Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom and Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)

IMG_6222

Baptismal font at the Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Olney (UK)

Seattle pastor Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN.com about millennials leaving the church.

Richard Dahlstrom is one of my favorite evangelical pastors. Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite bloggers. If you want to see a successful pastor building real community instead of just building his own empire, watch Richard Dahlstrom. If you want a window into the spirituality of millennial Christians, read Rachel’s blog.

Rachel often talks with pastors about why millennials are leaving the church. She’s written about how younger Christians feel forced to “choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness,” how evangelical Christianity has become “too political, too exclusive,” etc.

Thus far, Richard and Rachel are on the same page. Their disagreement comes over what Rachel says next:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions—Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc.—precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

To Richard, these are matters of mere preference. He wrote:

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

Well, I’m not sure Rachel ever said liturgy is “better” than low church, that Gregorian chants are better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial (I missed the cutoff by a few years), but I am one of those Christians Rachel writes about, who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity. And I can assure you that the decision had more to do with substance than style. (Which is not to suggest that one form of Christianity is better than the other.)

[Related: 11 things I things I love about the Episcopal Church]

While living in England, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the pews of a 700-year-old Anglican church. We came for the un-trendiest of reasons: someone invited us. We kept coming for the un-trendiest of reasons, too: we made friends. We became part of the community.

But we were also captivated by the liturgy, by the high-churchiness of it all—for reasons that were not merely about style.

A high view of the Eucharist

A few years earlier, on a visit to the UK, a friend showed us one of the historic churches in his hometown of Shrewsbury. As we stood in the round sanctuary, looking toward the front, he asked:

“Do you know why the altar’s in the center and the pulpit’s off to the side?”

Um, no.

“Because for Anglicans, the Eucharist is the center of corporate worship, not the sermon.”

Not that long ago, his words would’ve made my evangelical ears bleed. The sermon’s the main event, not the Eucha — ahem, communion.

After the Reformation, after the Enlightenment, churches increasingly became places to receive information. Very good information, in some cases. Eventually, communion became something evangelical churches did once a year or once a quarter when they wanted to drag the service on a bit longer. (I assumed that was the reason when I was a kid, anyway.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus told his followers to do when they gather together. Regardless of how you understand the Eucharist—transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, symbol only, some/any/none/all of the above—this ancient ritual connects us to the death of our Messiah. It’s participatory, not passive. Yet it’s also a reminder that we come to the table empty-handed, in need of grace.

Christians have been taking, eating, and remembering for close to two thousand years now. The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind.

Recovering a high view of the Eucharist—and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship—is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

An unbroken chain

Two years ago, a bishop placed his hands on my wife and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Years earlier, someone placed their hands on our bishop, confirming his ministry to the church. Some time before that, someone else laid hands on that person, and so on… going all the way back to the apostles.

Anglicans have never been as clear or precise as our Catholic sisters and brothers on what we mean by apostolic succession. There’s a wide diversity of thought in our tradition, as there is on many other things, too. But there’s also a shared belief that we belong to an unbroken chain connecting us—by design, not by accident—to the very first followers of Jesus.

This realization cultivates a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and seek new ways of living our faith in the world today. This Christianity thing didn’t start with us. Our congregations are not autonomous mini-empires, as some independent evangelical churches seem to be. We belong to a much bigger organism, transcending geography and time.

Seeing our place in an unbroken chain of Christ followers is another substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

A reminder of my smallness

The path up to the main entrance of our church in England cut through a graveyard where past worshippers were laid to rest. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was buried there. Some of the gravestones were so old you couldn’t read them anymore.

Every Sunday walking to church, you were reminded of your mortality, of your smallness.

Inside that 700-year-old structure—which wasn’t even the original building—we sang thousand-year-old songs (and a few newer ones as well). We recited prayers that had been uttered on that spot for hundreds of years. We recalibrated ourselves to a centuries-old rhythm.

In the evangelical subculture, it’s easy to become enamored by the Next Big Thing. Celebrity pastors. Multisite churches. Church online. Liturgy offers a helpful corrective to consumer Christianity because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community, not by an individual with a “platform.”

The liturgy  reminds me I am not all that. I am not the alpha and omega. Church didn’t just start getting good when I showed up.

Being reminded of my smallness every Sunday is another substantial reason I am captivated by the liturgy.

—//—

None of this is meant as a rejection of more contemporary form of church, like the one represented by Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church, so I’m somewhat familiar with it. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs good ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor am I rejecting “converted-shopping mall evangelicalism,” at least not in its entirety. I kind of like the fact that communities of Christ are reclaiming these former temples to consumerism and giving them a new purpose. The last nondenominational church my wife and I belonged to met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there saved my faith.

Nor is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like the one I belong to have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid. We don’t always allow enough room for the Spirit to move and do something fresh in our midst.

But for those of us who have found value and meaning in the liturgical traditions of the so-called “high church,” it’s not about style. It’s very much about substance.