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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The First Lenten Sunday Experiment

Readers of this Blog will know about The Great Lenten Experiment going on at St. Paul's in Chatham. If you don't, you can read all about it here.

Basically, we're taking Bishop Mark Beckwith's challenge to look at the quality of our worship life - why we do what we do with prayer, the space, the hymns and psalms, 'our souls and bodies' etc. - and what that says about our relationship with God.

During Lent, we will be looking at the 'transcendence' vs. the 'immanence' of God by 'Facing (Liturgical) East'. In other words, my back will be to the people, and I will be endeavoring to lead them to a deeper awareness of the transcendent nature of God.

To keep with the solemn nature of Lent, we have also moved the Passing of the Peace (which has become like half-time or intermission) to one of its ancient places in the liturgy - right after the Great Amen and before the Lord's Prayer. The Announcements have also been moved to the end of the service - right after the Post Communion Prayer and before the final blessing and recessional hymn.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask someone in the choir loft to take pictures. I will next week. Choir members were almost universally in awe of what they experienced. They LOVED it. Most in the congregation, however, did not.

The reactions have been interesting. And, most have been exactly that - reactions as opposed to responses. It was visceral. Deep. "I hate it. HATE it!' one member exclaimed. "I feel cut off from the altar. You are not leading us to God, you are cutting us off from him."

"WOW!" I responded. "What a GREAT reaction! This is FABULOUS! When was the last time you felt that passionate about something that happened in church?"

She looked at me completely befuddled. I suppose I was expected to cower and then grovel as I apologized profusely for having the unmitigated nerve to change something in our worship. So, no fool, I seized the moment.

"You have exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams for this experiment. The whole point is to get you to think about what we're doing and why we do what we do when we worship God, and to consider what that says about our relationship to God."

She walked away, muttering incoherently.

"But, you have spit in the face of tradition," said another, anonymously, of course, in the written survey form I have been circulating for two weeks about this Lenten Experiment. (We'll do another 'post survey' in Easter.)

The ironic thing, of course, is that the tradition of the Church has been to face East. Facing the people is a 'recent innovation' - only with us since Vatican II in the late 60's.

Those who grew up in The Episcopal or Roman Catholic tradition were flooded with memories of their childhood or teen years. There were lots of stories about 'watching Father' as a child from the choir stall, and feeling part of 'some Great Mystery."

Most were cautiously guarded. "I trust you, Elizabeth, in this experiment, but at first blush, I don't like it."

Me? I was too caught up in the mechanics and pragmatics to really weigh in at this point. I didn't like the disruption in the 'expected' flow of the liturgy. The altar space suddenly felt much smaller. It felt really awkward to have my back to the people. It also seemed more . . . 'natural' . . . to face East while using Rite I, as has been our custom at the 8 AM service during Lent.

On the other hand, I have never before felt the power of the moment of the elevation of the consecrated elements as I did as I faced East. I felt a participant in 'the sacrifice of the Mass' in a way I never have before.


We also did The Great Litany, chanted in procession. That's one long sucker, isn't it? In the second week of Lent, we'll begin with the Penitential Order and read the Decalogue. After that, we'll "simply" begin with the Penitential Order, Confession and Absolution and Kyrie and the rest of the service will flow . . . as 'normal'.

I'm glad I prevailed upon the Organist / Choir Director to select old, familiar hymns, including the Doxology (Old 100th) as the Presentation Hymn for the next two weeks. There's got to be some 'anchor of the familiar' for balance.

I'll keep you posted on how this progresses. And, next Sunday, I'll post some pictures.

The Bishop's Annual Visitation is scheduled for March 2nd. I'm sure he'll get an earful.

Please keep us in your prayers.


Bill said...

North, South, East, West; doesn’t matter to me. Praying in congregation, as part of a community, does matter. Changing things once in a while is a good thing. It wakes people up and makes them think, makes them less sure. I think that if you are going through the motions out of rote, you are losing something. Sometimes people don’t know weather to stand or kneel, or sit. They’re not sure when to respond, or what the responses should be. That’s why they sit in the middle or the back where they can watch everyone else. They get so caught up in the logistics of the service that they miss the meaning of the service.

Facing east for me was a trip down memory lane. I remember as a kid that it was ok to fidget until the consecration. That was when God showed up and you had to be real good. We were lined up outside the church with our school classes and marched in by the nuns who led us. They counted heads and took notes. They made sure our hands were held in the proper praying position and that our backsides didn’t lean on the pews when we were supposed to be kneeling in a proper upright fashion . I remember the bells and of course the smells. The smell of incense lay heavy in the air of Roman churches and it often made me sick. We had masses at 7, 8, 9, 10 and noon. You never wanted to make a mistake and go to the 10:00. That was always a high mass. You could tell because of the six candles spread across the altar. There was never an eleven o’clock mass because the ten was sure to run well past the hour.

All in all, I survived. I came away with an intimate knowledge of the parts of the mass, what was happening and why. In those days, the mass was in Latin except for the readings, gospel and sermon. The 7 o’clock was in Italian because many of our senior parishioners were from the old country. I didn’t speak Italian but if I wanted to go fishing in the summer, I’d go to that one and make a good start on the day. Years later when I took up hunting I found that in upstate New York many of the towns had a hunters mass at 5:00 a.m.

The mass brings us together in a community of prayer and worship. It should be new and exciting every time we go. If you were invited to the White House for dinner wouldn’t the adrenalin be pumping. Shouldn’t it be even more exciting to be going to God’s house.

fr craig said...

bless you for your courage! I had two churches out in rural Kansas right out of seminary - one faced 'east', the other I was behind the altar. I had always felt strongly that the celebrant s/b facing the congregation (my home parish was built that way in the 60's), but what I noticed most as I faced the congregation was that they were staring at me... very disconcerting. I came to love facing 'east' and felt that I was a part of the people coming to God. I can go either way... We tried the same process for announcements as you are doing - I ended up hating it because it brought the 'flow' to a sudden halt and then started up again. For the life of me, I cannot figure out what to do about announcements. I have finally decided to just live with them. The folks seem to love that time - so I give up. Would have to think about moving the peace!!

Paul said...

The early church had presiders facing the congregation. The liturgical renewal movement attempted to restore ancient practices in place of medieval ones. Eastward was the innovation, though one done many centuries ago. We really need to understand that our roots go further back than western usage from late antiquity to the mid-19th century.

Lisa Fox said...

I agree with Fr. Craig: The announcements are messy. Where to put them? Some time back, I visited a small parish in a neighboring diocese. The priest came to the chancel at the beginning of the service and made the announcements. Then she disappeared through the sacristy door, and -- a minute later -- the procession started from the back of the nave. It worked for me. Of course, it is a problem for those who routinely arrive late for the service. On the other hand, it means that they're more likely to be in their places when the processional begins.

Frair John said...

Actually Paul, I don't think we can say definitively one way or the other. There is evidence for both directions from an early time.
A good deal of it had to do with the circumstances that the was in at the time. Archeology is showing that the assumptions of ubiquitous "House Churches" may be misplaced in many locals.

Ama , did you ask why they felt that way? What specifically make them feel that way about the action? For example, I regularly worship both ways and don't feel "cut off." In fact there are times where I think that the versus populi may be more distracting, as my attention is drawn away from the prayers and the elements, and more to the Priest.