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Rip up the pews and encourage real participation

Rip up the pews and encourage real participation

Theo Hobson has written before about how attending an Episcopal Church rekindled a faith nearly extinguished in the Church of England. Now he has more to say:

Church, the business of turning up on Sunday mornings, and joining in with the goings-on, isn’t really so bad. I want to talk about worship! It feels almost taboo to raise the issue in any detail, even on the world’s most intelligent and open-minded religion site. Can the atheists handle the provocation?

I’ve been attending a well-known arty-liberal church in Manhattan called St Marks in the Bowery. It has an excellent priest, a rising star of international liberal Anglicanism, called Winnie Varghese. It nearly always has amazing visiting musicians, often gospel-singers, which helps. But the main attraction is that it feels inclusive, participatory. The pews have gone, and the seats are arranged in an oval. There is no organ – both it and the pews were casualties of a fire some years ago – a godly fire in my view. I consider organ music too loud, too powerful – it alienates, cows. Instead, the liturgy is accompanied by a piano….

The climax of an Anglican service is communion, or eucharist, but normally it doesn’t feel like much of a climax; one stays in one’s pew as the vicar gets busy at the altar, and then one lines up to receive the bread and wine. Here it is different: we all come forward and stand in a circle round the altar. The liturgy is mostly said by the priest, but we join in with a few setpiece prayers together, one or two of which are sung with gusto, and it’s at this point I get a strange sensation: we are not dutifully going through the motions, but performing a ritual that feels alive. It is a bit like participating in a play in a theatre-in-the-round. There is a sense of dramatic excitement. We pass the bread and wine round in a circle, announcing “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven”, and “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation”. There is a palpable sense, that I have never really had in English churches, that this ritual is powerful. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, there’s a sort of primal force to it, not unrelated to a primitive rain-dance. We are doing something strange, other, mysterious: group sign-making of the most basic kind.

Does our worship need the kind of renewal Hobson experienced at St. Mark’s (where, full disclosure, I have also been impressed by the energy in the liturgy, and Winnie’s direct, probing preaching style)?


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I want to affirm what Jeffrey says: there isn’t a “One Size Fits All”, liturgically [Rite I all the time isn’t my cup of tea, but I don’t have a problem w/ those for whom it is]

Gospel inclusiveness (a better term, IMO, than “left-of-center”, though I’m guessing that’s what Jeffrey means) IS of the essence, however. Everyone is Made in the Image of God: from Rite I exclusivists, to Rite III experimenters. But everyone is Made in the Image of God: to gather ALL the Imago Dei, that’s the point!

JC Fisher

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

At my parish, Trinity Cathedral Phoenix, we have grown around just the opposite approach. Although we too were set back by a fire, we have installed a new larger organ and re-replaced the flexible chair seating with pews and kneelers. Responding to popular demand, mostly from younger persons, many new to TEC, we used Rite I and the Healy Willan setting of the liturgy this past lent. Our music is nearly exclusively traditional and is a major “draw” in that it is artfully done by a dedicated choir, organist and music staff. This is far from a conservative parish and is definitely center/left (more left than center) and includes many people from non-TEC backgrounds.

In short, I don’t think that any “one” style of music and liturgy is “the answer.” If sitting in a circle with a piano brings people into the church and more importantly makes the liturgical experience richer, then great. To assume, however, that a “change of style” to any one way of doing things is a mistake, I think. What “plays well” in the Bowery, Central Phoenix and rural Michigan are likely to be very different things. The 1979 Prayerbook is liberal in its allowances as to how the “stage” of the liturgy is set and the “work” of the liturgy is acted out. That ceremonies need not always be the same in all places/times is a reasonable principle of liturgical freedom. We don’t want to convert that, however, into an organ-burning, pew-destroying, prayerbook-abandoning new tyranny.

William R. MacKaye

The people of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, DC, have for years gathered en masse around the Holy Table to sing much of the rite–including the acclamation and the modern language verstion of the Lord’s Pdrayer–and make eucharist together.

More recently we have begun to gather around the font, which is at the street doors, not only for baptism but at other times. During the 50 days of Easter just past, for example, we gathered Sunday by Sunday at the font for the prayers of the people, asperges, and the exchange of the peace.

Our pews remain, but we spend less and less time in them, and they are destined to depart for good during the renovation of our building that will follow the capital campaign now in planning.

Warren Woodfin

I completely agree with Jan Adams’ comment.

I have met and admire Mother Varghese, but there seems to be a confusion in the essay between substance and accidents. It’s not ripping out the pews and the organ that makes for a liturgical experience that is “strange, other, mysterious.” It is entirely rooted in the commitment of the people and clergy to put their all into transformational worship. Depending on the context, that can mean a solemn high mass with choir, straight-down-the-middle Rite II BCP, or the kind of alternative worship advocated for here. The success of the solution at St. Mark’s in the Bowery doesn’t invalidate more traditional approaches.

Warren Woodfin

Cynthia Katsarelis

I agree that the Church of England could use some renewal. But don’t confuse the TEC USA for the CoE. CoE does not have a robust laity with a strong voice in our communal life. It is really top down, I would find it oppressive. And I would say that that is the root cause of CoE’s woes, not the music or the pews.

While it’s reasonable and welcome to talk about music’s role in parish life, and new possibilities, I take offense at two aspects of the above article and one comment. Number one is that organ music and traditional music is exclusive and lifeless. In our parish, our excellent music is the number 1 draw for a parish that is growing and robust. We have people doing ministry in Haiti, Africa, and in our city. We find excellent music to be nurturing, energizing, and life giving.

As for the comment “one step at a time…” It, with the tone of the article, is offensive because it seems to suggest that we lay people don’t know what we find to be spiritually nurturing and life giving, we’re just morons attached to our pews and old, meaningless ways. See my comment about the CoE.

Ultimately, it has to be about participation in the great mystery of God’s love. Some of us are participating magnificently with tremendous help of great traditional music. And for those of you enthralled with a different way, that’s perfectly fine, until you start throwing stones at us. I wish you well on your path, whether it involves “easy” music, or theologically dense music, old chestnuts, new expressions, Palestrina… whatever. Just don’t throw stones at the traditional stuff. The traditional music is good because it’s been filtered over time.

Are you actually advocating banishing Palestrina, Victoria, JS Bach, all those English composers, the great Hymns from the ’82 Hymnal and LEVAS, et al., from the liturgy? Seriously? I think that TEC is big enough for a lot of forms of expression.

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