God is perfect, but our worship isn’t, despite what we might think. The seemingly fixed nature of our worship belies the truth: worship throughout history has been spontaneous and full of joy. We have gone through eras, particularly the medieval period, in which liturgy (the work of the people) was done in a language unknown to its participants and without its participants actually participating, with most of it behind a screen so riff raff would be removed from it. Purity, you know. This of course was accompanied with moaning and wailing about how horrible we are. And groveling. Lots of groveling. So joyful worship hasn’t always been the norm. But it has much more precedent than any of these “improvements”.
From the moment Abraham dropped to his knees and worshipped GOD from that spot of his revelation, we became a people of spontaneous worship. His second action was to build an altar as a monument to mark the place of the revelation. This act has led us to a confusing mix of honor and idolatry for altars and places of revelation. Before explaining what I mean, let’s take a moment to remember Abraham.
Back when he was Abram, GOD called Abraham to go on a journey, to move from one place to another. Abraham agreed, and in those places he worshipped GOD, he marked the place and kept moving. His blessing of descendents didn’t remain to care for those sites as holy or the monuments as relics. They went with him.
There is something powerful in the image of Abraham marking a place and time, the act of devotion of building a marker of stone. It truly is a powerful image. But he doesn’t remain. Just as powerful is that he leaves that site forever. It isn’t a personal portal to the divine, but the work of his hands to honor an incredible relationship.
Our worship could not be further from the character of this worship. I could not venture a guess how Abraham would respond to our worship in 2012, but to say shock, and perhaps disappointment. In liturgical churches, with our relatively fixed liturgy, we rarely even offer space for spontaneity. In fact, spontaneous expressions actually feel intrusive or obstruct our worship because they take time away from the planned actions. I’m not arguing that this is intrinsically wrong, but to clarify what a departure this is from our roots. And that makes me a bit uncomfortable.
In the manner of worship we have in the Episcopal Church, we are left with imperfect choices in style of worship based upon an imperfect document known as the Book of Common Prayer. It’s beauty and vision are still beyond the scope of any other worship manual. And yet many of its more restrictive elements represent the needs of a different era, rather than breadth of humanity’s historical interaction with the divine. Much of it demonstrates the century of its birth (16th: Reformation Era), the era of its primary revision domestically (18th: Revolution Era), the Scottish influence of our origins rather than the British (18th-19th), and the century of its last major incarnational shift (20th). Much of the liturgical work since the mid-20th Century has been to reclaim much of tradition that predates Cranmer, King James, and the Great Reformation. We are now building a more comprehensive approach to liturgy than progressive: with our focus on worshipping according to our theological convictions in light of historical practice. We have often taken our liturgical history as progressive, with each innovation building off what came before, but much of our liturgical tradition before the current milieu has begun with theological articulations, rather than the articulation of theological defenses for current practice. It has also evidenced incredible shifts in sacramental practice, describing little of the historical consistency we attribute to it.
What this means for us, at St. Paul’s and in your local community, is that a full accounting of history shows our Sunday worship resembles neither the spontaneous worship of the Hebrews, the Exiles, the Apostles and early Christians nor the discipline of the monastics or the restriction of medievalists. In our age, worship is highly structured, localized, and fairly open; seemingly pushing against the characteristics of all previous eras. And it feels, much of the time, as if we have devoted ourselves, not to traveling along the path of Jesus, but the worship at and the protection of the altars built by our ancestors. Unlike Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul, who followed the Spirit’s movement through literal travel, we are rooted to our buildings and traditions and books and words, seeing our faith as not following the Spirit, but in preserving the ministry of our ancestors.
My hope is that we can come together, not as reformers, but as humble travelers. Not as people picking off what we don’t like, but embracing what is essential and necessary to take with us: only what fits in our small backpacks. But most important, like following the famous trail walked by many before us, we share the road and make our journey as welcoming and encouraging for everyone we meet. You never know, you may be hosting Jesus unawares. And I’m pretty confident he won’t care which prayer form we use.