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A Mighty Fortress

On the liturgy wars.


My dad built a house among the pines and birch of the Minnesota Northwoods. He planted white pine, balsam fir, white spruce, red pine, and eastern white cedar around the yard, trees that would grow with my brother and me, and overtake us. We were still small in those years, not big enough to traipse across the wide lawn by ourselves into the woods to the pond, where the beavers had built their own home. I would walk down the hill with my mother to my grandpa’s farm, and I played near the corn crib while my mom sold strawberries from the packing barn to folks who had come out to pick berries in the fields. Ayrshire cattle, mottled red and white, wandered the pastures on the perimeter of the crop fields. Each morning and evening my grandpa went out to the red Gothic-arch barn to milk Bonnie, the last dairy cow.

A fifteen-minute drive on dusty roads past the industrial farm fields—sunflowers for oil, potatoes for factory fries, corn and soybeans for everything else—was our Baptist church. Every Sunday we’d sit on orange-carpeted pews and sing from our brown hymn books: “There Is Power in the Blood,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “Immortal, Invisible,” “Be Thou My Vision.” Sometimes the choir, robed in dark blue, would sing during the offertory. I remember the voices of the congregation rising up in one harmonious whole. My grandmother often accompanied at the organ or piano.

We sang Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance”—“This is my story, this is my song / Praising my Savior all the day long”—and many others of that gifted gospel hymn writer. We sang Lewis E. Jones’s “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r / In the precious blood of the Lamb.” We sang of Jesus Christ, our “Solid Rock,” in the English Baptist minister Edward Mote’s hymn:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand:
all other ground is sinking sand;
all other ground is sinking sand.

Christ was our “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, / Let me hide myself in Thee; / Let the water and the blood / From Thy riven side which flowed / Be of sin the double cure; / Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r.” We sang “the wondrous story / Of the Christ Who died for me; / How He left His home in glory / For the cross of Calvary.”

As I sing certain songs still, such as Isaac Watts’s “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” I still hear my dad’s tenor rising beside me:

I sing the mighty pow’r of God, that made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad, and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained the sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at His command, and all the stars obey.

We listened to gospel quartets such as the Statesmen and the Gaither Vocal Band. My dad introduced us to J. D. Sumner, the bass vocalist of the Blackwood Brothers and the Stamps, and friend of Elvis Presley.

We listened to audiocassettes of Johnny Cash and the Oak Ridge Boys on car rides and listened to Broadway musicals and Gordon Lightfoot on vinyl records at home. I only gradually became aware of what became known as Contemporary Christian Music—Christian rock ’n’ roll. Later I heard of the song by long-haired Larry Norman, “Why should the devil have all the good music? . . . Jesus is the rock and He rolled my blues away.”

My family disdained C.C.M., mostly because we saw it as Christians desperate for popular approval making second-rate art rather than just plain good art. Good art is Christian art, my dad would point out. Subpar songs weren’t any better with Jesus tacked on; in fact, trying to present it as passable because of it being “Christian” made it worse. To us, a “praise band” that replaced a pastor or worship leader directing the hymn singing in church revealed a desire to be groovy rather than reverent.

But reverence should be a cover neither for mediocrity nor for being a stick in the mud: My dad had little time for either fustiness on the one hand or trend-chasing on the other. “But we’ve always done it” and “but everyone else is doing it” were equally sigh-worthy.

As I became more aware of the world, I entered the fray of the evangelical Worship Wars. There were those who thought that guitars and drums and rock ’n’ roll were better than those moldy hymns, and that it was better to be “seeker-sensitive” than to cling to old organs. If we were meant to spread the Gospel, why put obstacles in the way of people seeking Christ? Why should the Devil have the best sound systems and microphones and drum sets and light shows?

I watched my dad as he knocked down bad arguments. Hymns aren’t untouchable, he would say: Some hymns actually aren’t that great. It’s good hymns we should be singing in church, and not songs that sound like they were meant for strumming in one’s bedroom or for singing around a campfire. Church was not about us, but about the worship of Almighty God. Church was not a concert. Our conduct in church should be reverent, and the songs we sing should be appropriate for a congregation. Worship leaders should be musically and historically literate, and they ought lead the gathered church in worshiping, not performing.

