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Triumph of the “Ritualists”


Rood screen and balcony at St. Etienne du Mont, France. The English Reformation destroyed all such ornaments, but now the tide has turned.

The Episcopal Church has changed so much in my lifetime it’s really hard to fathom. We all know about women priests and bishops, the gradual integration of LGBT people into parish life and leadership, the increasing racial and ethnic diversity; as dramatic and necessary as these developments are, they’re not the biggest changes we’ve seen. We’ve become a Catholic church, with Mass every Sunday.

We still have some Protestant attitudes, which I’m glad for (I do protest the pope); but in these past 30 years our transformation is fairly complete. In 1979 the General Convention gave final approval to a new version of the
Book of Common Prayer, which emphasizes the Holy Eucharist, not a prayer service, as the supreme act of Christian worship on Sundays and other feast days.

That changed everything. Yet it wasn’t a revolutionary act but an evolutionary one.

I wish my mentor Howard Galley were here to see what he wrought, as general editor of the “new” BCP. No doubt he knew exactly what he was getting us into, but I wish he were here now to witness how these developments have spread and the joy that’s resulted.

Our church is smaller now; we’ve gone from being the church of George Washington and the Queen of England, lawyers and bankers and capitalists, to being the church of the upper middle class on down, all the way to the homeless. That’s a tremendous achievement, though it’s come at quite a cost in numbers, money and prestige. Still, Jesus wasn’t a prestigious fellow, just the son of a workingman, and that’s a sign that we’re more closely following The Way.

Two years ago I toured Episcopal churches from east to west and north to south, stopping in big cities, suburbs and rural areas. Mass is the principal Sunday service in every one of those churches, and no one complains about it; the dissenters have left or died off. The faithful look forward to Mass every Sunday. Increasingly, “Mass” is what they call it; one syllable vs. the three-syllable Greek jawbreaker “Eucharist.” Parents tell their kids, “Wake up, baby, it’s time to go to Mass.”

And the liturgy itself has become incredibly rich. Some would say it still has a ways to go, but I’m speaking in general terms now, what I saw two years ago in all those varied parishes.

We are perhaps more devoted to the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer in its dailyness than we ever were before 1979, when half our churches were still “Morning Prayer parishes.” My own parish was one of them; we had Holy Communion at 8 a.m. for a small congregation, then Morning Prayer or Communion at 10:30 for a large congregation. In the olden days Communion was held once a month at 10:30, then that changed to every other week, and now for many years it’s what we always do at both services.

I operate a website called dailyoffice.org, which gets about 250 visitors a day for Morning and Evening Prayer. These are people who pray once or twice a day (or more, I also offer Noonday and Latenight services) because they find it spiritually helpful to center themselves, sanctify the passage of time and to dedicate it to God. A similar website gets several times more daily visitors, and untold thousands pray the Daily Office at home or in small groups. Praying the Office every day is one of the best things a person can do to get closer to God. As I put the website together each day, I visit parish sites all over the country to see what other people are doing. In my 4 1/2 years of posting the daily services, I’ve run into exactly one holdout “Morning Prayer parish” in upstate New York. The takeover of the Catholic religion is complete. We are all Catholics now, and we love it.

We’re still not papists, which makes me laugh with satisfaction.

But it is one thing to substitute (actually, restore) the sacrament instead of the prayer service, and another to learn/relearn to liturgize and ritualize our lives, which we’re also doing. The sacrament has its own objective value, including the power to convert our souls to God; but the physical acting out of human needs and truths, universal or personal, also has great power. This acting out is what I mean by liturgy and ritual.

To the post-modern mind “ritual” is some sort of archaic throwback, a mindless repetition of mumbo-jumbo, not at all desirable or even respectable. But oh, we do fool ourselves. Try having a birthday; if no one sends you a card or gives you a cake or sings you a song, you go to your room and pout, “No one cares.” Try going to a football game; if the band never plays the School Song, you’ll go home in a rage.

