Twenty Minutes with Derek Olsen
By Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
Derek Olsen, secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, has a PhD in New Testament and homiletics from Emory University. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, where he lives with his two young daughters and his wife, a priest of the diocese. Olsen created an online site for the Daily Office called St. Bede’s Breviary, and he publishes reflections on liturgical and personal matters at Haligweorc. He served as liturgical editor of the new revision of St. Augustine’s Prayer Book, and is completing a book for Forward Movement on the spirituality of the prayer book.
I remember reading writings from Haligweorc on the internet well before I connected that with your name. How did you choose it?
When I first started blogging, I was hip-deep in my dissertation, which, in part, looked at the preaching of a particular 10th-century English abbot (Ælfric of Eynsham) within his liturgical context. I had Old English on the brain since that was the language he was communicating in. It’s one of the words for sanctuary used in the Old English translation of the Psalms, and described what I saw as the purpose of the blog — a place for my own random thoughts about church happenings, theology, the things that I was researching, and the connections I was seeing between Old English church life and the modern Episcopal Church. The blog gave me a break from my “serious” writing, and gave me an opportunity to write in a more conversational style.
I must say, as far as branding goes, it was just about one of the worst picks ever! It’s odd, it’s not in a language anyone has spoken in several hundred years, it looks fairly unpronounceable, and it’s really easy to misspell! (Actually, it’s not that hard to say; phonetically, it’s just “hallywerk.”) I suppose its chief virtue is that it’s conspicuous for its oddity.
What is your sense of the time when Anglicans would have been using Old English?
We normally date the use of Old English from about A.D. 500 or so until a bit after the Conquest — call it A.D. 1100 — when the language moves into Middle English. It turns out that the very first printing of a text in Old English happened in 1567 when Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, printed one of Ælfric’s Easter sermons as an attempt to demonstrate that the teaching of the newly reformed Church of England on the Eucharist was consistent with his! (Of course, there are some issues of context and historical development that Archbishop Parker ignored, and that’s a longer conversation for another day.)
What strikes me the most about Ælfric’s writings is this: he wrote upwards of 200 pieces — sermons, biblical paraphrases, letters, notes — in Old English specifically because he says he had seen and heard of so many heresies in English books. His concern was that basic Christian orthodoxy wasn’t making the leap from Latin to English. As a result, his writings communicate the basics of the faith with heavy and clear reliance on the Church Fathers, filtered through a Benedictine common-sense approach that was focused on how ordinary people lived their lives and how their faith mattered. He wasn’t terribly interested in dogmatic theology and doctrinal intricacies; I think he was much more of an ascetical theologian, meaning that he was most interested in the basic habits of faith and the cultivation of virtue.
How is his situation like what we see today?
On one hand, we’re clearly in a better place in the modern Anglican world because we have the Scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Church Fathers in our own language. And yet, there’s still some … unclarity in many places around the fundamentals of the faith and why and how they matter. Whenever I see on Facebook or other places that an Episcopal Adult Ed forum is studying something by Bart Ehrman or Elaine Pagels or one of those folks, I get concerned. Part of their cachet is that they question some of our basic teachings and doctrines, and — frankly — I think we run after what appears to be new and exciting without a good firm grounding in the basics of the faith — the Creeds, the sacraments, sin, grace, and all that — and why these things matter to us. We need the historic teaching of the Church, filtered through good sense (our famous Anglican “full homely divinity”) that focuses on how we live our lives in light of what God has done for us in the person of Jesus.
Much of your work on liturgical matters involves the internet. What is your sense of the positive and negative aspects of the substantial shift from the print medium to digital media?
It’s a mixed bag, but I think far more good is coming out of it than bad. One of the chief differences is that print publication has gatekeepers. There’s always a small group of people with the power to disseminate certain ideas and to suppress others. It’s a control factor. Often it’s a quality control, but there is an inevitable ideological piece to it as well. The digital space doesn’t have this control, at least not to the same degree. Anybody can start writing something on the web and put it out for the world to see; more ideas are getting out there and are read by more people. In the digital world, there’s a de-emphasis on traditional credentials. Ideas can be judged more on whether they appeal to people and make sense. When we’re talking about religion in general or liturgical stuff in particular, it goes back to what we were just talking about: a basic foundation and grounding in the fundamentals is necessary to help you develop a good nose and determine if something passes the sniff test.
What about books in relation to this shift?
