By Francis H. Wade
It is unlikely that Carl Sandberg intended in 1936 to describe the plight of the church in 2020 but his poem “Get Off This Estate” does just that.
“Get off this estate.”
“Because it’s mine.”
“Where did you get it?”
“From my father.”
“Where did he get it?”
“From his father.”
“And where did he get it?”
“He fought for it.”
“Well, I’ll fight you for it.”
Worship in The Episcopal Church has largely been inherited like the land in the poem. We do what our forebears did, and they did what their predecessors did. It has been a long time since we had to seriously consider why we worship at all. The coronavirus has changed all of that. We have known for many years that Sunday church attendance has been declining. That fact has had our attention but has not inspired us to change what we inherited, much less question its value. Early in 2020, the slow decline became a full stop and, later in the year, every family and individual will have to decide whether or not to return to Sunday worship. The church as a whole, like Sandburg’s landowner, will have to fight for what used to be inherited.
How do we do it? What case do we make for gathering with the faithful before an altar, receiving the sacraments, giving voice to praise and prayer? What unique role does worship play? What distinctive offering is made? What special opportunities are available in church on Sunday morning?
Many would answer “community and outreach.” Others would mention the excellence of music or sermons. No one would deny the importance of these things, and certainly no healthy concept of Sunday worship would exclude them. But they are not unique to congregations. If our church is just for fellowship and outreach, we are in stiff competition with civic organizations of every stripe. The church must be something other than the Rotary Club with incense. If we take our stand on excellent music and thoughtful instruction, we share the field with YouTube and TED Talks, to name only two. The church has no corner on talent, wisdom, art, or insight. For the church to proclaim itself as a place of community, outreach, and art would be like a restaurant advertising itself as a place where one can find food. Of course it is! But there must be something more or no one will bother to go there.
Any discussion of the unique role of Sunday worship must be either brave or foolish and perhaps both. The practice has gone through myriad expressions in manifold cultures across multiple centuries; any attempt to distill it can be inadequate at best. Thoughts in this vein will be indicative — pointing to truth, rather than actually capturing it. Daunting as the task may be, it must be done by every church because it will be done by every parishioner.
A beginning point would be to talk about spiritual mystery and the wonder that comes from looking beyond the immediate and tactile. Amidst the triumph of science, technology, engineering, and math in academia and the wider culture, mystery and the humbling power of wonder are largely ignored. But the capacity for wonder and the contemplation of mystery remain uniquely human experiences that have enormous implications for our wellbeing. The mystery just beyond the experience of life is but one case in point: Where have we come from? Where are we going? The understanding we bring to those questions gives foundation to our lives, because that which precedes birth is the ultimate source of purpose, and that which follows death is the ultimate source of hope. Few would argue that purpose and hope are unimportant to the human enterprise. The church’s role as a custodian of mystery and promoter of wonder is central to our task, basic to human life, and distinct in our culture. How might Sunday worship open our eyes to life’s mysteries and teach our hearts the skills of wonder?
A second point to be made in any discussion of worship would be about identity — seeing and recognizing our place in life’s scheme. There are many voices telling us who we are or can be in life. Advertisements, self-help programs, parents, coaches, counselors, and friends all have opinions. Many of them are helpful and carry some truth, but few of them use words like “servant” or “child of God.” The fact that we are neither the creator nor the ultimate judge of our lives cannot be denied. It can, however, be ignored, with distorting and disorienting consequences. Christian worship has a built-in reminder, in the very language it uses, that we are not the center of the universe nor are we the ultimate determiners of our fate. The very fact of worship is an acknowledgement of that which is greater than ourselves. The decision to go to church at all, quite apart from anything that might be done well or badly when we get there, is a reminder that we are servants and children of God. That is important because we are so wonderfully made that we can easily forget. How might Sunday worship serve to realistically define us as God’s children and servants?
A third point would be the importance of spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth. The Episcopal Church has for many years given emphasis to inclusion. We want people to know that all are welcome to join in our worship, and no condition or reality of life takes precedence over the love of God we know and experience in Jesus Christ. That is a precious part of our heritage and a message that must be carried into the future. While it is true that everyone can “come as you are,” it is also true that no one should leave that way. Worshipers are not spectators. Something powerful is supposed to be happening in the nave because of all that is emanating from the chancel, pulpit, and sanctuary. Some lives need to be affirmed, others challenged; some ideas need to be built upon, others eroded; some hopes need to be protected, others dashed; assumptions can be exposed, beliefs re-shaped, paths of faithfulness cleared. All need to be reminded again and again that love is the what, why, and how of faithful living. No one service can do all of these things, but the cumulative effect of a worship discipline should not fail to do them. How might Sunday worship change lives?
The point of these reflections is to raise the question of why people might return to church, not to answer it in any definitive way. It is a question every church leader must consider because it is the question that every church member will be asking. We who have inherited the great treasure of corporate worship will now have to fight for it.
The Rev. Dr. Francis Wade served churches in his native West Virginia for seventeen years before twenty-two years at St. Alban’s Parish, adjacent to the Washington National Cathedral where he later served as interim dean. He has taught at two seminaries and twice served as Chaplain to the House of Deputies. His books include The Art of Being Together, Transforming Scripture and Biblical Fracking: Midrash for the Modern Christian.