Sunday, April 22, 2007

vaguely Anglican

Today Julie and I continued our exploration of churches that might constitute some kind of a middle ground between the Anabaptist Evangelicalism that she still feels comfortable with and the Orthodoxy that I'm looking for. We visited the 9:00 "family" service at St. Mark's Episcopal, which happens to be the most convenient time for us to attend a service. We went into it pretty much expecting that we'd have to visit there at least twice. They have four services (and are working on a fifth), each of which is a bit different in style. The two that concern us most are the 9:00 and the 11:00, which is the high-church traditional service, with full choir and adult sermon. The 9:00 is stripped-down, with more contemporary music and a children's sermon during the service. It comes in at just under an hour, followed by a coffee break, and an adult "interactive sermon" at the same time as Sunday school for the kids. Rick had already warned us that this service probably wouldn't do much for me, so we didn't come with terribly high hopes, or at least I didn't.

I asked Julie afterward what she thought of the service, and her main characterizations were that it seemed lacking in authenticity and conviction. After a bit more discussion, I think I agree. At one point during the service, Ian was wriggling around, and I found that an insert in my bulletin had almost completely slipped out. It was hanging down, with one corner still barely under my thumb. As soon as I realized it, the thought occurred to me that it was probably going to fall, and as if on cue, it did. I kind of felt like something similar was going on with the connection between form and substance in the service--that something was going to give at any moment, probably as soon as anyone noticed the problem. I'm sure there were meanings behind everything, just as in Orthodoxy, and I'm sure there is plenty in Orthodox rubrics that most parishoners couldn't begin to explain, but somehow it felt like the disconnect here was much worse.

I don't want to judge too harshly before having a chance to attend the more traditional service, since it seems like much of what I was sensing was at least exaggerated by the unique characteristics of the 9:00. Something doesn't seem quite right about a formalized liturgy that's supposed to be timeless but consists of music that was probably contemporary about three decades ago. The actual songs/hymns/choruses (not sure what label to use here) didn't bother me so much--no more so than when we go back and visit the church we grew up in, with its mix of traditional Evangelical hymns and mostly out-of-date (or badly rendered) "contemporary" choruses. But the liturgical bits during the communion section, where the priest and congregation would sing responsively, didn't seem at all like the type of thing that should sound like 70s folk music. I also wasn't quite sure what to think about the processions of the Gospel and clergy, coming in at the beginning to strains of "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" and exiting at the end to "Blessed Be the Name." The whole experience, including my reaction, was reminiscent of the first (and last) day I tuned into "the Ark." I really hope I don't have to see Orthodoxy head down the same road.

I never quite got whether the altar area was supposed to be somehow sacred. Julie says she didn't notice anyone crossing at all, but I'm pretty sure one of the altar servers crossed himself while entering on at least one occasion, but the inconsistency leaves a lot of questions. (I also noticed at least some of those who went up to take communion crossing themselves.) Speaking of communion, we were both bothered by the level of openness. Neither of us participated--Julie because she didn't want to risk getting sick from the common cup, me because I didn't think it would be appropriate as an Orthodox catechumen. But we'd made those decisions before we went. We were struck, though, by the apparent lack of concern about the possible risks involved with taking communion unworthily. There didn't seem to be any call to self-examination, or even any indication that communion should be for believers. He referred to Jesus's eating with sinners, said everyone was welcome, and never seemed to qualify it in any other way. It's obviously quite different from the Orthodox approach, but Julie noted that she's had experiences of internal struggle when taking communion, where the need to partake worthily has really forced her to examine her own heart condition. Maybe that goes on in Episcopalians, but from what we could tell, pretty much everyone went up. She said at least credit is due to the Orthodox for grasping the seriousness involved.

Another area of apparent inconsistency was the priestly vestments. It looked like there were three priests (although, looking at the staff list, I think one of them might have been a deacon), with wildly different vestments. One was striped and looked to me like it might be something African (maybe because of the active Anglican movement in Africa?), another had figures of children on it and looked vaguely international (maybe an "all the children of the world" theme?) ; the head priest had a more elaborate robe--I'm having trouble now recalling what it looked like, except that it was quite different from the other two. I came away with the suspicion that they get to pick from a wide range of options, some of which might have some traditional meaning and usage in other parts of the world. But again, it seems like one of those areas where traditional meaning has given way to personal preference.

The people seemed friendly enough. A few spoke with us after the service, and there was a lot of interaction during the greeting time somewhere in the middle. (Actually, that part of the service seemed awkward, as the otherwise orderly flow was disrupted by an overly long gap for greetings, followed by announcements before the service resumed.) We didn't end up staying after the coffee break. Ian doesn't do well attending class without us in a strange place, and we discovered that, contrary to what I'd seen on the schedule earlier, one of the women would be preaching today. (That's another problematic area, since even if we were fine attending when Rick was preaching, we'd still have to deal with female clergy at least some of the time.) Julie thought it was a more user-friendly service than in Orthodox churches, but I'm not sure either one of us would get much mileage out of that. We definitely plan to attend the 11:00 service sometime, but so far there doesn't seem to be too much promising to report.


Roland said...

The canons of the Episcopal Church restrict communion to baptized Christians. In fact, until the 1970s you had to be confirmed (by a bishop in apostolic succesion), as well as baptized, to receive communion. But in recent years the canon has not been enforced in most dioceses, and there has been an overt movement towards "open communion." This has the unfortunate effect of leading to a reinterpretation of the Eucharist as a matter of hospitality, rather than a sacrament. And this is one of those areas where supposedly conservative Evangelicals can be as permissive as the revisionists.

In Anglo-Catholic parishes, on the other hand, you will sometimes find a rubric in the bulletin restricting communion to baptized Christians who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I don't think any Anglo-Catholic priest would knowingly give communion to a non-Christian.

There is a traditional exhortation that was read to encourage proper preparation for reception of communion. (It appears on pp. 316-17 of the current BCP.) It recommends self-examination and even suggests confessing one's sins to a priest. Unfortuntately, I don't think it is ever read publicly anymore - certainly not by those who practice open communion. The increase in frequency of reception of communion has gone hand-in-hand with a decrease in preparation.

The BCP also contains disciplinary rubrics (p. 409) laying out the circumstances under which members may be barred from communion.

Trevor said...

Thanks for the info. I figured there was probably some shift along the way, and it seems like I recently read something about open communion in general being a phenomenon of the past few decades. On the other hand, I remember sometime maybe about a year ago noticing at an Episcopal church in Bethesda, which my bus would pass every afternoon, a banner on the front lawn that said, "Whoever you are, whatever you believe, you're welcome at our table." It didn't explicitly say "communion" or "eucharist," but I figured "table" pretty much meant that. (And I was told by a couple of people who ought to know, that I was pretty much interpreting it correctly.) What we've been mostly used to are churches that don't require membership in their denomination but do make a point of calling only believers, and encouraging self-examination. I'm not sure I'd call it a happy medium, but it does make the approach being taken in a lot of Episcopal churches seem out there.