A Book Review – Call and Response: Litanies for Congregational Prayer, by Fran Pratt

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:

Pratt, Fran. (2018) Call and Response: Litanies for Congregational Prayer. Outpost Press.

 

The Rev Fran Pratt has been on a faith journey which may be familiar to many Christians. She has gone from the charismatic experience of certitude within the Vineyard Fellowship to a place of doubt and uncertainty, where prayer did not come easily to her. She then found a place within a Reformed Church of America congregation in San Francisco where ordered prayer allowed her to re-experience Spirit back to a place of faith. The experience of ordered prayer became part of her regular spiritual practice (even to the point of buying a copy of the Book of Common Prayer), and now forms part of her ministry at Peace of Christ Church, a church in Texas which is part of the Alliance of Baptists.

She describes this experience poignantly, as a meditation, in the Introduction to this volume, subtitled ‘How Liturgy Saved My Life’. In fact, I found the Introduction the most fascinating part of this volume. This is a Christian who, like many others, has made a transition from certitude to doubt to faith. This journey, though, unlike many others, has not been marked primarily by shifts in theological principles or styles of Biblical hermeneutics (although I suspect these may have undergone change as well). Rather, it is a shift in spiritual practice, more specifically, in accessing the resources of corporate prayer which have been based in Scripture, the heritage of the church catholic, and the strains of wisdom found in modern writers through which the voice of God is heard anew, which has undergirded her faith journey.

I find this inspiration by the practice of prayer and worship to be uniquely refreshing and not unlike my own awakening to the liturgical heritage of the universal church which I experienced as I took the first steps in answering a call to ministry. The only point of caution I would raise concerns her perception of what prayer was like in her former charismatic Christian experience:

I’d absorbed the idea that the best, holiest kind of praying was done extemporaneously – no one ever said this out loud to me; rather it was communicated by emphasis and practice. You stood up and prayed whatever came to mind. Anything else was lesser, emptier, overly formal and rote. (p. iv)

As a person who has ministered and worshiped in places where the evangelical and charismatic strains of Christianity have held sway, I can say with some certainty that the testimonies and prayers which were held up as being ex tempore, or as the participants would say, ‘from the heart and not from a book’, had recognizable stock phrases and formulae (disclosure: I work as an English teacher, and oral discourse analysis formed part of my Master’s degree studies). In fact, in a search I did as part of preparing for this review, I discovered a doctoral thesis on evangelical Christian altar calls[1]. I believe that if we scratch the surface hard enough, there are structures which support and enable these supposedly ‘spontaneous’ utterances.

As worthwhile as these queries are, I must proceed to the ‘meat’ of the text – the prayer litanies which Pratt has written and offers to those preparing for Christian worship. She has organized them into groups – Litanies for ‘Looking Inward’, ‘Looking Outward’, ‘Coping’, ‘Church Rituals’, and ‘Communal Worship’. There are further litanies contained in Appendices focused on ‘Injustice’, ‘Advent’, and ‘Lent’. Tantalizingly, her ‘bonus litany’ is a litany ‘for the Heretics’.

While all of the litanies are meant to be used in a church context, some, especially within the ‘Coping’ section, may be especially appropriate in small group contexts. The ‘Communal Worship’ section appear to be quite appropriate to use as ‘gathering litanies’ for the community as it comes together for worship. The language, while leaning toward traditional formulations of the Divine, is gender inclusive. Though I am reading them as a reviewer and not within a public worship context, I find the most effective litanies are characterized by the following characteristics:

  • Repeated responses – It seems to me that the litanies which contain series of petitions with a single response would allow the individual worshipper to commune with Spirit at a deeper level. For example, in the ‘Litany for Stillness’ (p.12f.) we find:

 

That we often avoid quiet reflection,

We confess to you, Oh God.

That we often mistake stillness for sloth,

We confess to you, Oh God.

That we often become hoodwinked by our culture of excess,

We confess to you, Oh God.

That intentional stillness often requires great effort from us,

We confess to you, Oh God.

 

When we are running around, attending to our to-do lists,

It’s you we seek.

