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This page last updated 13 December 2004
Anglicans Online last updated 10 December 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

A Review of Creating Uncommon Worship
Thomas Bushnell, BSG

If the purpose of a review is to help the reader decide whether to purchase and read the book, then this review would be very short. If you care about liturgy and doing liturgy well, then you want to purchase and read Creating Uncommon Worship, by Richard Giles. But I believe that a review has a larger task as well: to offer a critical assessment of a book for the advice of readers; to contextualize it and give a deeper look at what is inside the covers than the publishers are willing to put on the back cover.

Richard Giles is the dean of Philadelphia Cathedral. Before being designated the cathedral in 1992, the building was titled the Church of the Saviour. The cathedral now has no title (other than "Cathedral") and this is perhaps emblematic of the liturgy which Giles has created there, following the renovation of the liturgical space in 2002. Unlike most parish churches which become cathedrals, this one has lost its title, and thus symbolically severed its link with its past, a process that was completed with the wholesale reconstruction of the interior ten years later.

It is this spirit of root-and-branch reconstruction which pervades Creating Uncommon Worship. Throughout the book, one has the sense that the doors have been open, the windows have been removed, and strong wind is blowing through one's office, sending papers scurrying and creating one awful mess. No doubt Giles would see this as the fresh breath of the Spirit of God, but it is as likely simply a hurricane coming to make a total disaster of things.

That said, there is much of good value in Giles' latest book. It contains a stirring call to greater silence in liturgy, and its demand that we take liturgy seriously is welcome. Nearly every issue that Giles discusses is the right issue, one which we should discuss and consider, even though he so frequently gets the answers so wildly wrong.

Where are the Deacons?
Perhaps the best way to explore Creating Uncommon Worship is to begin with what would probably be the most surprising innovation it suggests in ceremonial. Giles suggests that as readers, intercessors, and other ministers exercise their ministry, the presider should remove the stole, and invest them with it; when they are through, they will return it to the presider. Other presbyters present would not wear stoles at all. Underlying this practice is, not surprisingly, a significant confusion.

Giles correctly notes that "the stole is the symbol of authority and service of those called to the order of deacon or presbyter," and while he is ordinarily very sensitive to the difference between the words "presbyter" and "priest," here he proceeds to then identify the stole not as the mark of the presbyter, but as the mark of the priest: or rather, of priesthood. Then, it is "the stole of the assembly" and therefore "it is worn by the presiding minister, as conductor of the orchestra, and then given in turn to any member of the assembly called forth to play a solo part in making the music of the liturgy." The metaphor is telling, and makes clear what is wrong with this picture: symphony conductors do not hand their baton to soloists. Rather, the conductor indicates to the soloist when to play, and, depending on the musical context often stops using the baton while the soloist uses their own instrument.

Giles is a fan of chasubles, and recognizes that their recovery by Anglicans was very hard won. Now the chasuble is a priestly garment: worn only for the Eucharist, and only by the presiding priest. But Giles takes it to be a garment for the presider and therefore not shared around as the stole is. The long-term effect is quite clear: the chasuble becomes the symbol of office, and importance, the stole not. Indeed, this passing around of the stole only makes sense against a background in which the stole is not passed around. If we had always done this, then it would not have the connotations of "admitting" lay people to their own priestly ministry.

Moreover, this custom makes it awfully hard to recognize that there are many occasions in which multiple people are ministering at the same time. Suppose the musicians start singing a solo piece while the altar is prepared. Should the director of music wear the stole, or the person preparing the altar? (Or the person carrying the gifts forward?) Finally, as the presider is constantly giving and receiving the stole, the importance and status of the presider becomes all the greater. One is not entitled to read the scriptures in virtue of baptism, one is entitled to read them because the presider has handed over the stole.

Now this handing around of the presbyter's stole raises the question of what to do with diaconal stoles. Giles briefly flits with the idea of the presider tying the stole on the deacon in the normal diaconal fashion, but rejects this as too unwieldy, and besides, "lay people have just been wearing the stole over the neck, so why not the deacon?"

Giles would no longer have deacons set the table, nor cense the people, nor give the dismissal. Any distinctive liturgical role for the deacon is dropped; of course deacons can take their place along with the laity. The most ancient and distinctive of the diaconal roles, the ministration of communion, is never even considered.

The eviscerating of the diaconate is completed by Giles' snide remarks about restricting the proclamation of the liturgical Gospel to deacons. For Giles, the assembly of the faithful consists of the undifferentiated faithful, and the presider. All other distinctions must vanish, and the presider, whom nobody will fail to notice, will stand alone and, one suspects, quite proud.

