Christian Worship in the Season of Civil Religion

Mark Gorman

Every calendar year the strength of the Christian sense of time recedes just as it faces its greatest test. Christians derive our sense of time from our worship. Even where the lectionary is not read and the liturgical calendar is unknown, worship helps supply a Christian answer to the question: What time is it? Around Christmas, the answer is: Time to celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God. At Easter: Time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lectionaries and liturgical calendars can strengthen and supplement those answers. (Advent: time to get ready for Jesus. Lent: time to recommit ourselves to holy living. Holy Week: time to accompany Jesus in his journey from the triumphal entry to the crucifixion.) Even without them, Christian worship gives a sense of the time.

Christian time is strongest at Christmas and Easter because of the power of the seasonal narratives: good storytelling helps people keep track of time. Both seasons have also attracted extra-Christian celebrations that mix with Christian traditions, to the consternation and fear of some. A certain segment of Christians delights in pratting on about “keeping Christ in Christmas,” and I expect that a friend’s pastor was not alone in his sentiments when he advised his congregation to rethink the “pagan” ritual of the Easter egg hunt. Ironically, however, without the strength of the Christian stories of Christmas and Easter the tension between Christian and extra-Christian celebrations would be far less noticeable.

After the Easter season, which ends with Pentecost, the narrative strength of Christian time dissipates. Liturgical calendars enter a nebulous season called “Ordinary Time” or “After Pentecost.” Here the answer to the question What time is it? Is: Time to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. There is wisdom in this season, since the church lives in the time “after Pentecost,” and Christian discipleship is rather more ordinary than the periods of fasting and feasting that run from Advent to the fiftieth day of Easter suggest. But this seasonal open-endedness means that the “Ordinary Time” (whether liturgically observed or not) lacks a unifying narrative to differentiate itself from other ways of telling time.

The heart of the problem, in the US, is that, just as Ordinary Time starts to say, “It’s time to be a disciple of Jesus Christ,” another calendar says, “It’s time to be a (loyal, patriotic) American.” This is the Season of Civil Religion, which begins on Mother’s Day, continues through Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Veterans’ Day, and ends with Thanksgiving. Depending on when Easter falls and Advent (if observed) begins, the Season of Civil Religion coincides mostly or completely with Ordinary Time.

The Season of Civil Religion has an even less coherent narrative structure than Ordinary Time, but it has a strong performative dimension that the Christian season, especially among Protestants, sorely lacks. Thus, the Season of Civil Religion tests the Christian sense of time just at the point where the narrative strength of Christian time fades. And without the narrative tension between the Christian and the civil religious senses of time, one may collapse into the other without anyone noticing. Congregations that would never allow time in worship for shopping for Christmas presents on Amazon gladly make room for flower giveaways or flag presentations. Singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance creates no adverse reaction among people who would be enflamed at replacing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” with “Easter Parade” or Luke 2 with “The Night before Christmas.”

On the one hand, strong-willed leaders can utter a Barthian Nein! to the Season of Civil Religion and press on with Ordinary Time, if they want conflict. On the other hand, while yielding completely to that season is a form of apostasy, it may be hard to judge the impact of even seemingly modest prudential decisions to permit bits of civil religion into the Christian calendar. One possibility is reenergizing Christian Ordinary Time celebrations (e.g., Aldersgate Day on May 24, Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24, Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6, All Saints’ on November 1, etc.), but on its own this approach also has its challenges, not least the risk of falling into a Niehburian Christ-or-culture trap.

In the end, gentle redirection may be the best tactic. A friend, newly appointed, walked into the sanctuary before his first Sunday (Why must United Methodists make pastors deal with this issue right at the start of their appointments?!), where he discovered the front of the sanctuary overwhelmed by patriotic décor, including on the Communion Table. He asked the members to remove all the decorations because he wanted on his first Sunday to make sure the congregation’s “attention was completely on Christ and nothing else.” Remarkably, they complied with no protests or complaints. With such faith, could we also discover, as St. Paul might say, that whenever the Christian calendar is weak, then it is strong?

Posted Jun 03, 2019

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