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Like repeating fifth grade

Like repeating fifth grade

By Donald Schell

“Services in Episcopal church are like repeating fifth grade. There’s no place for me there.”

“Do I have to be able to read music to belong to this church?”

My colleagues who heard this observation and this question, one from a friend, the other from a stranger, are seasoned, committed leaders in our church, but both felt they were hearing something significant in the impression of a first-time visitor to an Episcopal Church. The ‘repeating fifth grade’ remark was made by someone who was visiting because her longtime friend worked in the church. The ‘have to be able to read music to belong’ question was from stranger’s first visit to an Episcopal congregation. Both were responding to our odd habit of doing ritual from printed text.

Another colleague, serving as interim in a church that had just won its building back from “Anglican” dissidents, attended a town council meeting, met a number of people who were excited to hear of a more open, progressive voice returning to their town’s religious community and several promised they’d come to church. They did come, and as my friend watched their faces in church that, he felt their bafflement at how we pray with our noses in the book, at the disconnection from friends and neighbors they felt scattered in pews unable to see any face but the priests, at juggling books and interpreting different kinds of page numbers. One by one, he said, he saw his new friends’ faces registering, “nothing for me here.”

The book is our splendid resource. It’s also a serious problem. Sunday I caught myself in an ultra-Episcopal moves. Presiding at a spoken 8 a.m. liturgy, we were using the Apostles’ Creed, which we had printed in the service leaflet. I couldn’t find it in the leaflet and fumbled for it as the creed began before it dawned on me that I didn’t need the leaflet. I could say the creed without text in front of me. I made myself speak the familiar text, but felt the loss of that conditioned security of the paper and print – whether Prayer Book or leaflet. And later when we came to the Lord’s Prayer, I lifted my hands to lead the prayer and noticed an entire congregation of people who know that prayer reading it from the book.

Sunday afternoon, my wife was running lines for our actor son. Running lines means she had the script, he mostly had his lines memorized, and they were practicing with her speaking other parts and him speaking from memory to refine his memorization. His leading part in a new verse translation of Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande. It gives him a heavy line load of gorgeous poetry he wants to get right. The director had scheduled cast to be off book for the next rehearsal, a full month before the play would open. So, many hours into learning his part ‘by heart,’ he was refining and polishing the memorization to get ready–for rehearsal–not even for performance, but for early rehearsals, because the directors knows actors off book discover new things as their characters are literally speaking to each other. They’re not ‘saying lines’ any more, they’re acting or playing their part.

Occasionally, going to a lot of theater, we’ve had the experience of being in the audience when an understudy takes the stage on book. We saw an Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello on book. It was exciting to watch because the understudy was stretching so hard to be the character, to get the lines without looking, to maintain eye contact with the other actors or speak the lines to the audience, and because the other actors were working so hard to make the whole production succeed. It was a beautiful performance and I still picture a charged moment when he held a sword in one hand and book in the other in the murderous final scene.

Aren’t we, in church, hoping to be at least as alive and present as a company of actors? Why aren’t we finding strategies and means to get people off book? Where are we valuing the voice and contribution of each regular attender and each visitor?

Praying with our nose in the book can’t touch the elation of watching that understudy play Iago. The book isn’t our springboard to freedom; instead it’s there to anchor us, to make sure we don’t go anywhere. Actually, it’s very possible that in 1549 some people felt elated, expectant, and even ecstatic to have printed English texts of the liturgy that they could hold and read themselves. My colleague’s friend in 2011 felt like unison reading put her back in fifth grade.

Where do we invite, allow, or even admit energy and emotion?

My hunch is that a lot of people in our culture, some consciously, some not, suffer from loneliness and isolation. They fear their voices don’t count. “Don’t you want your voice to be heard?” the paid pollster inevitably asks when I decline yet another unsolicited phone survey. That trained caller hopes the stranger picking up the phone will feel lonely enough and powerless enough that his formulaic questions to make me into data bits gives will give me enough hope that I might count and feel like I was finally someone that I’d cooperate. Usually I say. ‘no thank you.’

People do come to us, to our churches, lonely, feeling isolated, not knowing or trusting their God-given experience and power. So when, in our Sunday liturgy, do we bless the experience and authority they brought with them to church? When do, we help them find a resourcefulness that would empower them for Gospel living outside of church?

My question isn’t what we’re ‘telling them.’ Our message can be pretty clear, but we silence it when we contradict the message line by line and movement by movement in the liturgy, making people feel childish or incompetent. And which will people hear from us, our message or our practice?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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Hmmm. That’s an interesting interpretation, Dave Paisley. “Helping a person out” and “telling them where they’re screwing up” seem like two completely different ideas, to me.

I’ve actually tried to help new people out in this way, too – by showing them where the service starts in the book, or by finding a leaflet for them, or by handing them a hymnal if they didn’t have one.

