From the Curate: Why do we do what we do?
Liturgy is important in the Episcopal Church. Instead of the 300-page catechism or Biblical fundamentalism we have the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy contained in it to keep us bound together and well behaved. Not much can be tinkered with in the 18-page catechism or with the Bible. So for Episcopalians, especially the clergy, liturgy becomes the venue for their creative expression. It is not surprising that just about every other Episcopal clergy is a “liturgist.” It is a good thing that many are interested in the liturgy and that new rituals are being created for various occasions. Often, however, these new rituals tend to be idiosyncratic and poorly thought through. The fundamental question to be asked in developing or renewing liturgical rite is: Why do we do what we do, and how does what we do help us engage in the Paschal mystery? How does this help us to experience the overall paradigm of death and resurrection in Christ?
I remember visiting a church which has a rather peculiar liturgy. As people gather to begin, someone comes out, welcomes people, rehearses the music to be sung and talks through the liturgy. Then a big Chinese gong is banged to announce (I guess) the beginning of the show or the entrance of the celebrant. The celebrant enters holding a long spear, of sorts. I was reminded of a professor who had a theory that our liturgy is parallel to a battle. Ready for a cosmic battle, we sing the introit hymn and a collect is prayed. The celebrant sits on a large cushion on a dais. The Liturgy of the Word begins. After each reading a small bell is rung followed by a brief silence. After the Gospel lesson, a Buddhist meditation bowl (the latest liturgical apparatus) is rubbed to make a long ringing sound. An appropriately longer silence follows. Then the sermon is delivered by the celebrant seated on the dais. Then comes what I can only describe as an “Anglican altar call.” People respond to the sermon in a well-prepared, well-rehearsed, orderly fashion. (I think to myself, "This would never work at Saint Mary’s.") The liturgy then continues in a more familiar form. There is the Peace. The offertory hymn begins and people fall into a badly choreographed dance resembling an African ritual dance or a Greek folk dance-- a dance toward and around the altar. This takes Anglican liturgical aerobics to a new level. By this time I am so baffled and taken off track that I don't have the concentration to pay attention to the unfamiliar words of the Eucharistic prayer. Mass ends. I leave feeling different-- vaguely refreshed, but not in peace.
Another time I took a small group of college students to a church that has a very traditional “high church” liturgy. (Not Saint Mary’s I might add.) After the Mass the students commented that the worship experience had been painful and that it was oppressive. At the same time, the people who regularly attend that church wonder why their beautiful liturgy does not seem to draw new members of a younger generation.
Why do we do what we do and how does it invite people into the Paschal mystery? In 1968 Margaret Mead wrote an article called, “Celebration: a Human Need,” in a book now out of print, Twentieth Century Faith. She writes, “A good ritual is very much like a natural language. The important thing about a natural language is that it has been spoken for a very long time by very many kinds of people.” Mead then elaborates on the ritual. “It must be old otherwise it is not polished. It must old otherwise it cannot reflect many men’s imaginations. It must be old otherwise it will not be fully available to everyone born within that tradition. Yet it also must be alive and fresh, open to new vision and changed vision.” So like a natural language, ritual must evolve with new vocabulary and new idiom. Mead warns of the dangers inherent in ritual “when the ritual is too rich and the highly elaborated symbolism too old to be appropriate to contemporary life,” and “where the individual’s imagination, or the imagination of the group, is capable of expression that is denied by the poverty of a symbolic system.” No wonder I came away from the gong-ringing service vaguely refreshed, but still starved with inadequate sense of shalom. No wonder those college students came away from the other service feeling weighted-down, oppressed and with no shared experience of joy.
In another article, “Ritual Expression,” Mead writes about the liturgical movement of the 1960's: “What the liturgical movement is trying to do with the traditional ritual of the Church [is] to use the old symbols, but to use them with a lively, fresh insight that will free both the rituals and ourselves from the rigidity of forms that cannot contain new vision.” She further observes “ritual must carry the continuity that makes a tradition available to all who live within it,” and “give people access to intensity of feeling at times when responsiveness is muted.”
We at Saint Mary’s take liturgy seriously. Some may even accuse us of taking liturgy too seriously. But every Sunday we truly do liturgy – from the flowers on the altar to the incense to the passing of the Peace of Christ to the food and drink at coffee hour. Here, liturgy is truly liturgia, the work of the community. But if the inherited liturgical language no longer up-builds the Body of Christ, and if what we do amounts to no more than a Broadway show (and our only consolation, the longest-running show on Broadway), then something should change. Change allows for, as Mead says, fresh insight in our rituals and in ourselves, so that we can continue to live into new visions. In this way, we can continually experience the Paschal Mystery as a new vision for our individual lives and our common life.
PRAYER LIST…Your prayers are asked for Beatrice who is hospitalized and for Melanie, Harold, Jack, Olga, Helen, Mary, Lucille, Frances, Carl, Harold, Frank, Eleanor, Jane, John, Kersten, Nolan, Barbara, Rick, Judy, Roy, Peter, Phillip, Angela, Jennifer, Rose, Marie, John, Jonathan, Bill, Charles, priest, and for Rodney, priest.
GRANT THEM PEACE . . . February 15: 1967 Nina Gay Dolan, 1973 Dorothy McCormack, 1978 Raymond Carrington, February 16: 1955 Mary Brettman, February 17: 1983 Helen Petersen Harrington.
LITURGICAL NOTES . . . The Sunday Proper: Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26. . . . Confessions will be heard on Saturday, February 10 by Father Garrison and on February 17 by Father Gerth.
IN THIS TRANSITORY LIFE . . . We have recently learned of the death of Dorothy Hahn on December 19, 2000. Dorothy was a member of Saint Mary's since 1987. Please pray for Dorothy and for all who mourn.
AROUND THE PARISH . . . Thanks to everyone who helped to make Candlemas such a wonderful evening. We had many visitors and have continued to receive comments about the spirit of welcome and hospitality they received here. Thanks to all! . . . "Vocation and Spirituality" will be presented Thursday evenings after Mass, February 8, 15 and 22 from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM by Nina Frost and John Beddingfield. The class will meet in Saint Benedict’s Study. All are welcome to attend. (Reminder: This series is on THURSDAY evening.) . . . Attendance at Candlemas: 189, attendance last Sunday: 178.
THE PILGRIMAGE TO THE HOLY LAND . . . We regret that due to the unstable circumstances in Jerusalem and the Middle East this trip has been cancelled. We are hopeful conditions for such a pilgrimage will be right for us next year.
SAINT VINCENT'S GUILD CARNIVAL BRUNCH . . . The altar servers will again provide a Carnival Brunch for the congregation on February 25, the Last Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). Servers should E-mail or speak with Father Shin about helping to set up, cook, serve and clean.
The Calendar of the Week
Sunday The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Tuesday Absalom Jones, priest
Wednesday Cyril, monk, and Methodius, bishop
Thursday Thomas Bray, priest
Friday Weekday Abstinence
Saturday Of Our Lady
The Parish Clergy
The Reverend Stephen Gerth, rector,
The Reverend Allen Shin, curate, The Reverend Thomas Breidenthal, assistant,
The Reverend Arthur Wolsoncroft, The Reverend Canon Maurice Garrison, The Reverend Amilcar Figueroa, The Reverend J. Barrington Bates, assisting priests, The Reverend Canon Edgar F. Wells, rector emeritus.