Liturgical Conservatism

C. S. Lewis:

I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.

To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain – many give up churchgoing altogether – merely endure.

Is this simply because the majority are hide-bound? I think not. They have a good reason for their conservatism. Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. They don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it “works” best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. . . .

There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.” Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit – habito dell’arte.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

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2 thoughts on “Liturgical Conservatism

  1. Christopher:
    Thank you for reminding this Anglican clergyman of what Lews said here. I wish I understood why I so often lose my nerve when contemplating another celebration of the church’s liturgy. I know it has something to do with apparent dominance of worship as opposed to liturgy, the dwindling numbers in our pews, and the voices which dismiss liturgical forms as boring. You and Lewis will me recover my nerve the next time such fears beset me.

  2. Michael: Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. In our age of novelty, Lewis reminds me that we should prefer the older to the newer, the traditional to the innovative.

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