Since moving to South Carolina, Jonathan and I have been attending a small Anglican church. We are new to Anglicanism – the rhythms of the liturgy, the symbolism of the vestments, the movements and motions of the Eucharist. While I grew up with a working knowledge of the Catholic Mass, neither of us has ever consistently attended a liturgical church. Over the past few years we have both, for our own reasons, become more and more curious about it.
Jonathan and I come from wildly different church backgrounds – he was raised in a modest-sized, traditional Presbyterian church with a highly educated congregation. I was raised in a large, non-denominational charismatic church that drew people in with exciting music and impressive multimedia presentations. I would have characterized his church as dry and stodgy. He would have characterized mine as hyper-emotional and showy. In the first few years we were first married, we tried to find compromise in what we were looking for in a church – this became more and more complicated as time went on and both of us experienced significant changes in our beliefs. Being in a tradition that is new to both of us feels like a fresh start.
In Korea we visited a very small Anglican church with an English service. While I felt indifferent towards the service itself, I found myself very turned off by the attitude of some of the congregation members. Several of them were former evangelicals who felt they had found something far superior in the Anglican Church. They spoke of their former churches (or even the evangelical church as a whole) with scorn. I’m no champion of evangelical Christianity and I have a whole host of problems with the evangelical subculture, but I’m also deeply sensitive to the arrogance of people who dismiss other denominations’ sincere beliefs simply because they disagree. Just because I have been hurt or disappointed or disenchanted with evangelical Christianity doesn’t mean that God is not at work in those churches or that people who attend those churches aren’t able to have authentic, meaningful faith experiences. In the same way that I have always pushed back against evangelical criticism of Catholicism or of Protestant liturgical traditions, I reject the idea that the only right or good faith tradition is the one I’ve chosen.
Our foray into Anglicanism isn’t about rebelling against the way we were raised, bashing evangelicalism, or trying something new and trendy. It is our way of genuinely seeking to experience God in a new way and to understand our faith differently. I’ve been surprised by the things I’m coming to love about our Anglican church.
Participation is Required: One of the biggest differences in a liturgical service versus a typical evangelical service is that the congregation is required to participate. In an evangelical service you typically sing together for 20 minutes, then sit for 40 minutes and listen to a sermon, sing another song, and leave. In a liturgical service the congregation is required to respond at various intervals, to rise, to sit, to kneel, to speak. I understand that this could become very routine and lose its meaning over time, but for someone new to the tradition, it’s engaging in a way that my previous church experiences were not.
Words Carry Weight: Because the liturgy is scripted, the words have been weighed and measured and written just so. Not one is out of place and not one is without meaning. These are words that have been handed down for generations and they carry with them the weight of centuries of church history.
We are Connected to a Larger Body: Along with this sense of tradition comes a sense of rootedness, and of belonging in the larger body of the church in the world today as well as throughout history. We are not an individual congregation of people doing our own things. We are fundamentally connected to a group of people who are all reading the same passages and speaking the same words on the same day all across the world. There is something powerful about that.
The Eucharist is Central: Unlike most churches I’ve attended where the Eucharist (“Communion”) is a tangential part of the service and is added onto the end once a month or so, the Anglican service revolves around the Eucharist. I’m used to churches where sermons take up the bulk of the service – usually 30 or 40 minutes. In the Anglican Church (and other liturgical churches) the homily is quite short – 10 or 15 minutes – because the real service is building towards the Eucharist. Celebrating the Eucharist starts with corporate prayers of confession and moves into a holy celebration of grace.
Posture Matters: I didn’t grow up kneeling in church. To be honest, kneeling was something we associated with mass, which was (I’m sorry to say) something we frowned upon. But now I find it meaningful to engage my body. For faith to be something I do in the flesh and not just something I say with my mouth or feel in my heart. As my friend Steph writes, “Sometimes to learn a truth so deep in your soul that it changes the way you think, you have to actually do something with your body first.”
The most common question we’ve been asked from friends and relatives is, “Isn’t the liturgy boring? Don’t you feel disengaged when you repeat the same things over and over?” And my answer is simply, “No.”
It’s just as easy for me to disengage while listening to a 3-point sermon or singing a song with a repetitive chorus as it is while saying the Lord’s Prayer. I get out of it what I’m willing to put into it. Perhaps some day I won’t need to hear words like these every week:
“Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”
But for now, those words are wearing grooves on my heart. Every week they cut a little deeper and sink down a little further into my soul.
