By Emily M. D. Scott
I think that it is safe to say that my church, The Riverside Church, is in a Holy Chaos. Our interdenominational congregation (American Baptist Churches, USA and United Church of Christ) housed in a towering gothic Rockefeller-funded Nave on the border of Harlem and the Upper West Side, has never seen anything quite like this.
On his first Sunday as our new Senior Minister, The Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton descended from the pulpit, said a few words to our organist, and walked with purpose toward the pews. He told the congregation that this was the beginning of building a relationship of trust between pastor and people. And then he invited them forward. The Riverside Church had an Altar Call. People came forward to pray; they came forward to convert; they came forward to join our church. The liturgist of this assembly—and a cradle Episcopalian—I sat watching quietly and eagerly from the chancel. I felt something slip in me. It felt like a key in a well-oiled lock, unlatching and releasing, the door sliding ajar.
Each week now, our worship offers a Time of Invitation: a time for congregants to come forward and pray with clergy. As you can imagine, this new ritual has sent our congregation spinning in a number of different directions. Did you see what happened? a few of them said to me. Did you feel that? Did you see all those people come forward to pray? I told them that I did, and I had. Something was happening.
Two weeks later, I watched as Dr. Braxton led our congregation, all 1,000 of them, in singing Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. The spiritual was not listed in the bulletin; he led the song in response to the words of our guest preacher that day. Sitting on the front pew, my heart seemed to lift in my chest as the congregation, singing unaccompanied for the first time I’ve heard, tentatively found the melody, then, without effort, broke into a gentle harmony. At the end of each line we found a place of quiet, breathed as one, and sang on.
Each night as I pray for Riverside, I see in my mind’s eye a great wind that rattles the doors of the Nave from the outside. Suddenly the doors slam open and the wind, an almost visible force, sweeps through the church, sending dust and loose papers flying. The wind is fresh and seems to carry with it a warm, clear light. Each Sunday I arrive at work, the air seems fresher. The light filtered through our stained glass windows seems warmer. Even the stones, arching up to our vaulted ceiling, seem to hum.
I’m not sure about all of this, congregants have told me. A lot of people in this church left these traditions behind. That’s why they came here. They don’t want to go back to doing church like that. It seems to me that a lot of folks end up in the Episcopal Church for the very same reason. Many Episcopalians are refugees from other denominations, painfully excluded because of who we are or what we believe. For a long time, we left the Church. When we came back, we knew we needed to be part of something progressive, where we would never be told that God’s love excluded us. We also live with a visceral reaction to the language of the church we grew up with. We can’t bear to be around anything that feels like that place where we were so badly wounded.
I think my pastor, Dr. Braxton, would caution us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Reading the opening chapters of Luke last night by the light of the Christmas lights strung across my apartment, I was struck by Gabriel’s words to Mary as he tells her she will bear God’s son. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary asks the angel. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” comes his reply.
When have you been overpowered by the Holy Spirit? When have you felt God’s spirit overshadowing you, weaving together a work of God in the depth of your being? I know you have felt it – that moment when you are overcome with the beauty of life, the grace of time slipping through your fingers. In that moment, God is not only all around you, but within you, knitting together her hope for your life in the deepest place in your body.
Growing up at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle I felt that Spirit descend on me with earth-shattering force, most often as the new fire of the Easter Vigil was lit, or when the priest exclaimed, “Christ is Risen!” I’ve felt that undeniable sense of God in quiet places, tasting the familiar cadences of the Prayer Book as the light slipped away from the world each evening. I’ve seen Jesus dancing along with my friends as we circle the altar at St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Holy Spirit swirls over us as we move, dipping and dancing along with us. Like you, God comes to me in different ways and in different places.
But this Altar Call has me thinking. Watching Dr. Braxton lead worship, I am aware in a way I never have been of the work of the Spirit in worship. After singing Were You There, and praying with the folks who came forward that week, Dr. Braxton eased us right past the recessional hymn. We didn’t sing it at all. There’s a sweet spirit in the room, he told us, and asked our musicians to begin the postlude, as the clergy made their way to the rear of the Nave. It was the right way to end the service – the moment demanded it. Urban Holmes wrote that good liturgy leads regularly to the edge of chaos, a regular flirt with doom (Theology and Religious Renewal). These past weeks in worship, I’ve felt myself clearly standing dangerously on the edge of a precipice – nothing below me but God.
How often do we trick ourselves into believing that if we do everything right – if we use the right words and process the right way and bow at the right moments, God will be present in our worship? How often do we deceive ourselves into, as Aidan Kavanaugh so incisively wrote, “tam[ing] the Lion of Judah and [putting] him into a suburban zoo to entertain children (On Liturgical Theology)?
And how often to we believe, as we stand in the Narthex among the acolytes and choir members, that the cataclysmic Spirit of God just might thunder into our sanctuary, cracking open our familiar and comforting practices, and change the very lives of the people to whom we minister? How often do we trust that someone might be healed, that someone might be saved? How often do we trust our own ability to be the lighting rod to God’s presence and touch?
I ask these questions that we might stop and consider for a moment our visceral responses to the diversity of Christian practices. For just as worship that invites an emotional response from the congregation can be turned toward manipulation, worship that proceeds “by the book” can turn toward idolatry. Both traditions require leadership that is faithful and honest: that does not run rampant with the power of the pastor, and does not become convinced that our pageantry can control a living God.
Riverside is in a Holy Chaos. Letters are written, conversations are whispered, arms are crossed. It’s hard to accept change. It’s also hard to accept that you might not be the one in control. I know what it’s like to be convinced that if you do everything right, have everything just so, say the right thing at the right moment, God will smile and nod and say “well done.” But that’s simply not the case. While we’re fussing over the linens, over getting things right, God is sitting in a chair in the back of the room, wondering when we’re going to start listening to her. Just stop. And listen. And pray. That’s all she wants.
Emily M. D. Scott is a lay liturgist and an Episcopalian. She is currently the Director of Worship at The Riverside Church in New York City, and the founder of a budding church called St. Lydia’s, which meets weekly in Manhattan. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music.