Rituals are very much the stuff of life, but the term’s taken on suspicious connotations now—except when it’s the 4th of July and you don’t get your picnic and fireworks. Why, the injustice of it all! You’re entitled to burnt weenies and deviled eggs!

Episcopalians are ritualizing like never before, and I’m glad. In fact I could use more of it.

My parish had several baptisms last Easter Eve, new initiates from toddler age to very young adults. It was a joyous occasion, but I found myself wishing that our clergy knew about the post-baptismal ritual of the priest who baptized me. I was too young to remember it, but my mother often spoke about it; she loved what the priest did. When the ceremony was done, he would carry a baby all around the church, saying, “Look at your new brother or sister in Christ.” Everyone got a chance to coo at the little one, or feel sympathy if she cried, and the parents were always so proud at having their baby shown off for all the world to see. My brothers and I were baptized at ages 2, 5 and 7, three stairstep boys; I was the little one. Fr. Ferguson held my hand and walked us all up and down the aisles as the congregation applauded.

On Easter Eve I kept waiting for the applause, and it didn’t happen. So the baptism didn’t feel complete to me, because the People didn’t get a chance to respond, to say Welcome.

Another ritual which I’ve often written about: Fr. Ben was the rector of my home parish when I came of age and fell in love with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1940. Ben was many things, and in later years a bit of a drag on parish life, but he was also the best at priestcraft I’ve ever seen. No one, in the 40 parishes I visited in 2007, could hold a candle to him, he was that good. “Priestcraft” refers to the ritual, the liturgizing of the priest’s and church’s actions—the physical acting out, illustrating and making of sacrament, which the whole Body of Christ (the People) participate in. (And this was with his back to us in those days.)

Here’s what Ben would do during the Words of Administration, the actual delivering of the Bread and Wine to the communicants. I’ve never seen anyone else do this. The words are (Rite I):

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

Communicants knelt at the altar rail, maybe said a silent prayer before he came to us, and we held our hands, one cupped in the other, up and out towards him to receive. He placed the Host, a wafer in those days, into our palm. Then he covered our hands with his, which made this action entirely personal; an exchange between him and me, God and me. He pronounced the words, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee…”

Or “in remembrance that Christ died for thee…”

It was earth-shaking, the most shatteringly beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me. Sunday after Sunday I’d come down from that rail grinning from ear to ear. For me! Christ died for me!

Parishioners got in the habit of watching me every Sunday come back from the altar with that look on my face. It pleased them and reinforced their own joy.

So something was lost and something gained in Prayer Book revision; Rite I is seldom used in the church anymore, we can do without the thee’s and thou’s. They’re bad for mission and un-Anglican, with our tradition of using language people actually speak and understand. But I wouldn’t give you 2¢ for the words the ’79 Book substitutes:

The Gifts of God for the People of God.

Doesn’t mean the same thing at all. Generic gifts for everybody, not “the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you.”

Fr. Ben had it right, and Howard Galley was wrong. (I intend to tell him all about it as soon as I see him in heaven.)

All this brings me round to a guy I’ve studied a bit lately, the 19th century English priest and saint John Mason Neale. He was the leading “ritualist” of his day. He’s principally remembered today as a hymnodist, but as great a gift as his hymns were to the Church, even more important was his great insight into the theology of aesthetics. He knew (as the leaders of the Oxford Movement did not) the power of beautiful worship to convert the soul.


Thus he sparked the final and decisive chapter in the longstanding “vestment wars” of the Church of England, which had been going on for 300 years of Reformation. It’s shocking now to realize, but people used to riot if a priest wore a surplice over his cassock, much less a cope or chasuble, things we now take entirely for granted. Candles on the altar? How dare you? “He’s a papist—kill him!”

My my my, and look at us now with finery everywhere for a reason: fancy stuff helps the People think and feel.

