This past Sunday (the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the Christian Calendar), the Roman Catholic congregations across the United States got a New Year’s gift in the form of changes to the Mass (the order used for worship). Here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I know there were efforts aimed at preparing congregants for the changes even though the changes were already a “done deal”. Since I’m not a Roman Catholic (or even an avid “RC watcher”), I can’t speak to the particular changes made in the liturgy or what such changes “signal” — I’ll leave it to others more qualified to make those sorts of comments.
Since I live in a heavily RC part of the country, though, these changes are “big news” — making the front page (albeit “below the fold”) of yesterday’s Milwaukee newspaper. As I read the brief article which contained reactions from parishioners to the changes, I was particularly interested in one comment. The person interviewed, after critiquing the changes as “semantics”, and stating her refusal to “learn the damn prayers”, asked the following question, “Do you come to church to be confused?”
The implied answer to this rhetorical question is obviously, “No, of course not!” Both the question and the implied answer immediately evoked a question within me: “Why then, do we come to church?”
For some, attendance at liturgy is about fulfilling a religious obligation. For others, it’s about comfort and solace. For others, it’s about reconnecting with something stable and consistent in the midst of a time of intense fluidity and change. For others, it’s about connecting with fellow worshipers and enjoying a sense of community. For others, it’s about a bit of inspiration or maybe helpful advice about how to live one’s faith in the world outside the four walls of the worship space. For others, it’s about receiving the Sacraments and contemplating the Mysteries of the depths of God. There are probably plenty of other answers to the question of attendance at worship, but I’m guessing most of us don’t intentionally attend worship to be confused (by the liturgy, the Scriptures, the sermon or anything else that might occur during the worship time on any given week).
My next question then is, “Why shouldn’t we be confused?”
With so much liturgical planning focused on “right order”, aren’t we ever the slightest bit confused about appropriate ways to acknowledge our disordered lives? If the liturgy is a drama in which we literally act out our beliefs about God, the Church and ourselves, aren’t we ever confused by our nagging doubts? When the liturgy moves easily from one set of words/actions to another, aren’t we ever confused by the ways we are stuck in our faith journey?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating confusion for confusion’s sake. I’m simply wondering if avoiding confusion should be the chief aim of liturgical planning. As a liturgical Christian myself, I like predictability. I remember the first time I was able to participate in an entire worship service without once having to look at the Book of Common Prayer. I felt like I had finally arrived as an Episcopalian!
I wonder, though. Does the ability to rattle off words without ever looking at them help us internalize what we’re saying? Or are we simply comfortable with a form of liturgical autopilot, which allows us to multitask — composing our “to do lists” or planning Sunday dinner while flawlessly reciting the General Confession?
The last time the Episcopal Church in the United States revised the Book of Common Prayer, the effort took the better part of a decade. The resulting BCP (1979) was adopted some fifty years after its predecessor. The changes in liturgical expression wrought by the 1979 book angered some, dismayed others and facilitated the departure of many to other faith communities. Now, even after more than thirty years in use, there are still Episcopalians who refer to it as the “New” Prayer Book.
As I look across the congregation I serve on any given Sunday, I watch us move through the liturgy with a ease and comfort. Even folks who aren’t necessarily familiar with our particular set of words can usually follow along as we navigate the path from Opening Acclamation to Dismissal. For the most part, everyone appears comfortable.
Would some confusion be in order?