Parties and Performances

What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.

1. Religious experience is not in the head

Experience understood necessarily involves a feely component, but typically includes much more. So, it is often suggested, aesthetic experience cuts deeper than the aesthetic surface, which is the immediate cause of phenomenal states. The experience of an original work of art is different from the experience of a perfect fake, even if not phenomenally distinguishable. Dogmatic hedonists may scoff: what’s the difference? A perfect fake looks the same, feels the same, and gets the same neurons firing? Most people know better: they put themselves out to see the real thing and will pay much more for original works of art than for perfect fakes.

Following the smart money, it seems safe to suggest that the same is true of religious experience: visiting a lovingly restored, scrupulously maintained museum that was once a church, does not provide the same experience as visiting a real church, and that participating in a liturgical mock-up is not the same thing as participating in liturgy. Holy things, holy places and holy actions do not merely induce the feely states that figure in religious experience—they render our experience religious and are, in that respect, sacramental. Perfect fakes are not the same thing even if they induce the same phenomenal states. That is the insight behind the Real Presence doctrine.

If this is correct then liturgy does two jobs. First, it induces phenomenal states of a certain sort. Secondly, it makes our those feely psychological states count as religious experience. When I, as a religious believer, visit a church or participate in a liturgy and take myself to be doing what other Christians have done and will do in liturgical settings, my experience is religious. I doubt that it would count as a religious experience if I got the same buzz by direct stimulation of my temporal lobes; I doubt also that it would count as a religious experience if I participated in a mock liturgy like the old Radio City Music Hall Easter Show at which “a cathedral is created on the giant music hall stage, with three towering stained glass windows, a stately altar, sprays of lilies and troops of solemn participants in the guise of monks, altar boys, maids and priests.”[1] (maids?) Knowing that it was a show, would likely have made a difference to the phenomenal feel, if any, I got from participating but, arguably, even if I didn’t know it was a show and got the accustomed buzz my experience would still be different.

Even with the buzz, the experience of a perfect fake is not the same thing. Invited to a wedding, a friend takes me instead to Joey and Maria’s Comedy Italian Wedding—an interactive, largely adlibbed dinner theater production that simulates a traditional Italian-American wedding—at which I have a very good time.[2] When the deception is revealed afterwards I am furious: even though it was wonderful experience it was not the experience to which I was looking forward. I missed that.

What was it that I missed and how was I deceived? I imagined that the performance was a party at which everyone, including Joey and Maria, Carmine Cannoli, Viola Vermicelli and Rocky Ravioli were, like myself, celebrating even if Joey, Maria and the rest of the wedding party played a different role in the festivities. But I was duped. In fact they were actors at work, playing to the house, putting on a show to entertain me and other members of the audience. It was not a party: it was a performance. If I had known that I should have had a very different experience, not only in the broad sense but also in the narrow phenomenological sense and would likely have behaved differently.

Arguably that difference between parties and performances is the difference between liturgy and non-liturgical church services. A church service that is a performance, like Joey and Maria’s Comedy Italian Wedding or the Radio City Music Hall Easter Show, even if it involves significant audience participation and even if it is a perfect fake of a liturgical service, is not liturgy.

2. Liturgy and interactive dinner theater

Liturgical and non-liturgical church services are different in kind, not only or even necessarily on their aesthetic surface, but in what they are meant to do. Liturgical services are parties; non-liturgical services are performances.

Non-liturgical services can be as fancy as you please. Indeed, since the 19th century, when most churches that could afford it went Gothic Revival and made efforts to “beautify” worship, the public worship of non-liturgical churches has quite often simulated liturgy and in some cases become liturgy. But “beautification” by itself does not turn a performance into a party and in services that are openly non-liturgical the difference is striking. The clergyman not only preaches to the congregation: he sings to the congregation—and the congregation does not sing back. The choir also sings to the congregation and, in the course of the service, there are a variety of other acts: kiddie choirs, award presentations, announcements and testimonies. However interactive and adlibbed, such services are performances—directed to the congregation as an audience, in order to entertain, instruct and edify, encourage, comfort and inspire.

