August 3, 2010

Holding So Much Paper in Worship

In today's Daily Office reading from Acts, I was told of a man who was taken by the hand and raised up; whose feet and ankles were made strong; and who jumped up and was led into the temple, "walking and leaping and praising God."

Then I had occasion to see a few photos of a worship service in an Episcopal congregation, and I noticed what at first might seem to be a fundamental disconnect between the substance of the Acts reading and my own experience of worship in an Anglican setting.

In the photos, all were standing up with heads inclined, noses pointed into books and service leaflets, spinning words and musical notes into prayers and praises. Although it's a scene I have witnessed over and over, it seemed at one remove to be some kind of mass hypnosis or group narcolepsy.

I wondered,

How can we walk and leap and praise God
When we have all these fumbly books to manage and refer to?

We're a curious lot, The Episcopal Church. Asked what we believe, we point (often and all too tragically in total silence) to the Bible, and (sometimes, with eagerness) to the Book of Common Prayer. We place our hands on the Prayer Book just so, and we say what we were taught to say by our priests and liturgy professors, which is that the theology of Anglicanism in America is contained in the book. In its shape and heft, and in the way it carves out an understanding of the purposes and forms of worship, it is, itself, a kind of credal thing expressing the human struggle to articulate a life grounded in God as God is known in Jesus whom we call Christ.

It's a profound reality in a way, a symbol of our trust that in an age of primal smorgasboard religion we allow ourselves to be led into the experience by a view toward wholeness.

I ween it's an old argument, but after 17 years in The Episcopal Church I know it to be true: the book is no stumbling block. Quite the contrary. It only looks like it.

So we don't have a book problem - not so long as we have a good chiropractor who can adjust us on a Monday. However, the death of the publishing industry, as a class of thought, should want to give us pause.

No, what we've got here is a failure to communicate; we have a PR problem. Episcopal worship only looks stuffy and wordy; the reality is nothing like the perception.

Of course, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and there's the issue.

So worship must be lively - not Barnum-and-Bailey-lively, mind you; just ... naturally vivacious. Inherently filled with the spirit of a people who, though their feet may shuffle, are nevertheless full up with walking and leaping and praising God.


John B. Chilton said...

As a sometimes choir member and owner of the combination BCP-Hymnal I highly recommend it. But its paper is thin and so it wouldn't hold up for pew use. (But why not if folks are as careful as I am with the one I own?) I do hope we can rid ourselves of the S numbers in the hymnal on the next revision -- they are one more stumbling block.

Somewhat off topic, but my niece -- who is an ELCA Lutheran -- says of our two books, "one and done, John, one and done."

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

I find my copy of same to be enormously useful, John. Of course, once I was thoroughly happy with the arrangement, I happened upon the rare trifecta - a combination Bible / BCP / Hymnal. Insane! These cannot be bought; they can only be tranquilized in the wild like rhinos. But if you should ever meet The Rev. Christy Shain-Hendricks, ask to see said artifact. I understand the skin alone is black-market gold. :-] --Torey