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When nobody shows

If you hold a liturgy and nobody comes, is it a failure?

My parish has held a Christmas morning service for years. Sometimes one person came; sometimes nobody. This year, as the new Assistant on staff, I offered to take charge of Christmas Day and do something different: a 4pm festal Evening Prayer service, followed by a 5pm community dinner.

At our mission parish in North Carolina, the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, this was our standard Sunday arrangement: worship at 5, dinner afterwards. We chose to follow a similar schedule on Christmas Day and Easter, with the idea of providing a friendly and familial gathering for folks in the congregation who didnā€™t have local family or other plans. It worked well; we consistently had small but cheerful gatherings for those occasions, and plenty of good food. Our household always participated.

So for Christmas Day at my parish, we put the word out about the new plan. I carefully crafted a cheerful little Evening Prayer service, using some of the wonderful seasonal liturgy resources from Common Worship. And I made vast quantities of lasagna, and a big green salad. And we trooped over to church ā€“ my husband, my son, my visiting brother, and I ā€“ and waited to see if anyone else would show. Continue reading ›

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Human hands have made?

Ever wonder about where communion wafers come from? Both the The New York Times and the Boston Globe have had recent stories about Cavanagh Company, a family business based in Rhode Island that supplies 80% of the communion wafers used in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia.

I must confess I have long found the widespread use use of individual wafers that bear little or no resemblance to even unleavened bread to be a somewhat strange development in Eucharistic practice, even though I think I understand some of the reasons for that development (among other things, a strict avoidance of leavening, and a theology which made crumbs a serious problem). But this is just getting really peculiar:

The family markets its bread as “untouched by human hands” until they are delivered to parishioners in the Communion line. “You just want to make it as perfect as possible,” said Andy Cavanagh, a member of the family that runs the business.

This is especially strange because the Cavanaghs, and a large part of their clientele, are Roman Catholic, and the Roman Catholic eucharistic prayer includes this passage:

Blessed are you Lord God of all creation
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer
Which earth has given and human hands have made.
It will become or us the bread of life.

But human hands don’t make the Cavanagh wafers. Robots do:

Continue reading ›

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Of Ceremonies

In light of yesterday’s post, Miranda brought to my attention this passage from Thomas Cranmer:

Whereas in this our time the minds of men are so divers, that some think it a great matter of conscience to depart from a piece of the least of their Ceremonies, they be so addicted to their old customs; and again on the other side, some be so new-fangled that they would innovate all things, and so despise the old, that nothing can like them but that is new: It was thought expedient, not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God, and profit them both.

Thomas Cranmer, “Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retained,” 1549 and 1552 Prayer books.

The frame of the debate sounds pretty familiar. Of course the specifics of what is abolished and retained have changed since Cranmer’s time. I’d like to think that Cranmer himself would probably approve of this.

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Everybody Knows

Terry Martin has been attending the Great Emergence Conference down in Memphis, posted an moderately interesting rant yesterday. I’m not sure about the exact context, although I have some guesses.

His first two points I largely agree with–although I would also add that I think there are reasons beyond aesthetic that projection screens are not generally a good idea in a worship setting (more on that in another post).

His third point I think needs more discussion, however, partly because it echoes an objection I see pretty often especially in regard to liturgical innovation. Here’s the point he makes:

3. New is not necessarily better. When drawing together a diverse group in worship, incorporating prayers and/or music that everyone will recognize will unite the gathering and bring in those who feel displaced by liturgical innovations.

I agree to a limited extent with the general intention here; this is, for example, why I am sometimes hesitant about using musical settings of the Lord’s Prayer–because if someone without much church background knows one single prayer, that’s the prayer it’s likely to be.

It as absolutely true that new is not necessarily better; at the same time it is also true that older is not necessarily better, either. Older liturgical materials have been around long enough to be tested and filtered so that (perhaps) much of the really bad has been filtered out. But everything old was new once; more important is finding what is good, what works. This is sometimes a process of trial and error. It seems unsurprising to me that someone would take the opportunity of a large conference of folks at an Emerging Church conference to try out a whole lot of new stuff with a group that has self selected to be fairly receptive of new stuff.

