Cross Currents and Communion in the Church

Jaroslav Pelikan, the great Christian historian, was asked to address the problems and opportunities the churches face with ancient liturgies, the modern taste for innovation, and debates about how to honor both the old and the new.

His answer still rings in the ears of many worship leaders and spiritual teachers decades later: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

My father liked to point out that the measure of a community is how it cares for the weakest, the weakest. So the Bible teaches that our social priorities should emphasize support for widows and orphans, strangers and strangers. However, his observation was that we really need to be careful how we care for the dead.

Tombstones cannot defend themselves. Cemeteries have a somewhat limited constituency. But a community that cares gently and reverently for such monuments and places is likely one that knows how to provide for the more vibrant groups of underserved people.

And when it comes to tradition, GK Chesterton meant the same thing when he said: “Tradition means giving voices to the most obscure of classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

Pelican’s observation is a reminder that granting the deceased absolute veto is just as unhealthy. How to reflect on tradition today is difficult in all kinds of situations. What would Dorothy Day say about a political development? How would Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to comment on a current event? You can’t just take them out of context and drop them as if you’re living in the present; When done rhetorically, it usually serves the speaker’s purposes, which may not correspond to the intentions of their historical figure.

In worship, however, we can trace some strange and interesting patterns through history that give us clues, if not a clear direction, on how to do our worship “properly.” Among Protestants I can point to five or six distinct eras in the last few centuries alone, where one generation innovated in music and preaching, in the next few decades it became the norm, and then an emerging generation comes around to follow it see recent innovations as outdated and uninspiring, while their elders defend this now-beleaguered model as “tradition.” Lather, rinse, repeat. Congregational singing versus professional choirs or open-air sermons with adapted popular songs crowding alongside psalmody giving way to Watt’s hymnal, organs supplanting ad hoc instrumentals, electronic amplification and backing instrumentals on cassette tapes, singspiration and “gaither music” around bands to praise too . . . whatever comes next.

I didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, but in a tradition that had many settings that were de facto a liturgy. Total improvisation and spontaneity was the modus operandi for different churches, not for us. Many of the churches I have visited over the past two decades have had virtually no service order or set prayers, just an outline of “music, prayer, offering, more prayer, sermon, last song.” I sometimes miss a style I’ve never really known, some ancient elements and bits of worship that connects us to previous generations that can offer continuity with those yet to come.

One of my phrases about what worship is for, when I’m in a room where this question can be discussed, is that I basically think regular worship is equal parts “birth classes and funeral rehearsals.”

If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend childbirth classes, either as a male partner or as a woman directly involved, they spend a lot of time teaching you how to breathe. Yes, even the man. Practice now because you don’t want to try to learn this later. Things will happen fast! But you prepare with the expectation of new life to join the family.

Funeral rehearsals aren’t something anyone has to do, I suppose, but in a sense we do it every time we think of eternity, after us, of the time to come. We prepare ourselves and those around us for the harsh reality of what happens if life goes on without us.

Childbirth classes and funeral rehearsals. Every faith community does this in their meetings and this is where you really need the perspectives of both the old and the young to be present and involved. How do we give meaning to our journey in the light of God while honoring one another?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher based in central Ohio; He’s still not sure what the best form of worship is, but he has a strong community inclination at heart. Without quoting Matt Redman, tell him where to find the heart of worship at [email protected] or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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