Readers of BCC will have noticed a persistent interest here in things Anglican. If it isn’t Kristine reminding us once again that on the eighth day God made British choirboys, there are all the posts in the Mormon Lectionary Project, Ronan’s Christian Disciplines series, or John F.’s posts about occasions when Mormons get liturgical (including this Rosh Hashanah post). Occasionally, people wonder about the implications of all this crypto-Anglicanism. I mean, isn’t it good that Mormons left some of this stuff behind, the light of the Restoration dispelling the shadows of apostasy?
Allow me, then, to offer an apologia, one which I hope will be useful as the Mormon Lectionary Project gears up for a busy Easter season.
My road to high-church Mormonism probably began on my mission in Denmark (though, to be fair, I was a rather Anglophilic teenager). There, Christmas festivities center on Christmas Eve and, in both of my relevant areas, included a service at the church. To be sure, this was still an LDS service, and it wasn’t so very different from the Christmas programs that many of our wards put on, but as I sat in the service my first Christmas Eve, I recognized that these faithful saints were holding on to something good from their collective religious past. In this way I began to learn that there was much good in the religious practices that preceded the Restoration.
The next step for me was the music. I grew up not really knowing about the great tradition of liturgical music, so this has been something I’ve had to discover (and am still discovering, really) on my own. But I’ve always been struck by the power of Renaissance polyphony, and once I learned to call it by that name I’ve sought it earnestly as something virtuous, lovely, of good report (especially in a stone-walled cathedral), and praiseworthy. I also discovered Tallis as a missionary, and he’s stayed with me ever since.
Probably the determinative thing, though, was being assigned to come up with sacrament meeting topics when I was in the bishopric in Boston. I wanted—and the bishop wanted—our meetings to have real spiritual power. We wanted to inoculate against boring talks to the extent possible. We wanted to send people to the scriptures in new and profound ways. At first I came up with topics that were more than usually challenging, assigning the speakers a few scriptures to chew on while trying to figure out what to say. Then, almost without knowing it, I moved in the direction of liturgy. Thinking it a shame how little we Mormons do to prepare for Easter, which ought to be the spiritual pinnacle of the year, I decided to focus the talks in the weeks before on the seven last sayings of Jesus, followed by Easter talks on the Atonement. This way of combining time, scripture, and spiritual preparation made for a powerful experience that the whole ward shared.
These realizations coincide with something Ronan observed in an earlier post: in abandoning the “sacred time” of the old liturgical calendar, we’ve given ourselves over to secular time, making it possible for our wards to have a bigger to-do about Halloween than about Easter. This is not to say that the Church itself ought to embrace high liturgical worship, but rather that individual members might benefit from closer attunement to the rhythms of sacred time. I’m not trying to remake Temple Square over into Canterbury Cathedral—just bringing what I find good in Canterbury (or Rome, or anywhere else for that matter, as in my Gandhi post) into my lived experience of Mormonism.The lectionary in particular helps to establish the rhythm of sacred time for me.
Some combination of my bishopric service and graduate-school immersion in the scripture-soaked English 17th century primed me to appreciate the lectionary deeply. I love how the lectionary puts scriptures into conversation with each other in ways that invite careful introspection while working to place the hearers in the Christian calendar. The lectionary feeds into the collects, brief set prayers carefully crafted, in the Anglican tradition, by Thomas Cranmer, the 16th-century architect of the Book of Common Prayer. (Often, these translate prayers from the old Catholic Sarum Rite missal.) These beautiful prayers give specific praise to God, while also requesting blessings distilled from the lectionary scriptures.
As a student of Milton (and a dyed-in-the-wool Mormon) I have great sympathy for extemporaneous prayer. The usual argument for this unscripted approach is that set prayers lack spiritual power, having become hollowed out formalities rather than hallowed orisons—as though our pleas for fireside brownies to “strengthen and nourish our bodies” did not betoken a vestigial belief in transubstantiation. In my experience, the spiritual power of prayer depends less upon the form used than upon the attitude brought: perhaps if the brownies did not nourish us, the sociality did, causing Brother Joseph to smile down from heaven. Similarly, Cranmer’s collects, when treated as the occasion for honest reflection rather than as mere words, have nourished my soul, and I have felt God’s power strengthen my heart.
If Mormonism claims to encompass all truth, this need not include only propositions. Might it not also extend to ways of seeking the divine? I feel that anything that connects me with God connects me with Mormonism, my spiritual home. In keeping with what Kristine has written elsewhere of her own experience, this is my mother church, the place where my spiritual legs, lungs, and heart developed. I am in no hurry to leave her bosom behind. Rather than signaling the abandonment of the apostate past, I believe that the Restoration can mark its redemption. Even if some of us see the liturgical past as spiritually dead, might we not love it back to its true life—effect its resurrection, in other words? Our mother church, I believe, can draw nutrition from this past and convey it to us as the sweet milk of eternal life, forever and ever, world(s) without end.
For the music, I offer this piece by Thomas Tallis, which a ward choir, given sufficient practice, can tackle (shout out here to Chapel Hill 1st Ward and the fabulous Jill Austin, who jumped at the suggestion). The text is scriptural and will therefore not run afoul of any doctrinal lines. It’s even in English, though I can pass it off as a “Latin song” when my three-year-old requests one at bedtime. The Choral Wiki has arrangements in various keys, in case your Primary isn’t stocked with trained boy sopranos.