When we are looking for pleasure and consolation,

It’s you we seek.

When we are in need of affirmation and success,

It’s you we seek.

When we are avoiding our pain, or nursing our wounds,

It’s you we seek.

 

When trying to use communal prayer to help the individual experience Spirit, fewer words are often better.

 

  • Repeated forms – Where a series of thoughts are put together, the use of a chain of similarly constructed clauses or phrases can effectively emphasize and reinforce those thoughts, such as in the ‘Litany for the Earth’ (p.22f.):

 

Arouse in us a new compassion,

A new willingness to change,

A new excitement to foster community,

A new zeal for establishing the Peace of God,

A new understanding of the connectedness of all things,

A new appreciation of the gift of Earth.

 

  • Parallelsim – Echoing the Psalms and other poetic parts of the Scriptures, the repetition or mirroring of ideas can be effective. A simple example is found in the ‘Litany for Justice and Equality’ (p.33)

 

Our way is not of violence and empire, but in the power and beauty of the cross.

Our faith is not in politics, but in the transforming love of Christ.

 

The expression of our faith is at its most powerful when it enters the realm of the poetic. Echoing the poetry of Scripture can be a most profound tool of inspiration.

This works is not without its places for improvement, though. If there is anything which I find can use more work in Pratt’s craft of litany writing, it is the tendency to split sentences where it reads like a single thought has been ripped in half, making less sense as a consequence. This can happen in juxtaposition to some of the positive elements in Pratt’s litanies, for in the same ‘Litany for the Earth’. There is:

Even now we realize that our home

Is suffering,

Help us to become aware

Of the needs of humanity,

I find that this kind of splitting simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, does this problem render such a litany unusable? By no means! From my experience as a language teacher, I bring the MAD principle into my use of worship materials by other writers – Modify, Add, and Delete. I never treat worship materials as finished works. They are palettes for me to use in order to help create the forms of expression which (I hope) will bring the attendees to the services that I lead into a greater sense of the Holy.

The other area for improvement is in Pratt’s tentative steps toward language which fully affirms sexual and gender minorities. I see from the website of the congregation she serves that it appears to be genuinely affirming[2]. Can that not be more fully expressed in the worship materials she writes? She does hint at it in places, but I see a glaring omission of this respect in her litany written in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre in Orlando, Florida. She gets full marks for naming terrorism, and I can understand that this litany needs to be anonymized for general use. However, she identified it as being written in the aftermath of the Pulse Massacre. This litany as it stands does not address the reality that those who were killed and wounded were gunned down because they were LGBT or supported LGBT persons. As someone who ministers to persons who are members of the sexual and gender minorities communities, I don’t think skirting around this reality really honors the memory of the forty-nine angels of Pulse, nor does it honor the identity of the sexual/gender minority members and attendees she serves. This being noted, I’m again not going to say this resource is useless because of this error. There’s too much that is good here that should not be thrown away. The MAD principle applies here, as well.

In closing, then, I view Fran Pratt’s Call and Response as a valuable set of resources which can be used in a variety of congregational and group settings for local church worship and prayer. They are informed by the resources of the Universal Church – the Scriptures, the rhythm of the liturgy, and new wisdom. Wherever there are shortcomings, I encourage liturgists and worship leaders to add, delete, or modify as is appropriate to their local situation. I particularly recommend it to those who come from backgrounds which don’t emphasize the corporate nature of prayer. These are resources steeped in Scriptural allusions, carrying with them the best of the worship traditions of the Universal Church.

[1] Bryan, C D (2016 May). “Heads Bowed, Eyes Closed”: Analyzing The Discourse Of Online Evangelical Altar Calls. PhD Dissertation, Middle Tennessee State University.

[2] As noted in the website of Peace of Christ Church (peacewilco.com)

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Craig-ey, Are You Queer?

Yes, this is a take-off on that classic 80s new wave tune (it’s too poppy to call it punk) by Josie Cotton, ‘Johnny Are You Queer?’ Let’s re-familiarize ourselves with that tune, why don’t we?

