At the request of PrayTell’s editor, I visited Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland so as to be able to offer my impressions of the liturgy there and how it fit with the vision outlined in Rebuilt, which Scott Pluff has reviewed on this blog. I visited three times (taking my 17-year-old along on two occasions) and watched the live stream twice, in part because I felt that I did not simply want to do a “Mystery Worshipper” style snapshot (as entertaining as these might be), but attend enough to try to get a feel for how the liturgy expressed the ethos of the community. All the liturgies that I attended or watched streamed were the 5:30 Sunday evening Mass, but as Michael White and Tom Corcoran note in Rebuilt, all the liturgies as Nativity are in the same style and have the same “message” (i.e. homily) each week, so I presume my experience would not have been much different at other Masses. I will first describe the setting and music and how the liturgy unfolded, and them make some general observations.
The first thing that struck me at Nativity was how easy it was to park; there is a ministry of parking attendants with orange vests and flags who direct you to a parking space. There was also always someone stationed at the door to greet you as you arrived. As Rebuilt makes clear, the “weekend experience” begins as soon as someone arrives on campus, and Nativity clearly seeks to make that arrival as pleasant as possible.
The liturgical space of Nativity is a not-very inspiring 70s building, with no windows except for a wall of dark stained glass on the wall behind the congregation. Apart from a large crucifix behind the altar and Stations of the Cross along the walls, there was no iconography or images that I could see in the church. There are plans for a new church that can be seen on the parish’s capital campaign website. Unlike some recent church construction projects, the folks at Nativity are determined that their new church will be in a clearly modern style.
The lighting throughout the liturgy was quite dim in the area where the congregation sat, with dramatic lighting on either the altar platform or the worship band that was to the right of the altar, depending on which was the focus at that moment. The altar was covered with a frontal that fell on all four sides and the presider sat at right angles to the altar, more like the traditional sedilla than the modern presider’s chair. There were two large screens on either side of the altar that served various functions throughout the liturgy. Before Mass began, they were used for the announcements, which were more like ads than announcements: prerecorded videos in which information was delivered succinctly and professionally (unlike most parish announcements). These, combined with the website, take the place of a printed bulletin.
In Rebuilt, White and Corcoran place a great emphasis on music and congregational singing.They are quite explicit that the style of music itself is secondary to it being music that the unchurched can connect with. In the case of Nativity, the music was led by a band consisting of three guitars, drums, bass, keyboards, and a female vocalist (who mainly added harmonies to the lead male vocalist). They were very professional, playing upbeat Christian rock (it reminded me of a somewhat less gritty U2—Chris Tomlin’s “Let God Arise,” which I heard on a couple of occasions, will give you a sense of the style of much of the music). While I wouldn’t describe the volume of the musicians as rock-concert-loud, it was higher than I am used to in a church.
The band led the opening song, and I would rate the congregation’s level of audible participation about average for east coast Catholic parishes (i.e. not so great). After the opening song, during which the celebrant entered along with two servers (at all the Masses I attended, high school-aged boys) in cassock and cotta, the Mass began as usual with the sign of the cross and the greeting. Because the leaders at Nativity are explicit about how much they have learned from “seeker-friendly” evangelical mega churches, one might expect that the celebrant would adopt a folksy or casual style. But Fr. White, who presided at all the Masses I either attended or watched, has a very dignified and reserved liturgical presence—not at all the smarmy liturgical talk show host who afflicted some Catholic liturgies in the 70s and 80s (and occasionally even today). While the Nativity parishioners whom I know think very highly of Fr. White, there is nothing about his style of presiding that calls attention to himself.
He is also quite brisk; the pacing of the liturgy was almost breathless. There were very few pauses in the liturgy and if the homily had lasted the six minutes common in some parishes then the whole thing would probably been over in 45 minutes. In Tools for Rebuilding—the follow up to Rebuilt—White and Corcoran talking about the need for pacing in the liturgy. In that book Fr. White recounts an anecdote about visiting a parish where everything stopped while the lector and then the cantor made the long journey to the ambo, indicating that such pauses in the liturgy are unnecessary and even self-indulgent. He contrasts these with purposeful pauses, but I did not see a lot of evidence of these in the liturgies I attended.