My dad was fighting a losing battle. Before long, our church was holding two services: the first one was “traditional”—we sang hymns accompanied by piano or organ, the pastor wore a suit, and the sermons were directed at grandparents even when kids (mostly from our clan) were present—and “contemporary”—a screen displayed announcements and lyrics, the worship band emerged onstage with guitars and drums and keyboard, the pastor changed into a sweater. “They’re just waiting for them to die off,” my dad observed of those who still leafed through a hymnal early Sunday mornings.

Now there’s no traditional service. There are screens instead of hymn books, and the piano and organ are hidden away.

When I first explored Catholicism, the riches of tradition and history were particularly striking compared with the shallower waters of my Baptist upbringing. Within the sacramental tapestry of the Catholic worldview, in which the liturgy found its meaning and summit in the Real Presence of Christ, surely one could scarcely find a more reverent and holy place than the Mass. And indeed, the first Mass I attended was beautiful and reverent.

Then I attended my first Divine Liturgy. When I later read Alexander Schmemann, I recognized what I’d experienced by his description of the liturgy of the Eucharist as “the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom.” As the priests, garmented in white gold-edged robes, began the liturgy, chanting the ancient prayers of Saint John Chrysostom, swinging censers, and the choir lifted up their voices like an angelic throng, I felt strangely at home. Each step in the nave impressed one with the holiness of sacred space. Every movement, every gesture, every note carried layers of symbolic meaning—and the iconostasis shone brilliant in the low candlelight.

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

It wasn’t long, however, before I heard of “the spirit of Vatican II” and, to my chagrin, the Liturgy Wars. I started to hear similar arguments for unprecedented changes to the liturgy. Apart from the “thus saith Rome” appendage, the arguments sounded strangely familiar: this is what people want; this is the new, inevitable thing. We need to get with the times. Just wait for the old fogeys to die off, and then we can have our glorious, hip services. And I wondered how far I had really come.

The Second Vatican Council met around the time Larry Norman was finishing high school. There were good feelings all round—to the brethren in the East, to the Protestants in the West. And then came the changes to the Roman Rite that grieved so many. (When the Book of Common Prayer was being revised and Episcopal parishes began adopting it, W. H. Auden wrote to his rector in Greenwich Village: “Dear Father Allen: Have you gone stark raving mad?” He went on to add: “The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity . . . But why should we imitate them?”) Then came plummeting Mass attendance, a spike in Zwinglianism amongst Catholics who remained, a dearth of religious vocations. Some converted to Orthodoxy, noting the gutting of the liturgy as a blow to their faith. Maybe the Catholic Church wasn’t what they thought it was.

As I got to know a new world of liturgy, and of liturgical life, I began to wonder at the peculiarity of timing. My Baptist church might have gone through a musty stage, but instead of revivifying it by singing better hymns, drawing on the rich tradition of English hymnody and American spirituals—instead of a Protestant ressourcement, even what we had was steadily stripped away, until there was scarcely anything left but what the Sixties bequeathed us: soft rock and skinny jeans.

On the other hand, when I experience the Divine Liturgy and the Tridentine Mass and Anglican (1928 Book of Common Prayer and Ordinariate) liturgies, and the best of the Novus Ordo, I find a similar holiness and beauty, albeit from different streams, different voices.

But then, there remained something different about the East. Why hadn’t the mid-century changes come to the Eastern-rite churches in the way they had hit the West? Why was I finding tradition so beautiful and alive and beloved in Orthodox churches? They certainly weren’t perfect. But I was finding something in Eastern liturgies—whether celebrated by the priest and his wife in a tiny cemetery chapel, or in a gorgeous cathedral whose priests and choir lifted up celestial voices—that seems too rare to find reliably in Western-rite liturgies. Like the pine and spruce and cedar my dad planted all those years ago, robust, alive. Even when their people had been displaced, Eastern liturgies seem more concerned about the timeless rather than getting with the times. Or so it seems.

I still love and sing the hymns I grew up with, and will pass them on to my children. But I remain struck by my experience of Eastern Christianity: at first a sociological and anthropological adventure, my visits to the Divine Liturgy became spiritual nourishment for a starved soul.

In the midst of the West’s Liturgy Wars, the Divine Liturgy seems to stand above the fray. My mind often returns to an account from half a millennium ago in the Russian Primary Chronicle, telling of Ukrainian emissaries visiting the Hagia Sophia:

We went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor and beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.

The Eastern Churches have undergone immense persecution, and yet the Divine Liturgy still thrives. Perhaps it is time for us in the West to ask why.

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Tessa Carman writes from Maryland.