In recent years, as archeology has uncovered more information about ancient Greece, artists and museums have begun displaying reproductions of famous sculptures the way the ancients saw them. They were painted in vibrant colors, almost surreal. They’re jarring to modern eyes. We’re used to seeing those white marble statues and the Renaissance works inspired by them. There’s a cleanness and timelessness of white marble.
Lots of buildings in the US are inspired by architecture inspired by the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient architecture. Again, while those original buildings were often painted in stunning colors, modern buildings are stark and white.
Tradition is like a modern reconstruction of a Renaissance adaptation of an ancient sculpture style. The paint is gone, but there’s something that seems timeless and right about it, even if the truth of the art is only half-expressed and we’re living on the leftover chunks of something foreign to us.
Jaroslav Pelikan, a 20th-century historian, is probably best known for this quip: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”
I think that’s an idea Gunnison Congregational Church has experienced in some deep and radical ways. In fact, there’s a sense of well-earned and well-deserved pride among long-time congregants for the flexibility, openness, and inclusivity this church has shown over the years. There’s a sense of living in the moment that encourages spontaneity.
At the same time, even a church as young as this one has its own traditions and commitments, “We’ve always done that,” and, “This is how we’re supposed to do it.”
Our liturgy tends to be pretty stripped down, but we still retain bits and pieces of more complete liturgies, like the doxology, the passing of the peace, and seasonal color changes. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we realize that there’s nothing magical about those leftover chunks. There’s nothing magical, for instance, about singing the doxology. We sing it with transformed words and traditional music. The passing of the peace was originally part of a more complete liturgy of confession and forgiveness, where the congregation acts as priests to one another. The way we do it is more like a giant hello. There’s nothing magic about the liturgical colors. In fact, their purpose is only served if we’re aware of that purpose. They’re intended to inspire, not demand.
One tradition we seem to have carried over from the mid-twentieth century is to treat the liturgy as an agenda or a program. Agendas and programs have a certain kind of flow to them, but there’s no movement, direction, or rhythm.
Liturgy is more akin to choreographed dance or an orchestral movement, or even a simple song. It needs rhythm to be complete. Generally, there are four steps or movements in traditional worship: 1) Entrance, 2) Story,
3) Table, and 4) Sending. You could also call these Gathering— song, prayer, confession, etc.; Word — reading the scripture and hearing a sermon; Communion/Eucharist; and Benediction — prayers, songs, and words to carry out into the week.
Dance, music, poetry, painting, photography, and sculptures are all part technique and technology and part artistry. When my daughter was five, she started piano lessons. Her teacher would always ask her, “And how was your artistry?” when she’d complete a piece. Artistry is that intangible part where technique falls away and an emotional/spiritual event begins.
All of us have seen a person pick up a pencil or a paintbrush and, with a few simple lines, create something where there was nothing. We’ve seen dancers, musicians, and poets draw on their experience, their training, and their artistry to move or speak or play spontaneously and move us at once deeper into ourselves and outside of ourselves. That’s an event: when intention and improvisation merge and open a new space in the world.
Maybe I should have capitalized Event. Some theologians refer to God as Event.
Liturgy is art. There are pieces, steps, colors, sounds, smells, and thoughts that merge to open a space in the world for Event to begin. You can’t program Event, you can’t plan for it. All you can do is created the opening and wait, lingering in the artistry, not hurrying to the next bullet point in the program.
Finally, liturgy means “the work of the people.” It’s something we do together. Worship is like theatre in that it is collaborative art. That includes performers and viewers. Everyone has a part to play.
I hope we can expand our worship team to include more contributors. Nothing is permanent. Like those white marble statues with broken arms and missing noses, our traditions serve to inspire new art, new rhythms, and new Events. I hope we can collaborate together to craft liturgies that reflect who we are and who we hope to become.