In their zeal to reform the medieval Catholic church, English and Continental reformers tried to get rid of everything that reminded them of Rome that didn’t have explicit mention in the New Testament. Their theory was that the earliest practice of the Church was the only acceptable practice, and no mention was made of what clothes the priest wore. (This was part of what we now know as Bibliolotry, worship of the Bible rather than Jesus Christ.)

Mind you, these are the same people who basically threw out the Mass most of the year, when it’s plain in the NT that the Church’s earliest practice was the most frequent Breaking of the Bread. Quite a contradiction there, but the Mass was too Popish! (It’s the same reason you see Baptist churches today with steeples and no cross on top; idiotic, to my mind. Lift that Cross up high so everyone can see it.)

Neale understood that distinctive, beautiful clothes for the clergy, along with candles on the altar and other decorations, marked the Service of the Church as special, and thus inspired the People’s reverence.

These trappings don’t detract from one of the great insights of the Reform, that priesthood is shared by all believers. The clergy are simply those men and women we set apart to lead us; as Howard Galley often said, “Together we make Eucharist.”

(This is also why, in the English Church unlike the Roman, a priest can’t celebrate Mass by himself. If there are no People present, it doesn’t happen. I believe that’s absolutely right; the sacrament doesn’t exist for the priest’s private benefit, but grows out of the “two or three gathered together.”)

Today in my home parish and diocese, the church buildings are too plain. This is a legacy of our former Low Church/Broad Church tradition. Our current rector has beautified the worship space somewhat, but it still looks too Presbyterian to me. We do not employ all the teaching tools at our disposal. I suppose there might still be parishioners who would object to using more Catholic symbols, but I doubt such persons are in the majority. The symbols help us reach for God—which is the principal selling point for any Christian church; does this place, this congregation, help you get closer to God, or not? We know that if we reach for God, God reaches back twice as far for us and embraces us. So why are we not using every teaching tool available?

Fr. Ed, the current rector, has done a magnificent job of building upon our local tradition of excellence in music, with the help of talented music directors. We can’t do Christmas Eve without our string quartet, it’s just not good enough anymore. God deserves the best we can give, and so do the People. Music has conversion power; music can make a doubter believe again, because we somehow grasp that all true art comes from God and is creative in a human, mortal way, like God is creative in an immortal, cosmic way.

I hope a future rector will introduce incense into the celebration of Mass. We don’t have to use it every week, and there are ways to manage the smoke without causing coughing fits, but:

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, *
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

(Ps. 141:2)

We need to see the crucifix, the cross with the body on it. I can’t stress enough the importance of this, though it’s a symbol Protestants don’t understand or accept. I remember my Protestant Grandmother saying once about the plain vs. the adorned cross, “We believe that Christ rose from the dead.” To which the rejoinder is, “So do we! But how is it exactly that Jesus took away the sins of the world, if not his crucifixion?”

It is wrong to deprive us of this powerful symbol. Indeed it is the principal symbol we should look at.

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee…”

Beyond the atonement, if such it was, and the reconciliation of God and humankind the crucifixion achieved, there is another huge lesson in the symbol of the Body on the Cross. In this one image, we can see all of Christ’s counsel for how we should live our lives.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

(John 15:12-13 NRSV)

No, we’re not supposed to get crucified; none of us ’cause Jesus already did that, a once-for-all thing. But loving self-sacrifice is indeed the heart of Christ’s Gospel.

We see it on the battlefield; we see it in policing and firefighting, teaching and nursing, all manner of public service. We see it in the sacrifices parents make for children, and children make for parents, and lovers make for each other.

This is love acted out.

So it’s not my fault or John Mason Neale’s if you don’t like the sound of “ritual.” Try going without a turkey next Thanksgiving and see how well you like it. Don’t put up a Christmas tree or give any presents; tell the kids the Easter Bunny didn’t bring any jelly beans or chocolate, see how popular that makes you.

