Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance and Liturgical Innovation in the House of Bishops

Bishop Martins' blog postings from the recent House of Bishops meeting in Nashville include some very interesting and at times troubling observations about how our bishops think and exercise leadership in the church.  As I write, all of Bishop Martins' postings from the HOB meeting are up on his homepage.

In the wake of the recent media buzz over things said by Pope Francis - and the ecstatic speculation of many on the Left that he's going to lead the Roman Catholic Church into a progressive promised land - Bishop Martins writes:

Many of my "progressive" colleagues in the House of Bishops seem to be all gaga over Pope Francis. Yes, he has a different personal style than his predecessors. I find him a remarkable man, and am both humbled and inspired by his ministry. He is frighteningly Christ-like. But I also happen to agree with most of his positions on controverted issues. And here's the deal: He isn't proposing any changes in either the theological or moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. None. If I were a supporter of same-sex marriage, or abortion rights, I could find nothing in the Pope's statements that would lead me to hope that a change in church teaching in these areas is imminent. So why the sudden triumph of style over substance? I not only agree with his views, I also agree with the need he has expressed to change rhetoric and reassess priorities. But many of the same voices that are raised in adulation of the Bishop of Rome still see Episcopalians who share his views as outliers, and benignly and charitably (more or less) consign us to the margins of TEC. Just sayin'. Bit of a mystery here.

A mystery, indeed!

Bishop Martins goes on to note the "cognitive dissonance" experienced between his own understanding of mission and what he often hears from his colleagues in the HOB:

I'm constantly laying our nascent missionary efforts in the Diocese of Springfield alongside the stories my colleagues tell, looking for connection, validation, new insights, and hope. But I'm also continually aware of my outlier status whenever I engage the larger church. I hear talk of mission, but I realize that while, for me, mission cannot mean very much other than evangelization, it means something very different to many if not most of my colleagues in the House. I hear talk of interfaith cooperation, and then I'm aware that many around me might be aghast at a notion that I--along with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I might mention--take seriously: the universality of the gospel, that all people, everywhere and at all times, ought to come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ in the company of the Catholic Church, and be baptized; put baldly, that it is God's will that everyone become a Christian. I hear talk of righteousness and justice, but then realize that, for me, that includes the sanctity of unborn human life and marriage as a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, while many around me find those values abhorrent. I should hasten to add that the overwhelming majority of other bishops treat me with utmost kindness and courtesy, and, at times, genuine affection; I have no complaints in that department. And I recognize in them authentic Christian faith and discipleship, despite our profound differences. I honor those who sometimes accuse me and others of "sleeping with the enemy," for not simply writing off most of the HOB as hopeless heretics. But that's not where I am. I couldn't begin to do that. And this is precisely why experiences like the past week are full of what my college psychology professors taught me to name as "cognitive dissonance."

Bishop Martins also touches on one of my personal pet peeves - tinkering with the liturgy:

I really do hate it that I find worshiping at meetings of the House of Bishops more alienating than uplifting. As a good Catholic, of course, I realize that it's not about how I feel. Indeed, if it were about how I feel, I would probably just silently absent myself. But it's not, so I go. Part of the alienation, no doubt, is my responsibility, and I need to own that. But I also need to name my irritation: It's just too laborious. Today the celebrant switched from English to Spanish and back several time--just during the Eucharistic Prayer! Prayer Book rubrics and texts are widely ignored or altered. Our musician, Dent Davidson, has talent oozing out of his pores; he is really good at what he does. But the music is a steady diet of the exotic with occasional smatterings of the familiar as a condiment. I would dearly love to see the proportions reversed: liturgies anchored in the center of the tradition, following Prayer Book texts and rubrics, seasoned judiciously with the exotic. I suppose others would then feel malnourished. What to do?

I've noticed in other contexts that when Episcopalians gather for diocesan and other events, too often the worship is innovative rather than faithful to The Book of Common Prayer. I've even attended conferences where the Prayer Book was hardly used at all.  And, of course, that can also happen on Sunday mornings with various instances of illegal liturgical revision "authorized" by a rector. 

Sadly, liturgy that once united us around "the center of the tradition" sometimes gives way to liturgy that aims to express how progressive, inclusive, and transformative we are.  That can veer liturgy dangerously away from a focus on God to a focus on us.  And when it means monkeying with or ditching the Prayer Book, it's an almost sure-fire way to alienate anyone in attendance who believes in conforming to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.  


The Underground Pewster said...

I recently heard a delegate to General Convention compare the House of Delgates to a circus and the House of Bishops to the U.S. Senate. I don't think she realized the irony of the latter comparison.

It is sad that a gathering of bishops raises one's awareness of cognitive dissonance. Until the whole group comes to realize that there is an old fashioned remedy, expect a continued erosion of doctrine and discipline as well as more shortsighted attempts at innovation.

Scott said...

I know liturgy is always in revision, but it is often painful to worship. I sympathize with Bishop Martins and I try not to turn into a grumpy old priest when I'm not in charge of the liturgy. Lord have mercy.