That must mean I’m just way, way too self-involved, though….

Dave Paisley

“What a Episcopalian who sees a newcomer stumbling through the book should be doing is going over and helping that person out.”

Nobody likes anything as much as being told where they’re screwing up.

Talk about us-centric….

C. Wingate

I’ve never known anything but the 1979 BCP, and I’ve had my head out of the book for, I don’t know, a couple of decades now? Except when I go to a parish where they don’t follow the BCP liturgy! If all they do is emasculate the language, I say the correct liturgy anyway, but from time to time I’m presented with material in the bulletin which deviates enough to where I have to read it to participate.

I don’t think we can make people happy who are bothered by having to read the prayers except by going to a largely non-participatory liturgy. That’s not us. And I don’t know that this is as repellent as people like to make it out to be. However, I do see it as a largely missed opportunity for inclusion. What a Episcopalian who sees a newcomer stumbling through the book should be doing is going over and helping that person out.

Donald Schell

[what follows is a my posting of a response Olivia Kuser wrote and tried to post earlier – Donald]

I have an almost idolotrous relationship to reading, writing and books. I adore books. So my first knee-jerk response was- “don’t take away our lovely, red, dog-eared BCP that falls open at page 323!” (where, if I recall, Rite I begins). Not that we even use the BCP at St. Gregory’s. I also love reading aloud; both reading the Gospel, in front of everyone, singlehanded; being read to, as in listening to someone else reading the Gospel; and reading prayers together, in unison- and church is the ONLY place left that we do this, unless you are a regular attender at an AA meeting. I am a strongly visual learner- if I didn’t see it or read it, it literally didn’t happen to me. But I have happily worshipped at SGN without a prayer

book, though with a hymnal, for twenty years.

One of my deepest spiritual experiences was at a neighbor’s Bat Mitzvah, three and a half hours almost entirely in Hebrew, having had no breakfast, with a prayer book that worked backwards. I was almost never on the “right” page and I spent a good deal of time craning my neck to see the book of the visiting rabbi sitting in front of me (assuming he would certainly be on the right page). The only part I could truly “participate” in was the Sch’ma- which fortunately was to the same tune that we use at St. Gregory’s- and I had the chance to really sing out, in Hebrew, something I knew by heart, both words and music. But what moved me most, what made it “church” for me-was when my young friend walked to the Ark, with her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts to take out the Torah. That gesture, of continuity, of history, of family, of the past leading and teaching the present- moved me to tears- that was worth the Hebrew, the hunger and the sense of being completely at sea in the liturgy.

As to reading in unison: now that there are so many versions in my own head of not just the Lord’s Prayer but of all kinds of bits and pieces of the BCP- if I don’t have the book in front of me to remind me WHICH one we’re doing this particular service, I don’t just go astray, I fall silent. I sort of fall in between the words. Amazingly to me, I still sometimes go to the 1928 version when on autopilot. Apparently I like to say “the quick and the dead” and “begotten not made”.

One last thing- supertitles- UGH. I just went to a church with projected words for the first time this spring. It sucks at the Opera and it super sucks at church.

I don’t really think your question is “to Book or not to Book”, I think the real question is, (to paraphrase Wendell Barry) “What is liturgy for?” Is it to bring newcomers into the church

– is it to be an attraction?

– Is it to be easy and welcoming chiefly?

– Is it to keep old comers challenged and inspired?

– is it to continually refresh our worship practice to keep us coming?

– Is it to preserve a culture and a pattern of prayer and language as an artifact that still may move us and speak to us and link us to our own past and history?

– Is it to be so familiar that though we have our books open we say the words by heart, a groove, not a rut, and enable us to learn something new in the the old?

– Is it to bring us into contact with God?

Don’t we look for all those things- and many more un-named- work?

Olivia Kuser


I’m not sure what we could do, anyway, do mollify somebody who believes that reading prayers together is “like being in fifth grade.”

What other configurations are there? Extemporaneous speaking? That’s one option – but who speaks?

The priest? He or she will get a chance to speak from the pulpit. Congregants? Probably a few people will speak most of the time, and the majority won’t, ever; that’s what tends to happen in groups.

During the Communion service, though, we as parishioners take part in it by singing, reading, praying, receiving Communion, listening to readings, and in various other ways. And yes – together. That’s the good part; what did your colleague object to about this, anyway?

I’m all for simple, tuneful music used repeatedly until people know it. I don’t particularly care for the 1982 Hymnal (although there are some songs I love) – but I can live with it, if there’s something real and important happening. It really doesn’t matter all that much, does it, if there’s vital spiritual life in a parish? If what’s said and done there are helping people find joy and engagement with life that they can’t find elsewhere?

I’m also unclear how it’s better if people are reading Powerpoint from a screen; it’s exactly the same thing using a different medium, that’s all. Although I agree it’s vitally important to talk with people who are new.

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