This essay is in three parts. The first part is autobiographical. This second part recounts what attracted me to liturgical/sacramental worship. The third part will explore what aspects of liturgical/sacramental worship still nourish my soul.
I spent my elementary school years attending an Episcopal church and my teenage years in fundamentalist/evangelical churches. But I was eventually drawn back by the way Episcopalians worship God. What first drew me to a local parish were six things that were different from the evangelical churches I had attended:
- The sacred space
- The majestic hymns
- The liturgy as a conversation with God
- The vision of God as Almighty
- The power of the Creeds
- The absolution of sin
The sacred space
I was fortunate to be (re)introduced to the Episcopal Church in a neo-Gothic building built in 1854. This was a far cry from the remodeled doctor’s office that the mission church of my childhood met in. The vast high ceiling spoke of the eternity of God within that space. The stained-glass windows, dark oak pews, creaky wooden floors, ornate woodwork, and even the eagle lectern spoke of the numinous, of the holiness and mystery of God. I immediately sensed that something holy and special was going on without a word being spoken.
The majestic hymns
“Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” — these hymns spoke of the majesty and glory of God, in which I was called to bask. The hymns reinforced the architecture. The architecture befitted the hymns. God wasn’t just my friend. We weren’t happy all the time. These hymns drew us (me) into worshiping the awe-inspiring God. It wasn’t really about me; it was about the God of the universe. Wow!
The liturgy as conversation with God
The thing that impressed me that first Sunday was that the liturgy was a conversation, a dialogue, with God. I used to joke that in the evangelical church worship was a monologue about God in which we didn’t speak with God, but really talked about God — behind his back.
By contrast, the prayers in the Episcopal Church had depth. They have been prayed by saints for centuries. Centuries. And in those prayers, we worshiped God. We didn’t “just really thank you, Lord, for this day.” We prayed, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” There is majesty in every line. All our worship was a conversation with God. We didn’t perform for God, we communed with God.
The vision of God as Almighty
And, as I said before, God wasn’t just my friend. We worshiped the Almighty. This God of the Universe, Almighty and Everlasting, was presented in the architecture, the hymns, and the prayers as one worthy of our praise. The Scriptures spoke in the liturgy. And we worshipers were not urged or implored to worship this amazing God; we simply worshiped him.
In the evangelical churches I had attended I was admonished to worship God, told that I ought to worship God; but this Episcopal Church with her prayer book admonished me to worship God by placing the words of Scripture in my mouth: “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him” (Ps. 96). The Te Deum, not specifically from the Bible but majestic beyond all words, resounded as well: “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.”
Oh, did I mention that this was in 1974 and this was the service of Morning Prayer on Sunday, using the 1928 Book of Common Prayer? Such majesty and beauty — befitting the God of the universe. I was a worshiper of God, and everything that surrounded me, the whole environment, led me in worship.
The power of the Creeds
My friend Sul Ross had already spoken to me about the creeds. When I would argue that the church was in need of renewal, he acknowledged as much, but he told me that the powerful thing about the creedal churches is that, although God may seem to work slowly in them, he has been working in them for nearly 2,000 years— steadily and faithfully. When I said the Apostles’ Creed that first Sunday at St. David’s, it was powerful. It had been only words when I was a child of 7 or 8. For a young adult who was an intentional Christian, the Creed was powerful, summarizing a majestic vision of God using majestic language in a way that the Church had affirmed for centuries. Timeless.
The absolution of sin
The absolution of sin? Really? For a 20-year-old? Yes, really. Who most needed to hear his sins were forgiven if not a 20-year-old man at a state university? Hearing that my sins were forgiven was balm for my soul. I wasn’t just reminded that they were forgiven; I was told they were forgiven:
Almighty God … hath given power, and commandment, to his Minsters, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
I had found my spiritual home. I was touched through the liturgy in a very deep place in my soul. The church that was mostly mystery to me as a child now took that mystery and touched the depths of my soul, moving me to worship God in a deep and powerful way. I could not really have returned any sooner. I do believe I came in the fullness of (my) time. God’s kairos had intersected with my chronos, to use a familiar distinction.
Little did I realize then that I would one day become a priest in this church. After attending law school and practicing law for five years, I sensed and responded to a call to ordained ministry. Those things that first attracted me to worship God in the Episcopal Church have not changed for me. I still love the liturgy, and the hymns, and I quite frankly prefer the Tudor and Edwardian language of the 1928 prayer book.
But I have grown to appreciate more about Anglican worship than these six elements of Anglican worship. I was attracted to Anglican worship at St. David’s, Austin, by the things that I have enumerated. I continue to worship within the Anglican tradition (in the Episcopal Church) for other reasons as well. Next week’s essay discusses how liturgical/sacramental worship continues to nourish my soul.
What a beautiful description of the power of liturgy. I also had my first encounter with the Episcopal Church through elementary school and returned to it in my early 20s. It would be difficult to exaggerate how much my worship and soul has been uplifted as a result.
I have a relative who, surprisingly, moved from a Reformed church to the Episcopal Church. He says, “I’d gotten a lot of good and helpful teaching about God, but I thought I needed to shift my focus more to worshiping God.” At least the first four of your bullet points–and probably all six–speak to that impulse.
Sadly, and I’m not the first to note this: PrayerBook revision, iMHO, threatens some of what makes the Episcopal Church so attractive. Again, sadly.
I found the Anglican Church in the Commonwealth when I was living there. I learned that the modern cathedral service was not meaningful but then the next week I discovered the Bishop’s private chapel which was quite small and had been built in the 1800s and went. A cathedral priest went down there and used the 1662 BCP communion service complete with the warning before the canon of the mass. That was the first time I had ever heard that much of the gospel read at one time and had been assured of forgiveness too. I understood the one point… Read more »
Mark, although I am not an anti-1979 Prayer Book protester, I do regret the retreat from clear biblical references in that Prayer Book. I greatly appreciate being richly soaked in the scriptures through the 1928 BCP and its predecessors.