Brian McLaren on Identity and the Importance of Liturgy

Spectrum recently reported on the annual conference of the Association of Adventist Forums. Interfaith dialogue was a topic, and Brian McLaren a speaker. One of his talks was on identity and liturgy.

I commented rather late in the discussion; I post them here because I may want to expand upon these thoughts another time.

McLaren raises an interesting topic.

Let me begin by saying a bit about my present ministry context. I’m currently deployed as an Army chaplain to Kuwait. I’m the senior chaplain for our contemporary Protestant service, working with a Southern Baptist. I also do an Adventist service. I have supervised over the course of this deployment chaplains of various Protestant and Catholic faiths as well as Jewish and Wiccan Distinctive Faith Group Leaders. I’ve hosted a Jewish chaplain, and next month will host a Buddhist chaplain. I’m doing some interesting things in interfaith dialogue with Muslim leaders of partner nations.

McLaren follows those who define liturgy as “the work of the people”–I think a better translation is “public service”: it was originally what one did on behalf of the people. Liturgy, as it has come to be known in the Christian tradition, is the mix of how we worship, the rituals we follow, the times we set apart.

Baptism, like the mikvah, is a washing, a cleansing, that has taken on in Christ the added dimension of death to the old and rising to new life. It is a dividing line, marking entrance into the Christian community. At the same time it is an act of radical inclusion, leveling Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, as Paul tells the Galatians. Adventists have been skeptical of anything that smacks of ecumenism, but yet we accept as brothers and sisters in Christ those who are baptized, and welcome them all to the Lord’s Table. I can break bread here with my Southern Baptist brother, and celebrate the unity that we have. We are able to preach a series on the Ten Commandments, and touch on our differences, but do so in a Christian spirit.

But liturgy is a dividing line. Protestants do not share in the Roman Catholic liturgy, and are not invited to do so. Christians do not enter into prayer together with Muslims at the masjid, but (hopefully) can affirm that we both pray to the God who was invoked by Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Jesus.

Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians in the 70s came very close to having a common liturgy–at least they were using the same texts for the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. But this was shattered in the last couple of decades by the ELCA and ECUSA insistence on degendering God (turning from Trinitarian faith to Sabellian formulations such as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier”) and redefining sexuality, and by the Roman liturgical renaissance that insisted on absolutely strict translations of the Latin.

Liturgy was at the heart of the Reformation split. Is the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice the priest offers to God on behalf of the people, or is it a word of promise proclaimed by God to the people (Luther)? Are we free to use whatever forms we come up with (including the historic liturgy, purged of sacrificial elements–as Luther insisted), or must we only do those things specifically prescribed by the Biblical text (which is why Zwingli and Calvin banned instrumental music and used only the psalter)?

In today’s postmodern age, folks are picking and choosing from traditions that speak to them–and finding that tradition does indeed speak. Thus we find thousands of young adults at GYC wearing ties and dresses and singing traditional Advent hymns instead of charismatic praise choruses. And we find Reform Jews wanting to use Hebrew in liturgy, and young Roman Catholics who love the Latin mass, and the rosary, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We find Roman Catholics and evangelicals speaking of Sabbath rest, and of sanctified time (à la Abraham Joshua Heschel).

Can Adventists welcome the Sabbath on Friday night by turning off the TV and radio and lighting candles and singing hymns of welcoming the Sabbath queen (as in Judaism)? (Without having to adopt all the Jewish festivals that some want to push on us). Can we lift up a single cup at the Lord’s Table, and share a common loaf, instead of individual sanitized cups and pieces of cracker, without being suspected of being “Catholic”? Can we acknowledge that we have a Eucharistic liturgy–it includes confession and forgiveness and rituals (footwashing, deaconesses with black dresses and white gloves, carefully folded linens, ceremonial handing of trays from pastor to elder to deacon to people)?

But a word of caution–We must see that the faith confessed and the way we worship are inseparable. The historic principle is, “Lex orandi, lex credendi”–the law of praying is the law of belief. I am troubled that some who are seeking worship with other faiths and having more uniformity in liturgy are the same folks who say ancient formulations of faith are meaningless. Liturgy becomes an aesthetic that gives individual inspiration, and is not the common worship of a believing community. It is a structure for subjectivism, and could lead to syncretism and idolatry (“Oh, we all worship the same divine reality, which is beyond our words and our imaginings, and all these things are human constructs, and let’s just celebrate what we have in common”). The Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet will come together one day, and will succeed in uniting the world in worship–at the same time that God’s faithful call all to true worship of the Lamb, who alone is worthy.