this is the 4th post in a series of 8 posts on the Way of Love:
turn. learn. pray. worship. bless. go. rest
today’s post is about worship
(written on Sunday, October 7, 2018)
Every once in a while- like today- I skip church.
One of the primary tasks of a bishop’s job is to visit the congregations in her/his diocese and I do that, faithfully, according to the schedule that is set up for me by my assistant, Carolyn. In a schedule that takes into consideration out-of-diocese meetings, vacation and holidays, I make it around to each of our congregations once every two years. The visitation of a bishop to a parish is such an important part of what we do and how we function together, that it is written into the canons of The Episcopal Church in Title III Canon 12 Sec 3a: “Of the Life and Work of a Bishop”- “A bishop… shall visit the Congregations within the Diocese at least once in three years.” During my visitations I meet with the vestries for conversation, usually enjoy one of our fabulous church suppers, and sometimes participate in significant ecclesiastical life events like baptisms, confirmations, and receptions. One of the chief sacramental functions of a bishop is to preside at services of Confirmation and Ordination and accepting this responsibility and participating in these rites bring me great joy. But the primary act of a bishop’s visitation (in my opinion) is to worship, together, with the people of God with whom I am in relationship- to become, in the act of worshiping together, the Body of Christ, in that place at that time and, by joining together in worship, welcome Christ into our midst. Jesus tells us, in the Gospel of Matthew (18:20): “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And, in his beautiful prayer that we often pray at the end of Morning or Evening Prayer, St. John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) writes:
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
Worship is a beautiful thing. In our tradition its order is prescribed. We are “people of the book” and, in that routinized practice we find comfort, solace, predictability and security. We know that the opening hymn and sentences will be followed by the lections for the day, that we can expect some exposition on the lessons (sermon), that our preparation in the Word will lead us to the Table, where we will celebrate, together, the Holy Mysteries and, in the breaking of one snappy, thin wafer, we will find Christ among us. We will make our pilgrim way to the front of the Church, bend our knees, and receive a meal that will nourish our souls into eternity. Worship- and the sacramental act of Holy Communion- is like that.
But worship can be wildly unpredictable, an unleashing of the Holy Spirit- transformative and freeing. The structure that we abide: hymn, lesson, sermon, prayers, etc… sets up a scaffolding, a framework, on which the Spirit swings and dances and winds her way in and over and through, moving us in ways that we are not always expecting. I have seen great moments of reconciliation take place at the Passing of the Peace. I witness – and experience of my own accord- tears in eyes (others, and my own,) on a regular basis in worship. I see people at the altar rail with their heads, bowed in respect to Almighty God, hands held high to receive the Bread of Life, and I have looked deep into eyes of those who meet mine, searching for hope and strength, as the small wafer is pressed into their palm. Sometimes, as I distribute communion and say the words, “The Body of Christ, the bread of Heaven,” people respond- not just with an “Amen,” but with other words: “Thank you, Jesus,” or “I believe it,” or “This is true.” It is a privilege to be part of that moment of the meeting of Jesus and his people.
A monk friend of mine commented once on the rote-ness of our Anglican worship, claiming that in the routine of structured worship, our hearts and minds and souls are freed to encounter God in ways that we cannot meet in other places in our lives. And in the orthodox tradition, there is the belief that when we receive communion, the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, for just a moment, and we are One with the saints in light.
We can worship on our own. By offering thanks to God; by sighing at anther gorgeous sunset; in spending periods of quiet, listening and looking for God- these acts of prayer and adoration are certainly worship-ful. But corporate worship is an act of grace, all of its own. The “Outline of the Faith” in our Book of Common Prayer (a.k.a. “The Catechism”) tells us that in corporate worship we “unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.” (BCP pg. 857) It’s that “uniting with others” part that is so important to me. We come together, as individuals, as different as we can be- old, young, black, brown, white, gay, straight, as students, retired, poor, wealthy, with children, without children, educated, without formal education, well dressed, in old clothes, solid in our faith, questioning, afraid, joyful, despairing, exuberant, depressed, sober, anxious, secure, unglued- we come together, just as we are- and create, in our gathering One Body, to offer ourselves to God and to praise God, for God’s holiness. In that, we worship a God who is strong, tender, compassionate, passionate, just, creative, healing, sustaining, empowering, strengthening, wise, fervent and omnipotent. The God whom we worship as One Body is all of that, in one moment, as we bring our own experiences, hopes and dreams together under one roof to worship.
A word about our worship here in Central Pennsylvania: this essay presumes that our worshipping congregations participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion each week. To claim that for our entire diocese would be untrue. Several of our congregations do not participate in Holy Communion each week, but gather, faithfully, to worship through the service of Morning Prayer in our prayer book. These congregations do this because they do not have a priest with them each week. Some of them are in remote areas where it is difficult to get a priest to come each Sunday. Other of these congregations are unable to pay for the services of an ordained priest to celebrate with them each week. Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the current theology of The Episcopal Church makes Holy Communion the “normative act of worship” on a Sunday: “The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts… (is) the regular service appointed for public worship in this Church.” (BCP 13) While Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer and other rites contained within our prayer book are efficacious, the sacramental act of the Holy Eucharist is normative on the Lord’s Day. This is an issue that has become part of my work and discernment about how we work and worship in our diocese as One Body.
You’ve heard me say, no doubt, that “Christianity is a team sport.” (with kudos, I think, to my former rector, for that one.) Worship is the means by which we honor God, and communal worship is the way in which we become the Body of Christ. We need each other. When we are together, with our hearts and hands and voices raised in prayer and praise, we are at our best. We need that experience of goodness in this sorry world. I know that I need it.
And so, while today I am skipping church (it’s a holiday weekend) and I am home in my study working on blogs and sermons and letters, I will be back at it, next week, shoulder to shoulder with God’s people, in worship. Today, Morning Prayer in my armchair in the living room is good. Next week, breaking bread and joining with the Body of Christ, will be great.