Thursday, July 25, 2013

Identifying emerging liturgical-missional issues

What´s Up Next?
Identifying the liturgical-missional issues emerging before us

Juan Oliver

APLM has a venerable record of spotting liturgical and missional issues as they emerge in the life of the church.  Recently, however, we have been forced to return to issues first explored in the years leading up to the 1979 BCP, concentrating on the relationship between liturgy, mission and ecclesiology:  How do we understand the community of the baptized as first-fruits (“green shoots”) of the coming Kingdom of God?  How do we embody this liturgically?   How do we carry it out in mission to the world? 

Our recent work on the centrality of Baptism has been of huge importance --and necessary. At bottom, however, we have been “cleaning up” canonical denials of the ecclesiology of the BCP, first formulated 35 years ago, and reminding ourselves and others of the baptismal understanding of the nature of the Church as expressed in the BCP.   The work had to be done, and we will probably have to keep an eye on these matters all along.

Yet I am itching to spot, once more, what liturgical-missional issues are emerging before us so that, as APLM, we might support and encourage discussion, experimentation and sharing of best practices.  From my point of view there appear the following areas of further development:

1. Inculturation (especially in Anglo suburban life) is still very weak.  Our liturgy, as I have pointed out, no longer means to many people what theologians think it means.[1]  This presents a communications crisis in liturgical practice, and might lead us to examine the vocabulary we employ in worship. For more on this issue, see Matt Johnson’s article covering much more than the inculturation of language.[2]

2. Almost forty years old, the BCP does not reflect the most recent research by New Testament scholars, particularly regarding the historical and socioeconomic context of the New Testament.  As a result our liturgical and missional practices remain unaffected by these developments.

3. In our current liturgy, the missiological aspects of the Christian life, especially in relation to the suffering of all creation, are very, very weak, and practically silent in naming the causes of that suffering.

As APLM Council member Amy McCreath has written, “… the suffering we are not naming…   is not only regarding the environment… but also the economic and social suffering, the militarism, the violence, the mental illness that results from and is not addressed by all the other ills above.  In the parish I serve, very few of the young adults affiliated with the parish are thriving. All are some combination of unemployed, emotionally unstable, depressed or anxious, disaffiliated from church and society, addicted to something. At MIT, where I served as a chaplain for 9 years, although successful ‘on paper’ and in labs, few young adults experienced the world as anything more than chaos they needed to survive. The reality of young adulthood these days is virtually invisible in our official church discussions & unnamed in our liturgies.”[3] 

We absolutely need the naive language  (i.e., NOT academic theological language) in which our contemporaries cast their experience of the world if we are to craft worship that communicates our Christian hope for a healed world, and our vocation to work for it. 

These are just the tip of the iceberg, but I fear that without tackling them –and others-- in depth and over a long period of time, our liturgy will not be able to recover its verve and drive us to witness to the coming Kingdom.

Juan Oliver has written widely about liturgy and culture. His Ph.D. dissertation, The Look of Common Prayer: The Anglican Liturgical Place in Anglo-American Culture, explored the role of liturgical architecture in presenting a vision of the Reign of God, the main theological criterion for evaluating worship.

He is a member of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Societas Liturgica, and The Council of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001.  He´s retired in Santa Fe, NM.

[1] Juan M.C. Oliver. Worship: “Forming and Deforming.” in The Worship-Shaped Life: Liturgical Formation for the People of God.”  [Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism] Ed. by Mark Eary and Ruth Meyers.  NY: Church Publishing Inc., 2010.    Or go to - v=onepage&q=worship%20forming%20and%20deforming&f=false.

[2] Matt Johnson. “Tool, not Idol: Inculturation and Prayer Book Revision.”  Open: The Journal of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. Spring 2013.  Available on line at

[3] Amy McCreath, personal communication June 2013.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Juan,

    I couldn't agree with you more on the need for more inculturation in our Episcopal liturgies. We are woefully behind many of our other Christian brothers and sisters in terms of issues around ethnic/racial inculturation leave alone the many other ways in which inculturation could occur.

    I'm not sure that I understand your second point. Could you elaborate a little more on it? I am probably just ignorant on the connection between recent NT scholarship and the BCP.

    And again, I couldn't agree more on your third point. The Episcopal Church really needs to move away from the idea of making our liturgies prettier and prettier so as to attract people to church. The attraction model simply isn't working in today's society. We need to return to a missiological model and the liturgy is certainly the first place to start doing that work.

    Shawn Strout
    Diocese of Washington