More important, however, is the question raised in the second sentence–what is the best way to bring together a diverse group in worship? I think the assumption that there are specific prayers and hymns that everyone will recognize is an increasingly hazardous one to make, particularly as the diversity of the group increases. Continue reading ›

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Look busy!


From the always peculiar webcomic, Sunday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

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What do the candles on the advent wreath symbolize?

More light!

Adam at A Wee Blether reads a church bulletin and has a revelation:

“As the darkness deepens and winter comes, each week we light one more candle to speak of our hope for the coming light. Much has been made of the symbolism of the Advent wreath, each candle given a particular meaning. Actually, it is the action of lighting one more candle in the darkness that bears its deepest meaning.”

As Rick McCall, professor of liturgics at EDS, likes to ask, “Why did Christians start putting candles on the altar? So they could see.”

Why do we add more candles at Advent? Because it’s getting darker.

There should probably also be echoes of the Easter Vigil candlelighting, in slow motion.

All the other meanings assigned are mnemonics for what’s happening in the lectionary.

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She did Public Work

Rosa_Parks_Old_GM_Bus_serial_number_1132_interior_No_2857.jpg

A tremendous piece of public work began on this bus.

Three seats up from the back door, on the right, near the window. December 1st, 1955.

A woman sat down. She was a seamstress, the elected secretary in the local NAACP, and recently returned from a course in Race Relations at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

And when Rosa Parks stood up again, under arrest for not moving out of her seat when asked to by the driver, a plan of public action was put into motion; years of planning, preparation, and organizing become public, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

“I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for. It was just time… there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.”

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Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The public work started on that day still continues.

Bus Photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Derek W. under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.
Rosa Parks photo from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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New Beginnings

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and marks the beginning of a new church year; as such, it seems a good time to reawaken this blog after a long season of change.

Miranda finished her seminary degree and is now finished with school for the foreseeable future (hooray!), and was ordained to the Holy Order of Deacons in June. We moved to our new home in Hopkinton, New Hampshire at the end of June, and Miranda started her new position as Assistant to the Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Hopkinton, in July. At the same time, I quit my full time job to take a turn as stay-at-home parent.

Since then, we’ve all been exploring our new town, adjusting to our new roles, and finding our places in the community around us. There’s still a lot of that to do.

But now, here we are come to Advent. The first snow of the year is falling outside my window. Time to start again.

Happy New Year.

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Coming Soon!

Blogging has been light (that is to say, nonexistant) since Easter, but should pick up again soon–some big changes coming for us. M has finished up her M.Div. and graduated, and was deep in her job search. I’m happy to say that she has accepted a position at a church in the Diocese of New Hampshire, where we will be moving in just a few weeks, although she doesn’t actually start until late July.

There’s been a few other things going on as well, a few with relevance to this blog:

  • I had the opportunity to attend a one-day workshop with Edward Tufte on information design and presentation. Quite a lot came up in that that I think has relevance in thinking about liturgy–more soon!
  • I attended the “Music that Makes Community” workshop at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, where we spent several days working on ways of doing group singing without using printed music. The setting was amazing, we sang some great music, and I have a lot of interesting ideas to work on from that as well.

Blogging may continue to be a little on the light side for the next month or so, while we work through this move, but should start picking up again after that.

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Destroying Symbols with Words

Over at his site Liturgy: Worship and Spirituality, Bosco Peters discusses some of the problems with trying to explain symbols, what he refers to as the “the heresy of explanation“:

“Rather than allowing symbols, gestures, and environment to communicate for themselves, many want to explain every symbol to within an inch of its life. The multivalent, multi-dimensional symbol becomes the private possession of the worship leader or text-author whose personal piety becomes inflicted on the gathered community destroying any complexity and reducing the symbol to a single dimension. Translating and explaining symbols into words implies that the words do the job better ā€“ and one wonders why the symbol is there at all. “

The problem of trying too hard to explain symbols always reminds me of a church that we love very much, but at least some years back had a practice of explaining, while giving a baptismal candle to the newly baptized (or their parents), “This candle represents the bond that exists between the church and the newly baptized.” Now, a burning candle is not really a very good symbol of a bond, and this was inevitably highlighted when the candle was extinguished as the family returned to their seats.
Continue reading ›

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