Aidan Kavanagh, in Elements of Rite, gives the eleventh "General Law of Liturgy" thus: "The liturgical assembly is less a gathering of individuals than a dynamic coordination of orders," and explains that "these orders are catechumens, servers, penitents, deacons, the baptized faithful, presbyters, and bishops." But in Giles' world, there are no orders, except his own, of course: the giver-of-all-gifts-and-authority.

Who Goes First?
Giles, not surprisingly, declares that the presider and ministers must receive communion last. The universal custom of the church has been that presiders receive first, and for a simple reason: you cannot feed others until you have been fed yourself. It is a communicant minister who gives communion; it is a minister who has been fed himself. Giles thinks the traditional system is outrageously hierarchical. It happens that I spent years in a tradition in which the presider received last (in the Presbyterian Church), and I have been struck by the way in which this can seem to be such a grand and important moment; everyone waiting in silence for the grand conclusion, as the pastor finally gives communion to the other communion ministers, and then one of them gives it to the pastor last, with it being an important mark of distinction to be the one to give communion to the pastor. How different this is from the Book of Common Prayer, with its direction that the presider should receive communion in relative obscurity, "while the people are coming forward."

More diligent observance of the actual rubric would eliminate the appearance of an unhealthy hierarchicalism; the offenders here are not presiders grabbing dinner first, but the ushers who force the people to stay in their pews and watch until after the presider has received.

The giving of communion is very problematic overall for Giles. One senses strongly from his treatment that there is no good way to arrange it, but a plethora of bad ways. He would prefer that presiders not distribute communion at all, putting the lie to the idea that "going first" is unhospitable. If going first is unhospitable, then what is sitting back and not serving anyone? The reality is that any way of picking communion ministers will make the ministers seem important, and it is perhaps for this very reason that the task is best relegated to the clergy. It is true that we do not need additional distinctions of "special people" who are "worthy" to distribute communion; but the blame for this goes back to the innovation of lay chalice-bearers in the first place which created the distinction. Giles is rightly bothered by the "new pseudo-clerical species of liturgical being called a ‘eucharistic minister,'" but he does not see that it is just his sort of thinking which produced the problem in the first place.

Giles goes so far as to suggest that "in an enlightened church," the bishop would "authorize the ‘head of the household' to preside at the eucharist" in religious communities. Of course, we have a rite already for that authorization, titled in the American Prayer Book, "The Ordination of a Priest." We have a rite for the authorization of a minister of communion already, called "The Ordination of a Deacon." But these would create orders, and Giles is against that.

Someone must decide who will give communion, and Giles can figure out no good way to arrange it; this means that his final advice is to have communion ministers be such only accidentally; to "link this ministry to other ministries within the assembly already recognized and authorized," that is, to "the church wardens, the lay ministry team leaders, or chair of the worship committee." This is certainly an excellent idea, but in its truly Catholic form, the relevantly "recognized and authorized" ministries, to which the distribution of communion is properly linked, are the diaconate, the presbyterate, and the episcopate. Once the church warden has been invested with a stole, reads the liturgical Gospel, and ministers communion in virtue of his office, what is he but an unordained deacon? It is not clericalism which is Giles' real enemy; it is ordination. I cannot help but suspect that part of the reason is that ordination is controlled by bishops, and Giles wants local pastors to have all the power.

Best, of course, is to drop the whole idea of ministering entirely, and so Giles is a big fan of just leaving the chalices on the altar, and having people come up and take them themselves to drink. We become truly undifferentiated individuals, and after communion Giles would actually have the people scatter and disperse, "to find a corner where, sitting or standing or kneeling, one can be alone," and then only after a bit come back together for the post-communion prayer.

The only attention given to what the actual rites say about how to distribute communion, of course, is to show how out-of-touch are the compilers of the rites. He concocts a disturbing rationale for the traditional practice, misunderstands that practice, rejects it, and then creates something even worse in its place.

Liturgical Texts
Giles explains that he is concerned much more with ceremonial than with liturgical text, saying that "texts are secondary to ceremonial in the impact of liturgy upon us." I am not sure he is right, though he is certainly right to stress the importance of ceremonial. But he claims at the outset that in his book, "the vast majority of ways of doing things differently are concerned with matters other than texts." This claim is not born out by the book that follows.

