I was recently copied on a letter from a member of one of the parishes of my diocese to her priest and vestry. It was in response to the annual stewardship appeal, and the author expressed reservations about continuing her financial giving to the parish, citing a long list of complaints. Evidently, in order to forestall anyone judging her, she admitted to being very sparse in her Sunday attendance; even though she had served on several special committees and projects over the years, she offered the information that her six-day-a-week demanding job left her with Sunday as her only opportunity for self-care, and it seldom worked out for her to attend services.
It was at that point that she lost me. Yes, the judgment that she had hoped to prevent came welling up inside me. Fortunately for both of us, I am not her immediate pastor, so it’s not on me to respond to her letter. This allows me to lift her up as the poster child for not getting it. For a Christian, public worship on Sunday is of the utmost importance, “unless for good cause prevented,” per the Episcopal Church canon the name of which I borrowed for this post. If one does nothing else by way of practicing Christian discipleship, one must still come to church on Sunday. Merely doing that much is not adequate discipleship. Private prayer, Christian community, and service in the world are also essential. But, without coming together to worship on the Lord’s Day, even those good things are deprived of their lifeblood.
At a recent clergy gathering, one rector observed that the standard by which clergy make the subjective determination that a parishioner is adhering to the “unless for good cause prevented” canon is steadily eroding. It used to be that you would see your “regulars” in church 40 to 50 Sundays per year. Nowadays, 30 seems to qualify. For the record, whenever I have a platform to speak to the subject, I will offer the rule of thumb that the proper target is … 52. People take vacations, of course, but it’s a rare vacation venue where no church is available.
At the 2006 General Convention, I served on a special committee charged with crafting a response to the Windsor Report, which the members of the committee interpreted essentially as “saving the Anglican Communion.” Grandiose, perhaps, but not by much. We were up against a deadline, doing difficult work. A subcommittee to which I was appointed scheduled a meeting early on the last Sunday morning of convention. We found ourselves working right through the morning and into the afternoon, thus missing any opportunity to attend a celebration of the Eucharist. It occurred to me in that moment that it was the first time I had missed Mass on a Sunday in probably 30 years, and the irony was not lost on me that it was precisely church business that made it happen. (Given the eventual fate of the resolution we were working on, we ought to have broken off our work and made it to the altar.)
At the same clergy gathering I mentioned earlier, another rector reminded the group that the first element in the liturgy is not the Opening Acclamation or even the Entrance Hymn, but, rather, the gathering of the people. The church — the ekklesia, the assembly of the “called-out ones” — is constituted and reconstituted every time the laos, the baptized people of God, come together for the “principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day” (1979 BCP, p. 13), the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. In the liturgy, we “do this” in “remembrance” of the crucified and risen Christ. While “remembrance” might, for many, connote something like “conjuring a mental image of a past event,” its meaning is really more robust, and would become clearer if we were to merely insert an apposite hyphen: re-member, that is, to bring the members back together. When any of the “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5) is missing, the structural integrity of “God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9) is compromised.
In a blog forum like this, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir a bit. How can pastors help foster conditions under which letters like the one I was copied on don’t get written in the first place — because more people “get” what Sunday worship means? Well, patiently teaching, of course. And our teaching could do worse than to include the insights of Martin Thornton in Christian Proficiency on “the art of missing Mass on Sunday.” Thornton counsels inculcating a sensibility of not missing “Sunday church” generically, but of missing, specifically, Advent II, or Epiphany IV, or the Umpteenth Sunday after Pentecost — that is, some specific and unrepeatable occasion with a unique character all its own. That much would be a catechetical beginning, at any rate. (Could we not in general do a much better job fostering an awareness of the liturgical year and illuminating the nexus between liturgical time and people’s out-of-church experience?)
Sometimes, of course, it is possible to attend corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, but under less than ideal circumstances, such as in a community that is not celebrating the Eucharist, or in a community that does not extend eucharistic hospitality to all the baptized. In my recent traversal of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I spent six Sundays walking across northern Spain. There were no Anglican churches along my route; in fact, I saw no evidence of any practice of Christianity other than the ancient native Roman Catholic Church. On three of those six Sundays, circumstances prevented me from even being present at a celebration of the Mass. I complied with the “due observance of Sundays” canon as best I could by privately praying the Liturgy of the Word, through the Prayers of the People. On the other three, I was able to be in attendance at Mass, though, of course, not able to receive the sacrament.
In effect, I fasted from Holy Communion for those six Sundays in Spain and a seventh in Venice before I found a community of Anglicans in Rome. During that fast, however, the abundance of grace made itself manifest to me in some unexpectedly rich experiences of “spiritual communion.” Within the limitations of language (I am conversant, but not fluent, in Spanish), I brought my “full, active, and conscious participation” (per Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium) to the liturgical action, attending closely to the readings, trying to glean whatever I might from the homily, joining in some familiar Latin chants, forming a eucharistic intention, and, in lieu of going forward for communion, praying the words of the Anima Christi (“Soul of Christ, sanctify me”). Even with the unhappy divisions among the people of God preventing me from sharing at the Table, I felt like there was a compensatory blessing that will always be very precious to me.
There is, in fact, so much grace that surrounds a Christian’s “Sunday obligation” that it shouldn’t have to be a matter of law at all. I can remember talking with a fellow parishioner around 35 years ago about how diminished we both felt when some of our number were absent on a Sunday. He said something like “wild horses couldn’t keep me away from Sunday Mass.”
May his tribe increase.