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Courting Reverence

November 19th, 2006
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A pastor friend of mine sent me this absolutely spot-on article on the banality and lack of reverence that seems to be the "style" these days in many congregations. I find myself wondering why it is that parents permit their children to show up at church dressed like they just woke up and threw on whatever they could grab. In the case of many teenagers coming looking like slobs. I know that is blunt, but it is true. Imagine  if they were to attend a solemn court of law proceeding, or a funeral of a loved one, or even their High School Prom or Homecoming dances dressed in such sloppy fashion? Would they show up dressed like such bums? Perhaps they are encouraged toward such "informality" by the pastor who runs through the liturgy looking at his watch, fearful that the service will go past 60 minutes, or who drones through the words of the Lord’s Supper as if he is reading yesterday’s news. I suspect, they are not receiving the kind of parental guidance they need in such matters. Am I suggesting that they should wear dresses and coats and ties? If they are old enough, why not? If the family is financially able to afford one formal set of clothes, why not?

And consider the conduct of the liturgy in many of our congregations, or the constructions of our houses of worship. Some look more like non-denom barns, or concert halls, than holy houses where the Blessed Trinity is worshipped and where He tabernacles among His people under the bread and wine of the Holy Supper. Where is the sense of awe, reference, holiness that God intends for His people when they come before Him?

The article was written by Father Scalia, son of the Supreme Court justice, which explains the very well done courtroom analogy.

  has the courtroom retained the reverence the Mass has lost?

may not have recognized Sean Combs or Marshall Bruce Mathers III as
they appeared for their court dates recently. The irony is, their fans
would not have recognized them either. Mr. Combs aka Puffy or Puff
Daddy and Mr. Mathers aka Eminem or Slim Shady are giants in the world
of rap music. They both have enormously successful careers carefully
established on a "bad boy" rebel image. In fact, Mr. Combs is CEO of
Bad Boy Entertainment.

But for court they departed from
  their regular image and behavior. Gone were the baseball caps,
  sunglasses, gold chains, leather jackets, t-shirts and baggy
  jeans so familiar in the rap music crowd. Each of them wore a
  nice new suit and a sharp tie. They did not have the defiant,
  violent, in-your-face attitude that their music carries and that
  they display on stage. Rather, they sat still and respectfully
  in the courtroom as everyone else does.

As far as I know, courtrooms
  do not have a dress code. But everyone senses the seriousness
  of the business conducted there. They dress and act accordingly.
  The dramatic distinction between courtroom behavior and regular
  behavior calls to mind the distinction that should but does not
  exist between the sacred and profane in Catholic churches.


In many ways the courtroom resembles
  a church, or at least what a church should be. Its benches look
  like pews. The man who presides is robed in black. He renders
  judgment from a sort of sanctuary: from a large table, usually
  elevated, set apart many times by what looks like an altar rail.
  The bailiff functions as his acolyte and the jury could be his
  choir. Proper reverence must be maintained in the courtroom:
  when the judge enters, the people stand; to speak with him, you
  must ask to approach the bench. People always dress respectfully
  for the courtroom and, if they must speak, they do so in hushed


Alas, despite these similarities,
  the courtroom clearly receives more respect and reverence than
  a church. It certainly elicits a distinction from our dress-casual
  culture that a church no longer does. The sanctuary of a church
  is no longer set apart: people do not think twice about approaching
  it and even walking through it if they want. The altar in many
  cases is not elevated, not distinguished from the congregation
  in any real sense. People do not dress respectfully for church.
  And when was the last time they merely whispered?


The fact that the courtroom has
  maintained a distinction between the casual and serious the sacred
  and profane, in effect while the Mass has not, indicates that
  current irreverence for the Mass is not just a product of larger
  cultural decay. The courtroom shows that we can still maintain
  reverence in our culture. The way people respond to the Mass
  indicates something drastically wrong with the way Mass is celebrated
  and the way our churches have been redesigned.

 Serious Business
The courtroom is a place of serious business: it is where life
  and death issues are decided, where a man’s future hangs in the
  balance, where fortunes are won or lost, debts are settled, and
  guilt is bound or loosed. Even though the "proceedings"
  of church conduct a "business" infinitely more important
  than any courtroom’s, people have no sense of it. They do not
  realize that the Mass makes present the victory of life over
  death, and gives us our inheritance as children of God. Granted,
  unlike court proceedings, the Mass does not determine guilt or
  innocence but instead celebrates and communicates reconciliation.
  Further, at Mass we approach God not only as supplicants but
  also and even more as children. Nonetheless, the Mass (and Confession,
  Eucharistic Adoration, etc.) deals with forgiveness and punishment,
  with innocence and guilt, with eternal salvation and damnation.
  That is the most serious business.