It is true that Giles does not propose new liturgical texts, but his ready criticism for the texts we have is striking. He believes that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has yet to really be put into place, and that we are still doing the ceremonial suited to other books while using the texts of the new book. This is a common complaint, but it is curious in the extreme that he should simultaneously argue against so much of that same prayer book.

I do not believe the 1979 Prayer Book is perfect. It has numerous flaws, without a doubt. But I do believe that clergy of the Episcopal Church have promised to follow it faithfully. It is disappointing, therefore, that Giles so casually suggests, at every turn, that clergy should feel free to discard it where they please. In this story, bishops are the evil ogres, repeatedly invoked in the text as one might tell ghost stories to a child: by repetition and humor, one eases one's fear that the ogre will come and mess up your life. Certainly we do not ask the bishop for permission; no, we should just charge on ahead, authority be damned, daring the bishop to make us stop, and fully prepared to call him a troglodyte if he does.

Among the texts in the American Prayer Book which Giles is happy to jettison (at the pleasure of the presider, of course, who is always in control) are the collects of the day, the Nicene Creed, the Confession of Sin, the Eucharistic Prayers, and the post-communion prayers. He is apparently all right with the opening acclamations, but believes that the words to introduce the Confession of Sin and the Peace must be rewritten (or better, adlibbed) by the presider. The dismissals are acceptable also, though (of course) no longer the province of the deacon. For a book which is supposedly "concerned with matters other than texts" Giles has left unaltered only the Collect for Purity and the Absolution!

Despite the rank disobedience and uncharity of his attitude towards the episcopate and its proper role (which is, of course, not all that surprising: remember that for Giles, the only orders of ministry in practice are "presider" and "undifferentiated body of lay people"), the most alarming liturgical change he suggests is abandoning the classical structure of the Eucharistic Prayer, and while the epiclesis is mandatory for him, the institution narrative is not. So he suggests that communities freely rewrite the Eucharistic Prayer, dropping the institution narrative if they please (he gives an example in an appendix) and why? Because we can. The only defense of this he gives is to point out that among the oldest Christian liturgies the institution narrative may not have been used (though the point is still hotly contested among scholars), and therefore it is not necessary. But liturgy is not about only doing what is necessary, of course. The only reason to drop the institution narrative, therefore, which Giles gives, is because when we do so it is comes as "a healthy shock to the system at least now and again." In other words, we should (now and again) omit the institution narrative, merely to express that we are allowed to. And, never mind the facts: that we are not allowed to.

Who is in Control?
Issues of authority in liturgy are extremely important, and cannot be avoided, nor does Giles attempt to. But he fails to take really seriously that in every liturgy, there are people who decide, and people who do not decide, and the non-deciders simply have to put up with what others have decided. The average lay person in the pew—whoops, the pews are gone. The average lay person in their chair has no more authority or decision-making power in Giles' system than in any other. The revolution he would work does not transfer power away from clergy to lay people; rather, he wishes to transfer all power to the local pastor, and in the process, lay people, bishops, deacons, and other presbyters are all denied any access to power, except through the carefully-manned gate the pastor guards.

What is striking is the extent to which Giles would replace all authority structure with one: the pastor. The pastor is responsible to no one, and exercises authority with an iron hand. He reports with pleasure, "On my first Sunday in an East Midlands parish, my announcement that incense would be introduced the following Sunday was greeted with a loud shriek. Its use there has continued now for nearly 25 years." It is appalling that anyone should presume to innovate, in a way that produces a "loud shriek," on their very first Sunday in a new community. Is this respect for the baptized holy people of God?

Giles would have us think of free local communities, which have no obligation to bishops, those nasty ogres; these communities would pursue where the Spirit leads them in peace and joy, under the leadership of their inspired and sensitive pastor. But consider the actual dynamics under this surface. The picture he paints is of the imperious pastor, who collects a coterie of yes-men to approve and discuss every change (he gives helpful advice on how to prevent pesky opponents from even having an effective voice), and who is subject to no authority whatsoever.

In the process, of course, the laity have been removed from their only official voice in the liturgy. In our polity, the one and only one place where the laity have a binding voice in liturgy is when the House of Deputies votes by orders on the adoption of the Prayer Book. Enforcing this vote is the responsibility of the bishops, but every cleric, Giles included, has sworn a vow to abide by it without the need for episcopal compulsion. The game of "I dare you to stop me" is unworthy of a Christian minister. Where Giles sees the authority of the bishop, a person more attuned to the dignity of the lay order might see the authority of the lay deputies in the House of Deputies, who have been shunted aside in favor of the pastor and the worship leadership team the pastor has hand-selected.

