The historic liturgical compromise…past and present

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The following bits in italics were in the latest newsletter from an Episcopal Church.  They have been excerpted and paraphrased from a very long piece.

Participation in Liturgy: The Episcopal Church, being a body which straddles the line between the Catholic and Protestant traditions, has inherited liturgies which include various types and variations of congregational participation.

Clearly something is not happening on Sunday mornings.  There is An Issue. The organist/choir director is going to change everything with a message in the newsletter.  Anyone who has assembled something from Ikea, knows first-hand reading instructions alone do not get the job done. Any parent or teacher can tell you the same thing.

From the beginning of the English Reformation, The Episcopal/Anglican Church has had to live within a tension that originated in the liturgical compromises that were made at the creation of the English Church.

Thanks, organist guy! That explains everything.  There were compromises made among the ruling elite 500 years ago.  Why with this explanation, I’m now ready to leap off the couch and show up Sunday mornings.

How does the congregation participate in the service?  The first and most obvious way is to respond vocally to the clergy during the spoken parts of the service.

Count me in!  Are we allowed to go off script?  What’s the culture of worship in your parish?  If a parishioner were to say “Tell the truth!” or a simple “Amen”, would that make it as a chuckle – or even a scandal – at your Tuesday morning staff meeting?

The second way is to sing joyfully (and loudly) during the hymns; if you don’t know the hymn very well, read along during the first verse and give the second verse a try. Don’t just stand there!

While the organist accepts that not many people are literate in music, he doesn’t realize that an important part of the congregation does not read at all.  John Bell of the Iona Community is very clear about how powerful it is to employ songs and hymns that are accessible to all, and admonishes us to lead people in song, teach the congregation before the service.  This article also implies that the wagons are circled: if you didn’t get the newsletter, if you didn’t read the newsletter, if you walk in off the street, your voice is not important. And if your voice isn’t important literally, then I would guess your voice isn’t important to this Episcopal church anywhere else.

When the lectors are reading lessons, or the clergy is praying, don’t just listen: pray with them.  When the choir is singing, read the text and lift up your heart in prayer.

Maybe because the clergy and musicians are set up next to the cross and not down with the congregants, they’re unaware that people pray all the time during a liturgy.  “Dear God, don’t make it be Howells again.” Or “Lord, will the sermon address living a Christian life…for real?” Or “Could the choirmaster blow the dust off the one parish copy of Lift Every Voice and Sing?”

What he’s really asking the majority sitting in the church nave to do is make our interior prayer life line up with that of the staff.  Don’t have your worship in the Episcopal Church be transformational, creating an environment where everyone is changed “from glory to glory”. And whatever you do, don’t make space for The One who inspires worship.   No silence, no call to hear the voice of the faithful unless it’s a response from a book or a licensed lector.

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The tradition of participation in our church is beautiful and multi-layered. Let us come together to make our worship as meaningful and inspiring as possible.

Who is the “us” that this earnest organist/choir director wants to come together?  It seems to be just the staff.  In this message, he even refers to having the psalm performed by the choir (coupled with a reminder that this is not a performance) while the congregation is told to meditate on the words of the psalm. These are our psalms, handed down to us from the time of David.  Why take them out of our mouths and limit our participation?

How could anyone consider this participation multi-layered?  We are welcomed only when we do what we’re told by the Nanny Church. Sing when told, listen when told, read the script but not the scripture.  Don’t just stand there, but don’t dance or clap either.  Where is the beauty?  Not in the variety of ways God’s faithful people are inspired to worship, only in those who are trained to worship “correctly”.

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The saddest irony in this well-intentioned but misguided piece is that people do not learn or change by reading something.  There is a part of the brain that yearns for the spiritual, the liturgical, and it’s not the part listening to a run down on Post Reformation history.  What’s next? Glebes?

From a 2007 interview with Elsie Rempel, Director of Christian Education and Nurture for Mennonite Church, Canada:

How does insight into brain activity shed light on worshiping with children?

Elsie: Sometimes we talk about worship that connects with our left and right brain. But our brain also has a stem and an inner brain that control our actions and emotions. The inner brain is the part that connects with our passions, intuition, relationality, and our awareness of metaphysical connections. It is in this brain part that recent brain research has attempted to track spiritual experience. The inner brain appears to be hardwired for spiritual activity from birth or before, and remains resilient even in the face of Alzheimer’s and other brain disease. We connect with these parts of the brain in the ritual actions, prayers and musical parts of worship.

The readers of this blog are smart enough to know that Mr. Rempel is talking about active participation and that this has implications for all generations who may be seeking a community for their faith.

The Mennonites: I’m so glad The Episcopal Church might be in communion with this denomination. Let’s really listen to what they have to say to us. That would be another thing to give this skeptical Episcopalian hope.

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First Contact

It seems like such a simple question: Where do you go to church?  But when asked, I am flooded with memories that well up like tears but without that pleasant salty aftertaste.  So I repress them and reply “Nowhere right now.”  Right now is a social qualifier – I’m being polite. The person asking the question probably doesn’t know I’m thinking “Nowhere, forever, and happily so.”


