Innovation: Lured or Lost?

C S Lewis worshipped in the Church of England. He observed the services to be noisy and disruptive, noting he particularly disliked the hymns. He described his ideal worshipping environment as “good men [sic] praying alone”. Though a product of experience gained in a different tradition, Lewis’ liturgical observations nevertheless have a broad resonance. 

Lewis protests the idea that people can be “lured” to go to church by what he describes as “incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications and complications of the service”, observing “it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain – many give up churchgoing altogether – merely endure.”

For Lewis “Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore… The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”

He continues: ‘but every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. … A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. … Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity.”

Experience tells me that the sad truth is that in seeking to make liturgy ‘relevant’ to those who do not come, we may well have marginalised those who do, or at least did. In seeking to make Catholic worship more personal for those who do come, we may well have deprived it of its characteristically attractive lure – noble simplicity.

And I wonder, if the Church’s liturgy means so little to some Catholics, is the remedy to further manipulate the liturgical aesthetic, or to provide greater opportunities outside of the Church’s worship for the kind of conversion to the person of Jesus Christ which provides one a lasting lure?

By Michael McKenna, immediate past Director of the Office of Liturgy

Tags: Liturgy