Episcopal Church Worship
Bill Long 2/1/09
What are you supposed to be doing in worship, if you are not the one actually leading it? What are you supposed to be doing not simply with your hands and your body but with your mind? I suppose that some would say that you are to be worshipping God, but those words are vacuous if not explained. Or, another answer might be that you are to "follow along" in the worship guide or bulletin. If you go to a liturgical church, as I did today, this means you ought to follow along and participate when requested in the liturgy. This means you are to intone prayers and sing hymns every once in a while, but generally you are to listen to things. Listening is a good skill to develop in life; indeed, we probably would have a lot less conflict in life if people spent more time listening to each other.
Thus, I have no problem with listening. But what about if, as things are going along, you begin to have problems with what you are hearing? Not problems as if the words are wrong or that they are leading you to perdition. But perhaps the words you are hearing are stilted or not well-written; perhaps the words that are being spoken to you aren't well-organized or very well-said. Perhaps you are being surrounded by banal thoughts when you were really hoping for someone who could grab you by the intellectual or emotional lapels and really speak to you.
Well, you guessed it. I became "distracted" in Episcopal worship today for several reasons. This essay tells the story of a few of those distractions--the next essay focuses on one more. My underlying problem is that I felt there was an interpretive gap in the service. Let me explain. I am a person who believes that meaning is all around us. It, like fresh bulbs in spring, is bursting with possibiities. Or, to say it differently, there are so many things that, in order to be understood and appreciated properly, need explanations for them. It isn't just enough to say things; just because we can understand each of the words doesn't mean that we have the least understanding of the concept that is being described. Well, let me get right to the issue here, and then close with my second issue.
Worship and the Dearth of Meaning
So, we had three great opportunities for meaning not just to come forward today but to be laid out for all to see. One opportunity was explaning the notion of food offered to idols in the Epistle reading (I Cor 8); one was the Gospel lesson on Jesus confronting the man with an evil spirit (Mark 1:21-28); and one was the renunciation of Satan and other evil things preparatory to a baptism. Each of these passages/actions carries with it lots of potential confusion. When Paul, for example, starts I Cor 8 with the line, "Now concerning food offered to idols...," you know you aren't in America anymore. You have to leap over a yawning gap of meaning until you arrive back in 1st century Corinth and various practices in Roman times about the selling of idol-meat after it has been offered to various Roman and other deities. Then, in order to go forward, you have to see the passage against the backdrop of the idea Paul is trying to discuss there--Christian freedom and self-limitation. It is a fairly good discussion, though not Paul's best chapter by any means. But what did we hear this morning? Well, about eight words of explanation, which served neither to alert the congregation to the nature of the reading or explain what difficult concepts were ahead. It was as if the words of the Scripture should just have meaning without explanation. I know this was the approach of Robert Maynard Hutchins and others from Chicago who gave us the "great books" education in the 1930s-1940s, but even their most passionate disciples these days would agree that sometimes it is best to read a modern explanation of 5th century BC Greece before Thucydides makes complete sense. But not in the Episcopal Church, I guess. We just go ahead and imagine that something will happen. What that something is, is just not clear.
There was also the opporutnity, in doing a baptism, to explain why it is that Episcopalians, who really don't believe very vigorously in Satan, would want the baptizand or his/her sponsors to renounce Satan in the first instance. I would venture to say that the word "Satan" appears on the lips of the average Episcopalian about three times a year--and mostly when quoting someone else. Why is a concept or reality which assumes such a gossamer presence in Episcopal life a central concept in one of the most important sacraments or rituals of Episcopalianism--baptism? And, once you answer that question, why don't you tell me what it means when a parent renounces Satan on behalf of the child? Does a parent even know how to recognize the traces of Satan? Does the priest, or any of us, for that matter? Does Satan leave traces? Does he exist (or she)? Well, why not take a moment to share why we do things as we do, to explain the Scriptures so that a person of moderate intelligence can understand what is going on? By not trying to explain things, the Episcopal Church is joining with most other religious bodies in not taking the precious stalks of knowledge and meaning that are growing all around us, and nurturing them. The world is awash with meaning; it explodes with interpretive possibilities. Why not bring these concerns front and center to Episcopal Worship? Well, that would take some imagination...
I like to note when words of classic hymns are changed by modern hymnals. When singing "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing," that classic by Charles Wesley, this morning, I noted we sang, in verse 5,
"Hear him, ye deaf, ye voiceless ones,
Your loosened tongues employ.."
In fact, the original version of the hymn from the 18th century, has this:
"Hear him, ye deaf, his praise ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ..."
I guess in our modern day we can't use the term "dumb" anymore. Hm. I guess I have to come up with another word to describe the ignoring of all the interpretive signposts, the beckoning urges of meaning, in the service today...