Death by numbers…or, by liturgy?

Saint Bonaventure Church, Philadelphia. Demolished 2014.

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-

Ridley Hall, Cambridge, UK. Visitors’ Day Eucharist 2017.

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.

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16 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. All these factors are demoralizing, even if they are not at the forefront of what people say when they try to explain why they feel that Sunday Mass is not worthwhile for them.

    There is a percentage of Catholics for whom nothing will put them off, sure, but relying on this is not a recipe for growth. I actually think the priest shortage is making it easier to pretend there are still plenty of people in the pews, because we have fewer Masses and those priests who remain are besieged by the 30%.

    1. “I actually think the priest shortage is making it easier to pretend there are still plenty of people in the pews, because we have fewer Masses and those priests who remain are besieged by the 30%.”

      I couldn’t agree more. If you want to make Catholics go away from your parish, offer them fewer masses.

  2. “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.”

    The problem with the above is not that that Coyne is asserting such a thing, but that there’s no ready formula for resolving the issue with a rinse/repeat of Missal wars, and Coyne is I am sure quite aware how people who are hyper-interested in matters liturgical tend to cherry-pick partial facts to support their/our liturgical desiderata (not all of this is malign; a good deal of is a product of the usual cognitive biases human beings operate with).

    We also suffer from what I call a Law of Absolute Number problem (as opposed to a Relative Number problem). People arguing about an issue in terms of popular input tend to focus on relative numbers. But a small, even tiny, percentage of a very large denominator can still be a rather large number in absolute terms, and we overlook that. For example, a mere 1% of the US population is a number that dwarfs the populations of all but one US state and all Combined Statistical Areas (mega-metropolises) – it’s a lot of people in absolute terms. Similarly, a marginal % of folks in the Church can still be a lot of strongly conflicting voices in absolute terms; merely waiving them off as marginal doesn’t make them disappear (unless they disappear themselves, which of course has happened).

    1. “People are leaving the Catholic Church, especially young people, and they are not coming back. This is a matter of incredible import because it is a matter of salvation. So, yes, I think the translation of liturgical texts is important, but it is not high on my priority list. I am worried about a future in which these texts would be used in empty churches.”

      My concern is that poorly constructed liturgies, and poorly celebrated liturgies, contribute to the exact problem he identifies – texts being simply one element. I am not interested per se in the ‘wars’ of those highly interested in the liturgy, but in overall cultural dynamics.

  3. Oddly when I was a Catholic high school teacher, liturgy never figured when I asked students why they didn’t go to Mass. Reasons given included the church’s perceived attitude towards anything to do with sex (basically “no,”) a real sense of unfairness surrounding homosexuals, child abuse, perceived wealth, and an underlying feeling that the church had nothing to offer them, that it belonged in the past.
    With that in mind, my sympathies are with the bishop.

  4. People are leaving Christianity in all forms, high church vs low church, conservative vs liberal, progressive sexual norms vs traditional sexual norms. Just believing in God can be difficult enough in this culture.

    People were leaving the church long before the new translation. As for the new translation, per the CARA survey in 2012, 20% strongly agree that the new translation is a good thing, 50% agree, 23% disagree and 7% strongly disagree (the Praytell demographic).

    http://www.praytellblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CARA-on-missal-11-28-12.pdf

    That doesn’t mean that the 1998 translation, or a different smoother formal equivalence translation or a new dynamic equivalence translation would not be able to gain even wider support. And 30% disagreement is too much and as Liam pointed out 7% strongly disagreeing is a big deal. But things have to be put into perspective.

    1. Devin, you make a good point about the long-term nature of the decline vs the short timeline for the new translation. I guess I would note that James Hadley’s thesis isn’t a “translation-only” thesis; it seems to take a much more holistic view of the “scene” in which liturgy is celebrated (architecture, decor, sound, etc.) The English text is one piece of that. Maybe the “scene” for however long the decline has been going on has been problematic. Maybe this translation, and the previous translation, both were hindrances rather than helps in this regard. It’s an interesting way to look at it. I’m just through the beginning part of his article.

      Glad he’s commenting; maybe he’ll comment more 🙂

      1. Yes Jim and David,
        I am obviously not arguing that the social commitment to faith is solely based upon a particular translation, Missal, or Prayer Book. My point regards the quality of experience of the whole liturgical act that is either found meaningful or not based upon its totality and how contemporary media consumption informs expectations and reception. As I state above, the question involves “texts, place, performance and persons.”

      2. Also, the effect of a particular text translation (or in our case, transliteration) is subconscious, as much of communication takes place subliminally.

