I went to seminary to find the answers. All of them. To be smart and do the right things. It took longer than it should’ve to see how wrong I was.
I had swallowed that ridiculousness whole.
- Liturgy was uniform and precise.
- Beliefs were specific and certain.
- There was a common understanding that went all the way back to Jesus.
- I could go to school for three years and learn everything.
Really, I don’t know from where I got that idea. My Dad’s an Episcopal priest, too and he made no illusions to this stuff. In fact, he constantly pushed me on it.
And it gets worse.
I don’t believe in right answers anyway. I’m thoroughly postmodern and as an English major, my critical theory of choice was poststructuralism and deconstruction. I’ve never had a worldview which supports ideas that
- Everyone everywhere does anything the same way.
- That our beliefs can accurately be put into the particularity of words and language.
- Or that we all believe the same thing and always have.
- Mastery of all things can happen in three years of training.
And as a writer and a poet, I saw a disturbing lack of creativity, metaphor and storytelling, imagery and imagination in the lives of my friends.
Rigidity of thought was killing them.
How did faith even come in contact with the creative and incredible in our world?
Where was all the heart in the midst of all this head-stuff? Where were those ways that life could be revealed, not in some small human creed, but in sunsets, unrestrained tears and consoling hugs, and the way our hearts leap and dive to pop music through a car stereo? Where are the moments of life that feel the most real, most life-like in our ritualized statements of belief?
This is who I was in everything else. Everything.
But in the church, I saw rigidity and certainty.
I saw hierarchy and force. People would come and share their beliefs and we all seemed to think they were the same as ours.
In the pew, I’d see people demand we all stand at the same time (and don’t dare forget to stand!) and then kneel at the same time (and always feel guilty about resting your butt against the pew because real faith comes from a rigid kneel, even more when done with clenched cheeks). Sing the same hymns again, those treasured ones we can sing without thinking, which evoke a theology we’d rather not question. Even the ones which turn God into a general and the hands and feet of the Prince of Peace into foot soldiers for the bloody revolution.
All things God had to be certain because everything in the way the church looked, behaved, and policed itself demanded it.
To get rid of all that would take more than a couple weeks of seminary.
In all, it took about a year and a half. And even then, I was still sticking to certain rigidities like a moderate. Throwing bones to those who refuse to accommodate like it’s really about them and not me. Not my own personal demands. I even said something in a sermon at that time that just a few months later I’d wish I could take back about having to kneel to pray.
I’d like to say it was my own naiveté, but that’s not it. Not with church. The intertwined need for certainty and rigidity with devotion and faith was too engrained in the whole system for me to take that on myself. Because the evidence was in who I was (who I am) everywhere else.
Something about church makes us rigid in our stupidity.
And it isn’t belief or faith itself. Our greatest theologians manage to have both profound faith and profoundly astute understanding of the world. Our modern mystics combine faith and awareness to the world which brings such joy to their lives that we can’t help but be attracted to a faith like that.
The problem isn’t us. And it isn’t in Jesus or the fundamentals of our faith. It actually has nothing to do with faith.
The problem is literally in our heads.
It’s in the rationalizing that the church is hierarchical and faith is the same as a creed and that religion can be measured and policed by rational arguments about belief.
Christianity and its people fell in love with reason and a false understanding of the rigidity of tradition. It reshapes its history to make us believe we see our faith the same way our ancestors did. That we are worshipping like God truly intended. And that we are greatest disciples of Jesus who have ever walked the earth because we get the Bible better than anyone else.
It comes from narrowing all of faith down until we’ve made an idol of the Bible and mockery of discipleship. We make heroes of those who shaped our faith and demonize those shaping it today.
Last week, at our midweek service, we celebrated the writing of the first Book of Common Prayer. Set for a weekday shortly after Pentecost, it is a feast for Episcopalians to celebrate a most amazing and transformative moment for us: when, in 1549 Thomas Cranmer produced the first book for common worship in English.
Cranmer took the worship documents out of the hands of priests and put them into a book anybody could read and anybody could use. And thanks to the new printing press and rising literacy, people would be able to make daily devotions in their own homes in language which wasn’t just pretty, but common, like the language they used at home.
We remembered the enormity of the moment, the brilliance of Cranmer, the revolutionary idea, and the profound impact it has had on countless lives throughout the world. Not just for Anglicans and Episcopalians, but for Christians in virtually every tradition.
The true revolutionary character of the Book of Common Prayer
I reminded the group that the word “common” meant not only shared in common, but common in style. That the “thees and thous” of Elizabethan English were common speech of the day, not gussied up and precious as it’s heard today. That thee was used alongside you in that time: except that thee was more personal and intimate. So these prayers to God were deeply personal. Like the way Jesus prayed to God with Abba, which doesn’t mean Father, but a term of endearment far more intimate, like Daddy.
The common language was intimate.
Our precious approach to the BCP, like the same approach we take to the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and Elizabethan English is radically opposite its origins.
Thee and Abba are used to highlight the otherness of worship and the transcendence of God. Like magical incantations which draw our brains and hearts to a mystical land in which we might find ourselves at one with a divine source. Who, for some reason has to be a man. And coincidentally looks a lot like Zeus.
The way we use the BCP now doesn’t build intimacy.
Rather than express the intimacy of God’s already presence, we use these words to distance and intellectualize a “Big Other” God. Rather than make common the worship of intimacy, we use our linguistic rigidity to distance and uncommon our worship to a specifically anthropomorphized deity with a human-determined name and identity.
And then I invited the group to think about how it is we can celebrate Cranmer’s achievement without accepting the opportunity for a new achievement to come to us today. Or through us. How we can celebrate the saintly Cranmer and reject the saints bringing common prayers around us now.
I didn’t leave the people with rigid answers. I just asked questions. Questions like
- What are the circumstances of the prayer book? Of its time? Its writer? Its church?
- What are the circumstance of ours?
- When do we need one? Personally? Corporately? How do we know how to use it?
- Since the original was born of a reformation, how do we know when we’re in a reformation? When would it be the right time to write or revise one?
- When is the right technological advancement? Like the printing press expanded access and literacy to allow people to read it, how can we know when technology allows innovation in even more common worship?
- How can the Book of Common Prayer continue to be common in both senses of the word? How can it speak to the people of any age when it is distant from the present age?
- If that time isn’t now, then when will it be? When will we understand the same Spirit of provocation which made Cranmer’s revelation true is still here and demanding ever more from us?