Let the big people say what needs to be said

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A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Episcopalian

One of the first things you’re going to notice at an Episcopal worship service is all the people processing up and down the aisles. That’s how you know the service is starting. The music begins and everyone stands up, like before the bride comes down the aisle at a wedding. Then all the worship leaders come marching down the aisle. Children with crosses and fancy candles, people wearing robes and carrying banners and staffs, a person holding aloft a Bible with a golden cover, the entire choir, and all the ministers decked out in their vestments bringing up the rear.

The first time I saw this I didn’t know what to make of it. Everyone stood up, so I stood up too. And then all these people came down the aisle. And they just kept coming. A whole mob of them. I didn’t know the difference between a choir robe and the celebrant’s vestments, so I didn’t know what I was seeing. I assumed the fancy golden book was a Bible, but I didn’t know why the girl was holding it up in the air like that. I wondered if her arms were going to get tired.

And the opening procession isn’t the only one you’ll see. A few minutes later they come down the aisle with the Golden Bible and the choir singing allelujahs for the reading of the gospel portion. After the reading, they process back to the altar – with more fancy singing. I like to think they are escorting the preacher to the pulpit for his or her sermon. Later, the entire congregation processes down to the front to receive the sacrament of communion. And then, at the very end, all the leaders recess out the back of the sanctuary to close out the service.

In between all of the processing and recessing, there is a good bit of kneeling, standing, and sitting going on. The ministers say things and the congregation responds. A lot of people know these responses by heart. The first few times you go, you aren’t going to be able to keep up with what you should be saying or when you should be standing or kneeling. And there won’t be enough time for you to flip frantically through the Book of Common Prayer for help. You’ll try, but the BCP isn’t exactly user friendly.

Now for some reason, the experience of not knowing what’s going on seems to bother some folks. I’ve even talked to people who were offended by it. They said the Episcopal service is too complicated. They said they felt left out because everyone else seemed to know what to do and they didn’t. And some of them never went back again after their first Sunday, which is very sad to me.

Because here’s the deal: do you really want to go to a church for the first time and understand everything that’s going on? Do you really want to walk into the most sacred hour of the week for an ancient spiritual tradition and find no surprises and nothing to learn or strive for? Do you really want a spiritual community to be so perfectly enmeshed with your cultural expectations that you can drop right into the mix with no effort at all, as if you walked into a convenience store in another city and were comforted to find that they sell Clark Bars, just like the 7-11 back home?

I do hope you’ll give this a little more effort than that. Because something wonderful can happen when you stop trying to figure out what you should be doing in a worship service. When you admit to yourself that you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll just sit and listen. Because that’s really all you can do. And that’s actually a very nice spiritual move for you to make.

I highly recommend a spiritual exercise that I made up myself. I call it, “Closing your eyes and listening to an entire Episcopal worship service without speaking.” Without your eyes to mislead you, the room will shrink to its actual size. Everything will feel like it’s happening right at the end of your arms. Which of course it is. And you might even begin to feel that God is at the end of your arms. Which of course God is.

Let the big people carry the service for you. Let them say what needs to be said. Let them kneel and stand in all the right places. In this humble, listening space that you have entered, every small thing can become sacred. Even the sounds of the kneelers popping back into place can break your heart as you come to see that God lives in these moments.

I first tried the eyes closed listening exercise at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church here in San Antonio last year. All the things I’ve just described happened to me. At the end of the service, my mind heard a voice that said, “See with what beauty and grace my children are caring for these tender mysteries of worship.”

Gordon Atkinson

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