I’m training to be a minister.
I have all kinds of issues with that statement, but for now it can just be a few words that give context to what follows.
Part of my training is to spend time with the Scottish Episcopal Institute studying a diploma in theology for ministry. I had very little experience of the Episcopal Church prior to this so their use of written liturgy and the way they celebrate the Eucharist (communion) was odd to me. I had never experienced a sung compline or evensong. My experience up to now had been of preaching box churches, cubes of Mother’s Pride and shot glasses with a varying quality of content, all ‘dispensed’ in a way which is often the antithesis of communal. But that is my primary experience. Most of the other times I’ve participated in communion have been in ‘informal’ gatherings with a common cup and a lump of bread which feel more communal but sometimes lack a sense of connectedness to much beyond the people we are with at that time.
I know that church is odd, but because of my previous experience with my brand of oddity I thought Episcopalian liturgical practice was just plain weird. It sits a little uncomfortably with my view of ‘priesthood’ and what happens when we celebrate the eucharist, but there is also something about it that speaks to me. There is great depth in the weirdness which seems perhaps to be missing in what I’m used to.
So, confronted with this ancient ritual and drama, I wonder a little more about what we think church is, and is not, and what we might have gained and lost in our rush to be ‘relevant’.
If you search back on this very blog I’m sure you’ll find me railing against a church that finds itself ‘irrelevant’, and I still believe that to be true. The relevance I hope for is that what we do helps people to connect with God, each other and their communities. That relevance is captured in what we do and say, not necessarily in adopting the latest cultural fad or style.
This would be the stage that you point at me and call me middle aged, expose my growing ‘conservatism’ and wonder what happened to the rebellious youth…
He’s still here. I hope.
I’m still passionate about people who lead worship being creative, engaging and taking risks, but all that happens within and around a central act where we gather around a table and break bread and share wine together. We join in a great and mysterious act that binds us together with what was, what is and what is to come.
“I want a service that is not sensational, flashy, or particularly ‘‘relevant.’’ I can be entertained anywhere. At church, I do not want to be entertained. I do not want to be the target of anyone’s marketing. I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.”
That’s nothing less than radical. That’s nothing less than transformative. That’s nothing less than deeply relevant.
And it’s weird. And I like that.
I’ve come to like the use of the same words at the same point. The words of Compline have become dear to me and the appearance of some of those words in my mother’s funeral service struck a real chord, exposing that deep connectedness again.
It’s there that relevance lies for me. In the depths, not the shallows.
It’s in the words of our rites and rituals. It’s in the words of carefully crafted sermons. It’s in the poetry of prayer.
Some of the mystery and life in those words is in the speaking of them. Rob Bell told a story in a recent podcast of his preaching class at seminary where a student preached a very boring sermon. The teacher picked up the script and started to read the same words… The class were amazed. It turned out that the words were great, it was the initial presentation that was lacking.
Church is weird.
I hope it stays that way.
But I also hope we can remember that the weird stuff we do and say needs to be done and said well.