I grew up as a surf bum in Newport Beach, California. You probably already have the wrong image: I was too poor to own a surfboard or a wetsuit, but I could buy a "Duckfoot" swim fin and go bodysurfing all summer long. I miss that Duck Foot, that lifestyle, that city, that era of my life.
I miss not having to think too much about what to wear (regular Bermudas, grunge Bermudas, dress Bermudas, or well-worn 501 Levi’s were the only real choices for pants; t-shirts were mandatory, and sandals or Sperry Topsiders completed the ensemble). I miss the lively worship of Mariners Church (where I was for a time the youth pastor), and especially the Sunday evening "body life" that functioned much the way I envision the early church functioning. But, at the time, I didn’t realize that there was a long history of worship that looked quite different from the Bible churches of America.
On my first sabbatical in 1994-95, I spent some time living in Cambridge, England. With a history as an institute of higher education that reached back to long before Columbus discovered America, Cambridge was a world apart from Newport Beach. The formality of university life there, the reserve of the British people, the stately yet austere buildings, and the Brits’ downright seriousness about tea-time took some getting used to. Yet strangely, like virtually every student who comes to Cambridge, I quickly became hooked on the history of the place that oozes out of every brick and cobblestone. Students strongly prefer the older, drafty, musty, cramped, inconvenient colleges to live in rather than the newer, refined, efficient, and soulless ones. Why? Certainly not because they are drafty, musty, cramped, and inconvenient! These buildings are a hardwired connection to the past, to a time when great intellectual giants in all disciplines made their mark. Almost hoping that their genius will rub off on the new residents of Cambridge’s halls, students come here to make their mark as well. One of the great, yet simple, lessons I learned in Cambridge was that environment makes an extraordinary impact on how we live and what we value. I learned this in the libraries (especially the magnificent Christopher Wren Library of Trinity College), in the pubs, in the labyrinthian streets that were hardly designed for efficiency and speed.
Christopher Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge
But I especially learned it in the chapels, the cathedrals, the old churches where Christians have congregated for centuries. The choirboys of King’s College Chapel would fill rafters and hearts with other-worldly music at matins. And when the music went silent, one could easily be preoccupied with the stained-glass windows that told the story of God’s redemption throughout history. Then there was Little St. Mary’s, which derived its name from the university church, a magnificent gothic building that had stood since the twelfth century. Little St. Mary’s was the new kid on the block, built two centuries later than its older sister. Still, it was 150 years the senior of the Santa Maria that landed in the new world in 1492. When one worshiped there, a solemnity and calm embraced the soul.
Now that I am back in Texas, I find that as much as I love the vibrancy of American evangelicalism, I am finding that there is an intentionally suppressed liturgy, minimal symbolism in our worship, and an edifice that is built for functionality. The cathedrals of Europe are hardly designs of efficiency! Taller than they are wide, taking decades, sometimes even centuries to build, they are ridiculously impractical. The architects actually built perches for owls inside the sanctuaries so that they could keep the rodent population down. Impractical indeed. Yet one can only escape the sense of awe in such places, the sense of God’s grandeur and transcendence, if that person is dead inside.
I confess: I have a love-hate relation with American evangelicalism. It is to a large degree a product of American practicality. We are a culture that is highly successful—at least in terms of how we define success. But the rest of the world may not define it the same way. In Cambridge, success is not measured by what’s in one’s bank account but by what’s in one’s mind. In years past, it also was measured by what was in one’s heart.
My first time there, I almost felt sorry for the poor British who had fallen way behind the States as far as world leadership, economics, and military might were concerned. But I had a rude awakening: the Cambridge crowd pitied us poor Americans who were culturally challenged! And they were right. I was the poster child of this American impoverishment. If Kenneth Branagh’s dog listened to its master’s voice as he recited Shakespeare, the dog would appreciate only the fact that its master was speaking. Fideaux is too dumb of a beast to appreciate anything else. When in Cambridge, I felt like that stupid dog. I was culturally deprived, and a large part of the culture was ecclesiastical.
I began to realize that a long history of tradition was foreign to me and was outside of my comfort zone. And yet, a part of me longed for it, deeply longed for it. In the last several years I have been seeking community worship that has a better link to the past than the individualism and even proud ignorance of much of American evangelicalism. And I am not alone in my sense of lack. Maybe this felt need is why seeker-sensitive megachurches can keep their members for only five years on average, and why evangelicals in droves are joining Catholic or Orthodox communions. Maybe this need is what the emergent church is trying to fill. Rather than justifying our lack of liturgy as that which is "biblical" perhaps we need to think about getting in touch with the stream of tradition that reaches back to the distant past, sometimes even to the apostolic age. Often what passes for "biblical" in evangelicalism is simply ignorance of how God has worked among his people for millennia.
So, here are my questions. What part does culture, history, and tradition play in our spirituality? How should we measure the success of a church? What does it look like "both physically and spiritually?" Should our church buildings be designed to draw out the worship that is in our souls, or should they be designed to function as an education center? What place should the proclamation of the Word take in our worship service and what part should liturgy, including the Eucharist, take in our worship services? For a church to be thoroughly biblical, does it have to be anti-liturgical? What authority and relevance should we give to liturgy? Are my longings idiosyncratic, or are they shared by others? What say you?