Sunday, June 10, 2007

bizarro church

So, if you'd told me a week ago that today I would attend services at two different churches, I might have been a bit puzzled. If you'd added that yesterday Julie would ask to attend an Orthodox service with me, I'd have been rather confused. If you'd further said that of the two services, the better liturgical experience would be the Evangelical one, I probably would have laughed out loud. But life isn't always as we expect, is it?

So last night, Julie says she's been thinking about something. (That's ominous enough.) Since next Sunday is Father's Day, she thinks it would be a fitting gift to accompany Ian and me to the liturgy at Holy Cross. The only catch is, she doesn't want to miss services at Bethany two weeks in a row, so it would mean canceling our planned visit to St. Mark's Episcopal Church this week. I ponder her suggestion for half a second or so, and accept the change of plans :-) We pretty much already know that the Episcopal Church is an unlikely option for us. Julie's main objections are the lax attitude toward homosexuality, the role of female clergy, and the ultra-openness of communion. None of these objections has anything to do with the type of service, so from her standpoint another visit can't make much difference.

She's probably right, although I was hoping it would help to narrow things down a bit. Even if we knew we didn't want to attend an Episcopal church, a positive reaction to the service might suggest some other options--various Anglican splinter groups, Western rite Orthodox, or Catholic. On the other hand, a negative reaction to the high-church service would tend to rule out those other options, without wasting our time trying them. She said, however, that I could still visit the service at St. Mark's on my own, if I wanted. It's late enough that it doesn't conflict with the service we usually attend at Bethany. I figured it would be useful to know my own reaction at least, since if I didn't like it, there'd be no point in pursuing it further.

So, at 9:00, we went to Bethany for the last part of a series on Moses. "Holy Moses," they called it, to make the point that for some people this phrase would be a mild form of cursing, but we really mean it. I'm a bit skeptical myself. I tend to think that the title was chosen to play off of the slang term, not because we would ordinarily refer to him as Holy Moses. This may seem like a picky point to bother making, but it introduces what I think is perhaps a bigger problem. It can be framed as a choice between sacred Tradition or marketing gimmick. When an Orthodox person refers seriously to Holy Moses, they mean it, and they mean it consistently, and it falls within the context of an overall theology of saints. An Evangelical instead uses the term as long as it's useful to make a point, and then casts it aside just as quickly as they picked it up.

Let's apply this same choice to another issue in the context of this series--that of images. Ordinarily, Bethany can be characterized as strictly iconoclastic. Its interior walls are regularly bare. It does have a cross in the front (somewhat better than in some churches I've visited), and one side wall is glass, so you can look out at God's creation. But that's about the extent of it. For this series, they've made an exception. An artist in the church has been painting scenes each week, including one week when he was actually painting during the service. As you might guess, he's not painting directly on the walls--just on canvas that can be easily hung up and just as easily taken back down when it's no longer useful. The scenes have contributed something to the effect of the message, although I would say they've had nothing to do with worship, as you might expect in an Evangelical church. But don't expect to see this visual dimension in all future sermons. It's an interesting gimmick to get people's attention, but it won't be a regular thing.

This morning, for the final message, which was about the tabernacle, there was an added dimension. The seating was re-arranged, and in the middle of the room was a skeleton representation of the tabernacle. At the back end of the aisle was some kind of a grill, representing the altar of sacrifice, then a bit further on, a brass bowl, representing the laver. Beyond that was a table with stacked loves of bread, then some burning incense sticks, then this week's painting of the priest performing a sacrifice at the tabernacle. Behind the painting, which was removed after the sermon, were the communion elements. Instead of passing the communion elements around in trays, people came up to pick up the elements and take them to their seats. They were instructed to think as they were walking up the aisle about their sin, their cleansing, their ability to celebrate redemption, to pray, and to enter the holy of holies with Christ. It was certainly moving in its way--a big step up, I would say, from the usual routine. But it will not be like that again. Like the other things, it was a gimmick, to grab attention on this occasion, and then move aside for something else in the future.

After the service, I was talking with a couple of friends who had both visited Orthodox services with me in the past. One was the artist who painted the scenes, and the other said he wanted to take his picture next to them. I said something about striking his Moses pose, and the guy who wanted to take the picture jokingly suggested that we dress up in costume so we could get more of a 3-D effect on the whole thing. I said, if he wanted that, all he had to do was go take pictures of an Orthodox service in progress. He probably missed the point, but it was on my mind throughout the service, that we read these passages about ancient Israel, we recognize and appreciate what was going on at that time, and then we go off and over-spiritualize their application to our own lives. All this stuff in Exodus wasn't just play-acting that people came up with to meet their own religious needs. This was God recognizing that as humans we worship with everything we are. To boil it all down to the idea that we each have our own way to serve, and God wants to use our diverse abilities, and we need to be generous with what we have, is to impoverish what was really going on. Do we think that serving and helping each other is something that belongs only to the New Testament? Those practical issues were there in the Old Testament as well, but they did not replace the Temple rituals. They met two very different types of needs.

So how do we get away with turning these things into mere illustrations? How do we recognize that they were important in the worship of ancient Israel but not see that they are just as important for us today? Aside from a day like this, we no longer smell incense as it rises to heaven with our prayers. Aside from a day like this, we no longer see visual reminders of sacrifice, to tell us how very serious it was for Jesus to die on our behalf. Aside from a day like this, we no longer move through the structure of a temple to emphasize God's holiness. To my Evangelical friends, I have to cry out once again in the words of Charlie Peacock:
Oh, it always amazed me
How someone could come
To the edge of the world,
Drop a stone down the side,
And turn and return
To the very same life.

After that service, I dropped Julie and Ian at home and went over to St. Mark's. I must say, it was a better experience this time than when we went there before, for the contemporary service. Things seemed to flow better (although it still seemed stilted at the beginning), and the music seemed more appropriate to the liturgy. It may be hard for me to see past my preference for Byzantine style, but I still feel like the Western music distracts from rather than highlights the content. At times, it also seemed too rushed, and there were too many points where the flow seemed to stall. A couple of the songs I found really moving (again, without much recollection at all of the words), although unfortunately they seemed to be choir-only selections. Perhaps the impression was exaggerated by the uncharacteristic Bethany service I'd just attended, but the service at St. Mark's seemed comparatively austere. There were things like vestments (which the priest flung over his head when it was necessary to put on something new) and altar rails, but they seemed a thin veneer on a basically Protestant service. In fact, perhaps the biggest disappointment was an impression that I can't really explain in concrete terms--for some reason, the service felt liturgically more like Protestantism plus than Catholicism minus.

I didn't come away with a solid conclusion about much of anything. I wasn't completely turned off by the service, and I could see value in exploring something similar in the future; but I wasn't particularly impressed by it either. In any case, it will probably be a while before we do any more visiting. The baby will be here soon, and it will take a while for things to stabilize after that. It's hard to say what the future holds. For now, next week is enough to think and pray about.

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