Liturgy is like Jazz

#reLENTless 01

#reLENTless is a project by Melissa Cooper that has a group of us blogging every day during Lent (except Sundays on my part). Other bloggers are Carolyn Frantz and Deanna Ogle. This will be helpful for me as I have a backlog of drafts to burn through!

Had lunch a few months back with a good friend and we spent time reflecting on a new ministry opportunity he had been given. He talked about being at a high liturgy church previously and now being at a low liturgy church.

Then he said this:

I think liturgy is like Jazz. You have to learn the rules to break them. also has an article called “improvise like a jazz musician” where they say:

Learn the rules so you can break them: Mingus learned to play in the highly structured environment of a classical ensemble; later, he studied the big band compositions of Duke Ellington.  There’s nothing sloppy or naive about his compositions, even when they break all the rules — Mingus knew the rules well enough to know why they had to be broken.

Hmm. That quote and concept has stuck in my head for a few months now.

In seminary we learned the old liturgies, studied how to write our own prayers, figured out collects (you, who, do, through!), and learned the “why is this like this” of the liturgy. Then we go and adapt or implement our understanding of liturgy with our churches or contexts. And sometimes we run into road bumps along the way.

One of the articles we got the biggest pushback from commenters here at was “Seeing Communion Again for the First Time” where I talked about going through the full communion liturgy with all the blood atonement language after 3 years of writing my own liturgy. It was shocking. But the experience (and the comments from my respected friends and at least one now-current DS) showed me how much jazz I had put in my own liturgy and pushed me to move the pendulum closer to historical creeds and litanies rather than striking it out on my own.

But I can’t shake the jazz from the liturgy. I can’t, with integrity, leave liturgy unchanging and, at the risk of offending my Duke friends, sacrosanct. Heck, as my friend John Meunier has explored, even the UMC doesn’t consider their rituals sacrosanct and allow for variety so long as it is “not repugnant to the Word of God.”

I’ve seen this quote by Mary Hunt before: “to sacramentalize is to pay attention. It is what a community does when it names and claims ordinary human experience as holy, connecting them with history and propelling them into the future.” How can we name and claim an experience when we are using language and imagery older than the people in the room? How can we make liturgy truly the “work of the people” when it isn’t work to copy and paste?

Don’t get me wrong: I love the old liturgy. I use hymns as liturgies, I use Book of Worship liturgies regularly. But if I want to present an emancipatory image of God, then I have to use language and concepts that reflect and critique my culture, not perpetuate a foreign culture. It is not emancipatory if it isn’t directly critiquing the context, and while the traditional words are often timeless, my job as liturgist is to know the liturgy, understand its role, and then pull off a jazz rift at just the right moment, which by the grace of God I do.

In short, if liturgy is the work of the people, then does the communion liturgy include the people in it?  When will the sabbath be made for humans, and not humans for the Sabbath?


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  1. says

    I believe that liturgy is a means to assist people in connecting with God, to be aware of and give attention to the sacred in our midst. Therefore, each setting, and each group of people will have their own unique imprint on liturgy, if we allow it be be an authentic response. There is no one style fits all. As Methodist from our earliest days we were aware that culture frames liturgy. Francis Asbury did not use John Wesley’s order for Sunday Service because it did not reflect the “worship style” of the colonist. We are a peculiar people, I think our liturgy will reflect this. …just saying.

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