Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ramblings on worship, denominations and such, part 1


My son is returning home this afternoon from eleven days of vacation with his dad. That's the longest I've ever been apart from him and I can't wait to see him home. But the timing means that I'll be missing church since my congregation of choice meets at 5:30 p.m. So I did this morning what I do whenever I'm in need of a random worship service: I went Episcopal.

Today I opted for the Cathedral. Built in the 1890s by George Vanderbilt to accompany the Biltmore Estate, which is across the road, it is a little architectural gem. (Yes, little, though the Cathedral). I had been told the Dean was model material and sure enough, there he stood: tall, thin, with his thick, wavy, salt and pepper hair, looking like he could have stepped out of the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalogue (except for the silly white dress he was wearing). His sermon was passable, in spite of him starting with a long baseball story (is there anything more boring?) and in spite of the fact that the man was full of nervous energy and never stopped moving around in the pulpit, which made him a bit dizzying to watch. It was also too long, because he decided that today's text on Abraham was not enough information and we really needed to follow Abe all the way from the land of Ur to the near sacrifice of Isaac. (He didn't preach on this week's gospel). Still, his basic point was moving and reminded me of a lovely post by Kirstin.

I came home pondering what makes church work for me. This is something I ponder quite regularly and something I thought about incessantly when I was serving as a pastor, which has been about 13 of the 17 years I've been ordained. I could say that I love a good sermon, and that would be true, but I also loved the years I spent attending silent Meetings for Worship among the Friends.

I could say that I love good music, and that would also be true, but my tastes are so eclectic that I tend to get bored with the music at any one congregation. For example, the place I now attend, a small, very informal church, has a wonderful lead musician, who plays guitar and writes much of what we sing. We also do a fair amount of Iona and Taize music, and some good old Baptist hymns and some good old protest hymns and spirituals like, "Down By the Riverside." We have a guy who plays the djembe and a young Down syndrome man who plays another drum and a various musicians who join on other instruments from week to week: clarinet, cello, banjo, piano, flute, fiddle. The congregation likes to sing and we often have beautiful a capella singing with lovely harmonies.

But today it felt like a relief to sing traditional hymns accompanied by a wonderful organist on what seems to be (I know little of these things) a terrific pipe organ. What could be better than a grand opening hymn, organ booming, choir soaring, singing these words to the tune of Truro?

Redeemer, come! I open wide
my heart to Thee; here. Lord, abide.
Let me Thy inner presence feel;
Thy grace and love in me reveal.

(They had Wonder, Love and Praise in the pews, which we used only for the Sanctus this morning and I'm guessing it doesn't get used all that much there.)

So, Episcopalians. That's where I like to go on random days. I love the words of the Book of Common Prayer, though I do get tired of the male language. (My little congregation is adamantly gender-free in references to God and humanity. But Jesus, being both, is still allowed to be male.) I went to my neighborhood Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday and had high hopes because it was a) nearby and b) rumored to be progressive. It was both those things, but it was also very low church.

Here's the thing. If I want low church, there are a hundred denominations I can attend. When I go to an Episcopal service I want liturgy. Give me a little smells and bells, cause I'm not getting that with my Baptist buddies. Present the eucharist with dignity, cause that's what you folks do. If I want "chat and chew with Jesus" I can get that elsewhere.

Of course, I also like a church to be reasonably child-friendly and I don't want dignity to roll over into snobbery. If I come dressed in less than my best, I still want to feel at home. If I forget to genuflect or whether "Praise to you" or "Glory to you" comes before or after the gospel reading, I don't want to be made to feel foolish. But I've been to several Episcopal churches that have found just the right balance: good liturgy, warmth, a welcoming spirit, and a eucharist that makes me remember I am in the presence of Holiness.

Today's thoughts. To be continued.

17 comments:

Diane said...

one thing I like about the church I serve right now: we have both a very nice "high" liturgy -- no incense, but processional and communion every week and chanting and everything... and a good contemporary worship service as well. (not perfect, but lead musician is EXCELLENT).

I find what I want out of both kinds of liturgies is a sense of warmth... I love liturgy, but I want the people to sing with gusto (I'm Lutheran after all), and I like contemporary, but am a little put of by some of the charismatic praise music (really, you have to be charismatic to do that with sincerity).

Very thoughtful post, made me think of a lot of things...

also the phenomenon of "visiting" a church... last one I went to ended up being their "youth Sunday"... with high school just getting back from mission trip. Very good, but felt a little "insider-y".

lj said...

Diane,
Your situation sounds wonderful. My last congregation did a pretty good job of "blended" worship. We stomped and clapped our way through "Halle, halle, halle" and then sang with gusto to the traditional hymns on the organ.

I agree with you about the warmth. And about the praise music. There is plenty of good contemporary church music without incessant choruses of "Oh, Jesus, I just adore you SO much!"

And I guess I would add, Biblical and theological depth. Maybe that's part of the next post. (Of course, as a Lutheran, I have no doubt you assume this much).

Diane said...

Can't wait for the next one! Glad you're back!

tribalchurch said...

I could not agree with you more on the sports analogies. Those are definitely "had to be there moments" that just don't translate to the pew.

John the organist said...

Hi I picked up your comment on SImple Village organist and have added you as a favourite. i like to think St Andrew's gets the balance about right! It's so tricky!

Cecilia said...

The mix of music in your regular congregation sounds fabulous... and I agree with you A. about Episcopalians needing to do what they do best and B. about not wanting dignity to roll over into snobbery. Amen, Amen.

Pax, C.

lj said...

John, Welcome! I feel the place just got a little classier with your arrival. I love the note at your site about being a committed Catholic in an Anglican church. And a librarian -- you stay busy.

I worked with a wonderful organist who was a 7th Day Adventist, so he played in an Adventist Church on Saturday, in a Presbyterian one on Sunday and taught in the music department at a small Adventist College Monday through Friday. (He also composed. I don't know when the man slept!) Fortunately, we got to have some of his best students come and provide special music for us from time to time. And once the two churches and the school orchestra joined to do Faure's Requiem. Divine!!!!

lj said...

TC, I suspect I do some sort of illustrations which strike the sports lovers as dull as dirt. I just don't know which ones they are.

Cecelia, I have to confess to overseeing some downright undignified moments in worship ... finding the balance, balance ...

jledmiston said...

Love this post. I long for good worship and feel like we don't offer this very often.

I felt like I was there with you in the cathedral - thanks.

Kirstin said...

What was the dizzying Dean's point, LOL?

First "glory," then "praise." It's alphabetical. :-)

My church doesn't do incense, because several of us are outspoken asthmatics. Barring that, I think you'd like us a lot. (Our priest and deacon are in the bottom left of this photo.)

lj said...

K, what a great ad that is! I love it. And thank you for the practical reminder -- alphabetical. It's kind of like "General Electric Power Company" to remember the order of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians.

Well, the point was to go out and number the stars, to trust that God is speaking to us and that God is calling us, in all our ordinariness and sin, to great things. See the connection?

Kirstin said...

Yep. Thanks! (And thanks for the GEPC tip, too.)

pj said...

You know, I couldn't stand it when my former boss used baseball analogies in meetings. I might have to walk out of church in that case. Snooooozeville.

I thoroughly fear going into any church because I will have, for the most part, no idea what's going on, nor what's expected of me. Is it okay to just sit there and observe, like auditing a class?

lj said...

Definitely, worship can be audited! Find a Christian friend who can walk you through the basics or sit in the back and watch when other people stand, sit, etc. Episcopalians and post Vatican 2 Catholics are a little confusing with the kneeling these days. Now it's optional so half the congregation will, half won't. When in doubt, keep your butt in the pew.

If there's a bulletin, mark all the pages ahead of time in the hymnal or Book of Prayer or whatever the equivalent is. And go to a mid-sized church to start. Small ones, you'll be easily noticed, big ones you'll be completely lost in the crowd.

mompriest said...

As the Presider in an Episcopal Church I like to print our own worship booklet blending portions of the Book Of Common Prayer with either Enriching Our Worship or The New Zealand Prayer Book, both offering gender neutral or gender balanced prayers and liturgy. The overall form and structure remains while the language is enhanced.

Sadly my parish does a poor job with music, too small. Still workinng on how to manage good music with the gifts we bring as a congregation. sigh....

thoughful post...

Ed said...

What a wonderful conversation on topics dear to my heart! [Aside to pj: I've audited many a synagogue service and no one seemed to mind.]

Mompriest's comment is, I think, very practical and very important. Most of the larger Episcopal churches around here produce a pretty complete worship bulletin (leaflet, if you prefer) which eliminates the need to juggle prayer book, hymnal, hymnal supplements, and whatever else is needed. I think this must be very helpful to those who don't "know the drill" (e.g., pj), and more convenient for those who do. The Episcopal publishing house produces an excellent software package containing the BCP, the Hymnal, and doubtless other things to facilitate this process. The Presbyterians have something similar for the Book of Common Worship and the Presbyterian Hymnal, but I don't think there's a single church (in my area anyway) that uses either exclusively, so it's not that much help for most of us.

Grandmère Mimi said...

LJ, what a wonderful homage to an Episcopal Church service. It brought to mind how much I love the liturgy in my church, but how often I take it for granted. Thank you.