Sincerity's Discontents

a post by Sean Lanigan

Holy Ground has been thinking a lot about liturgy (literally, "the work of the people") lately.  Currently, we use a modified form of an ordo that we share in common with most liturgical churches around the world.  Whether in a big cathedral or a smaller gathering-in-the-round (like Holy Ground), liturgical churches all do more-or-less the same things (in the same order) each-and-every Sunday. 

Here’s the most basic expression of the ordo we use:

  • Gather the Community (using words, songs, and embodied practices)

  • Hear God’s Word (through scripture, preaching, and their intersections with our life experiences)

  • Respond to God’s Word (praying for God’s world, offering our gifts, and receiving Holy Communion)

  • Send the Community (commissioning God’s people for another week of Christ-like living)

Now, this pattern can sometimes get a little stale, as all patterns do.  The repeated “components” that comprise this pattern sometimes end up being done by rote, without much feeling or inspiration.  And as a result, liturgy can sometimes end up feeling like one-damn-thing-after-another – an endless succession of formulaic texts read aloud with little heart invested in their enunciation.

For many people, the solution to this problem is to pray and speak extemporaneously – exclusively “from the heart” – eschewing the use of any written texts in church.  Among its practitioners, this extemporaneity is considered to be a far more “authentic” way of speaking and praying, and it’s the way of doing church that's most homey to many Holy Grounders.  During my time in Long Beach, I’ve worked hard to learn how to pray well “off-book,” and I think the people of Holy Ground would concur that I’m improving.  But I also persist in using written prayers and other texts from the Church’s enormous storehouse of codified liturgical phraseology.

Last Sunday, for our Pentecost liturgy at Holy Ground, we concluded our worship with a wonderful commissioning from the Church of England, which appears in a slightly modified form below.

Blessed are you, sovereign God, overflowing in love.  With Pentecost dawns the age of the Spirit.  Now the flame of heaven rests on every believer.  Strong and weak, women and men tell out your word; the young receive visions, the old receive dreams.  With the new wine of the Spirit they proclaim your reign of love.  Amid the birth pangs of the new creation the way of light is made known.  Source of freedom, giver of life, blessed are you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For the fifty days since Easter we have celebrated the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over the powers of sin and death.  We have proclaimed God’s mighty acts and we have prayed that the power that was at work when God raised Jesus from the dead might be at work in us.

As part of God’s Church here in Long Beach, I now call upon you to live out what you proclaim.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, will you dare to walk into God’s future, trusting God to be your guide?  We will.  Will you dare to embrace each other and grow together in love?  We will.  Will you dare to share your riches in common and minister to each other in need?  We will.  Will you dare to pray for each other until your hearts beat with the longings of God?  We will.  Will you dare to carry the light of Christ into the world’s dark places?  We will.

One person responded strongly to these words, telling me: “I feel like we could spend months exploring what each of those phrases could look like if we really lived into them.” 

My response to her was something like this: “Yes, that’s the beauty of liturgy!  You just keep saying things until they’re real.  You affirm things that are not-yet-true with the trust that they can become true, with God’s help.”

And yet, for so many people (myself often included), the language of liturgy can sometimes feel less-than-authentic ­– not fully sincere.  And this lack of sincerity can feel disappointing and discomforting.  Doesn’t God want (nay, expect) our utmost sincerity?  This nagging question often fuels a yearning to find ever-fresher words for worship.  And while I think the search for new words by which to approach the Divine is a project that God’s people must continually undertake, I also accept the following caution.

Sincerity is concerned with the "as-is"—reinforcing our present collective self-concept—and the subjunctive (language employed in traditional liturgy) with the "as-if," a reality we bring into being through collective ritual practice.

Following this provocative statement, taken from an article by Catherine Madsen on the challenges of creativity in liberal Jewish liturgy, the author continues by quoting from a book entitled Ritual and Its Consequences: The Limits of Sincerity.

In doing a ritual, the whole issue of our internal states is irrelevant.  What you are is what you are in the doing, which is of course an external act.  This is very different from modernist concerns with sincerity and authenticity…Get it right is not a matter of making outer acts conform to inner beliefs.  Getting it right is doing it again and again and again – it is an act of world construction.

And isn’t the construction of another world – a new heaven and a new earth – what we Christians want most deeply?  My yearning for a radical wholeness that far exceeds any remediation of our present reality is far stronger than my desire heartfelt (yet momentary and fleeting) sincerity.  And it’s why I repeat the well-worn phrases and actions of ancient, traditional prayers again and again, even when they fail to excite or inspire my emotions.  Because I know that my emotions are excited by all kinds of things – holy and unholy – and I'm learning that they are not always the ultimate and most trustworthy spiritual barometer.  God transcends even my feelings about God.

Of course, I don’t want to abandon the process of discovering new words and rituals, either.  Rather, I want to hold old and new in creative tension because I believe that this in-between space is often where God shows up most palpably.  And I think this is why I often experience God so strongly among the people of Holy Ground.  For we are a people who are making a fine art of living between old and new, desire and actualization, the already and the not-yet – yearning together for the dawning of God's new creation.  

We'd love for you to come yearn with us!   –Sean


Catherine Madsen.  “A Heart of Flesh: Beyond Creative Liturgy.”  CrossCurrents.  March 2012 (14).

Adam Seligman, et. al.  Ritual and Its Consequences: The Limits of Sincerity.  Oxford University Press, 2008 (24).