Living with Diversity, Living in Charity

Times change. People change. Churches change. Liturgy changes. But usually not all at once. And not easily, not without growing pains.

As an Episcopalian, I live and work in a church that has tried to deal accommodatingly with liturgical change—and has done so for some time.  Episcopal parishes describe themselves variously as “high,” “low,” and “broad,” terms that reflect both preferences in liturgical style, and degrees of theological commitment to principles articulated during the reforms of the sixteenth century. And in spite of all the headline-grabbing difficulties in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion, there remains a lot of room for positive, healthy diversity in expression, especially on the level of parish life.

During the twentieth century, Episcopalians produced two liturgical revisions, one in 1928 and one in 1979. Although the revision process that produced the 1979 Book of Common Prayer began in 1946, its last stages were completed with one eye unabashedly looking over Rome’s shoulder. Like many Christian churches that produced new liturgical books and embraced new liturgical styles in the 1970s, the Episcopal Church was the beneficiary of the scholarship and energy engendered by the Liturgical Movement and fed by Vatican II.

But not everybody was ready for change, something that became very evident in during the period of the trial liturgies (roughly 1950-1976). The 1971 draft, Services for Trial Use was particularly contentious, and took many people by surprise. We survived, but not without compromise.  When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer appeared, it included two series of services: “Rite I” in traditional (though faux) Tudor-Stuart English, and“Rite II” in contemporary English. Some parishes adopted one, some the other, and some made use of both. Likewise, some parishes adopted a versus populum style of liturgy, with the celebrant facing the congregation over the altar, while some retained ad orientem or eastward-facing worship.

The parish I serve, in a suburb of New York City, makes use of a mix of these styles every Sunday: the early Eucharist is eastward-facing and uses Rite I texts. The principal celebration is also eastward-facing, but uses the modern language of Rite II. And at the evening Eucharist, celebrated in contemporary English, the the congregation gathers closely around all four sides of the freestanding altar. Each of these styles, each of these approaches has historical precedent, and can be justified by sound theology. Moreover, each approach has been adopted for significant and carefully considered pastoral reasons. Taken together, our three regularly scheduled Sunday liturgies represent a large cross-section of American Episcopal worship. Noticeably absent, however, is the divisive acrimony that often attends communities with multiple liturgical styles. Everybody knows that they are part of one parish, one church, one body.

This is not the case in every Episcopal parish, and I won’t pretend that either the church as a whole or the parish doesn’t have fissures around some significant issues. But regarding the parish, I suspect that when it comes to worship, we’ve simply refused to buy into the posturing that so often seems to go along with issues of liturgical difference, and becomes so evident in conversations about liturgical reform. We refuse to suggest that one style is more “authentic” or more pleasing to God than another. Rather, we stress the point that all liturgy is about offering to God grateful praise and worship for the grace and salvation that we have received in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we make the best use of the various options open to us in our liturgical books to assist and equip as many people as possible to enter into that movement of thanksgiving and praise.

Again, I know that such is not the case everywhere. Parishes and even dioceses in The Episcopal Church are often sorely divided over liturgical questions, and easy answers are rarely forthcoming. Having done the bulk of my liturgical scholarship in Roman Catholic institutions, I’m regularly reminded of the debates that swirl and the painful divisions that sometimes exist among Catholics over matters of liturgical style, rite or use. And, like many non-Roman Catholic Christians in “liturgical” churches, I believe we all have something to gain, and something to lose, in the promulgation of new translations of the Roman Missal—the implementation of which I pray is slow, and accompanied by much catechesis!

By relating the experience of my own parish here, I hope to suggest that unity with liturgical diversity is a real possibility (the necessary pieces for which are in place in most Christian bodies, including the Roman Catholic Church.) But such cannot come about except through depolarization. That necessarily will involve refusing to inflate the claims we make for our preferred liturgical styles, and refusing to project our own agendas into intemperate readings of history. But above all, it demands a spirit of charity in dealing with those who week-by-week worship with us and those with whom we dialogue.


  1. Unity with liturgical diversity is certainly possible. In the Catholic Church, at least nine very distinct rites (not counting sub-rites and uses) exist. In the Latin Church alone, there are three (though only one is ubiquitous).