After the penitential rite—form C, spoken, at all the Masses I attended—we sang the Gloria from the Mass of St. Anne by Ed Bolduc, which was done in a way that fit the general groove of the music (groovier than recordings I have heard of this piece). Congregational singing on this was a notch or two higher in volume, perhaps because repetition had made it so familiar. For the opening prayer, Fr. White turned to face the crucifix on the wall behind the altar (he did this also for the Creed and prayer after communion). I don’t know if this was a conscious attempt to incorporate the ad orientem posture into the liturgy, or was simply dictated by the position of the altar server holding the book.
Before the Liturgy of the Word began, a brief video announcement invited parents with small children to go with them to an area outside the main body of the church where they could watch the liturgy on video screens, noting that they would be more comfortable there. I wondered if I would have felt pressured to absent myself if I had small children. The Director of Communications for the parish was the lector at all the Masses I attended or watched. She was a very good reader: clear and expressive without being overly dramatic. I do not know if she serves the same function at the other weekend Masses. The responsorial psalm on all occasions was simply the refrain, a single psalm verse, and the refrain repeated, not lasting more than a minute and a half. The alleluia featured an electric guitar fill that made my 17-year-old snicker, but the congregation seemed to join in with a bit more gusto than on the other songs. The alleluia was repeated after the Gospel.
Rebuilt places an emphasis on preaching and the need for messages that are well-crafted and relevant to people’s lives. At Nativity, the messages are grouped into theme-based series that are planned by the staff. This is common in evangelical churches that do not follow a lectionary, and one might think that this would lead to neglect of the Scripture readings in the Lectionary for the sake of the series’ theme. But it seemed to me that the staff at Nativity has planned their series carefully to grow from the Lectionary readings themselves.
At the three Masses I attended the pastor, Michael White, gave the message, while at the two that I watched streamed one of the lay staff gave the message at the end of Mass, with Fr. White giving a very brief scripture reflection at the time of the homily. As described in Rebuilt, the message was very practically oriented, offering ordinary people concrete advice and encouragement on how the Gospel could make a difference in their lives. Those giving the message made use of a screen that displayed specific passages that they wished to speak about. Fr. White’s preaching style, like his liturgical style, is low key: he made some use of self-deprecating humor, but there were no histrionics. I found the preaching to be very good. The lay staff members who gave the message at the end of Mass were also good speakers, though perhaps not quite as good as Fr. White.
The only real pause—about 30 seconds—came between the message and the brisk recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, the words of which were projected on the screens. The prayer of the faithful was again led by the parish’s Communications Director and consisted of five or so briefly stated petitions. After the concluding prayer, the band cranked up and the collection was taken and the altar prepared. If there was a procession of representatives of the faithful with the gifts of bread and wine, I missed it.
After the prayer over the gifts we were into the Eucharistic Prayer (no. II at all the Masses I attended). At all of the Masses the preface concluded with the unaccompanied singing of Sanctus XVIII in Latin, led by the bandleader. The effect was a startling shift of tone (though the pace was still brisk, which I happen to like for chant—it doesn’t have to feel like a dirge). Also, for the first time I could really hear the assembly singing. It wasn’t thunderous, but it was respectably robust. We sat after the Sanctus, presumably because Nativity has no kneelers (though I think in such cases standing is preferred). The memorial acclamation was sung unaccompanied in English to the Missal chant and the Amen was a threefold chant that seemed to be based on the Sanctus melody. The Lord’s Prayer was also sung unaccompanied to the well-known Snow setting (the celebrant chanted neither the introduction nor the embolism—in fact, he didn’t sing any of his parts) and I noticed that even those who were tight-lipped throughout all the other music joined in on this. The sign of peace was relatively brief, though people seemed warm and friendly. We were quickly into Agnus Dei XVIII and again the assembly was quite audible.