Why then does our culture respect
  and revere the courtroom, while it practically scorns churches?
  Obviously there are many general causes, most obviously the loss
  of the sense of sin, which obscures the seriousness of any religious
  undertaking. But a comparison of the respect for the courtroom
  with the irreverence for the Mass isolates two specific causes
  for the latter: the priest-host and the egalitarian architecture.

"Good morning!"

First of all, no judge would ever lower his courtroom to the
  level that many priests bring the sacred liturgy. "Good
  morning!" Would an important trial ever begin with such
  a trite greeting? Would a judge announce the birthdays or anniversaries
  of people in the courtroom? Would he ease the tension of the
  courtroom by beginning with a joke? It would be rare indeed for
  a judge to act so flippantly during a trial. He has the power
  to silence people in the courtroom and even to hold them "in
  contempt of court". The judge knows that the tension in
  the courtroom is healthy because it focuses everyone on the serious
  business before them. If he dilutes this tension, he lessens
  the importance of his role, his words, and his courtroom. The
  judge understands a basic paradox: if the courtroom has the atmosphere
  of everyday life, then it no longer has any relevance for everyday

The Mass has a similar tension.
  The formal greetings, the reminders of sin, the call to repentance,
  the invitations to prayer, etc. all these create a healthy tension
  that reminds us of the importance of the Liturgy. Unfortunately,
  many priests see themselves as hosts charged with the task of
  entertaining and consequently do not see the benefit of this
  tension. They do not understand that it elicits reverence and
  respect for the Liturgy. As a result, such priests diffuse the
  tension with casual greetings, jokes, and references to secular
  celebrations. They intend to relax the congregation and put people
  at ease. They instead produce a casual, mediocre and often meaningless
  atmosphere. They do not understand the paradox: if the Mass has
  the atmosphere of everyday life, then it no longer has any relevance
  for everyday life.

Seating is Everything
Second, those who design courtrooms understand the importance
  of the physical arrangement of the people. Not everyone is on
  the same level. The gallery is normally distinguished somehow
  from the lawyers. The jury has its own area, and the judge looks
  down from what is obviously the most important seat in the house.
  The use of rails, benches, and tables to distinguish the participants
  reminds everyone of the hierarchy essential for the business
  involved. Further, courtrooms rarely, if ever, look cheap. In
  fact, they normally have dignified furniture of the finest wood
  and dark colors that bring a solemn tone to the whole place.
  All the physical furnishings communicate a dignity that no one
  fails to notice.

For centuries, churches had a
  similar design. The congregation occupied the nave, while the
  ministers served in the sanctuary, set apart by an altar rail
  and elevated by a couple of steps. The layout reflected the hierarchy
  of the Church that is essential to the Liturgy. The furnishings
  and building materials conveyed a dignity and seriousness.

Now, however, new churches display
  a more egalitarian architecture, and old churches twist and turn
  to accommodate the new thinking. The altar may be on the same
  level as the congregation and even moved out to be in the midst
  of the people. Chairs that can be easily moved and rearranged
  have replaced the pews. Kneelers have been eliminated and the
  altar rail, of course, has long since been removed. These new
  designs destroy the distinction between the people and the ministers
  and effectively eliminate any sense of the hierarchical structure
  of the Church and of the Mass. If a courtroom were designed like
  this the people would ask, "Who is in charge"? Catholics
  may ask the same at many parishes.


Moreover, these new and renovated
  churches tend to look quite cheap. Movable chairs, so important
  for quickly changing the church into a concert hall, do not convey
  seriousness, dignity or reverence. Rather, they bear a striking
  resemblance to kitchen chairs. One theologian calls all this
  the "domestication of transcendence". In other words,
  we feel at home in the church so why should we regard it as special?


The Mass, and a church in general,
  should be a refuge of reverence in the midst of a culture that
  increasingly reveres nothing a glimpse of heaven as we progress
  on our pilgrim way. The solution is not to make the Mass into
  a court hearing or churches into courtrooms. They have more differences
  than similarities. Nonetheless, the courtroom has not suffered
  the same trivialization and irreverence inflicted on the Mass.
  Insofar as these two are similar, then, we should learn what
  elicits reverence and what we should retain of our tradition.

If in doubt, we can always ask Puff Daddy and Slim Shady.

Adoremus Bulletin – Online

  – Vol. VII, No. 6: September 2001
Father Scalia, a priest of
  the diocese of Arlington, is a frequent contributor to the
Adoremus Bulletin.

