This essay is in three parts. The first part is autobiographical. It recounts my spiritual journey from the evangelical church of my teenage years to how I came (back) into the Episcopal Church as well as the influences along that journey. The second part recounts what attracted me to liturgical/sacramental worship. This third part explores what things in sacramental/liturgical worship still nourish my soul.
Ihave now been formed as an adult in this liturgical and sacramental way of being the church for more than 30 years. My soul is still nourished in this church. I have served the church as a lector, vestry member, parish priest, and rector; as a church planter; as a member of the bishop’s staff and as Canon to the Ordinary; as a five-time deputy to the General Convention; on numerous committees and national, provincial, and diocesan commissions; as a church consultant and conference leader in more than 30 dioceses, both domestic and foreign. I am still nourished and fed through the worship of this church. There are six aspects of this liturgical/sacramental worship that continue to nourish my soul:
- The Sense of the Holy
- The Power of Symbol
- The Depth of the Eucharist
- The Significance of the Prayers
- The Grace of a Sacramental Worldview
- The Undergirding of Tradition
The Sense of the Holy
There remains in our worship that “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent” sense of the holy. I seriously doubt that Isaiah, when he had the vision of the Lord touching his lips with a burning coal, started talking right away. Silence is an appropriate response when you don’t know what to say. In Revelation 8:1, when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, what was the response to this amazing and holy thing? Silence in heaven for half an hour. I love the sense of the holy in our liturgical worship. It continually touches a deep part of my soul that words seem not to touch. I make the sign of the cross to express gratitude for God’s sacrificial love for me. I genuflect at times to acknowledge my being lesser to my Lord and acknowledging the Incarnation. I bow my head at the name of Jesus and when I pass by the altar in a wordless way of acknowledging my thankfulness and the Lordship of Christ. I bow my head when the name of Jesus is mentioned to remember his love for me, and when the cross passes by in procession out of gratitude for his deep love for me. I am the dependent. The God of the universe has lavished on me his unconditional love. Sometimes silence is the most powerful expression.
The Power of Symbol
As a non-liturgical, non-sacramental evangelical, I and my worship were pretty linear. I won’t make a blanket statement about other evangelicals, but I was pretty exclusively left brain in my worship of God. I was decidedly on the side of the continental Reformers who needed explicit scriptural permission to do anything in the church. That’s why some Christian churches don’t have instrumental music in church. Others don’t have bishops. Others don’t allow infant baptism.
As I became formed as a follower of Jesus through the liturgy, I came to realize the power of symbol and the ability of symbol to touch those deeper, non-verbal parts of my soul that brought me into the deeper presence of God. Worship is not about my mind always understanding word for word. Worship is about entering the presence of God. And sometimes in the presence of God, words get in the way. For me as a liturgical and sacramentally formed Christian, it’s okay for words not to get in the way; for me as a non-sacramental, non-liturgical evangelical, words were really the only way to God. A friend who is a Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor says of his denomination that the national anthem of his church should be, “Into my head, into my head; come into my head, Lord Jesus.” The same was true of me before I came into the Episcopal Church and encountered the holiness of God through the liturgy.
For me as a liturgical, sacramental Christian, there is the ultimate symbol of God’s love in giving his Son as a sacrifice for us. When I receive the Eucharist, I am fed spiritually. It is truly amazing that I can say and hear the same words over and over, Sunday after Sunday, and never tire of them. As a fundamentalist Christian, I was told that those were “vain jangling” (1 Tim. 1:6, KJV). As a sacramental Christian, I now hear those same words, Sunday after Sunday, as God’s love song to me. And when I place my hands face up, one over the other, in the sign of the cross, to receive the bread that is the body of Jesus (John 6:54), I have, really, nothing to say but “Thank you.” I am reminded of the old hymn, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”
The Depth of the Eucharist
In the Holy Communion, the bread is more than just bread, and the wine is more than just wine. They are the body and blood of Christ. In Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer of Humble Access, we pray, “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of the dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us” (Rite I, p. 337).
How are the bread and wine the body and blood of Jesus? I don’t know. In worshiping God, I don’t have to have figured that out in order to be fed spiritually. I don’t have to go through the medieval wranglings of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or memorialism to believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist and that by receiving this bread and this wine, we are being nourished spiritually with the body and blood of our Lord. We’re not just remembering good old Jesus, just as we would tip a glass in memory of a departed friend; we are worshiping the Lamb of God, “who takes away the sins of the world.”
The Significance of the Prayers
What I did not realize when I first encountered the Episcopal Church in college was that most of the Book of Common Prayer is centuries upon centuries old. My idea of church history before I came into the Episcopal Church was that God was active in the time of the apostles, took a breather after the apostolic age, came back on the scene at the Reformation for about 20 years, and took another break after the Reformation until the 20th century. These were the high points of Church history for me as an evangelical. The rest of Church history — as well as the Christians during that period — were mostly irrelevant.
What I appreciate now about these prayers is four-fold. First, I now appreciate that God has been active in every generation, and the prayer book is a testimony to God’s faithfulness in the lives of his saints throughout those centuries. The prayers relate their contemporary encounter with God, and I can resonate with that encounter.
