Formality: The Marines Understand, does the Church?
It’s unfortunate that so many think somehow that "informal" is "more meaningful" or that putting on the liturgy in a basically sanctified floor show manner makes it "more special." Serious moments require, yes, demand formality and solemnity, but sadly there are some who would have us believe that unless we can somehow whip a crowd into an emotional frenzy then we are missing the boat. I have had the unfortunate experience of having to suffer through clergymen trying to "lighten up" a beautiful liturgy or formal occasion by interjecting inane banter, sappy sentimentalism and banal remarks, which do nothing more than take my focus from God’s Word and put it squarely on the man making absurdly inappropriate remarks for the context.
Here is a great article from Touchstone magazine that provides a highly challenging rebuttal to these modern church myths. I recommend Touchstone to you, and encourage you to subscribe to it.
An Episcopal Priest on Casual Ministers & Reverent Marines
The funeral was in the chapel of a navy base, conducted by a retired Episcopal
priest of, I believe, Southern middle-of-the-road churchmanship. While the
service was not without reverence and the priest was genuinely considerate
of the sadness of the loss, he seemed to be trying to keep the service casual.
For the homily, he came out from behind the altar and leaned on the end of
it rather than going to the pulpit. When he prepared the vessels on the altar
for Communion, there was no formality to his actions: He might just as well
have been getting dishes out of the kitchen cupboard for lunch.
There were awkward pauses at several points while he flipped through his
book, apparently looking for his place. He also seemed rushed. Since the service
was lengthened by the inclusion of Holy Communion, one began to wonder whether
he was afraid it would run too long, making us late for the committal at the
The deceased was a retired Marine Corps Reserve officer, and, at the request
of his widow, the Marine Corps provided pall bearers, as well as a detail for
the rifle salute and taps at the interment. This took place in a nearby Veterans
Administration cemetery. There the priest first conducted the committal service.
Then the marines took over. Everything they did was deliberate, well practiced,
careful, unhurried. It was pure ritual. It was clear that they took seriously
what they were doing. Every movement had been considered, and, I assume, drilled
ahead of time. It was to be done correctly in every detail, with dignity and
honor, without regard to time: Seemingly this was all that mattered to them.
The precision and dignity was a matter of honor. At the end, the flag was
presented to the widow by the commander of the marines on the base. He could
easily have sent a junior officer to deal with a reserve officer’s burial,
but chose not to. It was all profoundly moving, as a number of mourners remarked
after the services.
The care and dignity of the military rite put the Christian rites to shame.
I don’t believe that the priest was intentionally irreverent or unprepared.
But by comparison with the marines’ reverent ritual, the chapel service
and the committal seemed slapdash.
The contrast says several things:
1. It is hard to be casual and solemn at the same time. The marines’ formality
communicated the seriousness and solemnity of the occasion. The priest’s
casual approach told us that it was a casual and commonplace occasion. No doubt
this reflected our increasingly casual society.
Yet even there, “casual” has its limits. Consider that various
public schools now require uniforms, because they found that the children would
not take school seriously when dressed very casually. Likewise in church: if,
for example, at the “Peace” people are encouraged to greet one
another the way they would at the grocery store, the rite loses some of its
solemnity. Joining others in the worship of Almighty God should be more solemn
than joining them in buying milk and bananas.
2. It is hard to be solemn if you are in a hurry.
Haste says that something else is more important than what you are doing
at present. The marines’ deliberate and unhurried ceremonies showed that
ritual, done with care and attention, can communicate the solemnity of a solemn
occasion, which the burial of the dead certainly is.
The trend in liturgical revision in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches
(and I suspect most Western liturgical churches) in the last forty years has
been to shorten the services, to streamline things, so that people don’t
get bored. Having absorbed this mentality, ministers have become apologetic
for taking any time with the liturgy. The mentality says, “We
know you have more important things to do, so we’ll get through the worship
as quickly as possible.” It tells the people gathered that there is nothing
that requires solemnity, for if worship does not, what does?
3. Ritual still has power, even in a culture that in many ways despises it.
Ritual is commonly seen these days as impersonal, and therefore incompatible
with properly affirming the individual. It has been largely removed from secular
public occasions. A high-school graduation can now be a noisy party, rather
than a solemn ritual to be followed by a party.
It was the marines’ service that brought comment afterwards, not the
Christian liturgy, no doubt because the marines provided the now-foreign experience
of solemn ritual. But the ritual also impressed because it evoked deep within
the human heart that sense of solemnity in communicating the important things
of death, honor, respect, and duty.
4. The Episcopal Church has, in general and with exceptions, for a generation
abjured the kind of formal ritual the marines maintain. This stems, judging
from the words of liturgists and hierarchs, from the desire, common in many
churches of the late 1960s and 1970s, to be more culturally relevant. By contrast,
the message from the marines is: We will do what marines do, whether the culture
understands and affirms it or not. They are willing to be countercultural when
essential character of the Marine Corps demands it.
5. The church rites sought to focus on the individual worshipers and the
deceased; the marines focused on the rite. The individual marines set aside
their individuality in order to serve the common purpose of honoring the dead.
This sacrifice of self for the common purpose itself lends power to ritual,
since we all (the “old man” in us) resist self-sacrifice. If the
marines were bored, or thinking about their girlfriends, or wondering what
was for supper, that fact was well hidden by their participation in the ritual.
The ritual protected them—and us—from their human defects.
6. The marines’ rite pointed to transcendent values: honor, service
of country over self, sacrifice. While the texts of the church service pointed
to redemption and the resurrection of the body, the streamlined texts and the
haste with which they were (and too often are) performed suggested that we
should be thinking about worldly things, the things we’ll shortly be
about, and not about eternal things, like commending the soul of a Christian
man to God.
The casual approach undermines the scriptural content, particularly the horror
of death. And by undermining the horror of death, it undermines the promise
of the Resurrection.
To the embarrassment of the church, the marines were in important ways more
Christian than the churchmen. A solemn occasion like this funeral shows how
much the church has become a creature of the age, and is failing in its duty
to point men to the transcendent and to the greatest of all transcendent goods,
the Triune God. Semper fidelis.
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