We are nearing the end of Eastertide. It’s a long season that sometimes feels to me as if it drags on a bit longer than necessary. In all there are 50 days—counting from Easter Day which was April 21 this year and continuing through next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost. The further away we get from Easter itself, the less we focus on the specifics of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the more we look at the ways Christ continues to be present among us and also all of the ways that his presence among us differs from either his earthly ministry or his presence among the disciples after his resurrection. Continue reading
In my last sermon before departing on sabbatical, I mentioned to the congregation that the six Sundays I would be away from Grace would constitute the longest break from presiding at the Eucharist since my ordination in 2006. Indeed, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Sundays since my ordination on which I had attended church services in which I was not participating in some leadership capacity.
But it’s not just been Sunday mornings. During my sabbatical, I have been something of a liturgical tourist. I’ve worshiped in a number of different cities and settings, experienced different worship styles and worshiping communities within the same congregation. This week, I have been immersed in the prayer and worship of the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.
I have enjoyed the variety of worship styles and the diverse worshiping communities. There was the familiar—the Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, hymns from the Hymnal 1982. There was the new and different—services based on the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, from the Community of Iona, new and powerful hymn texts. There were also memories from my past—the first time I’ve sung “How Great Thou Art” in many, many years. And there was the surprising—baptisms in which the presider sat babies down in the font to baptize them and then raised them above his head in exuberant celebration.
In a way, all of it was strange. To sit in a pew, to open a service bulletin wondering what I might find, to look around the congregation and see only unfamiliar faces; to pay attention to the new space in which I found myself; to ask, “what were the architects and people thinking, why did they choose this style and how has this style, this space, shaped the congregation? How has the changing historical context, the changing neighborhood, the changing congregation, adapted and transformed this space for their spiritual needs?”
For “Street Church” with its lack of defined space, other questions. With no boundaries defining the space, and little demarcation between Eucharist and lunch, how does that openness invite participation, welcome the marginal, the unknown, the stranger?
It’s been a great gift to worship in so many contexts with so many people. To let go, to not worry about what was going to happen next or whether everyone who was scheduled would be there, whether the details were in place; to sit, and stand, sing, and pray, to receive bread and wine as a stranger, surrounded by strangers, and yet, in spite of it, to be welcomed at the table and with these strangers, as we eat Christ’s body and blood, we are, we become the Body of Christ.
As the weeks have passed and as the number and variety of my worship experiences has increased, I’ve deepened my appreciation for the flexibility and power of Episcopal worship. To worship in all those different contexts with thousands of people coming from very different places and living very different lives, is to experience one of the great strengths of the Episcopal Church. Our worship brings us into the presence of God and brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ. In worship, we experience the love of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The miracle is that this happens whenever, wherever we worship. The wonder is that all of those people who worship among and with us, can experience all of that, come to experience all of that. It can happen with beautiful music sung by professional choirs; it can happen when a few people sing “Amazing Grace” haltingly and off-key in a Washington Park. It can happen in glorious vestments and beautiful churches. But we can also experience God’s presence, the love of Christ, and become the Body of Christ in a warm smile or a hand tenderly placed on the shoulder of a sobbing woman at the altar rail.
The Rev. Bosco Peters from the Anglican Church of New Zealand, has begun a campaign to include worship as one of the “Anglican Marks of Mission.” Here’s his rationale:
I propose that worship, liturgy, is not a means to further the mission of the church. It is not a means to further any or all of the dimensions in the five-fold mission statement. Worship, in and of itself, is an essential dimension of our mission and should find its place in our accepted mission statement.
Worship, liturgy, especially the Eucharist, is understood, by the majority of Christians, to be “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 11). St Ignatius Loyola understood “The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God” (The Principle and Foundation in his Spiritual Exercises).
Although worship is not a means, giving it centrality does lead to desirable effects. On the other hand, I would argue, the loss of the pivotal place of worship and liturgy leads to consequences, such as the loss of the unifying power of common prayer, of common worship.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about place, context for ministry. And if there’s any point at which my theological reflection on ministry is undergoing transformation, it is about the importance of understanding and responding to the particularity of local context.
There’s a great ongoing project This is our city that focuses on how evangelicals are reclaiming ministry in urban contexts. I’ve learned a great deal from it.
Today, I read this piece by Jake Meador on what Wendell Berry might have to say to urban evangelicals. Meador writes:
But in recent years, some Christian writers have warned that we shouldn’t mistake right thinking and right behavior for the holistic well being of a person, or a city, for that matter. James Davison Hunter and Andy Crouch (executive director of the City project) each made this point in To Change the World and Culture Making, respectively. Philosopher Jamie Smith devoted a whole book, Desiring the Kingdom, to this point, stressing that human beings are not chiefly thinkers or believers but worshipers. It’s here, I argue, that Berry’s vision of community life and creation is most vital for urban evangelicals. For all the things we do well, I’m not convinced that we know how to live as communities of worshipers day to day. Enter Port William.
What I see in Berry, and what I’ve been learning to live out, little by little, is the centrality of worship to personal and communal health. By that I mean something like one of Clyde Kilby’s resolutions for mental health: “At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.”
Peters points out the importance of shared liturgy to the identity and unity of Anglicanism. Meador points in a different direction–to the fact that worship occurs in particular contexts and that it flows out of particular experiences.
Now I’m not much of a Calvinist, but I do think there is some truth in the Westminster Confession’s statement that our “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Surely glorifying God includes worship.