Episode Twelve: Why is church boring?

If you are not a habitual churchgoer, but nonetheless have ever attended more than one of a Roman Catholic Mass, a modern Anglican eucharist, or indeed a Lutheran or Methodist liturgy, you probably noticed two things.

1) You were fairly bored.

2) The services had a lot in common, even in quite different denominations.

This second observation was spot on, but is a recent innovation. Prior to the 1970s, the churches of the West that emerged from the Reformation had worship that differed quite dramatically across denominations. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer might share a deep affinity in Augustinian theology and medieval piety with the ancient Traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, but on the surface level, the two rites are markedly different, in both text and ceremonial.

The ecumenical moment of the 1960s and 70s changed things. The centuries-old rites of the different churches were replaced by a sort of ur-Liturgy, a misshapen beast created by committee. There are some substantive differences between the Novus Ordo of the Roman Catholic Church, the Common Worship of the Church of England, Rite II of the 1979 Episcopalian BCP, the Canadian Book of Additional Services, and the Lutheran Book of Worship, but to the passing visitor they all sound quite similar, and in practice are usually done with very similar ceremonial.

This is not by accident; it is by design. A newfound liturgical commonality was supposed to bring about Christian unity. This did not happen, and yet 1970s ideas of what constitute acceptable ritual that Catholics and a wide variety of Protestants could live with still define what most ordinary people in the West encounter in church today.

So, why is church boring? What are the aesthetic problems with this consensus? Why does it not work as ritual?

On a very basic level, the problem is the absence of flow. Ritual flow is hard to put your finger on, but I would define it as worship that, through a constant rolling flow of song and/or prayer, soothes away your worldly preoccupations and lifts the veil of this earthly realm, giving the soul a glimpse of the true heavenly liturgy, compared to which all our rites are but a pale shadow.

Allan Rohan Crite’s wonderful artistic depiction of disappeared boundary between the liturgies of earth and heaven: the offering of the priest at the altar simply is one with the offering of Christ on the cross.

Liturgies as diverse as the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

the Traditional Latin Mass of the Roman Church

Choral Evensong from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

or the sort of thing Holy Trinity Brompton does at 5pm, are quite conducive to ritual flow. I haven’t been to Hillsong in real life, but from watching some of their lockdown services on Youtube, I think they’re going for roughly the same thing, with a longish sermon added in. These rites are fundamentally theocentric. The flow of prayer is aimed at God, and is not interrupted by a constant series of conversations between minister and congregation designed to remind the latter what they’re supposed to be thinking or doing. Music is not just a nice add-on, but the essential core of the liturgy. Prayer is song and song is prayer. You can just sit back and let it all wash over you.

The flow of prayer is not just experienced by the congregation, but also by the ministers. In the ancient Western Rite, from the moment the celebrant declares that “I will go unto the altar of God”, he never stops praying. Psalm 43, Judica me, flows into a quiet Confession, even as the choir sings the Introit. Even the few steps he must take to ascend the altar have a designated prayer accompanying the motion, Aufer a nobis. Even when another minister sings the Epistle or Gospel, the celebrant must still read them quietly. Objectively there is no purpose to this ritual doubling of roles, but on a psychological level, it keeps him in the flow.

When, instead of simply singing the Creed, you have to add “we stand to proclaim our faith in the words of the Creed”, something is lost. The almost childlike, playful, unselfconsciousness that should define worship is replaced by a tedious reminder that yes, here comes the next bit of the service, whoop de do. You might not find Hillsong’s music aesthetically pleasing (indeed I suppose not everyone likes plainsong either), but at a Hillsong service, or in the ancient Western rite, the music is just sung, and no one interrupts to explain what is coming next or why.

The modern rites of the Catholic Church

and its Protestant siblings

were written at a point in history where it was felt necessary to instruct the faithful in a new, more demotic style of worship. For some reason the liturgical reformers thought that people could not simply confess their sins to God; they had to be first reminded why confession matters. The result is so often like watching a movie where every five minutes you notice a visible camera in a reflection; a constant reminder of artificiality that takes you out of flow.

Many other things in these modern rites have a similarly damaging effect.

1) The awkward juxtaposition of some vestigial aspects of traditional ritual but with entirely modern-language prayers.

2) The practical problems caused by worship done facing the people rather than the altar. No one knows where to look - if you’re not careful, at the moment of Consecration, you can so easily be distracted by the realization that Father has a monobrow.

3) In the Novus Ordo, the additional issue of some truly dreadful, overly literal translations from the Latin or Greek. “Jerusalem is built as a city strongly compact” turns Mass into architectural commentary, rather than leading the faithful to the spiritual reality the city of God signifies: compare to “Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself” (the correct translation).

4) The structural inability of prayer and music to overlap. Ancient rites are full of priestly prayers said sotto voce, while the choir sings something quite different over the top. Most of these prayers have either been abolished or turned into audible prayers, so the celebrant must now wait for the choir to finish before he begins the next thing he needs to say. The practical upshot is that much traditional religious music is unusable in modern rites, unless you are prepared to tolerate a pointlessly long liturgy with lots of standing around.

After many years living with the dubious pleasure of studying these problems up close, I have come to the conclusion that they are very simply not fixable, even once you know about them. There is no alternative but to scrap the whole mistaken experiment and start over. Thankfully, ritual practice in the West is slowly drifting away from the 1970s consensus, towards either a postmodern, playful reclamation of traditional rites, or the innovative creation of entirely new forms of worship. Cautiously, I think we will all the better for it.