These past few months have seen an abundance of dire prognostications regarding Christianity in the West, specifically regarding the Church of England, The Episcopal Church (USA), and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. None of this information I find new, nor necessarily noteworthy. We should all accept that we are, after all, living in, for all intents and purposes, a post-Christian culture. More than half the UK population now has no religion. I find little need in joining a choir of prophets of doom, à la Saint Pope John XXIII, even while being realistic about what national church studies are reporting in numbers. Indeed, there are also other trends being reported as well, such as the growth of Anglican mega-churches in London.
What does interest me is the intersection of these trends with pastoral and liturgical issues. I was chagrined to read on these very pages of PrayTell the interview with the American Roman Catholic bishop Christopher Coyne regarding the recent Moto proprio of Pope Francis, Magnum principium, that returns authority for the translation of liturgical books back to national episcopal conferences. What struck me in the bishop’s response was the intimation that issues of liturgical translations and, by extension, the liturgy, have little or nothing to do with the downward statistical spiral many churches find themselves in. Not that there is necessarily a direct correlation, but I found rather odd the assertion that the experience of liturgy is not intimately related to the value that persons may place upon their adherence to and practice of faith. Especially considering that the liturgy is often times the only personal contact a person has with a church, and by consequence, the Christian faith.
Words matter. Place matters. Matter matters. In striving to address numerical decline for some reason these aesthetic and sacramental issues are often cast aside. Bishop Coyne seems to suggest that a poetic language-experience will have no greater potential impact than incomprehensible or stilted English. Similarly, the Church of England routinely hears calls to cast off its church buildings as unimportant hindrances to modern day believing.
Rather, visual culture and media studies are telling us just how important the visual and aural realm are for effective communication and the creation of meaning today, especially among young adults and adolescents. Young adults are astute consumers of the visual and aural, busy about creating ideal experiential environments, especially virtually (See, Giuseppe Riva, Selfie: Narcisismo e identità, 2016). Indeed, part of the relative success of church-going in English cathedrals has been precisely the ability to tap into this reality by offering high-quality liturgies that read to the general public as meaningful and worthwhile experiences – even to non-
Christians! From the point of view of liturgical practice, the danger is precisely underestimating the damage that tawdriness and mundanity contribute to a perceived cheapening of experience in our contemporary visually- saturated culture. Marshall McLuhan’s catchphrase “the medium is the message” is truer today than it ever was. In a society that seeks ideal experiential environments whatever message of faith the Church may want to transmit will be discounted on face value as quickly as one scrolls through their FaceBook feed if the medium of the message is not immediately perceived to be purposeful and of quality.
There is tremendous pastoral pressure, therefore, to celebrate liturgies that are aesthetically coherent and persuasive. In a recent article in the journal Ecclesia orans I argue that the field of scenography provides a helpful contemporary approach to liturgical studies and practice. As a discipline scenography thinks through the unity of texts, place, performance and persons in forming experiential and emotional environments aimed at personal transformation. It is in such unified contexts that belief more readily takes place. In the end, if the medium matters, I would suggest that poetic texts matter just as much as architecturally poetic spaces, and an open and authentic community of believers.
Churches better get busy. A death by numbers might just in fact be related to death by liturgy after all.
The complete article in Ecclesia orans 33 (2016) can be found here: Divine Pageantry: Scenographic Architecture and the mise-en-scène of the Liturgy.