Liturgical Formation in the Body of Christ: a Canadian Experiment

In essays, books, presentations, and here in the blog world of Pray Tell, we have had frequent opportunity to read, learn, and teach about how liturgy is formational in Christian belief and practice. A lot of my own energy and focus has, of late, gone into figuring out effective ways to raise up liturgical leaders who will not only be immersed in the hows and whys of liturgy, but will be able to catechize by example, practice, and words why what we do ritually and sacramentally are of the essence of our ecclesial being.

Several years ago at the Montreal gathering of Societas Liturgica, I proposed a rather old-fashioned return to the importance of practicing catechesis with the adult members of our communities. I meant “catechesis” as “an introduction to the whole of the gospel proclamation, an echo of the gospel in word and action, and ‘a sense of the interrelatedness of Christian mysteries’ from their central realities out through an ancillary web. The presumption that all baptized individuals (or even those simply present in the building) are catechized is not valid – we know better – hence the pleas for a systematic and varied formation by means of immersion in the mysteries at the heart of our Christian lives.” (Presidential Address, 2015) But the reflection I keep going back to is actually an insight from Don Saliers, who proposed that the “opposite of mystery is ‘self-preoccupation'” (Worship and Spirituality, 16). Not everyone who studies alone, reads alone, writes alone is ‘self-preoccupied’ – that is not the suggestion I am making, but as the models for preparing candidates for ordination spin outward into many different forms of education and formation, how can the intensity of formation not be ‘self-preoccupation’ for those individuals, but rather the “other-preoccupation” of mystery? And how might that extend to catechesis for all the people of God?

With help from administration, university, and willing ‘guinea pigs’, we’ve just begun an experiment of what this might look like. I teach in Canada – a large country geographically with fewer people than the state of California. In other words – great distances between many faithful Christians, very few scholars of liturgy, and not many theological schools and centres which might offer theological education and models of catechesis. At the same time, individuals doing course work online formally or through local ministry training schemes often work in isolation, and many others without the computer know-how or basic theological background (or university academic experience) can be intimidated by what appears to be such an unfamiliar world. So, this is our experiment: First, an MDiv level course for free! Second, a course that is both in person and simultaneously online via Zoom. Third, a course designed for parish groups (at least one priest and several parishioners). The focus is on Canadian Anglican parishes, and the content is first the history and theology of the rites of Christian initiation, followed by a ritual and pastoral series of workshops on the progressive rituals and theology of the catechumenate.

Believing firmly that the catechumenate can change the church – especially in a post-Christian world where all the churches, but here particularly, the Anglican Church of Canada which stands in need of catechesis on who it is and what it is called to do – we propose that an extended and indepth study of the longer view of how Christians have responded to the call of God and are formed in the “mind of Christ” might begin to unteach the classroom approach of teaching the occasional adult ‘convert’ and move us all to something new. It puts clergy on the spot – many of whom will be studying the topic along with parishioners for the first time. It provides built-in groups for conversation and reflection inbetween the weekly class sessions. It allows multiple parish groups (eight at the moment) to see and meet and experience the larger church – something often out of grasp in the “creeping congregationalism” that comes from geographical isolation. if parish groups study – really study – the historical development of a process of coming to Christ, and experience a taste of what that looks and feels and sounds and tastes like, might they also see in their tradition the dynamism of all Christian formation – that we are never completely formed, that sacraments are both moments and thresholds into a lifetime of formational richness and movement?

The catechumenate calls the whole baptized assembly to be “stewards of the mysteries” – to hear the stories of God working in the lives of those drawn to the body of Christ, to tell the stories of God to those who are eager to hear, and in reliving the stories to fall in love with God again. The mysteries of real presence and real absence, the already and the not yet, join the nagging mystery that perhaps the ‘subjectification of reality’ is not the only truth – that we are more together, more in the image of God together than we might be as an individual. In a world of documented loneliness and isolation the church has so much to offer, not just in human companionship, but in union with a God who is always in divine communion.

These are our hopes and aspirations – we’ll let you know in April how the experience of the experiment went. In the meantime, what are your new songs, new ways of rekindling the desire for God within our Christian communities?

Featured image: fourth-century marble baptismal font in Paros, today in the Ekatonpiliani Church, Greece,

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