The Liturgical Church: Questions that Should be Asked

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Questions that Should be asked

Whenever there is an investigation into an issue or incident, the types of questions asked are most often determined by who is asking the question. For example, lets say there was a car accident on a roadway near your town. Several people are asking questions, including: someone from the local newspaper, a police officer, an insurance representative, an attorney representing an injured person in the accident, a neighbor friend of someone involved in the accident, and maybe paramedics who were called to the scene to provide assistance.

After reading through the list of possible inquirers, most likely you recognize different levels of interest by each group or individual: some want just the bare facts while others are looking for details that are needed for the specific interest they have in the accident. Just questions of cause and effect will have several possible answers.

As to those cause and effect questions, there could be a number: car “A” swerved across the highway and into the path of an oncoming vehicle; the driver of Car “A” had a heart attack and lost control of the car; car “A’s” brakes were faulty and when the driver of Car “A” pushed on the brake pedal, the brake system failed and the car was pulled into the wrong lane; or, maybe a cat ran out in front of Car “A” and in an attempt to avoid the cat, the driver veered into the oncoming traffic. It could have been a large pothole in the road that caused the car to leave the proper highway lane. And who knows what other causes.

But this isn’t a car accident. It’s about churches. You can appreciate now there will be a wide range of questions depending on who is asking for an answer. Parishioners with little interest in how the church operates might wonder why attendance at the regular Sunday services is down. The Board of Trustees or Deacons, or Vestry or Session could be asking why the offering plates don’t have as much money as last year.

The local church staff may be nervous about their salaries as they see declining donations to the church. The church custodian can see needed repairs to church facilities being ignored because there are insufficient funds. At denominational headquarters, church leaders are becoming alarmed as region by region, reports are being received indicating growth or church vitality with negative readings. Yes, there are levels of interest that change from one perspective to another. And different questions will produce different kinds of answers.

This analysis will attempt to satisfy both personal and corporate interests by linking appropriate causes with the effects that are being registered. Like the analogy of the car accident, one answer will not be of interest to everyone. And individuals will have concerns in only what affects them personally. It won’t be a case of “one size fits all.”

Another hurdle will soon become apparent: causes of problems may be buried under gradual changes made in the past, hardly visible or even remembered today. Changes made over time, if taken in one giant step might be rejected out of hand. It’s like the “frog in the kettle” story. If you take a frog and put it into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out without a hint of damage because of its quick, automatic response to heat. But place the same frog in a pot of cool water–then turn on the stove. The frog will slowly be cooked because it doesn’t sense any threat by the gradual change in temperature.

Who Makes and Keeps Church Traditions?

Do we know or can we guess who makes and keeps our denominational traditions?

They are probably members of the clergy, but who exactly are these keepers of tradition? If you ever go to an installation or consecration of a Bishop or other clergy of rank in a denomination, you will see the custodians of tradition. This group would include senior officials such as Bishops, Presiding Bishops, Archbishops, Seminary and University Deans and Presidents, and other like professionals.

It might even include prominent preachers, rectors or priests as denominations call those who have organizational status. These are members of the clergy who can direct or censure others. For a variety of reasons, they may have “clout” in the organization.

Let’s take an example from a non-liturgical denomination. A number of years ago, there was a familiar TV evangelist who was known to have a sexual addiction. A number of people, including professionals in that denomination, knew of the problem but said nothing about it. Now you may feel that it was none of their business to do anything about it. But at the same time, the denomination and its schools were receiving millions of dollars annually in gifts from this evangelist. Does the silence now appear to have a connection?

Although they had knowledge of his addiction, they did nothing—until he was arrested in his car with a prostitute. If it were none of their business when they knew of his problem before the arrest, did it now become their business? Apparently so. They defrocked him—disbarred him from their denomination.

Why was that action not taken earlier when the moral issue was common knowledge within the denomination’s leadership? This evangelist had clout: lots of money given to key organizations within the denomination.

Thus, if you are a seminary professor or president in a denominational school, grades, degrees and recognition come with a price. Is that bad? Not necessarily. But it is a fact that if a student or even a professor jumps over the traces on issues of denominational doctrine or tradition, they can be sanctioned, and that can be bad. (Obviously, students are more vulnerable than a tenured professor).

These schools have clout because through their action they can determine whether any student or professor will be able to make a living in that denomination. Along with seminary professionals themselves, bishops and other senior pastors may carry the same stick: they can give or withhold recommendations that determine whether a person will even attend a seminary, and once enrolled, whether they will graduate.

How The Church Hierarchy Controls Church Practices?

Most liturgical churches are in denominations with hierarchal church authority. In other words, there is a structure of professional or ordained people who provide governance in most matters for their denomination. Does this mean that non-liturgical church denominations don’t have governing structures? The answer is “yes” and “no.” For a yes, every group has some structure, formal or informal.

This writing seeks to address systemic issues within liturgical churches usually controlled within this type of governing structure. Yet it’s possible to find flexibility in some areas available to individual parishes. Even so, not all non-liturgical denominations are dying. Some are holding their own, while others are growing in membership. The churches we will look at share certain doctrinal issues that other churches have avoided.

