and belonging within American society in 2008, expressed mostly through expressive individualism, that people still attend churches of many types in large numbers on Sunday mornings in the U.S.A.—in great contrast to the situation in Europe or Australia or even Canada, which is so near to this ferment.