Monday, 18 July 2011

On Unspoken Rules and Why I Prefer Liturgy

I have said before that I find supremely useless the following dancing advice: "Just move to the music." People who know how to dance often offer this advice to those of us who don't, thinking it is helpful. It's not, and the reason it's not is quite simple: the person who knows how to dance knows what not to do. There are particular ways of moving your body that are disallowed, but these are not posted visibly anywhere in the club. Moreover, no one can tell you what these movements are because no one seems to know until you've already done it. Then they know very well that you've broken the rules, and they will sanction you for it. Think of how unfair this is: you ask what you should do, they tell you, you do it, but since you do it "wrong" according to rules they didn't (in fact couldn't) tell you about, they sanction you (by laughing at you, by avoiding you, by being embarassed "for" you--which means "by you").

Ballroom dancing is different. In ballroom dancing, the movements are all very explicit. You can ask what you're doing wrong, and people who know how to ballroom dance can tell you, or at least show you. That's not to say that there isn't room for taste or interpretation, but you can ask for explicit instruction and receive it. In a way, it's difficult to do, but it's easy to start learning. This is unlike club dancing, which is easy to do but very difficult to learn.

I prefer liturgical church services for very similar reasons.

When I was young, I had confirmation class at a small Lutheran church. As part of that process my class and I were often acolytes, which means that we lit the candles and performed minor ceremonial functions during the services. More cosmetically, it means we stood up at the front during the service and wore albs. I was often quite nervous because there were so many rules I was supposed to follow. Sometimes the pastor was quite severe and I had significant pressure to adhere to holiness codes exactly. I needed to remember to bow at the right time, to light and extinguish the candles in the right order, and so on. I was anxious about it. (Which, at that age, was par for the course: I was anxious about everything.)

When I was in my undergraduate degree, I attended a congregational church. I was shocked at first that there was no altar, that there was a band (aka "worship team") and not an organist, that the pastor didn't wear vestments, and so forth. I did get used to in time, though. It was a very energetic church. There was a lot of music and not much in the way of responsive reading. There was no fuss about candles and there was no cross to bow to.

During this time I also starting attending Praise and Power, a worship service held for students in the evening once a month. This was not administrated by pastors or anything; it was run by a committee of student musicians who played worship songs that we all sang to. There was also usually a skit or a speaker of something, too, but the focus was on the music.

These were the opposite of liturgical. I was new to this sort of Christian culture, and for a while I was quite nervous. I didn't know what was expected of me. People are raising their hands. Am I supposed to raise my hands? People are praying for each other. How does one do this spontaneous prayer thing (or "popcorn prayer" as some people called it)? What do you say? What are you allowed to say? What are you expected to say? There's a sort of awkwardness if you don't do what you're supposed to do with confidence, but how does one get the confidence if you don't know what you're supposed to do? And if I asked people, I was either told to do what I found natural (which wasn't anything like this, frankly) or do whatever everyone else was doing (thanks, like I hadn't picked up that principle in kindergarten) or, worst of all, let the Spirit guide me. Which is theologically sound advice, maybe (maybe), but unhelpful because my concern wasn't so much what was Spiritually mature but what conformed to this particular culture.

The problem, of course, was that the people who breathed this sort of culture effortlessly didn't realize that there were rules. They didn't think of it in terms of rules. To an extent, they couldn't. They thought they were being spontaneous, that they followed the Spirit where it willed, that they were accepting of all who earnestly sought Christ. All of this meant that they couldn't recognize that what they were doing was patterned. I'm not saying there wasn't spontaneity, but that it existing within a certain framework of allowable actions at allowable times. (For instance, no one spontaneously removed their clothing or began swearing at the top of their lungs. Moreover, no one kneeled. No one canted in Latin. No one took out a rosary. No one made the sign of the cross. No one venerated an icon. No one tried to meditate.) And I'm not saying that the Spirit wasn't leading them; if they were Spirit-led, though, then the Spirit pretty clearly wanted them to adhere to the social norms of the culture, and until I knew those norms, I was at a loss. And they would accept anyone's right to be there, but that doesn't mean there were no sanctions. Sanctions came in the form of awkward silences, of gossip, of gentle teasing, or of (depending on the situation and the person doing the sanctioning) "Christian" rebuke.

