Confessions and Fresh Expressions

Warning:  This post is longer than usual and likely to ruffle a feather or two…

“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you…. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” (St. Augustine, Confessions: Bk. I, 1, p. 21)

During the “check-in” portion of a small group gathering last week I confessed to a group of parishioners and a colleague that my “struggle” for the week began during a service of Holy Eucharist a couple of days before.  The struggle began when, sitting on a bench near the altar during The Liturgy of the Word, I looked out at a partially populated and dimly illuminated fuselage full of people who were, um, bored?  OK, bored may not be the right word.  Unhappy? Uninspired?  Confused?  I dunno.  And I don’t mean to be presumptive.  Maybe what I observed was… “thoughtful.”  Thoughtful is good!  But for the sake of argument let’s just say that from my perspective seated on that Deacon’s bench the passengers on this plane ride didn’t appear to typify the antonyms of any of those words above: excited, happy, inspired… certain.  I felt like Ezekiel in chapter 37: “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Later this week I’m meeting with our Bishop.  As I check in with her on the eve of my second year as a priest in The Episcopal Diocese of Washington I plan to clarify a statistic proclaimed at a recent regional clergy gathering:  “Of all of the mainline Protestant denominations Episcopalians are shrinking the fastest.”  Rev. Hanisian is our statistics guy but from where I sit, as I look around at St. Alban’s Sunday services, I see considerably fewer people than I saw less than two years ago.  What’s up with that?

When I was in seminary one of the seminal texts on liturgical practice was Praying Shapes Believing by Leonel M. Mitchell.  The crux of the book, published shortly after a liturgical renewal movement in the church resulted in a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), is the phrase legem credendi lex statuam supplicandi: the way we pray determines what we believe.  The “re-wording” in the new prayerbook was a “readjustment of the language of our relationship with God.”  The premise is that we needed a readjustment of the language of our relationship with God because the old ways of talking about God were inadequate and the way we talk about God – praise God – affects the relationship we have with God.  Wow. How does our liturgy talk about God today?  What do you hear?  How does or has it shaped your belief?

Our “way” of praising God in a traditional service of Holy Eucharist in the Episcopal church is normative.  It’s kind of like CVS.  It’s meant to be comforting because the CVS in in Glover Park is the same as the one in Arlington.  You know what to expect and you know where to find what you are looking for.  But only if you know the store.  Once you know the store, the norm is comforting.  But fewer and fewer people know our store and fewer and fewer are liking what they see when and if they come in.  These seem to be the facts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “even divinity doesn’t connote decency.” For me, sometimes it seems like we’ve got a liturgical dimmer switch set on medium. The God we Episcopalians praise (and believe in?) is very dignified, very “white.”   Every once in awhile somebody bumps into the switch and then the lights go up and we start seeing color. These are bright and colorful moments but being the genteel and conservative proclaimers we are we are careful to reset the switch.  We don’t want to get too excited because this God we are praising is awfully complex (trust me I get that part)… much of what we believe about God is not black or white… but gray.  Interestingly enough, this past Sunday the two brightest and most colorful moments I observed were  1) during the “passing of the peace” and 2) at the dismissal!  Hmm.

Could it be that in 1979, with the new language assigned to the norm for our worship, which was to reflect and shape our relationship with God, we weren’t colorful enough?  1978fashionknitshirtandpants

When reflecting on his contributions to the Anglican Communion former ArchBishop Rowan Williams said that if there was one thing that he’d like to be remembered for it would be putting his shoulder behind Fresh Expressions.  Fresh Expressions, says Williams, is “the thing that’s most cheered me and encouraged me in recent years.” Here’s Rowan explaining what Fresh Expressions is:

“What is it, I think it’s simply recognising that the conventional forms of worship and Christian life – going to church on Sunday mornings and so on – are wonderful but they don’t answer all the questions. Lots of people don’t start there. So how do you get to where people are and start where they are. And that may mean stepping out of the Sunday morning routine, looking for other places, other ways of assembling people around the presence of Jesus. It can be a group of youngsters on a Friday night, it can be a young mothers’ group on a Wednesday morning, it can be – and I’ve seen some of these extraordinary experiments – a regular meeting for skateboarders, it can be a meeting in a country church for an hour of silence every once a fortnight. So, going where people are, that’s the heart of it. And it’s important to me I think because when I was a bishop in Wales, one of the things I discovered, not really having planned it, one of the things I discovered was that this was happening in lots of contexts all around me. And I felt very strongly, I’m being called to encourage this and give it a bit of a push. So when I first became Archbishop of Canterbury, my first thought was well how do I use this position to further that kind of agenda.”

When asked if Fresh Expressions might create anxiety for those in the church that feared the disappearance of traditional worship Rowan responded:

“I understand the anxiety, but I don’t think it’s really justified. The question is, can we… it’s a term I’ve used sometimes, can we be a mixed economy church. Can we do different things equally well. Traditional worship is exactly what it ought to be for a lot of people: it’s transforming, it’s life-giving, it’s joyful. Wonderful, great, let it flourish and do it well, whether it’s prayer book services, choral evensong, whatever. And then recognise that’s not what will speak to everyone and that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad. It’s having the generosity I think to say there’s more than one way of expressing.” 

After showing Ezekiel the valley of dry bones God asked him if he thought they could live. Ezekiel was unsure… “I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’”  praiseBut God was certain:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of theLord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

The next time you are in church take a look around.  Tell me what you see.  Maybe you’ll agree that it’s time to prophesy.  Maybe you’ll agree that God is calling out to our dry Episcopalian bones.  Maybe you can help us bump the switch and turn up the lights with your spirit, like happened Saturday night when there was dancing at the celebration held by Rev. Reyes and our brothers and sisters who are members of the Spanish speaking service on Sunday nights.  Get on your feet!  Sing loud!  Join us for Get Fed on Wednesdays for the next few weeks – it’s the best, tastiest and cheapest dinner with friends in DC.  Bring a friend that doesn’t want to come on Sunday morning but might like a bright Wednesday night.