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  1. November 19th, 2006 at 18:58 | #1

    Dressing Up for God

  2. Mike
    November 20th, 2006 at 09:31 | #2

    As a young pup, it wasn’t too long ago that I was a child growing up in church. Maybe I’m getting too old too fast which will be proven by this “geezer” comment:
    When did it become okay to run around in church?
    I still remember the beatings that I got in the choir dressing room for acting a fool in church. I can recall (with cold chills) disruptive children being dragged down the isle to be “corrected” out in the hall if they decided to cut up during the sermon.
    …of course, that also happened if I acted that way in resteraunts, buses, school, the bank, and even Grandpa’s house.
    I am starting to think that this lack of respect is something the new generation is growing up with. Are we teaching that God’s house is just another building?
    McCain: Yes, and as a parent not to far removed from the toddler stage, let’s talk about bringing snacks, beverages and a small toy box with the kiddies to church. Our method was to treat infants as infants, of course, and young children as young children, but once they reached the age of 2 or so, they could know full well when it was time for peace and quiet. Parents who coddle their children when they are three, four, five and more in church are doing both themselves, and their children, a true disservice.

  3. organshoes
    November 20th, 2006 at 16:16 | #3

    I was in local chancery court a year ago, where lawyers do more standing before the judge than citizens, who largely stay in the gallery unless called forward, which rarely happened the days I was there.
    But, as attorneys pleaded before the judge at the head of the room, in the gallery the public came and went, whispered and talked, fidgeted and fluttered, while wearing flipflops , blue jeans, and diverse body piercings, exposing cleavage and navels…a veritable parade of modern human indifference.
    We used to dress up for airline flights.
    I think we’re more like cave-dwellers nowadays, who hate to leave our caves–the TV, the internet, the CD-player, the fridge–and will only do so if we can take much of the cave with us: cell phone, water bottle, and pajamas.
    I would imagine that, in another type of courtroom, where the people themselves stand to be actually judged, an attorney cautions how best they should display themselves.
    Fathers of seemingly respectable daughters seem powerless to get them to cover their navels *daily,* lest he be irrelvant to her–let alone for church.

  4. Bill Kerner
    November 20th, 2006 at 17:54 | #4

    First of all, you may be surprised to know that, in my experience, people come to court a lot more casually than they come to church. Sometimes this produces humorous results (such as the defendant in a drug offense case who showed up in a t-shirt emblazoned with the words; “High Till I Die”).
    The issue of parents bringing small children to church with snacks, toys, etc. reflects a change in culture, but what does it say about children in the church service? OK, so in the old days, parents could keep their children silent with the stern threat of corporal punishment. That doesn’t mean that pre-school, or perhaps even primary grade, children (1) have any idea of what the liturgy is about, (2) understand the sermon, or (3) participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. So, now parents bribe (use positive re-enforcement to get?) their kids to keep still instead of threatening them. The kids still have no idea what’s going on, any more than they did a century ago.
    I am now the father of mostly grown children, but when my kids were small I had no idea how to teach little ones to understand the the order of service. I mean, I eventually got them to understand what a prayer was, and why it was rude to interrupt this kind of conversation, even more so than to interrupt a conversation between mere humans. And I got my youngest to give me a little signal when ever he heard the Gloria Patri, or other parts of the liturgy, thus getting him to listen to the liturgy and hopefully start to understand it. But I kind of made these things up as I went along.
    I guess my point is that it will take a lot more teaching, and less complaining, if you want Lutheran parents to pass on to their children an understanding of, and reverence for, a church service. The parents can’t pass on that which they themselves don’t have, and this culture will not give parents an outlook that (maybe) was taken for granted years ago.

  5. November 20th, 2006 at 20:21 | #5

    Dressing Up for God

    I just ran across this blog post from Pastor Paul McCain. The timing of my finding it is interesting as, earlier today, I read a section on how we dress in a book I’ve been reading (Lauren F. Winner’s, Real Sex).

  6. November 26th, 2006 at 07:35 | #6

    The clergy must accept some responsibility too, sir. McCain: Please read posts more carefully before commenting. This is precisely a point I made in the post.
    When the clergy don’t wear their ‘uniforms’ of collars and vestments during the Divine Service, when they don’t bow or fold their hands at appropriate times and when they show little respect for the Holy Communion or the reading of Holy Scriptures.
    Clergyman, whether they like it or not, are leaders in reverence.
    Not sure who’s responsible for sanctuary to gym of the contemporary/mega church but there’s lack of reverence there, too.

  7. November 28th, 2006 at 08:03 | #7

    At our church many teens come dressed in short skirts and tank tops. I must be a gezzer at 29 because I wouldn’t even wear a sleaveless top to church! Honestly, in our church most people are just happy that folks show up. Telling them what to wear might scare them off!

  8. Bror Erickson
    December 2nd, 2006 at 09:33 | #8

    I once asked my confirmation students if they would dress that way when they had a chance to meet the president. The answer was yes. It seems to me though that as with everything in life there is the tight rope to walk. Dressing up for church out of respect for God, can quickly make the center isle of the nave a cat walk. (I’m to sexy for my alb…) I guess though I’d rather see my highschool students wearing Armani suits than see them pulling their pants as they leave the altar rail.
    McCain: I think the chances of teenagers over dressing are fairly remote, but…yes…of course: moderation in all things.

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