Liturgical services are quite another thing, not only or primarily on their aesthetic surface but in their intent. Liturgy is directed to God. This is, of course, not always why we participate in liturgy. People go to cathedral Evensong to hear the choir and many think of it as a concert in fancy dress. But those whose religious life is formed in liturgical churches assume that there is a bright line between concerts and services, between performance and liturgy.[3]

This is not to say that non-liturgical services are fakes or mere entertainments. Members of non-liturgical churches go to church to be instructed and motivated. They look to the Church for encouragement, inspiration, healing, consolation and edification. Consider the very model of a modern non-liturgical church, Pastor Lee McFarland’s Radiant Church of Surprise, Arizona, a second-generation seeker-sensitive mega-church catering for the needs of young, working class families.

McFarland's messages are light on liturgy and heavy on what he calls ''successful principles for living'' -- how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt, even how to shake a porn addiction. ''If Oprah and Dr. Phil are doing it, why shouldn't we?'' he says…Ask people at Radiant what first brought them to the church, and you will almost never hear a mention of God. It might have been a billboard: ''Isn't It Time You Laughed Again?'' Or the twice-a-week aerobics class (with free child care) called Firm Believers. Or one of their children might have come with a friend to play video games…Small groups are an important part of McFarland's plan to convert what he calls ''baby Christians'' into ''mature Christians.''…Whatever the theme, the goal is always the same: to build what Travis refers to as ''authentic communities.'[4]

Radiant Church members are inspired by McFarland’s cheerleading at services and enjoy the encouragement, social contact and support they get in small groups. Seekers who come to the Radiant Church and others like it are not looking for religious experience: they are looking for wisdom, social support and life-improvement.

By contrast consider the Anglican Church—the liturgical church par excellence—where anyone looking for help with the practical business of daily life will be sorely disappointed. Aldous Huxley, comparing Anglicanism (unfavorably) to Zen Buddhism writes:

At the time of the great Irish potato famine a century ago, a special prayer was composed for the recitation in all the churches of Ireland. The purpose of this prayer was to entreat the Almighty to check the ravages of the blight, which was destroying the Irish potato crop. But from the outset the word ‘potato’ presented a difficulty. Quite obviously, in the eyes of the Divine, it was too low, common and proletarian to be pronounced in a sacred place, and in front of God..."potato". The horribly vulgar part of potatoes had to be concealed in the decent obscurities of paraphrases, and consequently God was requested to do something about an abstraction, sonorously called the "succulent tuber". 'The sublime has soared up into the empyrean of the ludicrous.[5]

If you are interested in how to discipline your children, reduce your debt or combat potato blight, the Anglican Church is not for you. The business of the Anglican Church is religious experience: the vision of another world, more intense and interesting than the boring world of office politics, credit card debt and potatoes, where we participate in a cosmic drama “with Angels and Archangels and all the Company of Heaven.” Liturgy, like a good party, is inherently “escapist.” The purpose of liturgy is to enable participants to escape from the tedium of daily life into a vivid, thrilling and emotionally intense world of power and glory.

Liturgical and non-liturgical services do different jobs and satisfy different interests. This is a good thing: there are a great many different jobs to do and innumerable interests to be satisfied. People need to be edified and informed, encouraged, exhorted and motivated; they need community and “successful principles for living to cope with the practical concerns of daily life. But they also need, and want, to go beyond the practical business of life to attain transcendence—the state we achieve through aesthetic enjoyment, intellectual pleasure and religious experience.

When clergy and others responsible for the planning and conduct of public worship fiddle with services to make them do jobs they were never meant to do, or dogmatically decide that there is just one purpose, or short-list of purposes, which services of public worship should achieve, they produce monsters. So Reinhold Niebuhr describes a pan-Protestant municipal Easter sunrise service where, in the interests of “beautification,” the organizers aped elements of liturgical services, ramping them up to the highest degree of “cinema sentimentality.” He compares the sunrise service unfavorably to the liturgy he attends later in the morning at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Anglicans, he suggests, are entitled to their liturgy—when Protestants in free-church traditions try to do liturgy they just make a hash of it.[6]

Mutatis mutandis, when those responsible for the conduct of public worship in liturgical churches attempt to use liturgy to do the job of non-liturgical services, they do even worse. Arguably, this is what reformers in the Episcopal Church and other liturgical churches, during politically earnest 1960s and penitential 1970s, tried to do.