Here is an example to show what is meant. This has been in the news, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. There has been keen doctrinal/Scripture based disputes within several US churches regarding sexual practice and the call to the ordained ministry. We are not here to take a position on either side of this argument. We want to indicate the variety of responses within the polity of hierarchical churches.

Again, as reported by the news media, one denomination has taken a position that the individual churches or clergy that have attempted to leave their body have abandoned the church. With such a move, these individuals and churches have no claim to any property and church assets. Those belong to the denomination. In such circumstances, legal actions can be taken to prevent the loss of such property and assets from the denomination.

This is an example where a denomination may insist on compliance within a hierarchal structure. It is not always the same. In another liturgical denomination similar in size, there is a like dispute regarding sexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. In this case, the denomination is organized differently; sub-groups can determine conditions under which churches may leave. Some permit the direct transfer of property and asserts to the leaving congregation with conditions. Others may require the purchase of property if the leaving church wants to retain the assets.

At this point, perhaps some words from President Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address might be appropriate (this address, by the way, was given as listeners stood ankle deep in mud and water on Pennsylvania Avenue, the result of several weeks of wet weather). He closed his address to the nation with the following words:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”      Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865.

As you are reading this book, your church’s position may be different from what is here being described. Please accept the fact that this material is an overview of principles that may benefit individuals and churches that are struggling to be relevant in differing contexts.

Different questions will emerge here and in the reader’s mind. Some of these we will weave into our discussion to bring them into our focus. Here are other examples of what we can look at:

  • What is the church’s obligation to provide moral direction to the world?
  • Is there linkage between the loss of community and trends in church vitality?
  • Does the Old Testament apply to issues facing the church today?
  • What is the role of the church and Christian faith in the local community?
  • How can the church here avoid becoming like churches in Europe?
  • How does my church fit into this overall picture?

The intention is that principles discussed will fit into many differing conditions to provide ideas that can be applied to your church needs. Other questions may bubble up just from listing and processing ideas that will meet what you are facing. It may be that just one question will be the key one for you. We’ll insert it here as the first question so you can consider it right from the start.

What Is The Purpose of The Church?

Define this question as narrowly or as widely as you want. We’ll look at it in some detail later on. Connected to this question is another: is the church essentially bringing people into relationship with the church, or with God? And, yes, there is a major difference. If we have gotten off track from how the Church is to function in the world, no matter how hard we try or how much money we allocate, it’s not going to work. If we are indeed to be the carriers of the good news from God, the bearers of everlasting redemption for humanity and have the cure for the ills of our world, isn’t it worth evaluating what and how we’re doing things?

Like the phrase attributed to several situation, i.e., tramping through the woods, a father driving the family on a vacation, etc: “We may be lost, but we’re making good time.” Except that here we are talking about questions of eternal consequence–if we are lost, how did we arrive at that point? And how can we get out?

How Did The Liturgical Church End Up Here?

At this time, to answer this kind of question we would have to borrow from the Wisdom of Solomon. It’s somewhat like asking how the 2,300-mile route of the Mississippi River came into being between northern Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps one way is just to say, “It took a long time!”

A number of denominations have in recent historical time (over the last 500 years) come up with a formula that at least gives cover for what is going on. For the Anglican/Episcopal church, it was Richard Hooker who was an Anglican Priest and theologian. He was an influential thinker whose ideas were picked up by philosophers of his day writing about government action in general.

Hooker tied his own ideas about church polity to those of the British crown. Some say that he was fighting against the Puritan opposition to the state church. So besides Scripture, additional sources of authority (reason and tradition) had to be brought in to push back. Much of that story, however, is lost in discussions today.

The Methodist church developed what is now called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral along similar lines of Hooker’s ideal for church governance. Hooker had what is sometimes humorously referred to as a three-legged stool approach to church authority: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. In the Methodist version, Albert Outler, a Methodist scholar, added a “leg” to the chair, Experience as a fourth guide to ecclesiastical or church life.

Understand, there is not unanimity within these denominations even to the meaning of these words, much less what each one is pointing towards. So we won’t spend much time discussing concepts that lack clarity in what the words themselves mean. Enough to say, though, that in some cases, it was not a revelation that brought those ideas into use. It was in a context of changes being promoted that were being challenged and debated.

Anglicans, for example, were battling not only the Puritans, but the Roman Catholic Church, too. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the constrictions of Papal Encyclicals and other decrees coming from Rome.

Other liturgical denominations have adopted these or similar standards as their authority for church life.

Resources toward understanding some of these developments: Anglican Roots 1593: Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity; and the Dictionary for United Methodists.

Regardless of how these principles were developed, present-day denominational problems might cast doubt on whether these guidelines are working. What we are examining in this section is a case in point: How did we get to where we are? Just what has been our “guiding star?” These deserve further consideration.