Eventually I learned most of the rules--one of the big ones during Praise and Power was when to stand and when to sit, because it was our own "choice," but that choice was enclosed by unspoken social expectations. Once I became one of the oldest generation there, I was part of our closely-knit trend-setting class, so (to an extent) what I did set the pattern, within the larger expectations of the group (and the rest of my generation). That made it easier, especially when I got a handle on those rules. But this was a slow process, and I was rather anxious even then, let alone before I had that confidence.

After I graduated, I went to Fort McMurray and eventually joined an Anglican church. The church was liturgical, and it felt like coming home. I realized how much I missed candles lit in a certain order, chalices with wine, vestments (with different colours based on the season!), cinctures, responsive readings and Books of Alternative Services, scripted prayer. There are lots of reasons for liking liturgy, but when I signed up to be a server I got a handle on one of them: it's much easier to learn very exact rules than it is to learn unspoken ones. If I had a question, I could just ask. Of course, it helped that the preists and the deacon were very nice and forgiving of mistakes. (We laughed an awful lot, I recall.) And it's the same at the church where I now serve. Of course I worry sometimes about getting things wrong, but if I ever forget what I'm supposed to do, I just ask. It's quite easy, really. (It's even easier at St. Faith's, too. The bulletin has everything printed right in it and we never sing hymns back-to-back, so I don't need to worry about when I'm supposed to perform my assorted duties.) As a congregation member it's even easier to pick up the expectations. Again, you can just ask. (Note: our church looked nothing like this photograph. St. Thomas's was very low-church and had strains of charismatic worship if one priest was presiding that day.)

Later I learned that St. Thomas' in Fort McMurray wasn't even all that liturgical. The Anglo-Catholic churches and High Anglican churches generally are even more liturgically inclined. Perhaps a more strenuous insistance on doing liturgy correctly could increase anxiety, but I still maintain that that's better than a non-liturgical church or worship culture where doing things correctly are equally important. Of course, there's a middle ground, too; the United churches I've visited aren't very liturgical but also don't especially require the congregation's participation. This means that there's almost no stress at all on the congregation member and, therefore, the degree of liturgy or non-liturgy matters much less.

Someone I know from St. Thomas' once said that all churches have liturgy; liturgical churches just admit it. I think she's right, in a certain sense. In the culminating course of my Religious Studies minor, we read a paper about the specific patterns of behaviour followed by some of the more evangelical, charismatic, Spirit-minded churches. Close analysis of who did what when--and, specifically, how the genre of "testimonial" was constructed--shows that there is a very rigid pattern. Testimonials must address specific, gender-linked tropes and follow specific narrative structures. These churches are among those who are most insistent on their spontaneous following of the Spirit, and at the same time an observent, trained anthropologist could formulate an accurate liturgy. (And, somewhat more terrifying, these churches are more likely to ostracize you for breaking the rules than an Anglican church.)

I know people new to liturgical churches are often nervous about the rules, but I can assure it's easier to learn these rules than it is to learn the rules of the non-liturgical churches, especially those which are very energetic and allow for lots of participation. I would far rather start attending a new liturgical church than a new non-liturgical church, even beyond the other reasons I value liturgy. If can choose between explicit and implicit rules, I will often choose the explicit ones. There are of course exceptions, but that's for another time...


Leah said...

