Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Worship -- Still a Verb

This past Tuesday evening I found myself in downtown Charleston with some time to kill so, as I often enjoy doing, I took my pipe and a book and stopped by The Smoking Lamp, my favorite tobacconist. While sitting there and visiting with a couple of hookah-smoking College of Charleston students the Rev'd Canon J. Michael Wright, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, came in and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that Dr. Richard Schori, husband of Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, would be speaking the next evening at Grace Church. An accomplished photographer, Dr. Schori frequently takes his camera along while traveling with his wife (many of his photos have been used by Episcopal News Service) and was to speak on some of his observations and experiences). Canon Wright kindly invited me, but I wasn't sure if I could make it or not. After speaking later to a friend who wanted to go, I did indeed attend.

Dr. Schori spoke on "The Episcopal Church: Aspects of Breadth and Depth." Not surprisingly, his presentation was copiously illustrated and, in the main, non-polemic, focusing on the work that the Episcopal Church is doing around the world (it did have a bit of a company feel to it, but that wasn't surprising given who his wife is and the fact that Grace Church is a bastion of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, the local Via Media franchise -- one would hardly expect the man to come here and bash his wife). I'll not critique all of the presentation, but one comment, made toward the end when he gave his advice to new bishops, is worthy of comment and, I believe, respectful disagreement.

The second of those suggestions was "practice your spirituality on your time," followed by an explanation that bishops (and one would assume other clergy as well) are "performing" during services and should keep that in mind so as to allow for a better presentation (and nicer photographs). Uh, no.

As I commented to my friend, if ever I am performing rather than worshiping, take my collar and send me out to sell insurance, used cars, fertilizer or something. As the late Robert Webber reminded us, worship is a verb and those who worship should be doing so in spirit and in truth. Don't get me wrong, I like liturgy (hence, my Anglicanism by choice) and I'm all for worship done well (agreeing completely with the Clergy Handbook for the Free Church of England that ". . . slovenliness or carelessness in deportment are not evidences of true Protestantism or of consecration of life."), but when staging a pretty picture becomes more important than worshiping, things have gotten horribly, horribly wrong.

I'm a priest, but I'm also a sinner. When I come to worship I need to confess my sins, receive absolution and assurance than my sins are forgiven in Christ, and I need to hear the comfortable words. Because the Christian life is hard, I need to hear God's Word preached and need to be sacramentally fed in Holy Communion. All of that is lost if it's only a pretty performance. From time to time people have told me that I read the prayers and lessons well ; they mean that as a compliment and I take it as such (although sometimes joking about them having no idea how impressive that is for a graduate of the South Carolina Public Schools), but I was even more complimented when another priest with whom I served once told me that he could tell that I was not only reading the liturgy, but praying it. May it always be so.

The late Flannery O'Connor, devout Roman Catholic and Southern author, once responded to the Zwinglian view of Holy Communion, by noting "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." That pretty much sums up my views of worship as a performance.


  1. perhaps you could become a seminary executive

  2. I have heard that those qualities are quite sought after by some schools.