“How was it to read the responses instead of leading the service?”
My mother asked me this question after church on Easter, having sat with me in church for the first time since—when? College? A long time. Until this year, she’s always had to come and watch our kids during Holy Week, a marathon of leading services Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday--most days two services, most services preaching. I responded in somewhat adolescent fashion, replying dismissively that they were all words on a page. Who cares that I’m almost 40? I didn’t want to talk about it.
Even feeling a bit less testy now, I still stand by that. Strictly speaking, liturgy does in large part come down to words on the page. It’s a particular kind of speech that works because it’s repeated, and it’s a particular kind of speech because it relies on a whole raft of shared assumptions and referents. (My MDiv thesis was on this—I am doing my best not to go on and on and on here). Liturgies work because others have performed them, and others before them, too. Words and actions both come together. Words are actions. There’s an elasticity to it: an outdoor church service whose congregation is experiencing homelessness feels different from an indoor service with incense, four choirs, and an organ. It would be wrong to claim that one of those groups of people was comprised of lower-quality Christians or that the prayers of one were heard by God any more effectively than the other. Bread, wine, words. Call and response. Priest and people. You might prefer one liturgical context or language to another, but it’s the same action. And you have to have both priest and people for sacraments.
Person at altar, person in pew. Call, response. Neither works without the other. If anything, what was remarkable about last week’s services was how not-different the liturgies in themselves felt. I got a little teary thinking about my old parish (similarly to my experience a few weeks ago I wrote about here), but I didn’t feel out of place or lost. Holy week still felt…holy. 3 years ago I wrote a post in this space about performance artist Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present comparing her immersion in her work with being a priest. I still stand by that piece*, but I also think that a lot of what felt holy was actually the anxiety and adrenaline rush that ensues when an introvert has to stand in front of people four days in a row. That realization doesn’t make it less “spiritual,” but I wonder if I’ll be able to go a bit easier on myself in the future. Maybe I’ll be able to say my parts and the congregation can say theirs, and I’ll understand a bit more clearly about how it’s shared. There were all kinds of conflicts during the Reformation about how, exactly, bread and wine become body and blood: was it saying the words of Jesus, or praying the Holy Spirit on the elements, or the priest, or the people—my favorite answer then, and still, was Richard Hooker’s—it happens when the people say Amen. So be it, and it is.
I quote—probably too often—a line I heard in a Martin Smith book about how God has called some people to be clergy because God does not trust them to be lay people. As someone whose return to the church of her childhood came in tandem with an experience of a call to the priesthood, that resonates a lot. I never did get myself organized enough to join a church as a young adult until I was thinking of going to seminary, and then I was all in.
Now into my second month of not working in a parish I’m also aware how God is, also, entrusting me with the this experience, too. When it was announced on Maundy Thursday that no one had signed up for the 12am-1am slot in the overnight vigil remembering Jesus and his disciples in the garden before the crucifixion, I could say yes to my ten year old when he wanted me to take him. Did I ever take the uncomfortable hours when I was leading holy week in my parish? Nope. Would I again? If I’m in parish ministry, probably not. But I will always be grateful to be the parent of a kid who is comfortable enough in church to take a nap under an organ console. And if not for this time, I wouldn’t have been there for it.
So yes, during Holy Week, I said the words on the page.
Mostly. (I will always substitute expansive language when it refers to God as “he,” no matter what it says) I got my feet washed and prayed at the cross. I got drenched with the holy water of Baptism at the vigil and got wax on my clothes. I got to hear sermons, instead of write them! And, with Richard Hooker in the 16th Century, I took some time to worry less about how God was present in what I was doing and just to be grateful that God was.
Photo: Paul Barker
Adah getting her feet washed at the outdoor kids' service.
*PS--A version of my Abramovic post was included in the book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, a lovely collection of work by women clergy edited by Martha Spong. Get it here!