  5. With recent experience in both campus ministry and a graying mainstream parish, I wonder if some prognosticators don’t have it a bit wrong. My sense is that most Catholic youth are leaving the church not through a disenchantment during adolescence but rather at age 1 and 8 through parental disenchantment.

    Illuminated vernacular texts have little impact in buildings with poor sound systems and difficult acoustics proclaimed by clergy and laity who manifest less care and joy. The message at Mass many people get are rude stares at fussy children, homilies that make few connections to daily life, precious little welcome, and other small offenses that add up.

    There is no magic in the words of 1962 or 2010, Latin or English. If there were, it would be an easy solution to whatever perceived problems with evangelization. The magic is in the imitation of Christ and the treatment of people as if they were Christ. Not inconvenient, bothersome intruders.

    As someone who hoped for a permanent Sacramentary for many years, I think we’ve slipped much farther back in the past few decades. The verve and spirit of the immediate post-conciliar years has vanished. A new Missal won’t help us as much as a much harder task of remaking every parish into a missionary force. Sacrosanctum Concilium and its daughter documents won’t help us nearly as much as Ad Gentes, Evangelii Nuntiandi, and their family.

  6. I’m all for the broad approach to an integrated, quality scenography for the liturgy, and am encouraged to read and hear more and more people focusing on this topic rather than on fixes for individual items.

    I can’t help but wonder, however, if most of this won’t end up in the larger context the surrounding culture provides for worship – that it is divided into performers and receptors (audience, if you will), in a primarily audience-passive framework.

    The phenomenon of return to “high church vespers” in England has been interesting to read about. Perhaps I need to read more and have a broader perspective on it, but it seemed that this was happening in large urban places, in churches with deep resources (not only monetary), oftentimes with professional/paid staff doing much of the ministering TO. (caps intended) The excitement about it seems to echo some of the initial excitement of incorporating rock-style music (from the 1980s, mostly) along with stages, club lighting, and so on. While that movement certainly still has its adherents, it has lost some of its luster with time. It, too, happened largely in big urban centers in churches with deep resources (almost always monetary).

    The long-term goal, I’d think, is to bring people to Christ through all of this. In regards to what happens within the walls of the sanctuary, it’s something of a quandary that people can’t come to Christ in that space if they don’t actually come. All the more reason, I guess, to partner a quality, integrated scenology with robust mission outside the sanctuary walls.

    The Good News, paradoxically, comes with what a swath of Western society has come to view as bad news when it comes to faith, religion, and worship: it’s work.

    1. I’m also finding it a bit quirky that “scientology” is what autocorrect wanted to replace “scenology” with – That Wacky Paraclete.

    2. I agree with the problem of performers/receptors. Contemporary scenography has grappled with this question. The applicability of scenography’s solutions to liturgy may be interesting but not feasible in worship. In my article I speak of this problem a bit in terms of architectural solutions. Church resources are a major dilemma, as well as the creation/chasing of trends in a change-driven society. Some time back I read an interesting book that addresses the negative side of some of these dynamics: Tucker (2006), Left Behind in a MegaChurch World: How God Works through Ordinary Churches.

  7. I’d be interested to know if most of the commentors on this article are American or British? From my position as a lay chaplain in an Australian Secondary School it is not attention to text, music and space which refelct their lack of engagement – and which to my mind are vital – but the reality that they do not find their own expereince of life, their questions or their values celebrated or explored.
    I suspect this is perhaps also the case in their parents views.

    1. I am an American in a C of E context. Your pastoral experience is insightful. I think there is a lot of room in intentional preaching in a liturgical context to try to engage the personal experience of the assembly – assuming the preacher knows the ‘flock’. Such “questions and values” can be engaged as well in texts, music and space, but this it seems to me is more indirect, and perhaps, a more challenging route?

      1. The difference is that, in the context of a religious school, there’s likely an expectation that, because of the frequent and sometimes immersive interaction of students and staff, there may be a high integration of liturgical experience that reflects this.

        However, in daily life outside that or a similar context (say, a “Benedict Option” community), such an expectation would be rather, well, wild. It’s far from typical for parish priests to have such a level of interaction with members of their flock who are not present at parish property for much of the day.

        My pastor lives 30 minutes away from me. I see him for 90 minutes most Sundays and on no other occasion (I don’t worship regularly in territorial parishes near me for reasons I will omit here). He doesn’t really “know” me (he know who I am and some aspects about me) – or most of his flock, likewise. In my experience, preachers are vulnerable to having a blindspot of leaning their preaching towards the people they can empathize with.

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