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

Our church in England

On his blog yesterday, Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in her recent op-ed on CNN.com about millennials leaving the church.

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

As she noted in her CNN piece, Rachel often talks to pastors about why millennials are leaving the church — how they 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. These, Richard agrees, are matters of substance, not just style. The 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.

Richard responded:

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 that liturgy is “better” than low church, that chant is better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial. (Rachel just qualifies; I missed the cutoff by a good few years.) Nevertheless, I’m one of those Christians she talks about who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity.

And I can assure Richard that it was all about substance. (Which is not to say one is “better” than the other.)

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 back 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, while on a short 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 out the service a bit longer. (At least that’s what I assumed when I was a kid.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus actually told his followers to do whenever they gathered 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. 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.

Rediscovering 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 Amanda and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Many years before that, someone placed their hands on the 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 Catholics on what we mean by apostolic succession. As with a great many things, there’s a diversity of thought within our tradition. 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 encourages a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and discover 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 at times 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 church building — we sang thousand-year-old songs (and some newer ones too). 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 can offer a helpful corrective because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community of people, not by an individual with a “platform.”

It 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 every Sunday of my smallness is another substantial reason I am captivated by (and need) good liturgy.

—//—

None of this should be taken as a rejection of the church tradition represented by people like Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs better ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor is this a rejection of 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 to which my wife and I belonged met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there probably saved my faith.

Neither is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like mine have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid at times. We may not 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.

5 thoughts on “Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom responding to Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)

  1. What I enjoy about liturgy and what I miss about when I would attend Catholic mass is how quiet and peaceful it is. Now, if I had it ever week, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it as much. But having “contemporary” worship every week makes me appreciate that style less, too.

    • Thanks for sharing. Along the same lines…there are aspects of more contemporary forms of worship that I sometimes miss. And many evangelical churches seem to be rediscovering the value of liturgy and incorporating it into their services, sort of like the worship equivalent of fusion cuisine. (The first Ash Wednesday service I attend was at the converted-shopping-mall church I mentioned near the end of my post.) There’s value in each tradition, and to be sure there are blind spots in each.

  2. Well said, Ben! The absence of the Lord’s Supper in our evangelical churches, and it’s unclear meaning when it is celebrated, is one of the big weaknesses of our ostensibly ‘conservative’ churches. Another would be baptism.

  3. This moved me to tears. You have expressed so beautifully how I felt as a de-churched former-evangelical, recently finding refuge in the Episcopal church. It doesn’t mean I think it is “better,” just so much better for me.

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