After the invitation to communion the band switched back into Christian rock mode. I saw no particular connection between the texts of the songs and the liturgical action (i.e. references to Christ’s body and blood, or tasting and seeing the goodness of the Lord). Eucharistic ministers appeared immediately, though I’m not sure from where. I am guessing that they must have received communion before they began distributing it, but it was done in some way that was not obvious to me. Communion was given only under the form of bread and, as will by this point come as no surprise, was accomplished quickly. There was no significant pause after communion before the post communion prayer, which the assembly sat for. There were brief announcements made by one or more staff members; this was the only part that felt a little bit like talk show shtick, with the celebrant and announcers trading light banter. But, as with all things at Nativity, it was disciplined in its execution and kept brief. After the blessing and dismissal (“Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”—quite fitting given Nativity’s focus on seeking “the lost”), the band performed a final song. On at least a couple of occasions the celebrant stayed at the front of the Church throughout the song rather than heading for an exit for the traditional paraliturgy of handshake-thanks-for-coming-have-a-good-day.
The liturgies I attended at Nativity prompted many thoughts about what this particular parish is trying to accomplish, how the liturgy fits into that mission, and the nature of liturgy in general. Let me say that in general what the people of Nativity have accomplished is impressive and there is much to learn from them. Whatever misgivings I voice in what follows should be seen in light of my acknowledgement of the manifest work of the Spirit at Nativity.
What stands out most vividly in my experience at Nativity is the overwhelming presence of THE SCREENS (something about their size seems to call for the caps lock). They served the practical purpose of providing text (but no music) for the songs, the Creed, and some of the responses. But they also displayed a video feed of the liturgy itself. Because the congregation is essentially in darkness, one’s eyes are irresistibly drawn to whatever is being shown on THE SCREENS (not unlike being at the suburban multiplex). Even when I was only a few pews back from the sanctuary (I sat in different parts of the church on my different visits), and the lights over the altar were on full, I would find myself looking at the virtual celebrant on THE SCREENS rather than at the celebrant himself, at the virtual lector rather than the lector herself. This led to a feeling of disengagement from the liturgical action, which I suspect is the exact opposite of what THE SCREENS were meant to effect.
Even more problematic for me was the projection of the band (along with the lyrics) on THE SCREENS during the songs. Partly because the camera work is fairly sophisticated, I felt as if I were watching a music video (complete with the near-clichés of the drummer’s foot on the pedal of the bass drum and the lead guitarist’s hands as he rips into a hot riff). Particularly given Fr. White’s reserved presidential style, this gave the musicians a prominence that made it difficult to see them as servants at the liturgy rather than as performers at a concert.
As a testimony to the significance of THE SCREENS in the experience of liturgy at Nativity, I find that in thinking back on the three liturgies I attended and the two that I watched streamed online, I have trouble keeping them straight in my mind, largely because my eyes were focused on THE SCREENS even when I was physically present, making the two experiences eerily alike. Indeed, the darkened church and the illuminated screens ended up making me feel profoundly isolated from my fellow worshippers, as if I were watching the liturgy on my laptop at home. For all of Nativity’s laudable concern to seek out the lost and to welcome the stranger, I found the experience of the liturgy itself a bit lonely.
That being said, Fr. White made good use of the screen next to him during the homily to point to particular verses of the text he was discussing, giving his preaching a more expository style than is usually found in Catholic preaching. To my mind, this is a good thing and inasmuch as it is facilitated by the technology that is a good thing as well.
