Is LC PC? How 'liturgically correct' should our worship be?

PC—Politically Correct. It’s a topic that has recently been a favorite of the columnists and commentators, as well as making the rounds on the late–night TV news analysis and call–in show circuit.

The debate, largely confined to academic circles, rages around issues such as the interpretation and revision of history the cultural biases of books, and the use of gender–neutral language. Depending on your sympathies, the PC police have an alternative, multicultural, feminist perspective (and are sometimes considered bleeding–heart elitists who smother all dissent and enforce unilateral acceptance of their opinions). Their opponents in the debate champion academic tolerance and freedom of inquiry as a way of defending their more traditional theories, methods, and texts (and are sometimes viewed as racist, sexist reactionaries trying to maintain their Euro–American, male dominance).

My interest here is not to add to the PC debate. But reading and hearing about it, I have been reminded of a somewhat similar attitude in much of the mainline Protestant church, an attitude that I have dubbed LC—Liturgically Correct.

The criteria for being LC would probably include such items as preaching exclusively from the lectionary, celebrating some of the more esoteric holidays of the Christian year, and using any liturgical practice that includes Latin terminology (or in the Reformed tradition, any liturgical practice that can be considered, relatively speaking, "high church"). A friend of mine has jokingly referred to LC ministers as "Episcopalian wannabees."

Lest you prematurely try to pigeonhole my opinions and presume to know my conclusions, let me say that if charged with being PC and LC, I would probably have to plead guilty on both counts. Liturgically, the congregation I pastored would score fairly high on the LC scale and certainly moved in that direction while I was the pastor. Politically I hold most of the "correct" positions, use the "correct" language, and have been known to accuse anyone who differs with me of being a fascist.

But while I love and appreciate LC worship, something about it makes me uncomfortable. Often I fear LC church folk display the same rigid intolerance that has drawn so much ire toward the PC position. There is sometimes a certain liturgical snobbishness about being LC. Case in point: the LC disdain for nineteenth–century hymns and contemporary Christian music, both of which LC’s describe as maudlin, syrupy, and individualistic. Granted, classical LC music may meet higher theological and musical standards, but that shouldn’t give LC’s license to smugly dismiss all other music. After all, how much of being "tasteful" is just that—a matter of personal taste?

Liturgy is a reflection of one’s theology or so I have been taught. Yet isn’t liturgy also a reflection of one's sociology? Along with becoming LC, persons often develop a penchant for Volvos, tortoise–shell glasses, and gourmet coffee. Being LC is a sign of upward mobility.

At first glance, much LC worship appears to be PC. Inclusive language is used in the liturgy. PC causes are endorsed in the sermon and included in the prayers. Still, in many ways being LC seems at odds with being PC. I remember the surprise I had in seminary while reading Juan Luis Segundo, a liberation theologian (so, it seems safe to assume, also PC). These were the heady days when I was being groomed into the LC person I am today. Yet Segundo clashed with my LC seminary education by criticizing the "unvarying liturgical elements, pre–established readings, unchanging Eucharistic service, and eternal return of the same feasts on the yearly liturgical calendar."

Segundo argued that liturgy becomes an ahistorical "idol" that dulls the church's ability to pay "attention to the signs of the time." From Segundo's liberationist perspective, the church should be about reading the signs of the time and being sensitive to history, yet liturgy "remains the same before and after a general disaster, an international crisis, and a thoroughgoing revolution... to the majority of Christians [this] undoubtedly means that God is more interested in nontemporal things than in solutions for the historical problems that are cropping up."

Obviously, one does not have to accept Segundo’s critique, but at the very least he points to some of the tensions between being LC and PC. Is LC worship truly worship from an alternative, multicultural, underclass perspective? No. LC worship is the worship of the powers–that–be, the worship of the people who have controlled this country for over two hundred years. LC worship is the worship of Wall Street and Congress—and the worship of that well–known just–war theologian of the late twentieth century, G.H.W. Bush.

Perhaps liturgies, like ideologies, are not responsible for the persons who practice them. I am not advocating doing away with everything LC simply because it is favored by the rich and powerful elite. But I wonder if there isn’t a certain irony to having a liturgical renaissance in the Protestant church while at the same time working toward giving a voice to the oppressed and expressing our solidarity with the poor.

More important than being a PC or LC church is being a church that is faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Is Segundo right in calling our liturgies an idol? Have we reached the point of liturgy for liturgy's sake? Let us confess that being LC is a source of pride, a vestige of a "culturally superior" attitude, an exclusivistic intolerance that has been a barrier to the gospel. We can still treasure a great heritage of liturgical traditions. But that heritage need not only include the traditions of Rome, Canterbury or sixteenth–century Geneva. It might also incorporate the worship of African–American churches, Hispanic Pentecostal churches, the churches of Appalachia, and maybe even that little Holiness Church down the road.

Stephen Mathonnet-VanderWell is a pastor in the Reformed Church in America and is currently doing graduate work at Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts.