Issuing Crash Helmets for the Liturgy

Bypassing the Catholic world completely was a controversy in the Protestant world in the 1990’s about “Worship as Evangelisation”.

There were all kinds of issues raised in this debate, including fundamental questions of what worship and liturgy were actually “for”. There were some who wanted all the major services on a weekend to be “seeker services”, ie. services designed for the “unchurched”. In some extremes, this resulted in the eucharist (or communion service) being relegated to weeknights and all services on Sunday were evangelistic services of praise and worship with no sacramental element. On the other hand, you got the people saying that, as in the Early Church when the doors were closed to any who were not fully initiated, the Sunday liturgy was “for” baptised and catechised Christians.

Of course, in all this there was the constant reminder that the liturgy was not “for” us human beings at all, but “for” God.

This debate fizzled more or less in the first decade of the 21st Century, as the issues became a little more nuanced.

First they recognised that, unlike the Early Church, the Church in Christendom and “post-Christendom” has always engaged in “public worship”. We don’t close the doors any more, even in those churches where the cry “the doors, the doors” is still maintained.

Second they realised that focusing on God, offering worship and praise to God, was actually “good for the soul”. In other words, one of the most effective forms of evangelisation was actually a congregation worshipping and praising and focusing on God with all their heart.

Third, they recognised that there are levels of evangelisation. The initiated and the uninitiated alike all need to be evangelised and to grow closer in their relationship to God through Jesus Christ. It was recognised that the sacrament was an important part of this, even in those churches that practiced “close” communion.

Finally, they realised that whatever you do on Sunday should be done well, as it is a witness to the seriousness with which the people there take this business of doing liturgy.

Perhaps it would be beneficial if, mutatis mutandis, some of these insights filtered into the way we do the liturgy in our Catholic parishes.

We do get “seekers” in Catholic parishes, but more regularly what we get is semi-catechised, semi-formed, baptised and confirmed Catholics. Both these Catholics and the well-catechised, well-formed Catholics form a single worshipping assembly. Both are meant to be where they are and have a right to be there. They also have a right to the liturgy done according to the directions of the Church as laid out in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

When we do the liturgy well, it becomes a powerful witness to the Catholic faith. The preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the open opportunity to enter into real communal prayer all draw the worshipper – however well prepared they are for what they are engaged in – deeper into their relationship with God and the Church. The public liturgy of the Church is thus a major and regular event of evangelisation in every parish (and also in schools and other places where the liturgy is celebrated).

One protestant writer on the liturgy for whom I have always had a major regard is Marva Dawn. Her classic was the book “A Royal Waste of Time: the splendor of worshiping God and being Church for the World”. An earlier book was called “Reaching out without dumbing down: a theology of worship for this urgent time”. I remember once listening to Marva speak, and she quoted a passage from Annie Dillard’s book “Teaching a Stone to Talk”:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

If that applies to Protestant worship services, how much more should it apply to the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which – if what we believe is really true – the Lord Jesus Christ, God Incarnate and the Judge and Saviour of the World, is Really Present, should we not be wearing metaphorical crash helmets and life preservers?

When we celebrate liturgies that forget about Who is Really Present, and his power to change the lives of those present in dramatic and real ways, are we not being a little like the kids playing with TNT? Will those present have any warning that they are entering into seriously “dangerous territory”? Moses understood this when he stood on “holy ground” before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the burning bush. But when we “play at liturgy”, “dumbing it down” and seeking to defuse the spiritual TNT that the liturgy conveys, we weaken the power of the most effective means of evangelisation that the Holy Spirit has given to the Church. But in the Liturgy, the Holy Spirit is a Bird of Prey rather than a dove, and he won’t let us clip his wings.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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16 Responses to Issuing Crash Helmets for the Liturgy

  1. Marva Dawn is not just a “Protestant” David, she is a Lutheran, which I think accounts in a major way for her approach to worship.

    But this is a good post – the interchange between Catholics and “Protestants” on worship has been all one way for too long. We can benefit immensely from observing each other’s life and even applying the odd lesson here and there. Exaclty what one would expect if the church “subsists” wherever her Lord is present and worshipped :0), which I think is the direction catholic ecclesiology is heading (couldn’t resist adding that!).

    • Schütz says:

      No one wants to be called a “protestant” any more… Perhaps, as they say in the old gag, “Ve haf von ze var!”