Beside these denominational guides for figuring out what to do and where to go, liturgical churches have also adopted uniform portions of Scripture for each Sunday’s services. These are the texts used on any particular Sunday for reading and preaching. The Lectionary is a three year schedule (Year A, B, C) of Scripture reading that goes through the Bible every three years. This includes assigning daily Scripture portions as well.

If you are regular in your church attendance in a liturgical church, you will be familiar with this format. A good website to check out this system is: The Lectionary – Satucket.com. Some denominations provide special conferences to assist churches in planning for the liturgical year. One example is the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, that has an annual event called the Institute on Liturgy, Preaching and Church Music that can be accessed from their Website. Other denominations also make liturgical resources available on the Internet.

The Liturgical Seasons

All of the Scripture readings mentioned above are divided into Liturgical Seasons for churches, by denominational traditions. In general, there are seven seasons, although some add an additional season called “Ordinary Time.” Ordinary Time comes in after Epiphany and Pentecost. These seasons are distinguished as well by their own colors, either worn or are called “hangings” adorn that the lectern, podium and altar. These are known as an antependium.

The Liturgical Seasons (not including “Ordinary Time) are as follows:”

If you find much of this discussion to be confusing, you’re not alone. Denominations simply have their own way of defining these classifications. At least church sermons are no longer given in a language that congregants don’t understand, as was the case for many years.

But speaking of seasons, maybe you have heard the expression, Seasons of Life. What does that mean? It is referring to the fact that as we go through our lives, we move from one season or phase of life to another. We may have had a season of child rearing, or educational development, or a time for a mid-life crisis. Perhaps you are in your season of retirement, or downsizing from one house to another. These are all personal to your particular life experience.

This brings us to a question about Liturgical Seasons, colors, liturgy, etc.: do the guidelines change? Not often and not very much. To give an idea of how change sometimes approached, a friend of mine was appointed to serve on his denomination’s “Liturgical Commission.” After his experience on the Commission, he told me he would rather negotiate with terrorists than members of the Commission. This sentiment will surface again when we discuss ways to end the membership bleeding we’re observing in liturgical churches.

Like the seasons of life to us as individuals, the Liturgical Seasons are primarily for the benefit of the church itself. Yes, it is supposed to take us annually through the story of Christian faith. And if you are 60 years of age and a faithful adherent to your church, you have now gone through that story as a thinking person about 50 times. Every third year, too, you have gone through the same verses. It would appear that most of the benefits accrue to the denomination and the clergy. They know what they are to do every Sunday and the bishop knows if they are in step.

At this point, this may seem to be a harsh assessment. But as we discuss this in coming chapters, you may see that it deserves attention. Perhaps the question should center on whether continuing to do the same thing over and over is good or not. There is a saying, “Insanity is continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results.” So, if we want different results from what we are observing, is there anything on the table for us to rearrange?

A corollary to the Liturgical Seasons is the preaching or sermons that go along with a particular season. As an example, for Sunday, April 20, 2014, we had:

Resurrection of the Lord/Easter Morning:

Psalm 93, 150; Evening Psalm 136; 117

Exodus 12:1-14

John 1:1-18 or Isaiah 51:9-11

Luke 24:13-35 or John 20:19-23

Those are the texts from the Lectionary of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. Other denominations have similar text selections. Just by looking at the selections and using your own experience, which texts were used by most churches that Easter? One of the Gospel texts? If you said a vast majority of them selected a Gospel text, you would be right. While there is no real way of knowing for certain, on both Easter and Christmas, upwards of 90% of churches use the gospel texts for the sermons those days. It’s probably the same for non-liturgical churches on those two Sundays.

But when you return to the rest of the Sundays during the year, it has been estimated that over 70% of the sermons in liturgical churches also come from the gospels, with another large percentage from the rest of the New Testament. Thus, with the Lectionary calendar in play, most preaching omits regular use of Old Testament texts, and to a lesser degree, the epistles of the New Testament. Search your memory to check if that matches up with your own experience.

As you are reading, these kinds of estimates may be of little consequence to you. However, in the following chapter we will look at some of the results of cherry-picking the texts used regularly in churches. The only plausible reason that has been put forward is so “all our denomination’s churches” are hearing a sermon this morning from the same text. In a sense, that is an admission that most of their churches are preaching from the gospel texts and passing over the other texts. But is this a helpful practice for Christian maturity?

Using the same liturgical tools denominations make use of today, a review of the weekly schedule for protestant churches 50 to 60 years ago may come as a surprise. In addition to the regular Sunday morning service, most churches had a Sunday evening service. Again, without actual data from individual churches, we can’t make an ironclad statement about what Scripture was used. We can reasonably conclude, though, that in most churches the Lectionary texts used on Sunday morning would not be repeated for the Sunday evening service.

And 60 years ago, many protestant churches also had a mid-week prayer service or other teaching service. That’s no longer the case. Yes, there are other, different activities that churches may now engage in, but in this section we are checking into the wider use of Scripture from the Lectionary. That wider use is still available to churches trying to break away from the seeming spiral of negative indicators.

Next: The Shadow of Justin Martyr