Most of us in the church have had a run-in with the worship police. Some call them the liturgy police, others the rubrics police. They are, as Mark Oldenburg writes, “a mean-spirited squad of folks who delight in finding and squashing minor infractions.” (“Liturgical Year,” in Inside Out.) Hang around long enough, you’ll run into them. Hang around long enough, you might become them.
One of the problems facing liturgical studies is that liturgical scholars are often assumed to be the worship police. While I have of course encountered my share of liturgical scholars who are, shall we say, highly confident that their preferred way is correct, the same can be said for any group of Christians. You are just as likely to find a random parishioner convinced that the rite of Confirmation must occur on Pentecost as you are to find a liturgical scholar with the same opinion. Nonetheless, there seems to be an assumption, a predisposition, among churchly folks (and us ordained pastors chief among them) that the scholars are the core if not the majority of the “mean-spirited squad” that Oldenburg describes.
A big part of this predisposition is that we who lead, of course, take the flak. Try instituting a Vigil of Easter in a congregation where the most important part of Easter is that on Sunday morning everyone sees how well the altar guild arranged the flowers, and you will face the combined firepower of the altar guild. That doesn’t mean you give up, but it does sometimes mean you compromise. You pick which things you must do, and which things you’re willing to let go.
The worship police, in this scenario, might take the form of two groups. The first is the hypothetical altar guild, who “know” that Easter is all about their flower-arranging. The second is the “experts” who, apparently, have nothing better to do than come to your congregation and nitpick over the decisions you made. They hear that you won over the crowd by reading the story of Noah at the Vigil, but that for the sake of time you omitted Isaiah 55 (a required reading), and you are now charged with high crimes against the body of Christ.
The second group most certainly does exist. It might consist of laypeople or ordained clergy. But I would wager that roughly the same percentage of “scholars” would join the death squad as would the percentage of “non scholars.” Seriously, when is the last time your worship professor came by your parish and chided you?
In her brilliant little essay, “Put Away Your Sword!”, Anna Carter Florence describes her work as a preaching professor. Students come to her primed for preaching with exegetical methods and systematic theology practically flowing from them, and then, “It is almost as if tiny, invisible preacher people—all those who have shaped their ideas about what a ‘real preacher’ and a ‘real sermon’ are—set up camp right in the forefront of their minds, and start shrieking, ‘Enough playing around! You don’t have time to live in the tension when you have a sermon to write; you have to find out what this passage means!” (In What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? page 94).
I wonder if something similar happens to us when we are tasked with planning and leading worship. Do we, perhaps, design a worship service and then hear the voices of all those we admire, only instead of hearing their wisdom, we put in their mouths our own, private, “You’re doing it wrong!”
I don’t know that I have a solution to this problem. On the one hand, there are some highly-motivated well-meaning people who consider it their mission to enforce their own version of what they remember a beloved professor telling them. On the other hand, we are all unleashed on the world with (allegedly) the basic competency to plan and lead a worship service, and will ourselves occasionally spot things that make us say, “Sorry, not right.”
Perhaps the best approach is to remember the three basic components of liturgical study: history, theology, and ritual.
Generally speaking, if you have strong historical, theological, and ritual (practical) reasons for doing something, the arguments of your opponents are reduced to opinions. Of course, there’s the flip side that if your opponent has strong historical, theological, and ritual reasons behind their position you might have to readdress yours, but this is not about proving yourself right. Right?
In the hypothetical confrontation between pastor and altar guild regarding the Easter Vigil, the decision to go ahead with the Vigil but sell it on the strength of some of the stories could be made simply by a savvy and determined leader. But that will not successfully explain what you’re doing and why, and it does kinda make you a member of the worship police, determined to squash the infraction of decorating the sanctuary before Christ has popped out of the grave.
However, the pastor might ask to hear about the history of flower arranging at the congregation, and attempt to grasp what the theology of the altar guild is, and how the arrangement means a great deal to them as something they all do the Saturday before Easter. Then the pastor might suggest ways to incorporate the ritual decorating of the congregation into the Vigil itself, or to make the Vigil the unveiling of the flowers to those who can come out the night before Easter. This can provide opportunity to talk about how that night before Easter Sunday really is incredibly special, and that the flower-arranging was a way in which the altar guild was participating in the ancient understanding that “this is the night” in which God makes life out of death. The pastor may understand that her congregation grumbles about not hearing the famous stories of scripture like creation, flood, crossing the Red Sea, etc., and can play up the fact that these will be read and acted out.
There’s more to pulling off a Vigil for the first time, of course, and there are countless variables that cannot be expressed here. I am not saying that the above will automatically work for you. But in this case, the leader has successfully eschewed the ranks of the “mean-spirited squad.” And if members of the squad locate her, she has reasons for what she has done.
Points to Ponder:
What’s your favorite part of worship? Do you know the history, theology, and ritual behind it? Really?
Think of a time you’ve had a run-in with the worship police. Did (or could) your grasp of history, theology, and ritual have made a difference in the outcome?
Think of a time you’ve spotted an “infraction.” What did you do? How well did you know your history, theology, and ritual?