Let the big people say what needs to be said

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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  • http://twitter.com/velveteenrabbi Rachel Barenblat

    Beautiful, Gordon!

    And so much of what you say here resonates for me as a rabbi. I know that there are people who feel frustrated and alienated by what they experience as the opacity of Jewish worship, some of which is in Hebrew, much of which is very old. So I love your question of “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?” AMEN. :-)

  • Morgan Johnson

    I love the paragraph about first time expectations, yet churches try so hard to make it like fast food!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1074489490 Mary Thorpe

    Gordon, thank you for this – it should be required reading for all folks who serve in leadership positions in the church, because it reminds us that just because we know what’s happening, there may be folks who do not. Not everyone will take it upon themselves to use disorientation as a spiritual practice…FWIW, we have a very carefully crafted “this is what will happen during the service” piece on our website for newcomers, and I wonder if it truly helps or just confuses…it’s at http://www.epiphanyepiscopal.com/For_Visitors/First_Visit// . In any case, welcome, and I think you’re a big person, too!

    • http://tertiumsquid.com Gordon Atkinson

      That’s a very warm and hospitable piece on your website. How kind. I notice the invitation just to sit and listen for a time. That’s great.

    • Kurt Norlin

      “Not everyone will take it upon themselves to use disorientation as a spiritual practice.”

      Yes indeedy. I attended an Orthodox service and was prepared to feel a little clueless. But I wasn’t prepared for the part where the priest processed around the room with the communion host and people along the aisles kissed his vestments. I thought I’d picked the most out-of-the-way place in back to sit, and there I was feeling as if all eyes were on me as I took a pass! I have a long ways to go before I can feel edified by that sensation.

      • http://tertiumsquid.com Gordon Atkinson

        Kurt, it’s a good thing your native reluctance made you hold back. The Orthodox only serve communion to Orthodox Christians. They are nice about it, but it’s part of their theology. On my first visit to an Orthodox church I knew this so I just didn’t go up front. Someone brought unconsecrated bread back to me so I wouldn’t feel out of place. I found that to be very warm and touching.

  • http://thehighcalling.org/ Marcus Goodyear

    Yes, yes. I want that spirit of humility again.

  • Ashevillian

    As an aesthete, the Episcopalian liturgy made its way into my heart through the beauty of its words and ritual, not via my intellect.

  • Amy Thomas

    do you really want to go to a church for the first time and understand everything that’s going on?

    Pretty much. I don’t like to feel weird and confused and uncomfortable in a group of people. Our church has bulletins that guide you through the service and I appreciate that they do. There’s plenty of room for novelty in the sermon and music, and I regularly find fresh inspiration in the familiar prayers, songs and responses. I admit, though, that I have a low threshold for the unexpected and surprises make me anxious. I still love my church, and I love that I can go into other Episcopal churches and have at least a basic idea of what to expect even though different churches might add their own twist to the proceedings.

    • http://tertiumsquid.com Gordon Atkinson

      Amy, I think yours is a different situation. As I become more comfortable with the Episcopal liturgy, I gain new blessings from that familiarity. And if I go to an Episcopal church in another town, I enjoy knowing what to expect. The innocent blessings of being a novice can’t last forever. After all, if everyone sat silently, there would be no liturgy.

      The question would be, if you left the Episcopal Church and were attending a Quaker meeting, would you be surprised or offended that they don’t do things the way your old church did them? Or would you accept your status as a novice and allow yourself to be open to something new?

      This essay speaks to people like myself, who are experiencing Episcopal worship as newcomers to the tradition.

      • Amy Thomas

        I am a relative newcomer to the Episcopal church as well, Gordon! It will be two years in January, I believe. But I see your point, if I were to attend a different tradition I would not expect things to be done the Episcopal way. I do think I am not quite as adventurous as you. I did a lot of studying of “what goes on” and “what to do” before we ever set foot in our church, and I was very glad of the bulletins, but I was enthralled by the proceedings anyway. And still am, though some of the initial infatuation has settled in to something akin to comfortable, familiar “married” love. But the spark is still there!

