St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Callander Scotland was made of grey stone and had an old green, wood door with cast iron hinges that creaked loudly when Amy and I tried to sneak in for a Eucharist service. In response, every head in the church – all 12 – swiveled in our direction and an eager usher hopped up to hand us a worn photocopy of the Scottish Episcopal liturgy of 1982. The sanctuary was dark and only a few shafts of light fell across the hard wood pews, most of which were empty. Music was piped in through an ipod connected to a few haphazard speakers that broadcast a “click, click, click” as the priest searched for the instrumentals to lead us in mumbled hymns. It was lovely and sad, intimate and therefore inviting, and I was taken back to Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, California.
I wandered into that small sanctuary over twenty years ago and was struck first by the almost too realistic wooden crucifix hanging over the chancel, a carved Christ broken on the cross. It dominated the sanctuary. Everything – ceiling, walls, pews – was yellowing wood. And it was perfect for that moment in my life, this warm cloistered, serious space. I was gutted by my recent divorce and needed a small, quiet church in which I could be a ghost. So I slipped into a back pew with my two children, ages 5 and 7, and for a long, long time simply let the words wash over me; it was all the faith that I could muster:
. . . and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart
In your infinite love you made us for yourself . . .
. . . . for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory . . .
The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world . . .
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage . . .
I sometimes quip that the Book of Common Prayer saved my faith and while it’s a bit of stretch, it’s not too far from the truth. I had been baptized years earlier in the Pacific Ocean. Attending Church of the Ascension was another baptism of sorts. I shed an old way of believing and, over time, replaced it with a liturgical rhythm to faith, new structures and forms of thought on which to hang the disparate hopes and convictions and experiences that make up faith, or at least my faith. Some don’t need that; I do.
And yet as Amy and I sat in St. Andrews, I was reminded that the liturgical form of worship is, on the whole, dying. The sanctuary was lovely, yes, but also redolent of musty disuse; we were the youngest attendees by 20 years, and we’re starting to get AARP mailings. Similarly, on a good Sunday, maybe (maybe) 30 worshipers attended Church of Ascension. This troubles me greatly because our lives and thoughts are now largely mediated through programs designed to trigger mini charges of dopamine in our brains, driving us to return again and again to the vapid optimism of heavily curated pictures and stories, searching for that small, passing thrill of being “liked” or better “loved,” a compulsion that I know only too well. And it doesn’t stick, really, these thin affirmations of idealized selves.
Consider instead the opening words at St. Andrews Eucharistic liturgy:
God is love and we are his children
There is no room for fear in love
We love because he first loved us
That’s a handhold in the midst of a chaotic life that we try to knit together with the diaphanous threads of fleeting connection we experience as we flip between apps while waiting to buy a cup of coffee. But it’s only a handhold if we can grab it, or at least try.
And yet, attending these small churches seems like a fool’s errand much of the time, almost a charade: too few attendees like me simply muttering the liturgy more out of habit and hope than anything resembling a robust, life-saving faith. Still, I miss the long, sometimes tedious slog of being washed in the words of Book of Common Prayer, kneeling to receive the body and blood each week, and hearing a story thick with history and promise.
Robert Jenson argue here that we lose something irretrievable – a narratable life – if we extract worship from the hard particularities of a creedal faith. If a [church] wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: It must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. Paul Tyson argues here that we have been enchanted by a materialist reductionism and consumerist solipsism that doesn’t allow us to see that beauty, hope and love are the very substratum of existence.
We see plenty of “brutal realism” and “dramatic density” when we open a paper or look in our own homes and, sadly, beauty and hope have been hollowed out through constant use hawking product on our Facebook feed. The story of redemption is a good, good story, but it can’t be pretty or thin because salvation from our mess comes at a high cost, so we’re told, and so we know instinctively if we shut off everything that lures us out of reality and are quiet, just for a moment, just long enough to hear the words again: Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.