Well, it’s there if you’d like to…

Anyway, in researching the reactions to this song[1], I found out some interesting stuff about various reactions to it:

  • One Christian radio network played the song at half-speed and claimed Josie Cotton was a gay man trying to encourage other men to embrace homosexuality (!!);

 

  • The Advocate accused her of being a homophobe and the The Village Voice posed a question on its cover, ‘Josie, Are You A Bitch?’;

 

  • It has been claimed that many people were able to come to terms with their sexuality as a result of the song, including at least one self-confessed ‘gay rocker’, Adam Block;

 

  • Controversy re-ignited when a new version was remixed by a gay rap duo called Elephant – Josie Cotton was invited to New York Pride in 2010, while one of the original songwriters claimed the song was homophobic.

 

Some things just tend to naturally attract controversy, I guess…

 

The reason I offer this as prologue is because of a trend I have noticed in Metropolitan Community Churches these days. A notable number of clergy and lay leaders within MCC have been calling for a renewed emphasis on MCC as a ‘queer movement’, with some saying/writing this was an intent of the original movement as begun by the Rev Eder Troy Perry which has not been focused on as it should be in recent times. I have been part of at least one conversation in one of the leadership fora on Facebook for MCC leaders where a leader has asserted that leaders and members of MCC should embrace the label ‘queer’, in some way, as part of their identity. There was a morning Bible study at the most recent MCC General Conference which had as its focus ‘Queering the Bible’. In the congratulations which were offered recently for the latest group of ordinands in MCC, many people felt the need to highlight the importance of these new pastors-to-be as ‘queer clergy’.

 

And I’ve been thinking, ‘Uh, is there some kind of subtle (or not-so-subtle), unintentional (or not-so-unintentional) message being communicated to non-SGM persons like me?’

 

Let me make some things clear. I’m not an expert in queer theology, but I am aware of it and of its roots in liberation theology. I have read at least one of the significant works of one of its major thought leaders, the late Marcella Althaus-Reid[2]. I know that queer theology is a challenge to the Christian church to break out of heteronormative restraints and embrace understandings of God, Jesus, the Scriptures, and theological doctrines that come from below, specifically from the experience of sexual and gender minorities. This is the natural outgrowth of any theology which genuinely sets to liberate.

I’m also aware that the word ‘queer’ has definite overtones of sexual identity and/or gender expression in the community we serve. For many from older generations, it still has the sting of an expletive, meant to demean and degrade. For younger persons, it is a word which is being reclaimed as a source of power and strength. Nonetheless, it is a word which is historically based in non-heterosexual, non-cisgender expressions and identities.

I’m also familiar with the notion of the ‘straight queer / queer heterosexual’[3]. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this means. I find it quite confusing. I can make some claim to being queer because I like to cook? There is some ‘queerness’ in my advocacy for sexual and gender minorities? I have expressed forms of friendly affection with a variety of persons on the sexual orientation and gender spectra – but does this require that I take on the ‘queer’ label?

Why should I have to take on ANY label to sufficiently ‘pass’ within my faith community? The only reason I can think of to do this is if Metropolitan Community Churches is going to make the transition from being a fellowship of Christian churches to being a type of ‘queer movement’, a phrase which I have heard in one form or other recently. It may very well be that MCC will transition into an ‘Association of Metropolitan Communities’. In such a reality, it may very well be that ‘queerness’ will be the identifying feature that binds all members together. But for now, we are still a fellowship of Christian churches. In that context, it’s my baptism which is my ultimate identifier. All other monikers which I may claim for myself, or which others would try to foist on me, are secondary:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

I’ll do my best to speak for myself, but I believe it’s no more genuine for me to try to embrace the label ‘queer’ any more than it is for me as a white person to be singing in a black Gospel choir[4]. The African-American/black gospel/spiritual experience is rooted in the heritage of slavery and oppression, something which I as a white North American male have NEVER experienced – but it’s a situation which I see (sadly) many black Americans being dragged back into, through a combination of a lack of economic opportunities, police brutality, and an oppressive (in)justice system.