3. Liturgical revision

Liturgical revision during the mid-20th Century was not merely cosmetic. It was driven by an agenda rooted in a revised theological understanding of what church was for and what public worship services were supposed to do that was reflected not only in liturgy as such but in church architecture and décor. So Richard Kieckhefer, an historian of church architecture describes the popularization of what he refers to as the “modern communal church” of the period:

“Architects began to design churches that were meant to promote a sense of community gathered for celebration,” he added. “While older churches tried to set themselves apart from the world, these were buildings that were meant to blend into neighborhoods.” These buildings were focused around casual, multipurpose spaces. Pastors asked architects for assembly halls that would allow members and clergy members to be able to see one another’s faces, so sanctuaries were often arranged in circles or semicircles. Pulpits were moved from the head of the church to the middle or done away with altogether. Statues were removed. Pitched roofs became flat. Steeples vanished.

Critics of the movement saw this trend toward plain, functional buildings as an insult to the divine. A flurry of books by influential architects and critics led the attack, including Michael S. Rose’s salvo, “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches From Sacred Spaces to Meeting Places and How We Can Change Them Back” (Sophia Institute Press, 2001), and Moyra Doorly’s “No Place for God: The Denial of Transcendence in Modern Church Architecture” (Ignatius Press, 2007). Ms. Doorly, an architect and writer in Britain, has also started a campaign called Outcry Against Ugly Churches, or OUCH.[7]

The revisionary liturgy and architecture of the period was intended to promote a theological agenda that was reiterated in innumerable books and other “materials” of the period. First, religion was to be this-worldly rather than other-worldly. Stung by the Marxist critique of religion as “escapist,” clergy of the period were intent on sending the message that religious practice was relevant to the practical business of life and should, above all, motivate social concern and promote political action. To accomplish this, according to the received view, church had to be all of a piece with ordinary life rather than an escape from it. Toward this end, liturgical churches promoted contemporary language and music. Leavened bread came into fashion for Communion and, in the Roman Catholic Church especially, there was a brief vogue for earthenware vessels in the interests of making church less churchy. Reformers on the left wing of the movement, including contributors to Malcolm Boyd’s period piece, The Underground Church, would have liked to do away with church buildings altogether.[8] They imagined an improved state of affairs in which the Church’s Righteous Remnant would meet in small groups at one another’s homes to share a simple agape meal and plan political action. Corporate worship, in any case, was to be a teaching tool and motivational device, aimed at getting it across to the laity that religion wasn’t just for Sunday.

Secondly, worship services were to stress the “horizontal dimension.” The church, we were repeatedly told, was people and the aim of the institution was to “build community.” God was, as J. A. T. Robinson claimed, no more “out there” than he was “up there”: God was in community. To promote the horizontal dimension and bang the message “communal good—individual bad” into people’s heads over and over and over again clergy asked architects for buildings that would allow participants to see one another and liturgists took every opportunity to include elements in the service that would promote “community” and interaction—from the re-introduction of the first person plural form of the Creed to the revival of the Peace. The aim was to promote altruism, social service and political action—looking outward in love to the Other and working for his benefit rather than selfishly seeking religious experience: liturgical reformers assumed that sociability promoted social concern, “caring” behavior and political action.

Finally, worship was to be “celebratory.” Clergy, perhaps because the lay people they saw most frequently were a skewed sample—“pastoral care objects” who were prudish, needy, depressed and burdened by guilt—believed that members of their congregations needed to be cheered up. Toward this end, liturgists made efforts to minimize elements of the service that they regarded as “penitential.” So, in the Episcopal Church during the period, priests stove mightily and without success to minimize kneeling which, reflecting on the practice of the early Church and contemporary Eastern churches, they regarded as a “penitential” posture.

This then was the agenda: to make public worship this-worldly, social, and celebratory. Behind the program there was an assumption that undermined the whole character of liturgy, viz, that public worship was to be a teaching tool and a motivational device, directed to the congregation. Clergy were convinced that their mission as prophetic leaders was to push the agenda through in the interests of edifying the benighted laity. It is interesting as an exercise to reconstruct the image of the benighted layperson clergy imagined they were addressing and whom they believed modern communal churches and revised liturgy would enlighten and improve. This straw man was a hide-bound social and political conservative who irrationally resisted all change, who believed that religion was strictly a Sunday affair with no connection to the practical business of life, who assumed that his only moral duties as a Christian were churchgoing and chastity, and who was lonely, repressed, burdened with guilt and in need of “healing.”