Second, I find great meaning in the awareness that the prayers I pray Sunday after Sunday have been prayed by God’s saints throughout the ages. Their prayers are now my prayers.
Third, whereas before I disdained “written prayers” in favor of extemporaneous prayers as true prayers of the heart, I have come to realize that what is important is not whether the prayer I pray was written by someone else. The important thing is that I actually mean it when I pray that prayer.
Fourth, I have come to realize the power of those collects, those prayers written by someone, is that I pray them so that I might be formed by them. My encountering the presence of God doesn’t have to be self-generated all the time. I can, in fact, be formed by and indebted to these prayers (and those who prayed them) across these many centuries.
The Grace of a Sacramental Worldview
The worldview that I had adopted as an evangelical Christian is that the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden poisoned the mind of all of humankind so that our basic nature is totally depraved and that nothing we do is acceptable to God on its own. The natural consequence of this view led to a view of the relationship of the Church and the surrounding culture as articulated by H. Richard Niebuhr as “Christ against Culture,” in which all expressions of culture outside the Church are perceived with a high degree of suspicion and as irreparably corrupted by sin. I remember one person who disdained any kind of political involvement: “Why should I make the world a better place for people to go to hell in?”
As I have grown as a Christian who sees the world through sacramental eyes, I have learned that God does not divide the world in such a binary way. The imago dei that was implanted on the soul of man was not obliterated at the Fall but was merely bent. Creation is still grace-filled, albeit longing for its full redemption. This vision of God’s love for creation and its future glory is articulated in J.B. Phillips’s marvelous paraphrase of Romans 8:19: “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.”
Seeing the world through sacramental eyes is a correction to limiting the sacraments as evidence only of an interior faith. As a non-sacramental evangelical, I saw the Lord’s Supper and baptism not as having any real significance outside the fact that Jesus commanded us to do them. They were sort of evidences of grace having been already received but not a means of grace. Before I came back to the Episcopal Church, the sacraments — we called them “ordinances” — were not built upon the natural, material world; they were in spite of the material world.
I have come to understand and appreciate that God uses material things of this world to communicate and convey — as conduits of — his grace: things such as bread and wine for the Eucharist, water for baptism and blessing, oil for healing, the laying on of hands for ordination and confirmation, the laying on of hands for healing, and making the sign of the cross on the forehead for blessing. This natural and material world still contains touchstones of God’s grace. God’s grace does not flow around the material world, but through it.
Having a sacramental worldview makes every bush potentially a burning bush, every meal a reminder of the Last Supper and a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet, every family a participation in God eternally dwelling as family: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Undergirding of Tradition
I love the fact that in praying these prayers of the saints that have gone before us, in celebrating the Eucharist each Sunday as the vast majority of Christians have done throughout the vast number of years of the Church’s life (and still do today), reciting the creeds that the vast number of Christians recite throughout the world and have recited throughout the centuries, under the authority of my bishop as most Christians have done so throughout Church history, helps make me one with the apostles. Their faith is my faith; I follow in their procession. When Acts 2:42 tells us that those early followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” through sacramental worship, under the authority of my bishop, and affirming the Apostles’ Creed, I am doing the same as those early Christians did.
C.S. Lewis alerted us to the danger of chronological snobbery. It is an attitude, a bias against the past as made up of people who were not really as informed, or smart, or enlightened as we are. This chronological snobbery causes a person to believe that our understanding of history, ethics, the social sciences, and even science are now true for all time. The liturgy is a daily antidote against the pride of chronological snobbery. How powerful it is to pray the prayers that the Church has prayed for centuries, to read the Scriptures and to recite the Eucharistic prayer that reaches at least to the third century.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton notes that tradition in the Church flies in the face of chronological snobbery: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
The notion is this: God is eternal. The same Holy Spirit who spoke to the apostles and apostolic fathers and bishops and people in the previous ages is the same Holy Spirit who speaks to the Church today. It is incumbent on me to honor that reality. Through the timeless worship of God through the liturgy, I am a part of that apostolic band.
Further, the Church is not a happenstance of history. The visible Church was intended by God to be the way that God wants us to live out the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. The Church is the embodiment of Christ, not just individual Christians. The apostolic faith and apostolic order tie us directly to the faith and fellowship of the apostles.
I remain an evangelical in the Episcopal Church. I am more sacramentally nourished than when I came in. I have a higher view of the Church and an appreciation for the necessity of maintaining the apostolic faith and apostolic order than when I was first confirmed. I’m still content to wear a cassock and surplice rather than an alb and chasuble. I remain firmly and contentedly ensconced in the Episcopal Church. I grieve the departure of so many evangelicals since 2003, many of whom were and are my friends. We are lessened as a church by their departure.
I am heartened by the number of young priests I see coming into our church. Some are evangelical, others more high church who honor the authority of Scripture in a way that is consonant with evangelicalism. I also see many young priests with whom I disagree on a number of moral theological issues but who understand evangelism, mission, and are attempting to do mission in spite of obstructions, clutter, and square-wheeled structures and bureaucracy of the Episcopal Church.
This church has nurtured me and continues to nurture my soul. As an evangelical, I must admit that I feel like a distinct minority in the Episcopal Church, but I have been blessed with many friends from all parts and parties of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. A church that includes the likes of me is a church I want to be part of.