I’m for them [laughs]. No, seriously, I like books as physical objects. Just ask my wife and kids; we’ve got tons of bookshelves all over our house. But my wife and I have Kindles and the girls use one of my old ones. I can’t see myself ever not using books as physical objects. At the same time, electronic media are great because they give authors a new flexibility; we’re not tied to certain lengths that are necessary to make a printed volume viable. I can write something fairly short and publish it digitally, and it can stand on its own and be a viable piece of writing without needing enough other stuff around it to form a collection.
Christianity’s incarnational reality — God in man made manifest — seems to stand in contrast to the disembodied setting of online discourse about the life of the Body of Christ in the last decade.
There are two ways to think about this, I think. On the one hand, online discussions of religion are like an iceberg in that the visible part is only a bit of what’s going on. That is, the internet shows us the loudest voices who are the most interested in hearing themselves talk. (And, yes, I’m certainly among the guilty here.) There’s a lot more going on in the Church that doesn’t get discussed or get nearly enough play because it’s not the interesting newsworthy stuff — it’s the day-to-day work of the kingdom. Furthermore, even for those of us on the internet, most of our faith lives are lived out in geographical communities and real-world parishes. There is an inherent embodied and incarnate dimension to it.
On the other hand, one of the real dangers of online discourse is for it to become a congress of the like-minded. Because we can choose our internet conversations and conversation partners in such a particular way, it’s easy to build up echo chambers where the only voices we hear are those we agree with and who share our same basic approach. This leads to a misguided sense of who and what we are and what “normal” churchgoing folk believe. If you only hear your own voice and those who agree with you, you can get a skewed sense of where the mind of the Church is. Once you get that skewed sense, it’s that much easier to fall into Paul’s metaphor of the dysfunctional body and to say to other parts of the Church, “I have no need of you.”
Apple or PC?
Oh, definitely PC! No question about it! See, I got into the personal computer game on the ground floor; my dad and I built our first computer in the basement when I was 5, back in the early ‘80s. I remember the day that we got CPM [the operating system before MS-DOS that would eventually become Windows]. So, I began my life in computers with a hobbyist mentality. I want to be able to open it up and play with the guts, whether that’s hardware or software. Apple was against that from the beginning. I always thought they had an elitist view: “We’ve made the best product possible; tinker with it and you’ll only tarnish its perfection.” When it comes to technical matters, I’m all about the tinkering. I’m committed to open-source and crowd-source models because they foster so much more innovation.
Does that include tinkering with the liturgy?
Ha! No, not so much. The liturgy and the faith are matters of a different order than technology; innovation is not an inherent good in these realms in the same way that it is in technology.
The trick with any open-source or crowd-sourced project is quality control. There’s a certain amount of technical and conceptual knowledge that allows you to make a quality contribution. To be honest, I tinker with the liturgy myself when I go back and add in antiphons and hymns and devotions and other things that have been stripped away by earlier Books of Common Prayer. But I also have a grounding in the history, theology, and spirituality of the liturgy that gives me the technical and conceptual framework to prefer adding in material already worked over for a thousand years rather than trying to stick in something I wrote off the top of my head.
What are your hopes or thoughts about the things Anglicanism has to offer to the wider community of Christians?
Martin Thornton, the Anglican theologian of the last generation, was right on when he said that disputes about orthodoxy and catholicity are best resolved by looking at practice. The historic spiritual practices of the Church, in both East and West, are the Daily Office, the Eucharist, and private prayer in between. As Anglicans, we have retained all three. In most Roman and Orthodox settings, the office is either something restricted to professionals or else is only seen once a week. The prayer book provides a template for a robust liturgical spirituality that is open, accessible, and possible for the whole Christian community, lay and ordained alike. This is one of the treasures of the Christian tradition that we hold in trust for the whole body of Christ. I’m seeing signs of a resurgence of the Office within the Episcopal Church, particularly in private lay use, and I think that’s great!
This is my hope for the Episcopal Church in particular, Anglicanism in general, and the wider Christian community: I want us really to engage the practices of faith that help build up the body of Christ and that further our personal and corporate relationships with the triune God. We have great spiritual riches. The history of the Church is a treasure trove of this stuff — of teachings, and practices, and disciplines. But it’s up to us to bring out the treasures old and new, and to apply them to and within the challenges and struggles of 21st-century life. To bring up Thornton again, he reminds us that the true test of any spiritual practice is whether it builds our capacity to love. If it’s not transforming us according to the mind of Christ and leading us to love God and neighbor, you’re doing it wrong! My prayer for the Church is a simple one, but not an easy one: I pray that the body of Christ grows into the mind of Christ.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., TLC’s archivist, is founder and director of Project Canterbury.