To balance out my last “Sunday Reflections” about ++Rowan Williams’ visit, that clocked in at around 2,000 words, here’s a shorter, more meditative piece.
Two days ago was Sunday. It was a little different for me; I served at the 11 o’clock service instead of my (now) usual 8:45 service. I wanted to see how I could withstand the use of incense in close proximity. In the moment, it went better than I had anticipated, but, like the other times I had seated myself within its range, I felt its effects the day after.
The incense wasn’t the only thing that had a lasting effect. Due to an online discussion or two, and an in-person discussion, I started thinking about why people come to church in the first place, and why they might prefer one ceremony as opposed to another.
The incense, which is used to consecrate the altar and the congregation, is not the only thing that is different about the later morning service. Most sections of the liturgy are sung, both in the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Table. The hymnal is only opened once or twice. Bells are rung to declare the point of transformation of the bread into Christ’s body, and the wine into Christ’s blood.
I was telling someone, several weeks ago, that if I were bringing someone to church who had never been to church before, or hadn’t been to church in a long time, I probably wouldn’t bring them to the service with the “smells and bells”. To me, the incense combined with the chanting and singing, is not welcoming or encouraging to participate. It seems to put too much distance between the congregation and the worship leaders.
Why do people go to church on Sundays, anyway? Aside from tradition, I think there are two main reasons: the experience of God, and (or?) the experience of community.
“Liturgy” seems like a fancy church word. When some folks see or hear that word, they automatically think of formal ceremonies where people appear to worship by routine and without feeling, simply following instructions laid out in the bulletin. That is a misconception, because “liturgy” simply means “work of the people”. It is something that is done by a congregation. I came to the realization, shortly before seeking out an Anglican church, that many, if not most, churches have their Sunday routines. They may not have everything written down, but they follow the same patterns week after week: a liturgy. I was comfortable with saying that all churches have their liturgies, so it made the transition to using the Book of Common Prayer easy for me.
When I go to church, I want to feel close to God, and I want to participate with the rest of the congregation in the experience of worship, including praise, lament, and confession (I also want to learn, but that goes for just about everything in life). I want the experience of immanence, for the most part, because much of the time, God feels far away. When I am in a worship service and I do not feel welcome to participate, more transcendence is evoked for me, and God doesn’t feel that close. In a service with incense, and singing and chanting that I don’t know, I get a strong sense of transcendence.
Everyone is different, though, and I know that my preferences and experiences are opposite from some others. They may prefer the “smells and bells”, because in those rituals, they experience the immanence of God. Maybe someone else wants to experience the transcendence of God through the same exact rituals.
What about you?