Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dealing With Criticism

Recently I received the following e-mail: (not edited for grammar... name removed)

"I have been away multiple weekends this year and it will continue through the year. so I probably have no right to comment but I find the incense high mass services objectionable and when I mentioned how sad they made me you suggested I go to 8 oclock service. I have to wonder if perhaps the decline in the 10 oclock service is due to the change in high mass services . I do miss singing and what I remember as a low simple service that I associate with St _______. I asked you once what you considered Low Church and you said you'd have to think about it. What have you got against simple services an why cant a service w music w/out incense be offered biweekly to please more people that possible feel as i do.? With hope an respect."

Sigh. How is one to respond to this? Let it be said at the outset that I am very fond of this individual on a personal level. The criticism is the use of incense at our sung Mass at 10:00 a.m. Last year we began using it every Sunday in order to elevate the sense of holiness and beauty in the service. Three people complained... one of whom is this person. At one point she told me that the problem with using incense is that "it brings too much religion into the service." (That's an exact quote.)

The backstory - alluded to in the e-mail - is that this individual and the other two are rarely at church anyway. I know because we are small enough that I can track each person's attendance - and I do so for pastoral reasons. This one - on a year when we had no incense - was only in church 20 times - less than half the time. The others were there even less. One person who, admittedly lives quite far away - was there just 4 times. When I asked where she goes when she's not at our church she told me that she doesn't go anywhere.

What's amazing is that these people come to church so infrequently that they have no idea why the numbers are low. This individual - if she came - would realize that some people have moved, others died, and others have become shut-ins. But they are never here anyway - and were never here much - so they don't know any of that. They hardly know anyone's names for that matter!

So, after ten years of full time parish ministry, I have learned that clergy should not bother responding to e-mails like this. Because no matter the response, people with this attitude are not going to change their ways, and have a spiritual revival, and start coming to church, and supporting the ministry, etc. I've heard of innumerable troubles that clergy invite on themselves by answering people like this... spiritually dead people with hardened hearts. It is best for clergy to focus their energy on the people in their church who are responding positively and build the church from there. When repeated efforts to teach people fail - because they are not around, and don't read anything you send - the only thing that you can do is pray for them, as taking them seriously any other way could put them in spiritual danger.


  1. Father, I am not clergy, but I can empathize with your complaint. It is not easy to be in the continuing Church these days (was it ever?), and we all (laity as well as clergy) need to draw deeply on our reserves of patience and flexibility.

    I personally am fond of incense, a taste I have acquired after a rather Low Church upbringing, but I am always finding myself in situations where I need - and always try - to suspend my preferences (or, to "bite my tongue") - I believe the term adiaphora describes such non-essentials - it should be the watchword of anyone (again, laity as much or more than clergy) hoping to make a go of it in the continuing Anglican church.

    We don't know each other, but I wanted to drop a note of support as I have found your postings (and your art) to be helpful and inspiring in the past.

    All the best -


  2. Thanks, TBM. Your message is the "Balm of Gilead!" Thank you for your kind words and support. May the Lord bless and keep you.

  3. Amusing if aggravating letter! My plug for the ancient apostolic churches: it's not a matter of the priest or the congregation liking the incense; the liturgy almost has a life of its own, evolving into what it is, regardless. So all the priest has to do is point to the rubrics and say, basically, "My hands are tied." As you know, in these churches' liturgies, the solemn sung form, smoke and all, is the theoretical norm.