For Our Eyes Only?

On Saturday morning I attended a funeral.  The service was for a individual that I didn’t know well, if at all, relatively speaking.  To be honest, and because I had just returned from a marvelous three-day getaway, the thought of donning a suit, dress shoes and clerical garb on my last vacation day wasn’t all that appealing but I needed to go.  By the end of the funeral I was very glad that I did – a relative of the deceased that I do know was glad that I attended.  Equally important, however, was the fact that the service allowed me – invited me – to enter into a posture of prayer and personal refection that listening to Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR never would have.

Attending worship (especially when we don’t feel like it) is designed to do just this – to invite us to places that the world or our own thoughts won’t or don’t always invite us to go.  For the believer worship invites us to prayer; to supplication, to thanksgiving and even to repentance to use some pretty churchy words.  And the worship of the church offers that invitation to us especially – or maybe even only – if we know the drill.  At Saturday’s funeral I was able to enter into what is known in Celtic spirituality as a thin place – a place where the boundary between the heavenly and the worldly is especially thin – because I knew the drill.  I wasn’t worried about getting anything right or doing anything wrong.  At every point in the service I knew what had already happened and I knew what was coming next. I knew when I needed to pay attention to others and when I could get lost in private thoughts about my life and journey with the God I’m seeking to know and to understand more fully.

Employing more churchy jargon, another way to describe the worship of the church is to call the worship of the church a liturgy.  The word liturgy means, literally, the work of the people.  But it’s hard for people to do the work if they don’t know the drill.  At a time when the church is desperately seeking to be relevant to people who don’t know the drill one must wonder about the liturgy of the church – it’s worship – and to consider whether it’s inviting or if it’s strange or non-sensical or even if it’s off-putting.

So now I’ve opened the proverbial can of worship worms…  The whole point of the liturgy is that one learns it in order to enter into it, Jim!  Doing anything well takes knowledge and practice!  Don’t you dare “dumb down” the liturgy that is sacred to me – the liturgy and the worship that I know… and love – in order to make it accessible!  The liturgy of the church is art!  It’s esoteric!  Not everyone can attend the opera or the ballet and “get it,” silly!

Is it possible to take the liturgy of the church too seriously? Can the liturgy of the church be lost even on the experts?

I’ve been “doing church” for quite some time now.  I’m nearly fifty years old, grew up worshiping in the Roman Catholic Church and I’m now in my 14th year of work as a parish priest in the Episcopal Church.   And only lately there’s a moment in the Episcopal liturgy that is increasingly lost on me.  It’s the point when the people engage in what we believe to be one of three essential elements of being a member of the church – confessing our belief in the Trinity by reciting The Nicene Creed.  At St. Alban’s Parish, a church where the nave resembles the fuselage of a jet plane, when we recite the Nicene Creed most everyone simply stands and looks forward and “up” at the windows over the altar (where the captain sits!).  The worshipers who are seated in places that don’t face the altar physically turn in the direction of the windows and then we begin…  “We believe in one God,  the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen…”

I get it.  Or maybe I should say that I got it.  When I was the rector of St. George’s Church in New Orleans I remember instituting the very same practice insisting that the choir, who sat facing one another and not the altar, before reciting the creed, should stand and turn toward the image of Jesus over the altar before reciting one of the essential elements of our faith.  But lately, instead of joining the throng and turning toward a stained glass window to confess my belief in the Trinity I want to stand and quote The Book of Acts: “Men of Galilee (sic), why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”  If I were choreographing a liturgical movement based on the opening words the Creed – “We believe in God… maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen…” – I’d have people reciting the Creed while turning in circles and looking not only up but also down while simultaneously opening and closing their eyes!  Just so we don’t have people getting dizzy, falling down and getting hurt in church perhaps a compromise would be to find a mid-point in the fuselage and have the people of God face each other rather than a window?  As if to enact, liturgically speaking, that we are at church to find the Spirit of God in Christ in one another rather than in a stained glass window?

As was quoted after a snafu during a recent worship service at St. Alban’s, my liturgical professor in seminary used to tell the budding priests he was instructing that the only mistake one can make in practicing or leading the liturgy of the church is doing something and not knowing why.

The need or the desire for liturgical renewal in the church is not a new phenomenon and whether one thinks of Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, its counterpart in the Protestant church or “alternative worship services” in any denomination we’ll never agree that one form of worship is better or more accurate than another.  But if we in the church are engaging in practices that don’t make sense to us I’m pretty sure they won’t make sense to anybody who doesn’t know the drill either.  Which parts, if any, of the work of the people are lost on you?

Happy Monday!


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4 Responses to For Our Eyes Only?

  1. Monica Welch says:

    Thanks, Jim, for this posing this provocative question. I’ve always been curious as to why we cross ourselves when we say “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Your post presents an occasion to ask.

  2. Eileen says:

    Yes thanks for these questions which are interesting to think about — would also like to add that we all have different reasons for looking up, or down (within) or making the sign of the cross at various times which are personally meaningful to us (although there are no doubt liturgical precedents for some of these, which would be interesting to learn as well!) It seems to me that the Creed is a public/private but important statement which might be directed in any way in which the speaker wishes to imagine it and convey it. But public prayer is difficult for me anyway — I’m constantly imagining and going to a beautiful place on the side of a mountain overlooking the ocean, where we REALLY are, where Christ as the great architect is working constantly and sending out his angels to help his people….so the inside of our church, though lovely and filled with the best art and music we can conjure….well, should it matter which direction we face? Or maybe I’m missing the point of liturgy.

  3. Ted Andrews says:

    I’ve often wondered why the Prayers for the People never seem settled on one particular form. Sometimes we pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, other times not. Is there a rhyme or reason? I am glad that the prayers for war dead now include “those whose names are not known to us.” (Or did I hear that wrong?)

  4. Peter Spalding says:

    As a long time member of the 8am worship service I am a member of a congregation that of late finds itself directed to the choir benches. I, like some others in the 8am cohort, prefer to face the altar, to let the beautiful altar be my focus and yet to have my own space. To reflect alone on what is said or– perhaps too often– to let my mind wander. In a word, I prefer the pews to the crowded benches. Perhaps I’m just a creature of habit, but seated in a pew at St. Albans is good habit to have.

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