The Promises and Perils of Liturgical Experimentation

The 1979 BCP allows for a greater level of variety than any of our past prayer books, and this has fostered a lot of great liturgical experimentation. While some wonderful practices have developed in the past thirty years, there have also been plenty that are, to put it mildly, not so edifying. Either way, churches have maintained a certain level of secrecy – perhaps we fear that the bishop will find out and we’ll get in trouble (I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of “adapting” the usual Sunday morning liturgy when the bishop visits my church so that we don’t do anything outside of what the prayer book prescribes), or maybe we’re scared that, if the other Episcopal church in town finds out what we’re doing, they’ll copy us and attract the people we’re trying to woo, or maybe we’re just too busy to bother telling anyone what we’ve been up to. Whatever the reason, a culture has developed where many feel they can do whatever they want in the liturgy, wither it be within the bounds of prayer book norms or not, and that they don’t need to tell anyone.

Without an official means for sharing our liturgical experiments, some churches have developed idiosyncratic practices that stray too far from the “Anglican ethos” (an admittedly vague term) and are locally evaluated by how they make worshippers “feel.”  Another problem is that sometimes when a church does something that really works, other churches copy it then wonder why their attempt to do the same thing was a flop.  As one example, a church where I used to serve had a wonderful Celtic Eucharist every Sunday. This service attracted a wide variety of people from the surrounding area who would never have darkened the door of what had been known as the country club church. Over time, this service stimulated growth in outreach, fellowship, stewardship of creation, small group ministries, Bible studies, etc. Word spread, and others tried to reproduce what they saw by using the same words, turning down the lights, and putting up a bunch of candles. They didn’t know, for example, that the liturgical leaders would gather for an hour of silent prayer before the service (which was an essential part of the service’s preparation each week). Were there an official mechanism for sharing this liturgy, it could have been refined, more churches could have learned about it, and more people could have explored what “made it tick” so they could adapt it successfully for their local circumstances.

Liturgical experimentation is happening and will continue. Should they be approved, the proposed changes to Article X will acknowledge this reality and stimulate mechanisms, under the guidance of the bishops, so these experiments can be explored in common to the benefit of the wider church.

- Matthew Johnson,
Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission