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.