We need physical ways to express our love, because words alone don’t cut it. The Book of Common Prayer since Cranmer’s original in 1549 has been the supreme expression of English Christianity because it’s so well-written. But it’s only words, appealing mostly to the mind, when we also have bodies that have to move. So we sing hymns, we have parades, we applaud little babies after we pour water on their heads; we not only break bread in full view of the People now, we show them all what we’ve done. We lift up a fine chalice of the Blood of Christ to make sure everyone can see. On Palm Sunday we walk around the block waving greenery and singing, even if that startles a pothead smoking his morning joint on the front porch. On Easter Eve we light a bonfire, on Easter morn we gather in the mountains. On Low Sunday we huddle together and pass the Peace, shaking hands and hugging. We ritualize everything now, and we’re better off because of it.

The Episcopal Church has grown in faith by leaps and bounds in my lifetime, which is why we now have women of color up front and LGBTs as healing ministers, a food pantry in the parish hall, addicts in the Bishop’s Parlor, ex-cons at Craine House, refugees in scattered apartments, liturgical dance practice in the nave and podcasts of Julian of Norwich. Bankers are still welcome, but if they don’t come we’re too busy to miss ’em.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.”

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing,

“We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
but your wrath has come,
and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
and saints and all who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

(Rev. 11:15-19 NRSV)

And here you thought you were a drama queen! God’s got you beat.++

4 Responses

  1. You´re certainly no shrinking VIOLET when continuing to cultivate your garden…your ¨voice¨ is always clear to feel as well as see…thanks Josh. I too like the Mass and since I live in a rural setting (there are a few of us Episcopalian and Anglicans around) I quite often pop-in for Mass with the Romans…in my world of spirituality I think we are all Catholics and I live my ritual participating that way…I must confess that when we pray for the Bishop of Rome I hold my breath while enjoying the Church and Christ´s hospitality.

  2. You’re doing the right thing, Leonardo, popping in for Mass with Rome. I’ve done it too. They have a rule against it, but they don’t ask to see your papers, they’re glad you’re there and they’ll feed you along with everyone else. God is happy to see you.

    The founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, San Francisco, which is (in)famous for communicating everyone who comes, recently pointed out on Episcopal Café that churches have always fed whoever shows up; it’s unseemly, ungracious and unloving to make people prove themselves “worthy” (as if anyone could) at such a solemn and joyous moment. The difference with his parish, he wrote, is that they make the inclusive invitation explicit; in your famous phrase, they don’t play LET’S PRETEND this is for the baptized alone if they agree with all our doctrines.

    When Jesus fed the Thousands, he didn’t send the Eucharistic Police around to check papers; people were hungry. What’s more, he put the burden on his disciples: “You feed them!” So they gathered their ten bucks of groceries, a few loaves and fishes, and whaddaya know, there was plenty for everyone.

    The rule is good, but it’s also a case (the only one I know) for don’t ask, don’t tell. If you’re hungry, come on up, we got plenty.

    The sentence I’m happiest with in the above post is my claim that the crucifix “is the principal symbol we should look at.” A few years ago a thief broke into my parish and stole the brass altar cross that had been there for a hundred years. It was a Celtic type with a circle around the crossbars. We were fortunate to find a nearly exact replica, so that’s what we’ve got now on the altar, but I’ve stopped liking it. We ought to be contemplating “no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The empty cross is too generic; the image before us ought to be Christ’s sacrifice grounded in love. St. John’s, like the rest of TEC, still has a long way to go, though I’m grateful for our progress these past two generations.

  3. I’ve spent half my Episcopalian life in a middlin-high parish, and the priest says those things which you say went out with the 1979 (Well, she uses much more modern language). Considering I was born in 1979…. Yeah. Well.

  4. Your comments on liturgy are great, but there is a place for Morning Prayer and surplices. Better yet Evening Prayer and surplices. It could be a great “seeker service” – do you have any ideas.

    Really, as a RC I use the 1928 BCP office or the one from the 1979. Cranmer’s revision of the Breviary was his most lasting contribution.

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