Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What is Liturgy?

Liturgy, whatever else it is, is art.  Properly choreographed and executed, it is poetry in music, word, and movement flowing seamlessly from beginning to end, sweeping all into a closer encounter with the Holy.
Too often that doesn’t happen.  It’s not, at least in the Episcopal Church, that the words and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer are not followed.  It’s that they are followed, but with little sense of graceful rhythm hospitably inviting all into God’s presence.  Put another way, there is often too little awareness of how one’s words and movements effect a response in one’s audience, and what that response is.
One key, it seems to me, is to focus on beginnings, endings, and transitions.  What is the most graceful and hospitable way to move from one element of the service to the next so that worshipers are gently guided without jarring stops, starts, and verbal jerks that disrupt more than help?  I don’t think it’s a problem of expecting worshipers to juggle too many books and bulletins.  Some clergy conduct the entire service out of a comprehensive booklet, but still manage to make it feel like a cold, mechanical process, while others, using Prayer Book, hymnal and bulletin, make it flow with effortless joy.  What is the difference?
The difference is in the consciousness of the worship leader about how what he or she does and says affects those who are listening and responding.  A bishop friend is a master at establishing a slow, adagio type tempo that seems to almost envelope and synchronize the congregation’s breathing.  Maybe it has something to do with his earlier training as a musician.  Another friend in Hawaii introduces and guides the service with such fluidity that visitors from all over the world feel an intimate familiarity with it, even through the peculiarities of local custom and language.  Maybe it has something to do with his earlier career as a courtroom lawyer.  Yet another acquaintance is known for leading at a fairly fast pace, yet even occasional visitors from other denominations routinely report that they were made to feel comfortably at home throughout the worship service.  I have no idea what her background was.  The point is that each of them has honed the ability to be in touch with the congregation as audience in a very personal, almost intimate way. 
I think it would be a good idea for all clergy to have at least some continuing education in the art and psychology of performance, including a practicum in which they are videoed for later critical review.  It’s not the same as homiletics.  It’s about performance.  It’s also not the same as liturgics.  Getting liturgy down pat is one thing.  Performing it well comes after that.  If I were to put together a course like that from local talent, I think I would recruit the director of our annual Chamber Music Festival, a professor of theater from one local college, and the director of the choral program from another local college to be the faculty.  Not a clergy person in sight.

3 comments:

John Bassett said...

It has even more to do I think with being a person of prayer. I think that some clergy I know read the words mechanically because they do not believe a word of it and it would not occur to them to be at a church service if they were not being paid for it. Of course, some training in dramatics would not hurt. Still, I think the key point is to be really praying when you're saying the words.

Country Parson said...

John,
Thanks for the comment. I could not agree more that the person leading worship must also be in the spirit of prayer, as one of my clergy colleagues puts it. At he same time, I have serious reservations about clergy who are so involved in their own prayerful piety that they become separated from the people they are supposed to be leading. I regret that you have encountered some who are not only not in that spirit, but also lacking in faith. That has rarely been my experience in any of the places I have served or worshiped.
CP

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