We started attending our local Church of England in June. I thought I would find it dry and tiresome. But there’s something about the words, the knowing we are all together all the same. There is no good Anglican. There is no bad Anglican. There is no pressure to be something or someone. Now if only our rector understood my sense of humour….
(Apologies for the UK spelling and terminology. I’m British. )
LikeLiked by 2 people
I love that. “There is no good Anglican. There is no bad anglican. There is no pressure to be something or someone.” I once heard someone say that what they loved about the liturgy is that it has it’s own integrity – it doesn’t depend on ours. I think that’s what enables churches to exist without that pressure to be someone or something specific. It’s great you’ve found something meaningful in your local church. And no apologies for the British spellings and terminology – they are charming. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Lily – I really appreciate your clear description and have had the same experience myself from Rez at Wheaton to our little Anglican church in Durham to our Episcopal church in Austin now – I love knowing that the version of church I’m experiencing would be recognizable to Christians from long ago.
Hi Anna. Good to hear from you! I totally agree. I think the western church in general has such a skewed perspective of our individual importance and liturgical churches help to correct that, both because worship is more of a corporate experience and also because it situates you in the larger context of the church in the world and in history. Thanks for reading. Hope you are doing well!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love this,especially the last paragraph about the words “wearing grooves into your heart’ just beautiful.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I’m so glad you’ve found a church and service that you enjoy. I’m nondenominational and have been quite turned off by most forms of religion as to me, it seems to promote divisions among people through the ideologies of the “We’s” vs. the “Them’s”. I stepped back from all religions years ago and now I’m beginning to feel a desire to learn more about all religions. I’m slowly going about reading various things and I am so appreciative for your post and your writing talents. Your posts are a joy to read and always give me something to think about. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks so much for sharing, Carol Ann and for reading. I certainly share your frustration for religion’s tendency to promote division. Blessings to you in your explorations!
I love this! Over the past couple of years I have become fascinated by denominations and understanding how different people connect with God. I grew up in the same church as your husband but attended non-denom evangelical churches in college. While in grad school, our church was a borderline charismatic church plant and we grew to realize we had serious disagreements with that church. Two years ago, upon moving to Nashville for my job at a Nazarene college we ended up in a Presbyterian church (a return for me, though PCA not PCUSA/EPC like Covenant; and something new for my husband). My favorite part of our service is the corporate prayer of confession. It happens after a song or two and is an amazing way to regroup and refocus as an individual and a congregation before the remaining singing and sermon. The prayers are different each week, but the message of forgiveness is always constant. Other liturgical elements are sometimes part of our worship services, but the confession is always there–and always needed.
LikeLiked by 1 person
My first experience with a corporate prayer of confession was at a church I attended while studying abroad in Oxford – I assume it was a Church of England church, but I’m not totally sure. I was really moved by it. The church we attended during college was C&MA and they occasionally incorporated some liturgical readings, but it wasn’t a regular feature. And the church we attended in Raleigh was a non-denominational church. I think all these different traditions have something to offer and I really appreciate being able to enter into the traditions of a new denomination and experience a new facet of faith.
Thank you for the lovely reflection on the values you are finding in a liturgical church setting. I belong to a liturgical church, although I have served in music ministry and attended non-liturgical church services as well. You identify a number of the things that I too appreciate about the liturgical tradition.
Thanks, Joanne. I think there are things to appreciate about a lot of different traditions, and I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a lot of meaning in your own liturgical church. Thanks for reading!
I was born and raised Episcopalian and everything you listed here are what I’m still in love with when I go to church. I may have teared up a little when you quoted the service. I’m glad you’re enjoying it thus far!
That’s really great. I especially love hearing this from people who were raised in those traditions. I’ve always had the impression that it becomes less meaningful over time, but I like hearing that that’s not necessarily the case!
LikeLiked by 1 person
It probably depends on the person and what they’re bringing to the table with them. I’ve also been attending a Lutheran church and am really missing the Episcopal church, so that might be part of it.
My wife and I were both raised Catholic, but grew disillusioned with the Catholic Church’s stances on several issues, so we attended an Anglican Church for awhile. It was a very powerful experience for us both, and since I hold a degree in English literature, I loved the use of Milton’s writings etc. We’ve moved on to another church home, but I still have very strong Anglican ties … I love the current Archbishop of Canterbury especially! Loved this post! Love your blog! Thanks for sharing!
I think my background in literature also makes me appreciate the literary aspects of the liturgy more. While I hate the divisions caused by denominations, I am really thankful that there are so many ways to worship. I think God is honored by the diversity, so long as we remember that we are all united under Christ. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your experience!
LikeLiked by 1 person