Consider various styles of worship one ﬁnds among Christians today. At one end of the spectrum, but in some ways penetrating many Catholic public services because of the force of Roman authority, we ﬁnd a more or less Romanesque style. Liturgies performed in this spirit have the air of a German Expressionist ﬁlm from the 1930’s, or from a Cecil B Demille’s production from the 1950’s; in any case, these liturgies look staged. The underlying attitude is to elevate church authorities and to reduce lay persons to spectators at a grand production; some invisible wall of separation between clergy and lay must ever be asserted and maintained at all costs. The priest wears highly decorated vestments, often trimmed with lace or fancy cut-out patterns, preferably imported from Mama Roma. He does not even hesitate to wear pink on occasion—twice a year, in Advent and Lent. More often than not, this Romanesque priest folds his hands in a most pious, sky-pointing manner, much in the fashion of Beuronese art, or from habits insisted upon in the 1950’s by Sr. Mary Rigida or Fr. Geoffrey de Magniﬁque. Whether his accent is Oxfordian English, Bostonian, upper Northside Chicago, his voice has a rareﬁed nasal quality about it, with words spoken as though he deigns to lower himself to the common people when he (or she) opens his mouth to instruct the unwashed masses. He wears his spectacles low on his nose, and condescends to look down through the lenses at the lowly lay people. The entire liturgy has an aspect of being ever so digniﬁed and more than a little affected. And no doubt there will be some chanting in Latin, to give the whole service more “authority,” more connection with “The Tradition.” In his homily, Fr. Romanus will speak tirelessly about “what the Pope wants” (well, unless the present pope is deemed “too liberal”), or about “the Roman Tradition,” and tell tall tales from the lives of sterilized, neutered saints. Now, for
those who like the unfamiliar and affected, and have had a cute plastic statue of Jesus or the Virgin Mary riding unsteadily on their dashboard, or who want to feel especially connected to an imagined Rome, this style probably has a strange appeal. For others, it smells of a museum piece, or rather, of a fossilized replica of a bygone era. But ask the priest about his performance, and he will assure you—quoting chapter and verse in the “Pre-Notes” of the Sacramentary—that he is “doing what Rome requires.” He is a good boy, after all, ever responsive to the imagined wishes of Papal or Episcopal Authority.
Then we ﬁnd other Grand Productions, but done without a deliberate attempt to look Roman. In fact, these productions are proudly “parochial,” and present themselves as “what the people want.” These Grand Productions feature an abundant crew of liturgical “experts,” some of whom may ﬁll the sanctuary, dance gracefully around the altar (they practice their parts for hours), or just “perform their separate duties.” Having one priest or minister preside at the “Service” is never enough—too plain, too simple, too boring. No, one must have at least a deacon on board for extra spectacle, and perhaps two: “deacon of the altar,” “deacon of the word.” And of course one will see girls and boys dressed up in costumes called “liturgical robes,” moving about as if choreographed by Agnes de Mille for this theatrical production. And lectors trained to bow in pairs, ever conscious of the show. And perhaps other “acolytes,” and a stage crew to work on lighting, smells, and other atmospherics. The Grand Production aims to make people “feel good,” to smile, laugh, feel entertained, and to be impressed with what a good performance their church provides. Preferably, the service needs at least one cantor or deacon present who is so rotund that he or she waddles around grinning like a circus clown. And a circus is what has been provided. The people come for a spectacle, and they get it. Music—organ, instruments, choir, perhaps operatic or country-cousin singers. Sometimes they sway to the sounds of their own voices. It is all so much fun. The preaching does not really matter, and is over in the twinkling of an eye, with little said except, “Oh, you are so good, so wonderful, and God loves you just ﬁne.” And that is standard fare. But words really don’t matter. On with the show! For those who like big, busy, showy, Hollywood or Elvis in Vegas, here it is.
A third style of contemporary Christian worship can be called “folksy.” If it is a Catholic Mass, the “presider” may be named Joe Feel Good. And do not call him “Father,” for such a term is “too traditional” and smacks of authoritarianism to boot. Joe may well strut into “the assembly” wearing cowboy boots with smiling horse faces, perhaps carrying a shiny guitar, and with a delightfully warm smile to make everyone feel right at home. Joe has a good singing voice, and everyone knows it. The children serving around the table (do not dare to call it the “altar”) feel very relaxed throughout the service, perhaps looking around at the congregation, picking their noses, tapping their toes to the rocking-fun music. As for Presider Joe, the people just love him. He is so “down to earth,” so “with it,” so “cute.” And he loves himself, too, especially his baby blues. He is very proud of his hair style—even if it is his newest toupee. Of course he wears jeans, perhaps a few spangles on his pearl-button shirt. If he bothers to “suit up” in liturgical dress, the collar has a nice ring of dirt, and is suitably rumpled to assure everyone, “Hey, guys! I am really just one of you, even if I put on these liturgical dresses because Bishop Big Daddy insists on it. But don’t be fooled, I am just a regular guy, just like you.” And remember not to call this fellow “Father.” As he has said repeatedly, “Call me Joe. After all, we are family, and all in this together.” And of course Presider Joe does not preach. Nor does he teach. No, as a man of the people, he just stands in front, hands in and out of pockets, slouching to one side casually, and tells stories—stories about what he watched on TV last night, stories about when he was a boy down home, about ﬁshing the creeks of Catﬁsh County, about drinking moonshine on a warm summer night. And oh my, do the folks love his stories. These stories make them laugh and feel good, and they do not have to think. As one of them has been heard saying, “I just put my mind in neutral and enjoy the fun.” And fun it was. That was their Sunday worship. The rest of the week is just like it: easy-going, laid back, and so relaxed.
We must not forget the Money Mass. This kind of liturgy is the specialty of some Catholic priests, and of some Anglicans and Episcopalians, as well. The church is beautiful—that is, it took much money to renovate it, or to construct this new building. Costs were not spared, with expensive stained glass, precious metals, marble, gold chalices, gilded columns, the richest art works money can buy, even if they seem a little less than tasteful. The priest may affect the Roman or Cambridge style, or he may be less “high church,” but he is ever about business in His Father’s house. And the business is money. In his private life, he has expensive tastes, and maintains a private home in La Jolla, or on Lake Tahoe, or on Key West. He likes the sun, and usually sports a tan—not from ranching or working outdoors, but from time spent at his favorite tanning salon. He must look good for his congregation, of course. He dresses well, and so do they. In fact, liturgical gatherings have the look and feel of a fashion show about them. The ladies used to wear mink or fox, but PETA got to their hearts, and so they wear faux fur from a Parisian designer. Their leather handbags proclaim Michael Kors. The music is luxurious, performed only by qualiﬁed professionals, well paid for their services. And the volume may be a little loud at times, especially during the collection. Money is needed, and money is preached. The priest may be highly educated and intelligent, and give a good sermon—and it always builds up to his appeal for money. The church ever needs more money. (He wants more money, too, but he will not say that in public; that might discourage the people’s spontaneous generosity). Announcements are quite long before and after the service, with special appeals for deserving causes—and for money.
Then we have the home Mass. A few of the faithful gather around the kitchen or dining room table, with a priest in simple vestments. They gather to pray together, to hear the word, to reﬂect on the word (with contributions from anyone who wishes to share his or her experience or insight), and to “break bread together.” Each person contributes to “the prayer of the faithful” (as if the prayer should come from the faithful!). The Eucharistic prayers are offered in plain English, freed from heavy-liturgical language. The service is quiet, digniﬁed, joyous. With soft lighting and candle ﬂames reﬂecting on friendly faces, Christ shines through.