      On the Ecclesiology thing, I am going to post something I read yesterday (not available online)

  2. Yes, “Protestant” a bit unfashionable at present, but my main reason for avoiding it is that it lumps together into one category denominations/confessional bodies as diverse as Baptists and Lutherans. Of course, Lutherans were the original (and best!) Protestants – 2nd Diet of Spires and all that, history most Protestants have forgotten or never knew.

    • Stephen K says:

      Actually, Pastor Mark, I think the name “Protestant” is something of a badge that ought not be discarded. It directly brings to mind the historical protesters, who did so with conviction and courage. And it is probably a good descriptor for many others, before and since the Reformation, who by their protest against what they believe are unconscionable acts or ideas often give evidence of their thinking through questions of faith. Of course, as you say, it is also an umbrella term that does not reflect differences regarded as significant by respective non-Catholic churches/groups.
      Which of course brings me to the use of the term “Catholic” by and of Romans and Uniates. I appreciate the relationship of the term to the idea of “the faith held everywhere”, but it does rather seem to me to have turned into an incongruous – and perhaps a little presumptious – appropriation, since dissent has formed a strong feature of the Christian landscape since the very earliest beginnings, and can hardly any longer be completely justified given the great schisms with the East and the splintering within the West. I know there are many catholics who feel irked at being called “Roman Catholic” as if this somehow demoted their faith to one among equals, but I think that on the whole, “Romans” is a more accurate for Latin-rite Christians than “Catholic”.
      To be consistent, there is a case for the Eastern-rite Christians to relinquish the appellation “Orthodox”, for the same reason.
      You can see how this idea would affect one’s ecclesiology, but, to my mind, changes to one’s self-identifier along these lines would continue to convey something of the essential difference each church cherishes: “Romans” signifies an antiquity or primacy of tradition; “Byzantine” and “Lutheran” etc would each signify respective values.
      Actually, hearkening back to your earlier article, David, it may be timely, and spiritually productive, to cease thinking of oneself as “Catholic” or “Lutheran” or “Anglican” etc. without at least tagging on the term “Christian”. That way, one might still retain a sense of what may be good in the particular but be less inclined to forget that others are Christians too. Imagine operating on the basis of an ecclesiology that reflected the reality of what was truly universal – “catholic” – rather than one which would not let go of historical grievances and divisions.

      • Stephen,
        I certainly empathise with your sentiments on the virtue of the original Lutheran Protestants, who risked “goods, fame, child and wife” to confess their faith before the world. But I stand by my contention that the word today has become next to useless as a descriptor, even more so if you want to widen its definition as you seem to be suggesting (if I read you rightly?).

        • Stephen K says:

          Pastor Mark,
          You’re right of course, to point out the potential meaninglessness of “Protestant” when applied to anyone apart from the original protestants. (This is one of the benefits of blog interaction: we each receive insights from our co-contributors).
          Perhaps I was wrong to imply the name “Protestant” was applicable to a wider class than it should be. But my point was that names have power and we ought, as far as possible, try to use words and names honestly and accurately. Thus, those Christians born into or freely adopting the Roman Catholic tradition of faith ought, I suggest, seriously reconsider how they ought to self-describe: after all, their religion cannot be realistically claimed as “catholic” for it never was, and is not now.
          The other point I was making was that to identify as a Christian is surely more important than identifying as a Catholic (or Lutheran or Baptist etc). I’ll go one further and say that if one thinks that being known as a Catholic (or Lutheran or Baptist etc.) is more important than being known as a Christian, one has lost sight of the kingdom for the sake of the province.
          I’d be interested on your thoughts on my take.

          • Stephen K says:

            Just a brief rider. I’m sure my comments above are qualifiable: only this morning I read an interesting essay by a William J Abraham – in an anthology called “Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism” (ed. Christopher R Seitz, Brazos Press, 2001) – which discusses the meaning of “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”. In the essay he says amongst other things, that these four ‘marks’ are “not a definition but a verbal confession”: the church is ‘catholic’ meaning “it operates according to the sense and judgment of the whole and is not parochial or partial in its commitments”. He goes on to characterise claims that currently divide Christians – such as ‘sola scriptura’ and papal infallibility – as “epistemological commitments”, that they are “efforts to secure an epistemology for Christian truth claims that are radically secondary in the economy of the church”. Has anyone else ever come across this book? (Abraham is from Southern Methodist University). Anyway, more food for thought.

