catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 19 :: 2005.10.21 — 2005.11.03


?God is the interesting thing?

Sometime in the late 1930s, Evelyn Underhill?a highly respected scholar working in the area of Christian spirituality and mysticism?wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, outlining what she saw as being crucial for the regeneration of the spiritual life and integrity of the Church of England. ?God is the interesting thing,? she wrote, and went on to call for the church to withdraw from any activity in which God had somehow been pushed to the margins. Her message was for the clergy to get out of the helping profession?to stop trying to justify their existence as some sort of sanctified social workers?and for the church to drop any pretense of being a club or some generally helpful community agency. If ?God is the interesting thing,? then the church is first and foremost to be all about the worship of God and the cultivation of a people who desire to be steeped in prayer, meditation and study.

The Archbishop?s response goes unrecorded. In fact, there is no way to be sure that the letter was actually ever sent. In our church community, however, we have taken Underhill?s challenge very seriously.

Worship is utterly central to all that we are and all that we do. We gather Sunday evenings in a big old downtown Anglican church, and in that very traditional space we offer worship in a style that the liturgical scholar Robert Webber calls ?ancient/future.? On the one hand, we are rooted very much in the Anglican liturgical world, drawing texts for worship from both the historic Book of Common Prayer and from the more recent Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. We place a simple communion table at the front of the worship space, and the congregation of 100 sits in the first dozen or so pews. The liturgy follows a fairly conventional flow: 1) the community is gathered; 2) the Word is proclaimed and prayer is offered; 3) communion is shared; 4) the community is sent out into the world ?rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.? There is nothing particularly startling about the shape of that worship, yet within the basic structure we seek less conventional ways in which to draw the community into a place of openness to the presence of God.

The musicians, for instance, remain seated and off to the side. They do not face the congregation, but rather, like the congregation, are oriented toward the communion table. Though there are different ensembles of players, there is generally a guitar or two, a bass, a percussionist, and often a pianist. The music tends to be meditative, much in the vein of the Taiz? community, though with a little more grit and feel; most of these musicians have roots music backgrounds, and it shows.

At roughly 7:00pm, the music just begins. People put down the coffee they had picked up at the back of the church, make their way quietly to their places, and join in the singing. As the music resolves, I, as the presiding celebrant, stand and offer the most basic of instructions for the worship, and then call the community into a time of stillness, ?as a bell is sounded and incense is lit as a sign of our ascending prayer.? I?ve learned to let the stillness linger for as long as the bell resounds; to not rush, as if the quiet is somehow offensive. Then comes the formal liturgical greeting??The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,? to which the community answers, ?And also with you,? which bridges us into another piece of music. Depending on the season, this might be in the vein of the traditional Gloria; celebratory and marked by a powerful sense of alleluia. It might be something like a Wesley hymn, recreated by our musicians to feel more earthy and perhaps more evocative, or an original piece by one of our many songwriters. Regardless, the focus is on the gathering of this community, to make us ready to hear the word and share the cup.

Prayer is offered, using the collect appointed for that particular day, and then readings from scripture are shared. We do follow the Revised Common Lectionary, but tend to use just the appointed Gospel lesson and perhaps one other reading. The reading is unrushed, surrounded by silence, and done from a lectern placed in the middle of the congregation. A sermon of no longer than 10 or 12 minutes is preached, and again silence follows. Prayer is offered by a member of the community; this prayer is both a response to the Word and a calling of this community to be mindful of the needs and pains of the wider world. Again, this is unrushed, and silence is as much a part of the prayer as are the words themselves. An invitation is offered for people to offer silent prayers of personal confession, which may also be followed by a sung corporate confession. After the absolution is pronounced, people are invited to share with each other a gesture of Christ?s peace, as God has once again offered a reconciling peace to us.

As the community again offers worship in song, the table is set for communion. There is no offering plate passed at our worship, and when the ?gifts? are presented at the table, it is the bread and wine for communion (real bread and real wine, thank you very much!) along with donations of fresh produce for the local soup kitchen, which are brought up the aisle, usually by children of the community. After the Eucharistic prayer, the following words are announced to invite the community to share in the bread and wine:

This is the body of Christ;
behold what you are;
become what you receive.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

While the musicians lead us in a simple contemplative chant, the communion is shared in a large circle around the table. Members of the community are involved in administering the cup, including quite young children. Again, this is an unhurried process.

Having shared together in the bread and wine, we move fairly quickly to the end of the formal liturgy. A simple blessing is pronounced, an announcement or two are shared (including an open invitation for people to withdraw to the chapel for continued prayer and stillness, if the prospect of a social time around the coffee table at the back of the church seems a little too abrupt a shift!), and a closing song is sung. Again, the tone of the song is determined by the season of the Christian calendar. In Easter or Pentecost, this will be a decidedly celebratory hymn. Last year in Lent, on the other hand, we sang a song written by Gord Johnson, one of our own musicians, which included the lines:

Into the darkness we must go;
gone, gone is the light.
Into the darkness we must go;
gone, gone is the light.

Jesus remember me,
when you come into your kingdom.

Hardly what most of us have come to expect as a way to end worship, yet in the wilderness time of Lent, it is extraordinarily powerful.

That?s really it. Occasionally we?ll build in something quite different: a percussion trio playing a full out drum piece on Pentecost as an attempt to express something of the raw power of the Spirit; a juggler on Trinity Sunday, holding three balls aloft in an unlikely icon for the triune nature of the One; sherry and shortbread shared off the communion table at the very end of the Christmas Eve liturgy as a very visceral reminder that such Holy Days are in fact feast days. But usually we let the music and the stillness, the icons and incense, the bread and wine, the words and prayers, do their work. We?ve been at this just a little over two years, and are just beginning to discover just how deep those basic building blocks can take us; deep into the mystery of God. And God is the interesting thing.

Jamie Howison is an Anglican priest who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba and pastors st. benedict?s table.

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