This response is typically followed by “Our church has services at 8 and 10!”  Big surprise.  Now I’m getting paid back for my politeness. I am forced to make up some excuse. Inside, there is a little ootch – and a gloomy sigh.  Not at saying goodbye to church, but at the prospect of having to attend one.

I realize that I am one of millions who are dropping away from going to the building with the cross on top but who have rich spiritual lives and are devoted to the work of the Kingdom of God.  And I realize that in a couple of decades people that I love and respect, who do work that is important, will be out of jobs.


Unlike the ice man and the scissors grinder, their loss will not have been necessary or historically over-determined. This too makes me profoundly sad.


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Ironically, my profile puts me square in the big demographic hump of Episcopal Church attendees: grey haired, Caucasian, married to a devoted and competent clergyman, and I have worked on and off in paid or voluntary positions for churches for over twenty years.

Recently, a bishop expressed shock that  on the rare occasion I attended corporate worship I actually go out of my way to avoid Episcopal Churches. For him and others who continue to invite me to come to their church services, and are baffled at how indifferent so many of us are when it comes to the offerings of the 8 and 10 o’clocks,  take a walk through a worship service in our shoes.  And for those who are planning those liturgies and actually care, I hope you will find some way out of the rote, codified self-satisfaction that brands The Episcopal Church and its approach to parish life.


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The arrivee is greeted by greeters – who occasionally double as ushers. Both greeters and ushers have been told that their ministry is Very Important because – and I know this from having been on the staff side of a church – that’s how you get them to volunteer.


This surprises me – I thought people outgrew the shiny stickers as incentives.


In church, volunteerism is perceived as something that must be compartmentalized and fragmented.  Still blinking off the sleep dust from its archaic hierarchy, the church has yet to learn anything from the success of the Obama campaign or dedicated groups of moms reaching out in their communities on a grassroots level: people want to be empowered. If they love a project or a community, with  little guidance, people will fill in anywhere and everywhere as needed.


Once, I mentioned to a priest that if they had a pastoral care listserve where needs could be shared with the greater congregation it would not only take some of the pressure off the small Pastoral Care Committee, but allow everyone the privilege of bringing meals, driving, babysitting, or praying for people.  He told me that the church had a Pastoral Care Committee of three. The members of the committee would take care of all the pastoral duties. Why? Because they had volunteered for the Pastoral Care Committee and it was organized.


It’s much easier for clergy to assign duties than develop a culture of welcome.


The top-down approach to parish culture – the Victorian beehive model – assigns people to be greeters. Only the greeters will greet. Their job as well as the ushers’ job are considered specialized duties. So the greeters tend to be people who know they have to do something, but can only handle this narrow task.


What face would the church be offering if instead of a rota that draws on a small population of ushers and greeters, there was a culture of welcome?  And what if that culture didn’t involve pasting a happy face on everything?  You might  find there is a need to welcome long-time parishioners in ways that are genuine.


There would be a core group of people who didn’t have a greeting routine, but offered breakfast for anyone who wanted to be at the door early to take in the seekers – known and unknown.  If I walked into a church and was greeted by a 5 year old in her p.j.s with some neglected jam on her chin, I’d give that church a chance next week.


Instead, what happens is that the greeters and ushers – the face of the local church – are seniors with nice wardrobes who are well-versed in politeness.


The greeters smile; they wear Sunday Best, which can be intimidating to some, (where are the seniors who don’t have nice wardrobes?) and on too many occasions way too much perfume.  They smile and say “welcome”, a magic word that when spoken is supposed to make me feel welcomed.  I am too busy coughing in allergic response to the perfume and wondering where these seniors got retirement packages that allow them to be such snappy dressers.


Next, I am passed off to an usher.  This happens rather quickly because the greeter has nothing more to say and one of her friends is behind me – got to keep the line moving in the narthex.


First contact with the usher is the beginning of the infantilization of those who attend church.


I am handed a thick packet of paper and begin the internal evaluation every environmentally conscious person goes through these days.  Hoping this pile of paper must be absolutely necessary in these days of global warming awareness, I realize  it is there to simply walk me through a service outlined in books already placed in the pews. The rest is filled with social and calendar notes, put there – I assume – so that the clergy can avoid direct communication with the congregants.


Sometimes there are music notes and even credits for the professionals in the choir. This is a bad omen. The ultimate Don’t bother message.


I am awakened from my reverie about paper usage in thousands of churches coupled with images of this fragile earth, our island home in flames, by the usher who offers a show-no-teeth smile while gesturing silently down the aisle to the pews.  A practiced smile without any cheek or eye muscles. This has a rather sinister effect – as if I’m being escorted to a seat on the barque crossing the River Styx. “Room for one more.” I’m used to finding my own seat, thank you.


But again, to be polite and respect the habits of this tribe (most of whom appear to have watched the Dumont network) I sit where I’m told and look straight ahead.  It’s hard to look anywhere else because of the aisle.  The usher has been instructed to get the bodies in the front, and newcomers are the most compliant, so I’m not sure if those behind me are prayerfully contemplating the altar and the stained glass windows, or staring at the back of my head.


Did I remember to brush my hair this morning?


Until next Sunday, monika55