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It Might as Well Have Been in Latin

An Outsider's Critique

    In another century I listened to Jack Parr, the TV Late Night Show host, report on his visit to a Presbyterian Church in Bronxville where his daughter, Randy, was attending Church School.  He gave the critique of an outsider. Knowing something about the incursions of sponsors in his show, he wondered just why the church had so many advertisements, otherwise known as Announcements.  He didn't complain about the monologue (sermon) or the musical entertainment (choir anthem); but I seem to remember that he had some problem with the frequent uprising and downsitting.

    I went as an outsider this past Sunday morning to a local Episcopalian Church.  There are two in town.  I think the one I chose was once "low church," because they celebrate the Eucharist on 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sundays only, at the main hour of worship, whereas in the other church it's every Sunday.  This morning, a 4th Sunday, was The Order for Morning Prayer; that is, the ante-communion liturgy, which, not so incidentally is the origin of the United Methodist standard order of worship.  Methodism began as a reform movement in the Church of England (called Episcopal in the USA) in the 18th Century and borrowed ritual generously from the mother church.  Time and change have accentuated the divide between Anglicans and most Wesleyans, and the UMC Book of Worship, once a virtual rip-off of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, now bears little resemblance to it.

    I make the following observations about my Episcopalian worship experience in the tradition of Jack Parr, acknowledging that just as I am ignorant of oenology and cannot tell the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon cabernet, it may be that Anglican worship takes a lot of getting used to in order to appreciate the subtleties and excellences of its approach to God. 

    But I wonder.

  •     Why in this present age would American Christians persist in speaking to God in King James English?

  •     Why the lovely cadences of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer are not supplemented by prayers originating from the mind and heart of the liturgist?  (Sure, the Holy Spirit graced antiquity with inspiration; but the third person of the Trinity is not entirely absent in the present moment.  Why not give it a chance and give it utterance?)

  •     Recovering from bilateral knee surgery, I was especially aware of just how much up and down there was in worship and questioned, as did Jack Parr the Presbyterians, why can't there be less of it?

  •     The church building was appealing in its simple grandeur, but the large columns on either side obscured our view, seated as we were along the western wall, of the chancel.  I haven't had to crane my neck so constantly since the last time I sat in the right field seats at Fenway Park.  Why did they once build churches with so little regard to worshipers' comfort and accessibility of seeing and hearing? 

  •      If the full texts of the Scripture Readings are printed in the order of worship, why not the text of the anthems?

  •     The Anglican heritage is a rich one indeed, but why does the choice of hymns and anthems seem predicated on their English origin?  Yes, Methodists sing an inordinate number of hymns by Charles and John Wesley, some of them sheer doggerel, but the UMC hymnbook is quite catholic in its breadth of selections from antiquity to modern times.

    On this Sunday the rector's sermon was his report to the church's annual meeting, to be held immediately following the 10:30 AM hour of worship.  He summarized at the outset the style of Episcopal worship as, among other things, "dignified." I too appreciate dignity in worship and have my problems with churches where they are so deliberately casual and down-home one half expects a wingless Gabriel in mufti to appear blowing his trumpet and leading the congregation in a rhythmic procession to "When the Saints Come Marching In."  But when does dignified become stuffy?  When does strict adherence to the printed text become stultifying?  Besides, I had so much trouble locating what page I was supposed to be on in The Book of Common Prayer and in The Hymnal that, at one point, I just gave up trying.  It may have been my imagination, but as I looked around the nave at other worshipers I seemed to detect they were as bewildered as I was, and they certainly didn't sing the hymns with as much volume as this wayward Methodist.

    I have in these years of wandering avoided Pentecostal, Mormon, fundamentalist, Roman Catholic, and ethnic churches, because the spiritual menu would be, to my way of thinking, beyond my capacity of constructive review.  I mean, what would I know about the fine points of speaking in tongues or the proper reading of the Mass.  I had the feeling this Sunday morning that perhaps I should add Episcopal to the list.  My daughter, hearing my complaint about the service, reminded me to be fair, "To each his own."  But I shall probably try an Episcopal service again someday, if only in honor of my maternal grandfather who was a Vestryman in the Church of Ireland.

 



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