    However, it must be pointed out that all these rites hark back to the earliest Christians and (except for the controversial modern forms of the Roman and Ambrosian Rites) have come down to us by way of a slow and careful organic development. I would say that this certainly does make them more ‘authentic’, especially if we bear in mind that the liturgy reflects the Faith: Christian truth does not change, but is understood better and elucidated through a gradual process.

    Dreaming up a rite de novo in a committee is extremely suspect, just as dreaming up a new theologic system is. It reflects a discontinuity in the Faith.

  2. “We refuse to suggest that one style is more ‘authentic’ or more pleasing to God than another. ”

    Surely this isn’t the only path to charity. It might even be the least challenging path to charity. What about the greater challenge of speaking and act charitably while advancing a particular model of liturgy as inherently closer to the ideal than another? That is where the real challenge comes. It might be a superficial view to create an identity between agnosticism and tolerance. A more serious challenge is to be tolerant while holding a principled stand.

  3. Thank you, all, for your responses. Please allow me to address some of the points raised in these comments. First, my post was introductory, slightly autobiographical and presented a number of ideas that I hope to develop more fully in future posts. But I think I should clarify a few things here.

    As Derek Olsen has picked up, and as I believe Jeffrey Tucker is aware, I do serve a “high church” parish, “Sarum” or “English” Catholic in use and in theology. (But you wouldn’t know that from the evening liturgy which is very much its own beast: slow, contemplative, using “enriching” and ad experimentem texts.) I wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t convinced of what we do and why we do it. We aren’t trying to be all things to all people, but we are trying to provide the greatest number of parishioners with a respectable variety of options for the expression of divine worship. I am well aware that there are solid arguments both for and against this approach, and one of the strongest arguments is that such variety or diversity is divisive. That is an argument that I respect, and such variety can be divisive in a parochial context, indeed: I have seen that happen.

    Jeffrey Tucker is quite correct that the model of my parish, which I hold up as one example (and not necessarily the one-and-only ideal), is not the only path to charity; indeed, there is a certain “path of least resistance” quality to it.

    The chief points that I was trying to make in the post are two: first, a variety of liturgical expressions, at any level of the church’s life–parish, diocese, church or ecclesial body–need not be a matter for divisive and acrimonious contention. Serious debate, yes. Principled stands, yes.

    My second point follows upon this: Where such realities attain, as they do with the two series of rites in the Episcopal Church and with the two forms or uses of the Latin Rite liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church, ad hominem attacks and dismissive attitudes need to be set aside, in the name of charity, precisely so that healthy, constructive and edifying debate can take place. This demands of us all a degree of humility, particularly in our reading of liturgical history. My own understanding of that history compels me to assert that the emergence of Rite II liturgy in the Episcopal Church, and the revision of the Roman Missal following upon Vatican II, are, by scholarly standards, “organic” outgrowths of their predecessors. (In a future post, I hope to explore this in more detail.)

    But I make that assertion conscious that others hold contrary opinions, which I’m not afraid to engage in debate, fully aware that I may be wrong. I disagree with those who find one or another of the Episcopal rites (or one or another of the Roman uses or forms) to be inherently superior to the other (and take your pick, if you must). But I recognize that there are those who find the opposite to be the case, and I respect the convictions and scholarship that stand behind the opinions that they hold by right. While I may debate those opinions, strongly at times, I do so with the hope that all involved may find their own understanding of the liturgy and its history deepened and enlightened.

    But I cannot experience such deepening and enlightenment if I’m wrapped in a cocoon of absolute self-assurance, nor if I belittle and dismiss my potential dialogue partners along the way. And I see far too much of that in the field of liturgics — and far, far, far too much of it in comment boxes in blogs such as this!

    Charity above all, my friends, caritas super omnia.


  4. Cody, just a quick note to say I am grateful for your post. If you had only written, “We refuse to suggest that one style is more ‘authentic’ or more pleasing to God than another,” it would be easy to accuse you of condoning a liturgical free-for-all. But I know you better than that (insert a remembering smile here!), and you follow up that sentence with the crucial one: “Rather, we stress the point that all liturgy is about offering to God grateful praise and worship for the grace and salvation that we have received in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we make the best use of the various options open to us in our liturgical books to assist and equip as many people as possible to enter into that movement of thanksgiving and praise.” Your community seeks to offer right praise. The imagination they foster to seek what is right and good and holy without turning against one another in malicious defense of their own ideas is itself caritas enfleshed.

    I look forward to reading more, and to being involved in the already rich dialogue that is Pray Tell!

    Love and peace,

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