Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

Progress into Community

Worship which I experience as fulfilling and wholesome, does not divorce liturgy and intellect. It does not necessitate some kind of “translation as we go,” because the language of worship is at odds with the rest of my experience. It does not leave me angry or perplexed about why I even bothered to come. In the older language, it “ministers” to me. (I use the word “wholesome” very deliberately. Hear overtones of wholistic, but also hear tones of goodness.)

I notice that this kind of worship features something which is missing from my discussion so far.

What has been missing is reflection upon the communal nature of worship.

I find it interesting that the community aspect of worship is so significant to me; I am deeply introverted. If community flavoured worship works for me, something good is happening! When I was riding in to work in the dark this morning, feeling tired and depressed, I “hummed my way in” with an old tune from the Methodist Hymn Book. I’m sure I would not like the words, if I could remember them! What was energising and healthy in the tune, was the memory of being safe, and loved, and appreciated in the church where I grew up. Community is powerful and life giving. The community that had people saying “See how they love one another,” grew directly from the compassion and love modelled by Jesus.

Worship which works for me, extends Sunday worship beyond the formal hour in the sanctuary.

Good worship includes the morning tea, or the supper. It has opportunity to hang around afterwards, and talk. It welcomes people into event.

When “morning tea” becomes part of the worship, worship becomes corporate rather than being a group of insulated individuals attending to their own spiritual concerns, in the same place at the same time. This is so obviously a part of Christian life together, it should not need mentioning.

Tragically, it is also often missing from worship. In some cases, what happens in church is completely disconnected from what happens in morning tea. One gathering contradicts the other in spirit and action. After praying the prayers of love, the knives of gossip are unsheathed at the coffee urn, or the old hands circle around the milk jugs, and keep the newcomers out. Not having enough milk and sugar, or brewing weak coffee, is a great way to stop the minister and elders sullying the place with new people.

In other cases there is no community outside the formal liturgy. People arrive as worship begins, and leave immediately afterward. There has been a private transaction with God, but little or no community.

Worship which works for me, has the bonhomie of a good morning tea in the liturgy. The liturgy becomes two way. Notice how in some worship it is all said and done “up the front.” The congregation is reduced to a passive audience. The effect of liturgy which allows the congregation to participate is astonishing. Even the rote response, “Lord have mercy,” begins to build a community out of an audience. When prayers become even more participatory, and are based in “real” emotion rather than careful, formal phrasing, church comes alive.

Where the congregation is able to share, telling good news from the week, or sharing the pain of loss or failure, community grows. Where the preacher can manage interruptions and questions, and even affirm insights that have occurred to members of the congregation, new depth is present.

There are some things which prevent the beauty of liturgy from becoming unreal, or disconnected from our intellectual reality. Gentle banter among friends, between the preacher and the congregation does that. It’s hard to be airy fairy when we are grounded by the input that comes from people who are in assisted living. The sometimes piercing honesty both these people, and little children, bring to the congregation, keeps us real. The sharing of true story, and bitter experience exposes the shallow liturgy. Community keeps us real.

A startling example of this is the church which would stop for coffee part way through the sermon. People would catch up, sometimes discuss the sermon so far, and then come back to share their insights, and the priest would pull the sermon together to some kind of conclusion. This was in the context of a fairly formal Anglican liturgy. But the community, carefully fostered in the same underground dugout architecture in which the town lived, enthralled people.

In my own congregation, we have sat together around a trestle for communion. Church has been at the table, with a real meal instead of scant symbols. It has been a real meal of talking our way together through the prayers and hymns, and the words of the communion. Because we are small in number we always gather around the table, sharing the elements together. At our more traditional table, there is a small chalice, which we often give to one person to drink, as a gift for that day, while the rest of us use the glasses of our Methodist heritage. Sometimes the loaf goes home with a family, after church. Other times I have taken it to a family who has not been able to come. On other Sundays, the elements come with us out to Sunday School, after church, to be shared with the children and teachers. We are not precious about the elements, because community is precious.

Neither these reflections, nor any move to foster community, are restricted to progressive congregations. The dugout church was theologically very conservative. The point I wish to make is that in community, the bringing together of liturgy and intellect is much easier.

To begin with, a truly communal situation is often more emotionally honest. I’ve never forgotten our neighbour at home exploding at evening service, “That’s bulldust!” People roared with laughter, especially when it became clear he had misheard the minister! Where there is good humour and relationship rather than anal concerns over the placement of the flowers, or at least, where good humour and relationship gives some balance to the flower brigade, then old patterns can be challenged and amended.

Secondly, community is deeply precious. When change is made within community, and when it respects and deepens community, it is easier. In this context, the important thing is the community. Where all there is to value is the building, or the content of the liturgy, or our intellectual pride or understanding, change is inordinately difficult, because everything is at risk. In a living community change to the liturgy is not putting everything at risk. In a living community, proposals for change, or new intellectual ideas, come within and among the safety of our friends. In a living community, if I am playing the role of change agent, I am more aware of the needs and fears of the community than if I am acting from a purely intellectual base. I might add that friends are also much less likely to attack me, or ring the bishop or the moderator!

Finally, as I try to be a part of the community of my congregation, and seek to build up that community two things happen. The rift between our traditional words for worship, and our changing intellectual understanding, becomes sharper, and more obvious and painful. I think a growing love for the people makes the disconnect more obvious, and it is much harder to ignore it. But I also find it far easier to deal with. The trust in the relationship makes it much easier to change liturgy, or to address difficult issues in the reading of the day. I am talking with my friends rather than converting a congregation, or defending an intellectual position.


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