With talk of liturgical revision in the air, Episcopalians should reflect on how the liturgy can be made more inviting while also being enriched both doctrinally and devotionally.
I began reflecting on this topic on Easter Sunday. Our parish was so packed with visitors that we had to set up extra chairs. On most Sundays our parish is less than half-full. I could not help but wonder: are days of high attendance (which are usually high holy days such as Easter and Christmas) lost evangelistic opportunities? If so, what can we do to change this? I began to consider that perhaps we should not just welcome visitors to church but also invite them to return.
What does it mean to make the liturgy more inviting? Episcopalians believe in welcoming others, especially in church, but inviting is different from welcoming. Inviting is active because it entails proclamation, making something known. Welcoming is much more passive; it involves only a generous response to the actions taken by others (in this case, their choice to visit our church). Every parish should welcome visitors, but handshakes, smiles, and kind words are very different than proclamation. In order to be effective, proclamation must be clear; in the liturgy, attentive worshipers should be able to recognize to what and to Whom the liturgy invites them. An inviting liturgy is an evangelistic liturgy.
My proposed liturgical blessing and a brief commentary explaining its rationale follow.
A Blessing upon Visitors
The blessing is made at the conclusion of the announcements.
The priest may first offer brief words of greeting and encouragement.
Priest: Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Therefore we thank you for our visitors. Fill them with faith, inspire them with hope, and lead them in love. Guide them to the paths that they should take. Wash them by water and your Word, joining them to the company of all faithful pilgrims, your Church.
The sign of the cross may be made.
The blessing of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be with you now and remain with you always.
The place of this blessing in the order of service is important. Although unspecified by the rubrics in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, announcements about parish news are usually made after the Peace and before the Offertory. The Blessing upon Visitors should come at the very end of these announcements.
There are two theological reasons why announcements are best placed between the Peace and the Offertory. Parish life is not just the fruit of Christian worship, but should also be understood as an act of Christian worship. Furthermore, there is an important contrast between the Peace, which is God’s gift to us, and the Offertory, which is our offering (however humble) to God. The Church exists at the intersection of these two things, and the announcements should reveal a conscious awareness of this.
The Blessing upon Visitors invites them to receive the grace given at this same conjunction. It is placed at the end of the announcements for an evangelistic purpose: so that they too might choose to participate in the divine life that the Church is both given and called to.
The order of the proposed blessing’s content is quite intentional. It begins with a prayer made by St. Augustine in his Confessions: “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” After asking God’s benediction by way of the three theological virtues enunciated in 1 Corinthians 13, the blessing prays for each visitor by joining the subjunctive (“the paths that they should take”) to the imperative of Christian conversion: “Wash them by water and your Word, joining them to the company of all faithful pilgrims, your Church.” This portion of the blessing is addressed not to visitors but to God, both because God is the source of grace and because Christ transforms restlessness into pilgrimage (a conscious journey to the City of God).
The blessing also reflects a concern to clearly enunciate the order of Christian initiation. Baptism is placed front and center because by it we are joined to the wider community of the Church. In this blessing, we invite visitors to join us on our pilgrimage by first being baptized. Some visitors may be baptized already, and they may see something of their conversion reflected in the language of this blessing. For those who are not, the blessing offers a vision of what might be.
The prayer presumes that visitors, including the unbaptized, will remain in the service for what then transpires; they will witness the Holy Communion as both the bond and the expression of the Church’s life in pilgrimage. We know the bread and wine as the spiritual food of our pilgrimage, and it is precisely this pilgrimage that we invite our visitors to join. Some will join immediately because they are already baptized and are thus our brothers and sisters in Christ. The unbaptized will not join in immediately, but will be invited to do so by way of baptism (for in the Church, choosing the Holy Communion entails choosing baptism; they cannot be separated).