Transitioning to Excellence

What did Adam say to Eve as they were leaving the Garden of Eden?

“Think of this as a time of transition, Eve.”

I joined 80 colleagues, musicians and clergy working in the Episcopal church, in Chicago recently for a conference titled “Cultivating Excellence in Liturgy, Music and Preaching, “ and the joke above came from Jeffrey Smith, former Music Director at St. Paul’s, K Street (now serving Christ Church, Cranbrook MI) and one of the conference speakers. He pointed out to us that it’s an Anglican tradition to quarrel about what makes for liturgical excellence and that Christianity has been in transition since its very beginnings. He reminded us that transition, a kind of change seen as the hope for growth, doesn’t mean only moving away from something and he suggested that a growing church will re-member itself by remembering its traditions. Making his primary home in London, Smith sees many European churches as full of memorials but without a memory (i.e. an appreciation) of their past. The 21st century church could be one with a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve its liturgies, he believes.

The Reverend Erika Takacs from St. Mark’s in Philadelphia, also a conference speaker, spoke about the need for any liturgy to DO something. Whether to confront, comfort, move, heal…successful liturgy holds the imminence and the transcendence of God in balance. Some churches are brilliant at one or the other – but a growing church finds ways to create possibilities for people to experience God in both of those ways. The imminent God might be expressed in sermons and prayers and community outreach. The most obvious sign of our imminent God is our breath – inspiration is literally to “breathe in” after all.  A breath before the sermon, said The Very Rev. John Downey, from the Cathedral in Erie, is the most powerful moment in a service. It is the time when people are most receptive to hearing God’s wisdom interpreted. Breath is of course integral to singing and to creating space for reflection around prayers, to being in-spired.

The transcendent God, on the other hand, might be felt in those sensory experiences of liturgy – helped along by such aspects of worship as the music, stained glass and architecture, vestments, processions… – when they are excellently done, creating the kind of transcendent experience that those who are “spiritual but not religious” talk about when they go hiking on Sunday morning.  People come to church for all kinds of reasons, and the need to be touched by a mystical God is among them.  Sometimes people come, so broken or ill or needy, that nothing except a mystical experience of God will be able to touch them in fact.

Has there been a time when the Episcopal Church wasn’t in transition? It’s simply a way of life for a church that thinks deeply, acts broadly, and worships wholly.

For the sake of balance, I’ll end with another quote from Jeffrey Smith: “I’m an elitist“, he said, “but I’m an elitist for everyone.” There’s nothing to apologize for in that.

SonyaFirst004

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3 Responses to Transitioning to Excellence

  1. Eileen says:

    You get right to the heart of what some of us (maybe all of us?) are looking for in the liturgy — an experience of the transcendent, the possibility of serious spiritual, mystical connection with God. And thanks for the humorous touches — they certainly bring home the message!

  2. This is very beautiful, Sonya. For me liturgy has to be ‘going to God’ (for Anyone who comes to Me I will not cast out!) that we don’t really know how to do in our daily lives but so as to inform us in the end, there.

  3. Bob Sellery says:

    I’ve been trying to get my arms and head around an experience at various churches. And, there you have it with, Some churches “confront, comfort, move, heal…successful liturgy holds the imminence and the transcendence of God in balance. i believe St Alban’s says it all with, ” We welcome the faithful, the seeker and the doubter…” All of you are doing an outstanding job. Bob Sellery Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

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