Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ephemeral Orthodox worship

As an Anglo-Catholic, when I thought of Catholic worship I thought of Latin, profound reverence, bells & smells. These guys (and they’re all guys) still hold to tradition with a capital T as part of a strong central authority and a continuous line back almost 2,000 years.

Alas, I found out that since Vatican II, American Catholics are almost as likely to have a sappy praise band as the average liberal Protestant denomination, and only slightly less likely than the average nondenom evangelical church. In fact, when flipping channels in my car radio to EWTN last month, I heard the same sappy CCM praise hymn that I recognized from my rare (but sometimes unavoidable) visits to Evangelical Rite II Anglican services. Yes, Pope Benedict hopes to restore some sanity to the RCC, but I think even his goals are modest.

Well, I thought, at least there’s the Orthodox. Ever since defecting from Anglicanism to swim the Bosphorus, JLeebcd has been signing the praises (sometimes literally) of his new denomination — while attacking the contradictions of his former denomination with the vengeance of a true convert. To listen to Mr. Leebcd, the Orthodox faith was Paradise Found, the one True Church preserving the historic traditional liturgy.

One of the links he’s been sending me has been to Ancient Faith Radio — chief propaganda ministry for the Antiochian Orthodox Church, sort of an online-only version of EWTN (or Issues Etc.). Perhaps the most prominent discussion of hymns and liturgy at the site are the podcasts of Father John Finley in a series called “Singing the Triumphal Hymn.” I checked out a few podcasts before realizing that the AOC is also afflicted with the CCM disease.

The autobiographical series traces the journey of Fr. Finley from his childhood and college upbringing as an Oklahoma Baptist to the AOC by way of the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission. His podcast biography says that he is “with the Missions and Evangelism Department of the Antiochian Archdiocese,” but doesn’t say what authority or role he wields.

In particular, I learned the most about Fr. Finley (if not the AOC) from his initial podcast in November 2008 entitled “Music to My Ears,” apparently reading from a 2003 article he wrote for Again Magazine, a defunct publication from Concillar Press.

After talking about his various praise compositions — first for evangelicals and then for the AEOM and AOC — about four minutes before the end Fr. Finley explicitly stated his thesis demanding contemporary hymns tied to the contemporary culture:
Whenever the subject of changing or modifying or developing the music is discussed, it seems that someone will always say. “We’re Orthodox, we don't change.”

Then I can certainly understand this statement when spoken in reference to the canon of the Holy Scriptures, the creeds, the doctrines of the faith, the structure of the services, and so on. But when we consider church art, this attitude relegates the artist — whether a musician or an icongrapher or an architect — to the role of scribe.
He argued it was essential for the church to encourage artists to continually develop new forms of expressing devotion through these arts:
The only alternative is to stagnate in the preservation of what might be called “museum quality music,” reducing the church's artistic relevance in society to that of a curator.
This candid egocentrism is appalling on so many level: the urgency of continually messing with the liturgy — as witnessed by the many faithful — is driven by the need for self-expression by a handful of self-nominated (or politically connected) artists.

I certainly agree with one part — the stuff that’s survived for centuries is “museum quality” and the stuff from the last 20 years is not. Fr. Finley sang some of his music and the most charitable thing that could be said is that it’s good for American Orthodox praise music. Unlike Sister Toolan’s greatest hit, I don’t think these 20th century contributions will survive (except in archives) into the 22nd century.

It’s ironic that the AOC (like JLeebcd) proclaim their message as one of “Ancient Faith,” while the American Orthodox church suffers from the same desire to chase the contemporary culture as their Roman brethren. To quote my comments on contemporary Catholic worship 19 months ago on this blog:
But, overall, the hymn choices seemed to alternate between lounge singer and bad campfire music. So not timeless (as in the centuries of Catholic heritage), not chosen from the best of the past 50 years of modern Christian music, and not even the sort of professionally composed CCM that might be heard on a praise music radio station.
(I was inspired to reuse this earlier passage by the praise of Vicar Josh Osbun.)

Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular CultureTo respond to Fr. Finley (Baptist to Orthodox) and Mr. Leebcd (Episcopalian to Orthodox), I pull out my trump card — religion writer Terry Mattingly — who is Baptist-to-Episcopalian-to-Orthodox (AOC). He has frequently criticized the efforts by Christians to chase the culture, first with his book Pop Goes Religion and then with various appearances on the Issues Etc. (Lutheran) radio show. Like me, he strongly favors timeless hymns rather than the transient and contemporary ephemera of modern praise music.

Let me close with two quotes from his Issues Etc. interviews:
How many of us will be singing songs that our parents and grandparents sang? (March 19, 2006)
So is there anyone in the church older than Boomer rock? Are there any ties that bind this congregation to the church of the ages? It would seem not. (Nov. 11, 2007)

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