Instead of ministry arising from baptism, and specific roles being assigned by the bishop, Giles would replace this with the pastor, who makes clear who is really in control every time that stole is handed over to the next liturgical functionary.

Anything English is Better
Giles is not writing only for the American Episcopal audience, and so he considers equally the English rites (principally Common Worship) and the current Roman Catholic rite. Of course, in myriad little ways, those rites differ from the American Episcopal rite, and it is interesting to hear Giles describe and navigate the differences.

First off, of course, Giles has no time for any notion that presiders are embodied in a particular tradition, with an obligation (indeed a vow, freely undertaken, before God) to conform to that tradition. Rather, presiders should look about for all the different ways anyone has of doing anything, put it all together, and concoct the local liturgical stew.

This means that one must pay careful attention to the details. For it is not a question of choosing Common Worship over the American BCP; it is a question of examining each and every detail, as if we in our local communities were drafting a new prayer book. Alas, Giles is not up to the task of providing guidance in making this decision. He has nasty words for the brevity of the American introductions to the Confession of Sin or the Peace, but no real explanation of why the wordy English versions are superior. They just are. He discusses the reservation of the Eucharist under both species, but because he cannot figure out how to preserve the consecrated wine, he simply declares it is better not to. (Never mind all those folks who seem to have done it without much difficulty.)

Most telling is his discussion of the placement of the Confession of Sin. Of course, since the English and Roman Catholic rites have great flexibility with the text, the Americans must be wrong. (Plus, if the confession of sin changes every week, the presider can be complimented for the fine job he did in drafting that week's version.) But where should we say the Confession of Sin? The normative American placement is after the Prayers of the People. Giles hates that.

But it's not enough to hate it; he must fundamentally misunderstand the way the American Prayer Book was written. He thinks that the revisers expected the Confession normally to come at the beginning, and laments that "the vast majority of Episcopal parishes persist in placing the penitential rite in the alternative position between the prayers of the people and the Peace." What? This is the normative position! The alternative position is to put the Confession at the front of the service. He even snidely suggests that "no one has ever found page 351" and says that "options have to be spelt out with great clarity or else they are not followed." Never mind that it is an option and a parish is not somehow derelict for doing the normative thing instead of the optional thing. No attention is given to the consensus of most liturgists that the Confession of Sin is a latecomer to the liturgy, perhaps not even properly part of the Eucharistic rite at all.

The English arrangement of the Fraction is better; the English (and Roman Catholic) use of offertory prayers is better; and so forth. I could not find a single instance where Giles considers the English and the American rites, in which the American comes out on top. (Giles does like the American term "Great Thanksgiving," but there is no criticism against Common Worship for not using it; the American book's title "The Word of God" and the lack of any title for the offertory come in for heavy scorn.)

Giles' lack of familiarity with the American Prayer Book is indeed pervasive and striking, especially for a professed liturgical expert and the dean of one of the Episcopal Church's premier cathedrals. For example, he says that "the new American Prayer Book relegates the Agnus Dei to the Book of Occasional Services" and that "it is not mentioned in the text of the eucharist." Apparently Giles has not found page 407.

Indeed, Giles does not demonstrate a very talented scholarship at all. He trots out the old canard that "liturgy" means "work of the people," which it does not; the Greek word actually means a work for the benefit of the people, the word refers in its original context to monuments and more transitory donations by private individuals for the good of the state, something like the English phrase "public works." Of course, the idea that the liturgy is something that some people do for the benefit of other people is foreign to Giles, and perhaps is itself wrongheaded, which should be a nice lesson that etymology is not meaning.

Creating Uncommon Worship
The title of Giles' book, just as the title of the Book of Common Prayer and the English Common Worship which it puns, bears a double meaning. On the one hand, "common" means ordinary or even base, and so "uncommon" can mean extraordinary or splendid. When we speak of a soldier as possessing uncommon valor, we are not calling him a coward.

But "common" also means "as one," and this is of course the meaning in the titles of the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship. These are books whose purpose is to draw the Church together, by providing a common standard, and by providing texts which the people will pray in common, leaving private devotions unspecified. It is for this reason that the Book of Common Prayer traditionally does not include such private (but liturgical) prayers as what a priest might say during the ablutions, or the words used in blessing a Deacon before reading the Gospel. The Roman Catholic rite certainly does prescribe words here, but Anglican liturgical authority is focused not on the personal devotions of the minister (we can leave those to the minister well enough), but rather on the public, communal, common words of the liturgy. Because these are common property, and not simply the presider's own devotions, there must be common agreement on what they should be. And we exercise that common agreement not by local pastors getting approval from their hand-picked liturgy team, but by a canonical and formal process of approval.

