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.