Friday, June 21, 2013

Melting into Graced Community: Some Thoughts on Liturgical Presidency

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to preside at a liturgy. Partially, this is because I'm at Sewanee right now, in the third year of course-work for my Doctor of Ministry. Both classes I'm taking have a liturgical focus. The first, Mapping Liturgical Rite, is an explicit liturgical focus. The second, The Oxford Movement, the Liturgy, and the Crisis of Faith, is a bit more implicit... however, given the title, liturgy is clearly still a significant part of the conversation.

It seems to me that throughout the history we've been exploring, one of the fundamental questions is the way in which the community addresses itself to God. In the early church, as the community gathered around the table, they broke bread and wine with a deep sense of Christ's presence with them. The presider, in the late first-century Didache referred to interestingly enough at times as a Prophet, was given distinct words but was also invited to use his own words if he so wished. And at the end of the meal, the Presider invited the community to remember that the world into which they were returning was not real—only God's grace is real. Thus, the lovely concluding prayer, "Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any one is holy let him come, if any one is not holy let him repent. Maranatha. Amen."

The point being that the Presider, on behalf of the community, invites God's presence into the community. The beginning part of the post-communion prayer in the Didache has the Presider giving thanks for the way in which, particularly through the liturgy, God has come to dwell within the community. "We thank thee, Holy Father, for Thy Holy Name, which Thou hast caused to dwell (tabernacle) in our hearts."

Over the following centuries, as the liturgy developed and became more and more elaborate, formalization set in with the Presider's role. The words became set, the actions became more and more concrete. Having been raised in a non-liturgical tradition, I would argue that this formalization of liturgy and action caused the Presider increasingly to fall back into the liturgy. No longer even praying in your own words and instead praying in the words of the church, the liturgy took central place.

Now, of course, concurrent with this could be unhelpful developments. In some areas it began to be seen as though the liturgy was primarily something the priest (and servers) did while the people watched. Or, in others, laziness on the part of the clergy meant that the liturgy happened but in a very sort of rote manner.

Since the Liturgical Movement, however, the liturgy of the church has become much more participatory. Though the liturgy can certainly no longer be seen in most places as something the priest does privately while the people standing by, I would suggest that in many areas it has become a performance put on by the priest. The people say their parts, do their standing and keep their eyes on the liturgical action... but the affectations of the priest mean that their eyes are actually on the priest rather than elements upon the altar.

Ironically, I generally find this particularly in clergy with a lower theological understanding of priesthood. However, when it comes to their style of celebration, they hold out the elements at the words of institution acting in persona Christi, they break the bread and hold it out in a manner that emphasizes what they just did in the breaking. They spend most of the prayer looking at the people (when they are not looking at the book).

I would argue, this style of celebration has lost the understanding of the Presider as one who simply functions as the congregation's chosen president for their prayers to God. This style has lost a sense of celebration where the priest humbly approaches God's altar, saying his or her words, but also affirming the proper liturgical roles of the rest of the servers alongside of the people. In proper presidency, no one person is more important than the others. Each has simply been given a distinctive role to play—and God remains the fundamental actor in the liturgy, wherein the congregation calls on God to make grace present once more.

I'm sure I don't do this well all the time. But as I move towards five years as a priest, I'm increasingly convicted about the need for us, as clergy, to learn what it means to melt into the action of Holy Eucharist. As I wrote in an essay several years ago, the traditional liturgical vestments of cassock, amice, alb, girdle, stole, and chasuble give me a sense of being swaddled in grace. It covers me in the clothes of the church that I might sing the song, dance the steps, the church has asked me to do.

And, in the end, when I experience a presidency of prayer that functions in this way, one in which I truly did experience myself melting into the community's liturgical action, I discover a profound experience of grace. I am reminded that very little of my ministry is dependent upon my personality or inherent gifts... rather, it is dependent upon me accepting God's grace through a deep entrance into Christian community, coming up alongside to say my words when it is my time, being quiet when it is time for me do that.

In melting into the liturgy, I find that grace is not effected by any clergy person's "magic hands," least of all my own. Rather, grace is revealed as always present when we, as the worshiping community, succeed in pulling back the curtain on the world as it seems and encounter the world as it truly is: deeply infused with the gracious love of the Holy Trinity.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A catholic future for the Episcopal Church

My June 6, 2013, article for Daily Episcopalian, A catholic future for the Episcopal Church,

As I approach nearly ten years worshiping in the Episcopal Church, including nearly five as a priest of the church, I’m struck by what first drew me into the church as someone in his young twenties. Though I was raised in an evangelical tradition, it was one that emphasized both the early church and the importance of reason, study, and intellect in the practice of the Christian faith. The more I studied in my undergraduate and graduate work, the more I found myself drawn to a more ancient expression of Christianity, one that didn’t view the early church merely as an historic curiosity, but instead as a group to whom we were organically connected. I began to realize that certain ideas I had been told were “catholic innovations” growing up—ideas like the Presence of Christ in Communion, a hierarchical structure, the veneration of saints—these were actually important concepts in the church from her earliest centuries.
For the past five years, my priestly ministry has been deeply shaped by a group known as the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. The Society began in England in the mid-nineties as a place for Anglo-Catholic clergy who also supported the ordination of women and of gay and lesbian Christians. It believed that the ideals of the catholic heritage of Anglicanism were not only essential, but that they needed a resurgence in the church today.
Read more at the Daily Episcopalian's website here.