I believe Dora Mortimer is onto something when they write:

Queer means lots of things to lots of different people. Its definition defies any meaning that is pinned to it. For many, it is a political persuasion as well as a sexual one…(However), (f)or someone who is homosexual and queer, a straight person identifying as queer can feel like choosing to appropriate the good bits, the cultural and political cache, the clothes and the sound of gay culture, without the laugh riot of gay-bashing, teen shame, adult shame, shame-shame, and the internalized homophobia of lived gay experience.[5]

I am a cisgender, heterosexual man of European heritage, married to a woman. I have also walked down the streets of Wonju (my hometown in South Korea) hand-in-hand with my best Korean friend, another cisgender heterosexual man. In my friendships and my pastoral practice, I regularly share signs of affection with gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, polyamorous, and non-binary/genderfluid persons. What the hell does that make ME?!

I remember reading a review of the movie Boy Meets Girl, where Ricky, a transgender woman in small-town Kentucky, has a romantic encounter with Francesca, an almost stereotypical southern belle engaged to an American Marine on duty in Afghanistan. After their first moment together, Francesca tries to make sense of what this means to her. The review recounts the scene like this:

The sweet crux of the movie can be summed up in one back-and-forth between Francesca and Ricky after their first romantic encounter. Francesca wonders aloud if falling for a woman with a penis means she’s gay. “It has to make me something,” she says. Ricky doesn’t skip a beat: “Human?” she replies.[6]

It would be very easy to fall into a very facile, Tucker Carlson-esque ‘Everybody’s human’ or ‘All lives matter’ schtick. If we’re going to use those expressions, we need to very clear about who we’re including under ‘all lives’, and who is truly ‘human’. Talking about being ‘human’ or to talk about ‘lives that matter’ is worthless unless I’m willing to include the entire length and breadth of humanity. That includes racial diversity, including those of multiple ethnicities; everyone from rich to the poorest of the poor; and the entire rainbow of sexualities, gender identities and expressions, and relationship statuses. Anything less is without meaning.

With this in mind, I still must claim room for my voice, as a cisgender, heterosexual man of European heritage. It is only one voice among many, but it is A voice which still deserves to be heard, especially in a church context where all those who are part of the covenant community are equally important. And just because I express myself in ways which do not fit within a stereotypical ‘macho’ male style, that doesn’t mean I have to take on a label which simply doesn’t feel right to me.

In conclusion, then, to answer the question posed in the title, ‘Craig-ey, are you queer?’ I answer, ‘No, and I don’t need to be. I am a voice among the many voices which make up the rich tapestry of humankind. I know other many other voices, especially those from the margins, need to be listened to, and I am committed to making room for those voices, even if it means I need to be reminded to stand aside for a while. But there are also times when it’s right for me to speak my truth, and I’ll do it when the time and the occasion merit it.’

[1] In Fitzharris, D (2010, August 22) Catching Up With Josie Cotton. In Out [online], retrieved 24 August 2019 from https://www.out.com/entertainment/2010/08/22/catching-josie-cotton; and Rockwell, ‘Confessions of a Gay Rocker, in Cateforis, T, The Rock History Reader, (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 185-92.

[2] Althaus-Reid (2003). The Queer God. London: Routledge.

[3] One expression of this can be found in Smith, C (1997) ‘How I Became A Queer Heterosexual’, a paper presented at “Beyond Boundaries,” An International Conference on Sexuality, University of Amsterdam, July 29-Aug 1, 1997

[4] I have personally witnessed this in at least one case, in Nova Scotia, Canada.

[5] Mortimer, D (2016, 10 February). Can Straight People Be Queer? In Vice [online]. Retrieved 25 June 2019 from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/avy9vz/can-straight-people-be-queer-435.

[6] Merry, S (2015, February 12). ‘Boy Meets Girl’ movie review: A small-town transgender love story. The Washington Post [online]. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/boy-meets-girl-movie-review-a-small-town-transgender-love-story/2015/02/11/d8ff2e1e-ae32-11e4-9c91-e9d2f9fde644_story.html?utm_term=.c9a4c568cf09.