The spine of liturgy and faith


Some good liturgies:

  • During a beach service, the preacher stops his homily mid-way, encouraging everyone to come back with breakfast and eat together. They do, and discuss the meal in the context of John 21: 9 – 4.
  • During the prayers of the people at a different beach service, the children get together shaping an area of sand, placing stones and shells in rows and groups while whispering to each other “For my grandma, for all the dead animals, for frightened children.”
  • A family camping far away from the ambient light of cities and suburbs waits every night for the fire to die down and watching the stars goes through their day together in gratitude.
  • An urban church offers an Agape Meal where everyone shares food.  The hungry attend because they know it is a meal in a welcoming atmosphere.  The prayers of the people include a slide show of a family’s newborn, and a home movie of a man at a piano in his living room singing show tunes as a memorial. The priest shares that this church has made the cross a banquet table.  The wine is blessed and passed around at the tables.  They even offer seconds. 
  • A priest at a very visible, historic parish offers an interactive sermon. A sermon grounded in the lectionary reading for the day, but one that is shaped by questions posted on the Internet and asked by those attending the worship.

Episcopalians at their best respond to the environments the Holy Spirit has brought to them, many times just by opening their senses. At our worst, we are controlling, trying to shoehorn every bit of antiquated Anglicanism into environments which should be open to God’s surprises. 

Experience indicates this is about job validation. For clergy it’s also about validating seminary tuition:  all that money to take liturgy classes…must use everything in the tool box all the time.  

But what if Episcopalians walked in faith, trusting our unique grace?  The grace of responsiveness marrying history.  What if our history, rich in language and music, instead of tradition was the touchstone?  Then every liturgy would be like a sacred jazz concert or poetry slam.  Every person attending an Episcopal Church service would be able to reconstruct the sense of the sacred and holy in daily life. No one would be waiting for the show to start.

Jazz musicians know theory (theology), develop their chops, (liturgical specifics), and ground themselves in the chord changes and melody of a tune (BCP). They collaborate; through improvisation reveal the gifts of each musician as he or she plays.  There is structure, a flexible spine of intention and skill.  Over time, musicians interact with the basic structure of a piece creatively, allowing it to inspire their responses in the moment. It is skillful mindfulness. Each performance changes according to the musicians and the audience.  Every jazz aficionado knows it’s better to see someone live, and that the live recording is different from the studio recordings. 

As for tradition and history, jazz is filled with it yet remains fresh with every performance.  The entire collaborative process itself reaches back into prehistory, encoded into our development as without it, the human race could not have survived.  Riffs and references from all sorts of music make cameo appearances, reverently funny or respectfully acknowledging the communion of musical saints. 

Imagine every Sunday being like a jazz concert.  Those in charge of the liturgy confident enough to be collaborative and allow The Spirit to make herself known.  The entire atmosphere like that of a cabaret. What if the clergy, instead of being the ones on stage, took on the role of supportive club owners and impresarios?

One wonders: with the end of passive, consumer worship, would the trend of passive, opinionated Episcopalians come to an end?  Imagine a church where everyone cares so deeply about worship and mission there is no boundary between Sunday morning and walking a life of faith. 

That’s a church this skeptical Episcopalian has hope in seeing some day.


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