  • DEK

    Being without a church home, Nancy and I went to Easter services at the Greek Orthodox Church. It was part in Greek and part in English, but I didn’t try to follow the service and instead let myself become lost in the chanting and liturgy, the prayers and response, the incense and candles and the glittering gold and the icons of saints looking out from their windows in Heaven. The sort of thing a church service ought be.

    • http://tertiumsquid.com Gordon Atkinson

      I too am enamored with Orthodox worship. I attended a number of Orthodox churches in the two years or so after I left the ministry. Ultimately I had to come to grips with some abiding theological issues for me that prevented me from attempting to become a part of that tradition. But I love the depth of their liturgy, the age of their worship, their commitment to retaining their distinctives, etc.

  • textjunkie

    I am just so pleased you’ve become an Episcopalian, Gordon. I know it’s no business of mine but for some reason I’m extraordinarily happy you’ve joined my group. :) (Pick me, pick me! :)

  • http://www.anglobaptist.org/ Tripp Hudgins

    Gordon…what the f**k, man. What are you trying to do to me? You just break my heart with the beauty of this stuff. Incredible. Thank you. I hate you so much right now. Ha! Thank you.

  • Lori Z.

    perfect…. that describes the worship service perfectly. To close ones eyes and just be present and yes, He is at the end of your arm, more often than that, seated next to you.

  • Pam

    I was baptized and confirmed as a Christian and Episcopalian at the age of about 30 and that’s now about 30 years ago. Sometimes the liturgy and worship can become old hat. I just got an idea from you to make it new again. Thank you. I’m going to try just closing my eyes and letting it run over me like new baptismal water Sunday. The liturgical form hasn’t really changed all that much for hundreds of years. Sometimes when kneeling at the alter I think of that and look at all those that I am receiving communion with and smile with love about it. I sometimes think of those gone now who knelt there and feel I’m still sharing it with them too. Those are the really special Sundays. But as a Eucharistic Visitor, I also know that when minds and bodies become feeble, the one thing that members never seem to forget and can still say “by heart” is the Lord’s Prayer. So it is the heart we worship with on the good days, even when the liturgy and “correct” responses are gone from us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/art.reid.1 Art Reid

    I’m getting confirmed this Sunday. This pretty much hit it on the head for me as well. Yes it was a little confusing and challenging at first, but that first time I kept up and got into the swing of things it felt like I had reached a milestone. Funny enough a friend from Sweden sent me audio of the church he goes to. It was in Swedish which I don’t speak, but I just saw back and took it all in and with the liturgy had a pretty good idea where they were. Didn’t understand a word and was refreshed at the end.

  • http://oshma.net/wordpress MO

    This is wonderful.

    The Gospel book (generally not a whole Bible, but the three-year cycle of Gospel pericopes) is, in Orthodox tradition, never leather-bound because the words of Christ are life-giving.

  • R. Stephen Gracey

    Sounds like “blame the user” to me. I think, Gordon, that you you should go hang out in a country where you don’t speak the language, you don’t recognize any of the people, and you can’t figure out how the money works. THEN see how spiritual you feel.

    • http://tertiumsquid.com Gordon Atkinson

      I take your point. But I stand by the piece. Look, this essay was not intended to be an apology for worship that is completely unintelligible to the “user.” On the other hand, “users” should be a little more patient before dismissing things just because they don’t understand them.

      As to the other country thing. Been there, done that. http://reallivepreacher.com/node/1276 :-)

    • James Goddard

      Actually, I’ve done that (but always knew where my passport was). It CAN be spiritual if you have the right perspective. I have traveled to 31 countries and have been totally alone many times. I have hikes in southern Chile alone. But I was never ALONE.

  • R. Stephen Gracey

    Oh, and you can’t find your passport, and you have no idea where the US Consulate is. THAT’s the experience you’re describing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Connie-Chintall/1654197055 Connie Chintall

    I came to the Episcopal church in high school from the Baptist church. My beloved grandmother was dying and I needed something deeper to bring me through that difficult time. I was carried along by the big people, finally finding ritual, something I did not know I either needed or missed. Forty years later the rhythm and cadence of that ritual stills nourishes my soul.