Wednesday, April 15, 2009

C. S. Lewis's "Malcolm on Prayer" -- Letter 1 on Liturgy

As much of a C.S. Lewis fan as I am, it's odd that I haven't until now got around to reading "Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer". Somehow I acquired some funny ideas about it decades ago. It wasn't published until after Lewis's death, and I acquired the impression that it was one of those books literary executors will put out after someone dies by slapping together any few pages of fragmentary documents they can slap together out of the deceased's file of Bad Ideas And Abandoned Projects To Be Forgotten. I also got the impression that there was a real Malcolm and thought that the letters might be filled with discussions of this Malcolm's difficulties with the trams not running according to schedule and how hard it is to get a proper cuppa tea nowadays. Skimming Google reviews, it seems one otherwise serious reader somehow did get the idea that these were real letters addressed to Malcolm Muggeridge.

The letters are mostly about private prayer; but in the first letter Lewis chooses to discuss the "almost nothing to say" he has about liturgy. In 6 short pages he touches on every major theme and controversy which the Anglican Church worldwide has, unbeknownst to Lewis, struggled with over the last 45 years.

As ANiC and ACNA begin the process of deciding what they are to do about their diverse liturgies, this is an appropriate time to look at what Lewis has to say about the subject. Lewis had much to say for uniformity in liturgy:
I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.
To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications amd complications of the service.

Lewis was spared in his own lifetime the years of liturgical experimentation that led to the creation of the various books of alternative services. Any week one might come to church and find in the pews some grubbily photocopied version of a new experimental rite that the liturgicists were "trying out". Those days are over now. The main danger in this area comes from those who believe that language simplifications, scrubbing of theology, and forced artificial informality are, along with tambourines, rock bands, strobe lights and liturgical dance, the way to attract young people to church. The continual failure of such methods to do any such thing never deters such folks. The main sufferers from this disease are parents unwilling to face the facts that their teenagers are not anxious to go to church because they are not Christians. And in any case, as Lewis says, people do not go to church to be entertained. Lewis identifies another of the defects of continuing liturgical novelty:
Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, "What on earth is he up to now?" will intrude.
The crucial question about liturgy is: why have one? This is relevant to ANiC because of its heavy charismatic influence and the charismatic emphasis on spontaneity and ecstatic expression. The charge of such against liturgy is that worshippers merely sleepwalk through a service, mouthing familiar terms in an exercise of empty formality. In Letter 1 Lewis puts the other side:
"Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best -- if you like it "works" best--when through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance....The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
A typically brilliant summing up of a position -- but are there not many things our attention is focused on during a service besides being simply and directly on God?


David said...

I was under the impression that "Malcolm" was a fictional device Lewis used; it's been years since I read the book, though, so I could be wrong.

I would love to see an exchange of letters between Muggeridge and Lewis - shame it never happened.

My parish is charismatic and, interestingly, we have been using the BCP quite a lot of late; of course, we have to keep the rock band - I'm even in it.

I do think that attempting to make the liturgy accessible to the unchurched is worthwhile and in the spirit of Cranmer. The mistake churches like the ACoC make is conforming doctrine to current cultural biases.

Personally, I like the combination of charismatic spontaneity and liturgy; the two are not mutually exclusive.

Warren said...

I find your suggestion that the charismatic movement has had a heavy influence on the ANiC rather baffling. I was raised in the PAOC and my mother exposed me to a wide range of charismatic "experiences" (outside of the PAOC) as I was growing up. This included visits to a charismatic Anglican church in Vancouver (I forget the name) that had been influenced by the movement started by Dennis Bennett in the 1960s. I still have his book, Nine O'Clock in the Morning, lying around somewhere.

At most, I would say the charismatic influence on the ANiC has been modest and I suspect that the majority of people who are now part of the ANiC likely have little idea of what the Charismatic movement was/is all about. "Real" charismatics would probably find your connection between Anglicans and ecstatic expression to be a bit of a howler.

I have no desire to return to my charismatic roots, but I became convinced of the value of liturgy because of much more logical and compelling reasons than that it was a bastion against charismatic expressions.

Ultimately, however, I am concerned with worshipping in a biblical and God-sanctioned manner - regardless of what form that may take. My personal preferences in the matter (and I have them) don't count for much.

As I've grown older, and hopefully more mature in my faith, I've increasingly realized that I need to fight against my nature and be prepared to make concessions regarding styles and forms of worship for the good of the body as a whole.

I agree with David's comment that charismatic spontaneity and liturgy do not need to be mutually exclusive.