When I was in New Orleans Bishop Robert Wright came to speak to the clergy there.   “God is real, God is able and God is generous,”  he said.  “And this is what people need to know… a real, able and generous God.”  And then he asked us priests: Does the way you go about our work and the way you praise God on Sunday mornings communicate that kind of faith?”

It’s an open question.  A good question.  I do believe that God is calling out to our Episcopalian bones, and that amazing things are happening at St. Alban’s.  There is Grace in Action all around us, thanks be to God.  But I also believe that we need to turn up the lights, paint with bigger brushes and use more of the color God has placed on our palette. How about you?

Happy Monday,


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6 Responses to Confessions and Fresh Expressions

  1. Jo says:

    (and warning: this is a longer reply than usual!)
    I am one who came to the Episcopal Church (this one) to return to a liturgical church after years in a loosy-goosey worship environment. I love the liturgy, and love knowing that each Sunday I am joining the cloud of witnesses, including my late parents, who joined and are joining in the same words. That said, I am all about turning up the lights.
    For just me, that starts with being joyful when I sing, yay even sometimes swaying to the music — very un-Anglican of me. In being as genuinely exuberant as I can when passing the peace — jeepers, what an amazing thing to be able to do. But certainly those are just my own little things.
    What can we do corporately? One thing I’ve thought about is to ask visitors to step out of their pews and into the adjacent aisle at the passing of the peace so as many as possible could share it with a warm welcome. Or to invite parishioners to write a personal prayer of praise/thanksgiving to be included in the following Sunday’s service. Or to monthly have a moment for parishioner witness, not just during pledge season!
    I’m wondering how wedded we are to Rite 1 at 11:15…
    What are other ideas?

  2. Jan Grogan says:

    I am so glad you are speaking about this Jim. We do need to “get on fire” and share the Good News that meeting Jesus will change your life. If that sounds evangelical so be it.

  3. Alec Farr says:

    “The God we Episcopalians praise (and believe in?) is very dignified, very “white.” Every once in awhile somebody bumps into the switch and then the lights go up and we start seeing color. These are bright and colorful moments but being the genteel and conservative proclaimers we are we are careful to reset the switch. We don’t want to get too excited because this God we are praising is awfully complex (trust me I get that part)… much of what we believe about God is not black or white… but gray…”

    The Episcopal church — and St. Alban’s in particular — could be shrinking because its greatest strength is a weakness for the masses. Precisely because the Episcopal Church is more accepting of complex approaches to faith, less dogmatic and far less judgmental of human behavior than, say the Catholic Church or many forms of evangelical protestantism, it is unsatisfying for people who are looking to be told exactly what to think, what to feel, whom to praise and what to do. And sadly, that is what a great many people want from religion.

    It is much easier for people to get “fired up” about belonging to a particular group if that group has simplistic, easy to understand talking points and norms. In the politcal arena, is there anything less exciting than a “thoughtful moderate” who can actually engage in intelligent discourse about complex issues? The roudy people are either fervently “red” or vehemently “blue”. “Purple” moderates — despite being the backbone of intelligent government and discourse and probably being the majority of voters in many parts of the country — don’t hold pep rallies. The same could probably be said for faith. In all the statistics I have seen, the fastest growth is among religions that seem to offer the easy, often strident answers. I have read that the fastest areas of growth in both the Catholic and Anglican churches are in regions like Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, where the dioceses tend to be far less liberal than here in the US.

    But, speaking as someone whose family has been coming to St. Alban’s since the late 1970s, I would want no part of the enthusiasm that comes from that approach to faith. Much of the energy is (1) fake and (2) disturbing because it comes from an “us versus them” standpoint — “thank God that I have a ‘personal relationship with a living God, unlike all those others who are going to hell for not being saved” — For me, I will take “dignity,” “complexity” and “thoughtfulness” any day of the week, even if that makes for a slightly quieter service on Sunday. It is what has always attracted me to St. Alban’s and the Anglican communion — largely because I find any other approach to faith to be fundamentally inconsistent with Christ, God and the limitless complexity of the universe She created.

  4. Linda V says:

    Jim – I think the best way to find out why people have left is to ask them. And if we are thinking of changing anything about our worship to attract new people, we might want to first survey the neighbors in areas where those potential people live and find out what they might be looking for. How about asking Beauvoir if we can give a presentation about our programs for young children, or at least give families there a brochure. I personally agree that Rite I is a bit unwieldy. Maybe we could offer it once a month for those who love it. Just some thoughts.

  5. Cay Hartley says:

    Perhaps it is time for Rite 1 to go to once a month, as Linda suggests. It is also interesting to specular about how much our projections play into this analysis. I’ve been wishing for more to liven this service for a while…not sure what. Ideas? Have Sonya teach us some new hymns, use the canticles in the hymnal so we can all sing, Jo’s ideas seconded, occasionally make the sermon interactive, ask newcomers/guests to introduce themselves, hold a sermon discussion session after the service, etc.etc. involve the laity… The formal welcome is sincere, but we need to make it operational. More small groups…. How about a home Eucharish occasionally.

  6. Bob Witten says:

    Now I begin to understand our conversation of last Sunday. I certainly could embrace reducing the use of Rite one, and endorse the idea of reaching out to our neighborhood. I would like nothing better , as an usher, to be able to write “200”, ‘230″, “267”, even “312” in our 9:15am weekly attendance report.I’ll work to promote our faith and our church as I go through my daily routine.

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