Alas, Giles has nothing but disdain for this sort of thing. Mere novelty is now good in itself, and the best thing possible is to keep everyone on edge. Speaking of music, Giles says, "Being required to learn something new each time we gather, or to sing the tunes we don't like as well as the ones we do, is no bad model for spiritual growth and development" (emphasis added). It is good to "now and again" omit the institution narrative from the Eucharistic prayer, just to express our conviction that this is theologically tolerable (and to work what damage on those fragile souls who might not yet subscribe to this benighted opinion? is not this what Paul warns the Corinthians against?).

But the final upshot of Giles' program is that the worship which remains is not only uncommon in its unusualness, but uncommon in that the results cannot help but be idiosyncratic and isolated to one particular community. The liturgy may become an extremely capable tool for binding a community together, but here this is being done at the expense of binding that community together with the Church as a whole. At nearly every juncture, the ties that bind this particular community to the Church are weakened: the bishop's authority is mocked, the liturgical texts and rubrics that the pastor has vowed to adhere to are discarded freely, and abandoned is the simple value of doing things the way other people do them as an expression of solidarity. The result is singular liturgy, and ultimately it matters not whether the result is a beautiful jewel or an ugly lump of coal, because the singularity of the result isolates it from the Church.

The Good Parts
By now my reader likely thinks that I hate Giles' book and everything it stands for. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has much to recommend it. It is an entertaining and engaging read; even while Giles' snideness is sometimes off-base, he is never boring and frequently very funny. He calls us to a seriousness of the task of liturgy, quoting Annie Dillard's wonderful line about spiritual power, that "the churches are children, playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning."

Liturgy is important, indeed, vitally important, and if the effect of Giles' book is to cause more people to think seriously and carefully about the liturgy they enact, so much the better.

As I have already noted, Giles has a wonderful sense of the sacred, of holy silence, of the value of assembled liturgical prayer. His emphasis on the Church as the baptized people of God is palpable, and important, and often lost sight of by liturgists.

One suspects that Giles is an extremely capable presider, able to pace liturgy well, understanding the value of silence, conscious to the importance of unspoken symbol, and sensitive and truly devoted to his craft. His book is an excellent and lucid description of how he pursues his task, and even if I might object to its broad outlines and some of the things he holds most dear, it remains that he has given an excellent resource with many valuable and interesting suggestions. His descriptions of the importance and nature of post-Eucharist hospitality is right on-target, and his awareness of the subtler aspects of liturgical presidency and his humor at relating its pitfalls make this an excellent book for any presider to read.

And so, while I find much that is lacking (and have spared nothing in saying why above), there is much of value here. It remains, however, that Giles' liturgical project is intrinsically linked to his ecclesiology. He would surely agree, and this is the good thing: our liturgy must speak the truth about who we are. But his ecclesiology is sadly wanting, being reduced to a pastor-and-flock model, with the pastor firmly ensconced in power and tolerating no objection from any side. In place of the richly structured Church of many different vocations and roles, which are ritually performed and enacted in liturgy, Giles works a stunning reduction, and a frightening concentration of liturgical power and authority in a single person's hands, with a brand new ceremonial to express for the first time that all liturgical doings depend on the pastor and the pastor's authority.

Perhaps what is most telling about his book is its omission of any actual discussion of the liturgy of baptism. Baptism is not an abstract idea, or an excuse for the obliterating of ecclesiastical distinctions; it is a messy and turbulent process, and the baptized have the untidy habit of failing to conform to the desires of liturgists. We do not find in the neat and tidy liturgy described by Giles any description of how the Philadelphia Cathedral celebrates baptism. And while Giles says much about its importance, it is not demonstrated in the liturgy as he describes it.

Well into the book, after we have heard over and over again that each and every thing he does in liturgy is for the sake of making visible the holy priestly vocation of the baptized people of God, we are told that perhaps communion should be offered to the unbaptized. The obliteration of distinction is now complete. Bishops, deacons, and other presbyters have all been stripped of their distinctive liturgical ministry; the lay people have been stripped of their authority in matters liturgical; and baptism is no longer the mark of entrance into the community. The determiner and assigner of all status is the presider, and those to whom he chooses to give that stole.

Thomas Bushnell, BSG


THOMAS BUSHNELL is a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory and a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California at Irvine.