Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Intentional, Repetitive Worship

In a recent entry Bosco Peters talks about "predictable worship," the idea that Anglican/liturgical worship is rote or people just going through the motions The part of his entry that resonated most with me was this:
My hackles were raised at blaming worship that is “rote, predictable and uninspiring.” The other side of seeing worship as “rote” is seeing it as “by heart”. Worship “by heart” has been the Judaeo-Christian tradition for at least 3,000 years. I would like to see the peer-reviewed statistical evidence that there is a correlation between “rote, predictable” worship and causality of decline. I have participated in plenty of “rote, predictable” worship, from Taize, through great cathedrals, to China, and the heart of Zaire, where there is clearly no correlation to declining numbers. The danger of linking “uninspiring” to “rote and predictable” is it feeds a prejudice that in order to grow numerically in our “new context” we need to abandon the liturgical tradition of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, etc. Nothing, IMO, is further from the truth. In this context it is worth noting the recent announcement that the proportion of Roman Catholics worldwide has increased. IMO we need training and formation as leaders and communities to celebrate worship that is “by heart, common worship, and inspiring.”

I hate to say it, but I've encountered a lot of Episcopal worship that is "rote, predictable, and uninspiring." But the reason it's been that way hasn't been that I know what's coming next. The services that have been the best for me haven't been ones that deviate from the text or rubrics of the prayer book. A lot of my feeling about a good service aren't about wacky liturgy, but rather that the people -- especially the leaders, music, clergy, and other lay leaders -- are invested in what's going on. They are focused on the moment and know what they're doing and know what's going to happen.

That's been what I've so much enjoyed about the LT90 Eucharist on Thursdays in Chapel, and I hope that the same thing is coming through on Sunday nights. The groups responsible for putting those services together get together and talk extensively about what's going to happen in the course of the service. They put thought into it and they make decisions. On Sundays we've added the Creed. We've also altered the presider's binder so that there is a note saying, "Turning to page 358 in the Book of Common Prayer let us reaffirm our faith," or something to that effect. This is a child-friendly service. Children in large part neither know the Creed nor know where it is -- yet. The Thursday eucharist planning class plans the service on Tuesdays, makes notes, collaborates, and on Thursday morning goes over what they've decided and practice the service.

A lack of intentionality affected how I felt about a number of services that I myself planned. First problem there is that I was planning them on my own. Often times I was making bulletins the night before and doing exactly what Taylor Burton-Edwards says NOT to do: plugging and playing hymns from a lectionary hymn guide, leaving the same typo-ridden prayers of the people form, and springing new things on Ashley at the last minute. One of the best services I remember planning was on Native American Sunday (or something like that in the UMC), where I used the guide, but I was conscious to begin with about our observing it. I knew who the preacher was, and although we didn't coordinate with him explicitly, I knew that his sermon would likely have a myth from an Indigenous Americas people. I put a lot more thought and effort into that service and everyone in the room, as I recall (and there were only 8 of us) felt something different.

There is a big difference in worship from rote and worship by heart, and uninspiring is linked to rote, I think. In my experience, when leaders are just going through motions and doing what they have to do, or appear to be sight-reading a eucharistic prayer that's been out for thirty years (and they've been priests for that long or longer), or blaring the music over the people rather than assisting the people in singing praise to God, the gathered assembly goes through the motions and just gets through the service. The best services I've been to that I can recall are ones where, even in the confines of the normal week-in-week-out plan decisions about worship are intentionally made so that the people together can do their work, whether that's choosing one good familiar hymn and dropping the instrumentation every other voice or officiants at spoken morning prayer focusing on the moment and living in it.

Worship by heart can grow from worship from rote, but it takes a lot of focus and intention.

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