Music, Participation, and the Disciplina Arcana
Though Rebuilt stresses the importance of getting the congregation singing, and the virtues of Contemporary Christian Music in achieving that aim, I did not find the level of congregational singing notably different from other parishes in the northeast, which means that on most of the music most of the people were not singing. Or maybe they were singing and I just could not here them due to the volume of the band. I did not myself find that the style of music made me want to participate. This might be because I’m a snob who simply doesn’t like Christian rock (I endorse heartily the immortal dictum of Hank Hill: “You’re not making Christianity better; you’re just making rock n’ roll worse”), but I also think that this form of music more performance-oriented than participation-oriented, with the syncopations typical of pop music making participation difficult and the volume of the musicians making participation irrelevant (to Fr. Ruff’s complaint I might add “and so is the band!”). Some songs did feature the kind of fist-pumping choruses that I associate with arena rock, but somehow I couldn’t quite bring myself to belt out “Let God arise!” This may just be my issue, though I didn’t notice many other people belting either.
The use of chant for the Eucharistic Acclamations, the Our Father, and the Agnus Dei was an interesting choice. Because these were sung a capella the assembly was far more audible than on the Contemporary Christian Music. I also happen to prefer this musically to most of the rest of what was on offer. But it also seemed somehow to isolate the liturgy of the Eucharist from the rest of the liturgy. Perhaps this is a good thing, highlighting the importance of the sacrament, but I could not help but feel as if something was out of joint. It pointed up for me the difficulties Catholics face in trying to adapt the “seeker-friendly” approach to worship of some evangelical churches. The primary form of worship for Catholics—the Eucharist—is not by its nature “seeker-friendly.” It is an arcane ritual for insiders (thus the Early Church’s disciplina arcana), from which the uninitiated were traditionally excluded. The use of chant (and Latin!) for the Eucharistic liturgy at Nativity seems to recognize this. But because it was embedded in what was essentially a seeker-friendly evangelical service, the effect was somewhat jarring. If Contemporary Christian Music says “you are welcome here,” does chant say, “this is not for you”?
The Ideals of the Liturgical Movement and Reform
Almost all the garden variety Catholics I have spoken to about the liturgy at Nativity have characterized it as “very modern” or “progressive,” but this clearly doesn’t not mean the same thing that a professional liturgy geek would mean by those terms. I was struck by the absence of certain features of post-conciliar Catholic liturgy that many PrayTell readers would take to be the gold standard of the reformed liturgy. For example:
- Instead of a responsorial psalm we had something more akin to the pre-conciliar graduale in both form (antiphon, psalm verse, antiphon) and function (a musical interlude between readings rather than a proclamation of the Word of God).
- The same member of the parish staff was the lector at every Mass, rather than different members of the assembly taking this role. Perhaps this indicates that the active role of the laity in liturgical ministry is seen as less important than having the Word proclaimed effectively (though in my experience these two values do not have to be in competition with each other).
- There was no presentation of the gifts of bread and wine by members of the assembly, though this is commended by the GIRM (no. 140) and was one of the earliest ways in which pioneers of the liturgical movement sought to involve the assembly in the liturgy.
- Communion was offered only under the form of bread. Opening up the possibility of offering communion under both species was one of the most radical reforms of Vatican II (matched perhaps only by the allowance of the vernacular), reversing what had been a norm for 800 years and moving Catholic practice closer not only to the primitive Church but also to Orthodox and Protestant Christians. I do not know why Nativity does not offer the cup to the assembly. Perhaps it is the expedient of keeping things moving (though I have never noticed communion under both species taking longer, provided there are sufficient ministers). Perhaps it is simply not important to their parishioners or even confuses the seekers who come to them.
A reduction of psalmody to a single verse, the restriction of the reading of scripture to a religious “professional,” no presentation of the gifts by the laity, communion under one species: one might argue that the liturgy at Nativity is in some ways more akin to the pre-conciliar liturgy than to the post-conciliar.