  3. Christine says:

    I remember Marva Dawn from my Lutheran days, she is indeed an astute writer. The problem of identifying as “Protestant” or “Lutheran” is a bit messy in the Lutheran world. When I was a member of an ELCA congregation the pastor had decidedly “catholic” leanings but the congregation was decidedly pietistic with Midwestern Lutheran roots and identifed more with the “Protestant” paradigm of being Lutheran. The same situation exists in non-ELCA Lutheran congregations, some seeing themselves as more “evangelical” and others having a more “evangelically catholic” identity. No matter, I respect them both but as a Catholic there is no getting away from the fact that while we have much in common we still have some very important issues to resolve. I don’t think we’re quite ready yet to abandon our respective nomenclatures. As a Latin-rite Catholic I have no problems with the term “Roman Catholic” at all. That in no way diminishes my respect for Catholics of other rites.

    The term “Uniates” is quite unacceptable to many Eastern Catholics.

    • Stephen K says:

      Yes, Christine, names can be tricky or messy, and my point was that they can signify things that it may be good to recall or they can signify things that have lost their original meaning. I only used the term “Uniates” as a shorthand descriptor for the purpose of the post: I am very aware of the entitlement that various Eastern-rites Christians have to cherishing the antiquity and uniqueness of their own venerable traditions and that they do not define themselves in relation to the Latin-riters as if they were mere satellites. At any rate, you knew exactly whom I had in mind.
      I’m pleased you don’t have a problem with the term “Roman Catholic”. It’s somewhat oxymoronic, but it’s more accurate, applied to the Pope and people, than simply “catholic”. The point I was leading up to, is that really, there is, (or for a long time) no such beast as a “Catholic” (or for that matter Capital O “Orthodox”). There are “Romans” and “Melkites” and “Russians” ….you get my picture.

      • Schütz says:

        Just to point out a policy of the blog owner, I do not use the term “Roman Catholic”, which is a term invented and used by Protestants to describe us, not a term that we use to describe ourselves. If it is desired to indicate Western as opposed to Eastern Catholics, the adjective “latin” is appropriate.

    • Which reminds me – when I was at sem my best friend was assigned the Ukrainian Catholics as a subject in Ecumenical Theology (a subject which used to be known as “Comparative Symbolics” in a more austere age). He rang the local Ukrainian Catholic priest and said, “I’m doing an assignment on the Ukrainian Uniates, can I interview you?” The priest was not impressed!

  4. Matthias says:

    Talking about crash helmets-an elemetary piece of personal protective equipment,can i advise you all-speaking as a nurse-that if you know of any of your fellow parishioners attending any events such as WTDs’ or Taisze,the ask them to amke sure that they ahve their Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccinations up to date. Now you may ask what has that to do with the Liturgy? Well according to a email digest, i receive daily from the Harvard School of Public Health,there are a great number of cases of measles found in young German catholics who recently attended a mass @ Taisze. The Community ahs resonded to request for health authorities and undertaken amassive information follow up,which was commented upon favourbaly in the email. But please remind any future pilgrims- yes have a great spiritual experience but make sure that more than Christians greetings are NOT passed on

  5. Matthias says:

    that should be WYD and not WTD unless you follow the Tridentine Rite

  6. Brenda says:

    Someone once, on seeing that I was wearing a cross around me neck, asked me whether I was Christian or Catholic. – What’s in a name? – Rather a lot really. – Since being asked that confusing question for the first time, I’ve begun to notice said alleged delineation (i.e. alleged by Christians who are not Catholics). While I understand that 500 years on, some believers have ceased to protest and simply are a reformed order of Christianity, a ‘Christian’/’Catholic’ nomination does not serve as a response. Perhaps a new name for Protestantism is called for, but ‘Christian’ is not the one since clearly it implies a nonsense – that Catholics are not Christians.

  7. Christine says:

    Just to point out a policy of the blog owner, I do not use the term “Roman Catholic”, which is a term invented and used by Protestants to describe us, not a term that we use to describe ourselves. If it is desired to indicate Western as opposed to Eastern Catholics, the adjective “latin” is appropriate.

    Point taken, David, and Lutherans of course, can make the same claim, that Luther’s name became attached to their churches on the same basis.

    However, and charitably, I hope, I would say that here in the good old USA the “Roman” designation is still very prominent. My own cathedral church clearly identifies as “The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist” so I’m not sure that the name is going to go away any time soon, at least in some parts of the world. Our Byzantine Catholic churches here do the same, clearly identifying themselves by rite.

  8. Christine says:

    Someone once, on seeing that I was wearing a cross around me neck, asked me whether I was Christian or Catholic.

    Yes, it is amazing that some people still don’t get it. For myself, I’ve always worn a crucifix and most people assume I am Catholic.

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