On Cultural Relevance in Liturgy

Earlier this week I wrote on liturgy, what it means, what people think it means.

One of the reasons religious groups reject one form of liturgy and replace it for another is that they are trying to be culturally relevant.

There is something very good in this: there is a recognition that the language the religious group uses to talk about what is divine, spiritual or transcendent, is not the same as the language everyone else uses. Within Christian churches, a recognition that we do not have a monopoly on the language to talk about these concepts is important. It’s possible, even likely, that we have never had such a monopoly.

Does this mean I think we should re-write the liturgy we use (whatever that may be) every five years to keep up with the latest cultural trends?

Actually… no, I don’t think so. Any strategy that relies on “converting” people to our language or culture is doomed. This is perhaps especially true if we substantially change our liturgy — which has spoken to us for years, maybe decades, centuries, even millenia — simply in order to make it more “accessible” to people who aren’t coming to church anyway because they don’t see from our lives why they should bother.

I think that as Christians, we need to recognise what is “church culture” — I will take it to be anything outside liturgy which allows us to feel “we” belong and “they” don’t, anything which is used to make us feel we are in some sort of clique, anything which is used to forget that every person born is a beloved child of God. There’s a lot of it about and we need to recognise it. And we need to recognise what the Gospel is, what is Good News. And we had better be sure that what we are proclaiming in our lives outside the church, and our lives inside the church, is the Gospel.

It is not the job of the liturgy to make the Gospel accessible to “outsiders”. Rather, the job of the liturgy is to worship God and to sustain us in our Christian life. For me, this is not about volunteering at a homeless shelter instead of praying the Office: it is about having the energy and commitment to volunteer at the homeless shelter because of the foundation given to me by praying the Office. For someone from another tradition or using another system of prayer, that might look a bit different. Nevertheless, it is our job, not that of the liturgy itself, to live the Gospel, to be good news to every child of God, whether we deem them “inside” or “outside”. If we are doing that with our lives, people won’t mind whether we have plainchant or worship bands.

There is no question in my mind that liturgy should change according to context, but I don’t think that means we should be worrying about whether a so-called unchurched person will understand it all first time. I’m pretty “churchy”, and I don’t always understand everything first time. No matter how much we simplify and modernise, we will not manage to create something that is universally obvious. Rather, we should be asking whether the change proposed will enable the people who are already using this liturgy to better worship God, and better act on God’s behalf in the world. Anything less is a sell-out.

We should also be prepared to admit that some people may have such different language to our own that they do need a different liturgy to similarly sustain them, and that’s okay too.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

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