I definitely agree with you. Having rules means I can follow the service instead of sneaking glances at everyone around me. Having a universal liturgy makes it easy for me to walk into any Catholic parish for Mass.

yolanda said...

a few things came to mind when reading this - probably a little disorganized, but i think the blog-comment genre permits that.

in a similar way to the way catholic liturgy has many similarities in whatever country you may find yourself, i think a lot of the unspoken rules, especially in certain charasmatic churches, can be just as similar across geographical lines as catholic services - mainly because a lot of them seem to be usa exports. a church in burundi or kenya with a name like "new life" or "four square" is more often then not an american plant. an american from such a church culture would probably be more comfortable there than a catholic from next door. that's not to say that there isn't local ownership or adaptation or innovation - there certainly is a lot of that too, in both protestant and catholic services.

yet, i wouldn't underestimate the diversity of the catholic church. for instance the words charismatic and catholic don't often go together, yet charismatic catholicism is a large and growing movement. complete with their own brand of predictable testimonies during healing services.

i think what you wrote about the paper you read about "testimonies" following certain patterns is really interesting. i have heard my fair share of testimonies (both protestant and catholic), but its not to often you hear from someone who was struggling with pride, or materialism, or putting personal worldly ambitions above serving their neighbour, or learning to genuinely love others, or struggling with how to free themselves from perpetuating structurally violent systems.

yolanda said...

a few more thoughts.

as far as denominational differention goes among protestant churches here, there isn't much of it. not to pick on friends, but just to take them as an example because it is the protestant church i know most about in the region (which isn’t to say i know all that much at all), the quakers currently pulling the strings burundi don't see a problem in having armed guards outside their annual meeting (which isn’t to say that there aren’t pastors who disagree, just that they don’t have as much power in the meeting right now). in rwanda and drc quakers practice adult bapitsm, wheras when i think of quakers, i would say one of the things that differentiates them from other denominations is that they don't practice water-based baptism.

i think this is largely because of how missionization took place in burundi - with protestant missions working in synergy, mainly focusing on their differences from the much more widespread catholic church. also, rather than focusing on specific doctrine, there was more of a "how to get saved" and not be catholic. the european church history of their denomination is not a huge priority for many churches here. but, for example, when is a quaker not a quaker? what defines a denomination?

all of that said, in burundi i am often far more comfortable in catholic services than in most protestant churches i have been to. i do like that even when i am in a kirundi service, i feel i can participate and feel part of the congregation, by standing/sitting/kneeling along with the rest of the congregation, greeting those around me with the peace of christ, saying the lords prayer in kirundi etc - it's not to hard to learn "the things you say" having heard them so many times. as for the sermon, which i have no hope of understanding with my level of kirundi, it might as well be in latin.

(i sometimes do feel quite left out during the eucharist, but for the most part, now, have come to peace with it - the turning point, oddly, being the fete de corpus christi.)

even in the french mass i usually attend, a fair number of the songs are usually in kirundi - especially the gloria, which everybody loves to dance, and whenever its in french half of the congregation will walk out early. i also really like that the togolese "white father" priest who usually presides speaks a lot about loving ones neighbour, and social justice – though i’ve been told this is not necessarily the norm as far as teaching goes.

and without going into deeper theological issues, part of this may be the "grass is greener" phenomenon. i am not blind to many injustices and violences perpetuated by the catholic church, historic and ongoing, especially in this region, but there's also a great deal that i don't like in the protestant churches, and perhaps the latter just hits closer to home. i've had many conversations with burundian friends who grew up catholic but became non-denominational protestant said can't understand how i could feel at home and spiritually renewed and able to worship attending a catholic church here. they think i only attend because the some services are in french, but it is much much more than that. actually, a lot of catholics don't get why i attend catholic services here, but remain protestant.

Christian H said...

Having also just read your letter on prayer this evening, I think my knowledge of your spiritual life has just doubled in the last hour and a half.

If I had access to the attic in the house my parents own in Ontario, I could dig out the anthology that essay was in and see what those patterns were. I can't recall any more than that they were gender-linked, and that, in that church, women's testimonies were longer and richer than men's. This was one of the snake handling churches, I might add, though the article didn't once discuss the snakes. (Which is good, I think; the snakes weren't relevant to the topic, so to do so might simply be sensationalism.)

yolanda said...

bahaha, that's a funny line to hear from anyone, especially via a blog comment.

i guess i had assumed that the article was about more mainstream pentecostal churches - not snake handlers - but maybe that isn't central afterall.

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