At the same time, the liturgy at Nativity might prompt questions concerning some practices that have been thought to go without saying on the post-conciliar liturgical scene. Have we so focused on the liturgical ministry of a few lay people such as lectors and cantors and Eucharistic ministers that we have forgotten that the liturgy ought to feed the laity so that they can carry out their own distinctive ministry in the world? Have we sought to revive practices, like the responsorial psalm or communion under both species, that are irrelevant to and undesired by most Catholics, not to mention “the lost” that are the primary target of ministry at Nativity? To answer such a challenge, one would have to argue that such practices have an intrinsic value, whether or not they are relevant to or desired by the people in the pews, a value that would make it worth the trouble to convince those in the pews of their relevance and desirability.
Timonium Tim and Inculturation
The liturgy at Nativity might be viewed as an exercise in liturgical inculturation. The culture of postmodern suburban American—the culture of “Timonium Tim”—determines the style if not the substance of Mass at Nativity. Of course, the difficulty with all liturgical inculturation is 1) how does one determine what the salient features of the target culture actually are and 2) to what degree should liturgy adapt to culture and to what degree should it resist or transform culture?
White and Corcoran make clear in Rebuilt that someone like me—an over-educated aesthete who has spent the past 30-some years hanging around Catholic churches and has a set of pretty strong opinions about liturgy (nota bene: my self-description, not theirs)—is not their target audience. They are seeking “Timonium Tim”—“the lost,” who do not come to Church with a predetermined set of expectations, or maybe only the expectation that it will be stuffy and dull and irrelevant. But “Timonium Tim” is, as White and Corcoran undoubtedly know, a fiction. Postmodern suburbanites are not a monolithic mass. Indeed, one of the key features of postmodern culture is its seeming diversity and fragmentation. Though there is perhaps a deep unity to our common identity as consumers, the cultural artifacts that we consume are incredibly diverse. If one decides on what music to use in the liturgy by asking (as White and Corcoran do), “what does Timonium Tim listen to on his iPod?” there really is no one answer (except, maybe, “Almost surely not Contemporary Christian Music”). People listen to all sorts of things on their iPods. They watch all sorts of television shows (I found myself trying to imagine what a liturgy done in the style of True Detective would be like). They have a dizzying array of family structures and ideas about child rearing. Some are even snobby liturgical aesthetes.
Clearly liturgy cannot simply reflect culture, but must also create culture. Is the liturgy at Nativity doing this? White and Corcoran speak (to my ear) somewhat dismissively of “churchpeople” who live in “churchland.” These are those who feel comfortable with terms like “homily” rather than “message”, “RCIA” rather than “Vantage Point,” “Sunday obligation” rather than “weekend experience.” They like things like the Easter Vigil and the Stations of the Cross; words like “novena” and “sodality” trip off their tongues; they enjoy architecture and music that reminds them that they are part of a two-thousand year-old tradition. Perhaps, as Rebuilt at times implies, these are simply people for who Catholicism has become a tribal identity, who care nothing about the lost that Christ would have us seek. But perhaps at least some of these “churchpeople” are those who have been inculturated into the rich tradition of Catholicism and want to pass that along to others. Undoubtedly they are still, in some complex way, postmodern suburbanites. But they are also something else, something that creates friction with their postmodern suburban identity.
I believe that the leadership at Nativity welcomes that friction; indeed, they wish to foster it. They want to resist the consumer culture that not only surrounds but also pervades the Church. They want to, as they put it, “make Church matter,” while rejecting a hermetically sealed “churchland.” I wonder, however, if their dismissal of “churchpeople” and “churchland” is too cavalier. Perhaps, rather than rejecting a pathology in Christ’s body—those who think they somehow “own” the Church and who want to keep trespassers off their property—they are instead rejecting a set of valuable resources for forming Christian identity over and against the culture of consumerism.
All of this is, of course, simply a manifestation of an enduring tension within the process of liturgical inculturation. How do you make Church matter to Timonium Tim without pandering to him, so as to turn him into a consumer? To what extent is it desirable, or even possible, to make Christian liturgical celebration look like, sound like, feel like, a culture’s other forms of celebration? Or does the liturgy inevitable mark out its own space—churchland—populated by its own strange citizens—churchpeople?