The laity of liturgical churches were not enthusiastic about liturgical revision. Episcopalians in particular were unhappy with the revised liturgy, which in comparison to the service to which they were accustomed was emotionally flat, dumbed down, prosaic and patronizing. Their most serious objections, which were harder to articulate, went deeper, and did not merely concern language, political ideology or cosmetic changes but fundamental assumptions about what liturgy was supposed to do.

Episcopalians did not go to church to learn “successful principles for living.” Most did not regard the sermon as a matter of any importance and, indeed, simple said services during the week quite often did not include any sermon at all. As members of a liturgical church they expected church services to be directed to God. They were especially irritated by elements of the liturgy which, though they purported to be addressed to God, were transparently didactic and clearly directed at them—including pseudo-petitions for God’s help in promoting “justice, freedom and peace” and “good stewardship” of the environment. However worthy these goals were, their inclusion in what was ostensibly petitionary prayer was patronizing, manipulative and fundamentally disingenuous: liturgical reformers imagined that by including these bits they were cleverly “using psychology” on the laity, inducing them to recycle their trash.

Such lapses were however rare in the revised Prayer Book adopted by the Episcopal Church in 1979, which was the product of sound scholarship and which included a wide variety of options for services which could be done as liturgy directed to a God “out there.” Advocates of liturgical reform who believed that religious services should be directed primarily towards the congregation in the interests of instruction and community-building, failed. They did however achieve some partial results by seeing to it that any religious experience participants got was strictly rationed—restricted to 10 minutes of transcendence around communion. Convinced that any interest in mysticism or theology as traditionally understood was a smokescreen for social conservatism and reactionary politics, Episcopal clergy drove away virtually all “seekers” questing for religious experience—most of whom subsequently declared themselves “spiritual, but not religious” and dropped out of the Church permanently.

4. Should churches be liturgical?

Liturgical churches should be liturgical because if they don’t do liturgy no one else will. Liturgy produces religious experience reliably and without much effort on the part of participants. Only liturgy, church architecture and sacred art “open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers”—not just a few adepts. Without liturgy, church music, church buildings and their furnishings, the rest of us are deprived of our only opportunity (in this life) to achieve transcendence.

That, however, was exactly what liturgical reformers wanted. Liturgical revision was puritanical. For all that reformers promoted “celebration,” and however sympathetic they were to secular hedonism, their aim was to put a stop to mysticism—the flight of the alone to the Alone—which is, by its nature, “escapist,” self-indulgent, individualistic, and intensely pleasurable. Their goal was to ruin our fun.

Screwtape who knew better, noted that “the Enemy is a hedonist.” Liturgy produces religious pleasure reliably and without much effort on the part of participants: it is, as one sect of Buddhism describes itself, “the Easy Way”—Mac-mysticism for “the rest of us.” And that is not to be despised. The Church is not the society of saints but the Ark of Salvation.  Christianity does not open the Kingdom of Heaven only to religious adepts or, as Gnostic sects did, privilege an elite that has attained esoteric “knowledge” through special spiritual disciplines.

Living in New York City years ago we were members of St. Mary the Virgin, a.k.a. Smokey Mary’s, the ultimate Eastern Seaboard Anglo-Catholic Music Shrine, just south of Radio City Music Hall. Walking by Radio City I wondered why anyone would stand on line for hours and pay to see the Radio City Music Hall Easter show when they could get a better show at Smokey Mary’s—or indeed, less cynically, why they would go to a performance when they could have a party. I suspect that it was because many Americans didn’t know that you could go to St. Mary the Virgin or any one of a number of liturgical churches and get a slam bang religious experience without any effort and with no strings attached, or that they were invited to the party.

Someone should have told them.



[3] So, for example When I sang in my local church choir, on Christmas Eve we would sing a “concert” at 10:30 and segue into Midnight Mass at 11:30. To us, and to the congregation, this made perfect sense, and it wasn’t simply that Midnight Mass had a prescribed form, or that the concert and the service were different in their observable character: a concert and a service were just two categorically different things—as different as a dance and a baseball game, an icon and a credit card or a wedding and a dinner theater performance. I suspect that individuals whose experience is solely within a non-liturgical tradition would find this distinction at least peculiar.



[6] Reinhold Niebuhr. Essays in Applied Christianity. Meridian Books, 1968.


[8] Malcolm Boyd, ed. The Underground Church, Penguin Books, 1969.