A couple days ago at the American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead wrote a good piece about the growing interest among young Christians in higher forms of liturgy. “Why Millenials Long for Liturgy” argues that this liturgical attraction is driven by “a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age,” and an “ache for sacramentality.”
Desires and yearnings do in many ways drive us. But as Olmstead’s three anecdotes tell us, many of these young Christians aren’t so much spurred by a vacuity of experiential meaning in more contemporary liturgical forms (or anti-forms). In fact, one of her interviewees
argues that such stylistic treatments dodge the real question: the issues of church authority behind the traditional liturgy [my emphasis]. Cone says he sees “a sincere expression of gratitude and study” from his Protestant friends. But, he adds, “When I look at a Protestant service, it lacks the mystery and power of the body of Christ. . . . The whole life of the church, the prayers of the desert fathers, the blood of the martyrs, is more intimately connected in the Orthodox life than a mere stylistic change that a Protestant church can do.”
I think the more intellectual questions about forms of worship are at least as important if not more so than the desire for liturgical experience, and I’m not quite sure that Olmstead takes into account the implications of this thought. To counter anecdote with anecdote, many young Christians of my acquaintance first find solace in higher liturgical forms because of their historical and intellectual coherence. Each word, each hymn, each action, and each rite of a high liturgy has immense meaning, grounded in the history and doctrine of the Church.
Higher liturgy emphasizes objectivity in worship and thus a more objective connection with God. Subjective experiences of spiritual union with God are wonderful gifts, but for most of us not the stuff of everyday life. In the context of a liturgical service, Christians offer praise and worship regardless of their current psychological state. Liturgy both takes the pressure off the moment and supplies concrete means to pursue that perfect union with God over time.
In other words, higher liturgy explicitly links orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Sacramental yearning translates into a life of faith and practice in the space between knowing the objective reality of the presence of God in the sacraments and failing to appropriately respond with the will and affections. Yes, we seek a “mysterious truth,” but it’s a knowledge of the hard and tried truths, of the objective reality of the grand mysteries of Revelation, that grounds much of the contemporary appreciation of these higher liturgical forms; feelings may or may not follow. In my experience, they sometimes do and they sometimes don’t; but as soon as I’ve made spiritual experience my aim, worship is empty. The beautiful music, ornate vestments, sweet-smelling incense, and if you’re particularly blessed, high-soaring architecture and otherworldly stained-glass windows, serve to draw us through our faculties towards a more unified and internally consistent devotion to God. We practice becoming a house undivided; a temple built in the image of God.
Higher liturgical forms offer “a sense of community,” but community is not the reason people turn to liturgy; as C. S. Lewis says, “You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.” In contemporary Christian circles, liturgy allows us to love our neighbor and worship with him without having to undergo the occasionally tortuous “fellowship” events that often seem to take community as their primary goal. Deep friendships and sacrificial charity rightly flow from liturgical union, but to think such friendships are the core of Christian communities is to miss the point. Friendships, like subjective experiences of God’s love or of communal belonging, are not things for the Church to formally pursue; these things occur by the grace of God in specific instances.
One of the commenters on Olmstead’s piece responded with the criticism, “What I’m seeing is ‘Sunday Morning Christianity,’ an emphasis on marvelous service, great experience, see you next week.” I’m worried that he is right if young Christians are returning to higher liturgies simply because they offer a greater subjective sense of experiential meaning. Thankfully, this does not seem to be the case.