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The Rev. Terry Gleeson, Priest for Liturgy and Formation, Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, Texas, Province VII (Southwest)

The Rev. Terry Gleeson

In The Practicing Congregation, Diana Butler Bass tells the story of the resistance she once encountered when trying to schedule an Advent program in the parish hall. The annual parish Christmas bazaar had been held in the hall since the 1950s, and in relocating it to the gymnasium, she was accused of not caring about “tradition.” This prompted Diana Butler Bass, a church historian by training, to distinguish between custom and tradition. Advent as a time for prayer, reflection and study was the tradition of the Church; the Christmas bazaar was a local custom.

Wherever there is ‘church,’ inevitably there is an amalgam of tradition and customs. In recent decades, one of the rich areas of study, experimentation and development has been the inculturation of liturgy — incorporating local languages, symbols, objects, images, and dress into the universal framework of liturgy. This has been a source of enormous spiritual enrichment for many people — a friend from Zambia remembers being moved to tears when she first saw a depiction of a black Jesus, for example. 

But the challenge in adopting local customs is not to allow them to mask the original core tradition; where priests and people dancing around the altar could enrich the tradition almost anywhere in Africa, it might give pause in Westminster Abbey. What is true of the global church is just as true of local churches; even within the same diocese there is often a wide range of practices, accrued over the years within different parishes, that sometimes enhance, and sometimes conflict with our ancient and shared tradition. Discerning between what is essential and what is clutter is one of the perennial challenges of sound liturgical reasoning.

Customs observed in local churches usually arise to serve good purposes — to make the liturgy more efficient, more uniform, more aesthetically appealing, more reflective of the congregation. Some are harmless, some silly, some funny. I remember, on my first Pentecost as rector, being nonplussed by the choir processing in, all wearing red hats. Others are more problematic. One custom, for example, might be regularly consecrating and keeping in reserve many hosts, and then routinely drawing on this reserved sacrament at celebrations of the Sunday Eucharist. This carries some appeal because it reduces the risk of running out at Communion and makes the Fraction — when chalices and patens are filled ­— faster. 

Consider, however, the deeper tradition. In the early church, and still, holy Communion was taken home to the sick at the end of the service; to this day, that remains the principal reason why we reserve the Sacrament, to unite the absent sick with the worshiping community, the Body of Christ. Remember that for the early Church, the purpose of the Sunday Eucharist was to unify the assembly of believers through remembering together the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Participation in the eucharistic meal was to serve that end ­­— that is why Paul writes to the Corinthians “we are one body because we all share in the one bread and the one cup.” Receiving Communion, then, was the completion of a course of instruction, prayer, thanksgiving, and praise, and the impetus for being sent back into the world. That is also why the very first Book of Common Prayer instructs ministers to prepare enough bread and wine for all the persons receiving Holy Communion, clearly not anticipating drawing on any reserved Sacrament.

From this one simple example, it becomes clear how knowing the tradition can both correct the custom and deepen the spiritual experience. The purpose of the Sunday Eucharist is not to fill up or empty the aumbry — ideally should have nothing to do with the reserved Sacrament! — but rather be complete in itself, grounded in full participation by the worshiping community.

Whatever we do together as a liturgical church, asking “Why?” — and not just once, but over and over again — can take us beyond the customs we have all inherited to discover the richness of our shared tradition. Asking ‘why do we light and extinguish candles in a certain way?’ won’t lead to any great discoveries, but asking ‘why do we carry the Gospels in procession?’ takes us back to pre-Christian magistrates processing into the courthouse — the basilica — preceded by torches and the Liber Mandatorum. When the courthouse became a church and the magistrate a bishop, the book of laws became the Book of the Gospels, and the Gospel procession was born. 

Asking ‘why do we fold the corporal into nine squares and unfold it in a set way?’ takes us back to the time when the paten was ‘hidden’ at the Offertory and the host placed directly on the corporal, as specified in the very first Book of Common Prayer. The corporal was folded carefully to collect any fragments of the consecrated host that may have fallen during the fraction. But even before that, the great Anglican liturgical scholar, Dom Gregory Dix, recognized in the corporal the tablecloth that from the earliest times was spread to receive the oblations. In some such homely form, he wrote, this little ceremony must go back to the very beginnings of the liturgical Eucharist. 

Asking ‘Why?’ then, can take us back through the centuries, and transform what seemed to be just choreography or laundry into profound connections with the primitive Christian community, and indeed with Christ himself.

Finally, every aspect of the liturgy sends a message, from the greeting people receive when they arrive, to the reverence with which people and things are treated, the state of the linens and vessels and vestments, the preparedness and authenticity of the ministers….and so, we need to consider again and again what message we are sending in all our actions, particularly our local customs. It’s why the English theologian Thomas O’Loughlin has warned against the ‘stickiness’ of ritual, how things tend to get added and then stay — a special prayer is added and is never dropped, an extra table is brought in and never leaves, vases stay on the altar with or without flowers, a hymn gets repeated until it must always be sung (think the Doxology!) This is the stickiness of ritual, he writes, that makes it steadily expand in complexity and details, and involve ever more odds and ends that do not really fit with what we claim as the rationale for what we do. 

Imagine taking everything out of the church, out of the sanctuary, out of the sacristy, out of the liturgy, and putting back only what had a purpose. Imagine asking ‘Why?’ about every ritual action, every movement, every piece of furniture, and being enlightened and enriched by what is revealed. 

It’s possible!

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