Sunday, December 24, 2006

A New Litmus Test

This morning I drove down to my sister's to spend this day with her. As I got in the car, National Public Radio was beginning the broadcast of "The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" from King's College, Cambridge, England.

Preparing this blog entry, I tried unsuccessfully to find a link to the broadcast on the NPR site. However, I realized that most Episcopalians won't need a URL. As soon as I write "lessons and carols," you will hear it in your bones. You will recall how that service begins – with that boy soprano singing in his lovely voice, "Once in Royal David's City." Then, after he sings the first verse as a solo, the whole choir joins in, and eventually the entire congregation joins their voices.

I always get goose-bumps and often become a little weepy as that service begins. To me, it speaks of much that is best about our Anglican tradition and our glorious liturgy. I still remember being shocked when I learned that this service only dates from the early 20th century!

When the service ended, I thought: Yes, that's the benchmark! When King's College celebrates Nine Lessons and Carols, then Christmas is truly and really beginning.

But I had another thought after it was all over. Many in our Anglican Communion are seeking to establish a "litmus test" about who is and who is not a "real" Anglican. As I recall, the Plano conference in 2003 offered one; the Network has its; some Episcopalians have tried to argue that certain General Convention votes were the litmus test. Now – since publication of the Windsor Report – some are arguing that an Anglican Covenant will provide the ultimate litmus test to define who's in and who's out.

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a deep thinker. When the deep thinkers use terms like "ecclesiology" and "soteriology," I have to consult reference sources to remind myself what they mean.

Here's what occurred to me today – on this Christmas Eve – in my simple-mindedness: I think that if your heart swells and your soul is stirred by the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, then you're an Episcopalian and an Anglican. If you hear that lone voice begin to sing "Once in Royal David's City" and feels your soul rise along with all the other faithful, then you're probably an Episcopalian and an Anglican. If your heart soars as you hear the powerful words of Scripture interspersed with marvelous hymns throughout that service, then you're probably an Episcopalian and an Anglican.

Yes, I'm sure the theologians in our midst will shoot me down in this. I can begin to anticipate some of the arguments they might offer. I'm too simple-minded. But it seems to me that a core part of our Anglican identity is not our "getting all the theology right," but is getting our souls in the right place and being willing to lift our voices with others who sit alongside us in our pews. I don't understand all the theological nuances in acknowledging my essential brokenness, my awe that God took human form, my joy in Christ's having redeemed me, and my "yes" to the need to join with God in redeeming all of creation. But I know I want to work with God in this. I know that the promise of "Emmanuel" – God with us – is the most glorious, comforting hope I have in my life.

I have this sneaking suspicion about us Episcopalians/Anglicans: I have a hunch it has not been about right theology even from the beginning, but about right practice. Isn't this what Queen Elizabeth I was trying to get at in the "Elizabethan settlement," when the Church of England was tearing itself apart over doctrinal and theological conflict?

So … what say you? Let's let the theologians argue about the jots and tittles that belong in the Anglican Covenant. And let's the rest of us agree that what really defines us and holds us together is a generous orthodoxy, a passionate love of liturgy that draws us closer to God, a passionate love for one another, and maybe – just maybe – a shared experience of awe in liturgies like the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

That's my simple-minded take on it, on this most holy night.

Peace to all of you.

Update: I thought to check the BBC website, from which the broadcast originated. You can access it here.


Blogger Roberta Grey said...

We stayed in bed and listened as well. Called the child in the UK and they tuned in also. Since it was Live, it was almost like being together. Made my holiday special. So glad we got to see you at the service last night. Sorry I didn't get more time to share, but extended family kept me jumping. Never thought that we would take up an entire pew!! It was fun though and made Christmas Eve incredibly special. I miss the Festival Eucharist, but as Joan said, it couldn't have been more fun than with the children. Have a Merry Christmas dear Lady.

12/25/2006 2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though I am a member of another denomination (MCC), for "socialization and training" reasons (I came out a few years ago in my 40s figured I needed role models and no excuse to crawl back in the closet), I guess I am also Episcopalian/ Anglican, by the "Lessons and Carols" definition. Smells, bells, and beautiful choral music. I too have a bit of a Pavlovian response to "Once in David's Royal City".


12/30/2006 12:50 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for dropping in, NancyP. Having seen your posts over at Chez Jake, I know you're an Episcopalian in your bones. I hope you'll feel safe to "come home" one o' these days.

12/30/2006 2:01 PM  

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