By Benjamin von Bredow

When I enter a new church and receive a bulletin, I sometimes think of Polonius’s ironic insistence in Hamlet that he will “be brief.” A self-published worship aid presents itself with the implicit message of “I will be helpful,” but sometimes it becomes so tangled in self-importance that it communicates the contrary.

We need to take seriously that a church bulletin is a spiritual object, and that one ought to treat its composition with the same care and thoughtfulness that is due to all the other parts of the liturgy. A bulletin mediates between the Christian community and its participation in the sacraments, and through the sacraments in the life of God. It is a via, a path along which most worshipers will travel in every worship service, and it is the priest’s responsibility to make that via a clear way.

What is the goal of publishing a weekly worship aid? If one prints a bulletin to help people participate in the service, one sets the bar too low. The purpose of a good bulletin — or the purpose of forgoing a bulletin entirely — to help the congregation worship. Ideally, there is no distinction between worship and participation in the service. In reality, though, we often ask our parishioners to participate in the service in a way that is not worshipful, and handing them a thoughtless bulletin is the way we make that request.

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This is where liturgical theology comes in. What do we mean by participation in the church’s acts of worship? Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, established the paradigm for contemporary thought about liturgical participation by insisting on the “full, conscious, and active participation” of the laity at the Mass and other services. Greater passive participation of the laity might have been achieved as a cultural and catechetical movement alone, and indeed it has always been a feature of Catholic liturgical spirituality. The passive participant in the liturgy attends Mass to contemplate the mysteries of the Incarnation and Passion that take place afresh at the altar, and to marvel at the glory of God, whose traces are visible and audible in the sacred art and sacred music that adorns the church.

We would do well to remember the virtues of passive participation in the liturgy. In Protestant practice, 20th-century liturgical reform echoed Vatican II’s call for “full, conscious, and active participation,” although active participation was already the strength of Protestant worship. This emphasis almost entirely destroyed what remained of passive liturgical participation in Protestant services. The proof is the church bulletin, which expresses the principle that laypeople must have the full text of the liturgy in front of them at all times, or their shepherds have failed them.

Passive participation takes a number of forms. The most basic is physical presence. This is the indispensable way that all members of Christ, including the pre-rational young and the intellectually disabled, build up the body. Attentive learning is another form of passive participation; it is the distinctive mode of worship of children and the newly initiated. As when learning any language, acquiring fluency in a liturgy requires passing through a period of not knowing and not speaking, of hearing and watching only. Even for the spiritually mature, well-catechized, capable in mind and undistracted, there are important passive elements of full liturgical participation. We tend to equate mature rational faculties with the ability to speak clearly, but this relationship depends on the deeper connection between reason and hearing. It is an act of worship to hear the Word and to contemplate it in the silence of one’s heart.

Many Anglican parishes design their church bulletins in a way that implicitly but powerfully denies congregants the right to participate fully in worship passively by making sure that, at all points during the service, they have access to the necessary resources to perform outward-facing, rational word acts: speaking (the congregational prayers) and reading (the lessons and prayers of the priest).

Practically speaking, one of the major problems with Sunday bulletins is how much attention they demand simply to be navigated, how much time we spend being conscious of them rather than of God. For example, every page reference that a bulletin puts an extra step between me and participation in the church’s prayer. If I am following a service in a bulletin, and it says that the Prayer of Humble Access is on page 83, I will have to look in two places before I can start praying: the bulletin and the prayer book. If I didn’t know the prayer and the bulletin hadn’t told me that I was supposed to look it up, my total ignorance would paradoxically have allowed me to start praying immediately. I would have been permitted to “pray with my ears,” listening to the words of the prayer and offering them to God in my heart, despite my inability to give them voice.

A further error is added when the bulletin refers me to the text of a prayer said by the priest alone. Listening prayer engages the senses and affections as well as the mind, but the suggestion that the congregation read along suggests that the reader engage in interpretive assent, knowing that the priest said the prayer correctly, and affirming (rationally) that its words are true. We interact with secular nonfiction by interpretation and assent or rejection, but liturgy ought to be more than nonfiction. (Likewise, a projection screen is not a viable alternative. It perfects this tendency to think of the liturgy as a disembodied communication of pure meaning.)

The privatization of the liturgy naturally goes along with its rationalization. Worship is meant to be a corporate activity, materially embodied by the whole community as it gathers, speaks, sings, adopts postures, performs gestures, and eats and drinks. A mere intellectual understanding of liturgy (worship as interpretation of worship texts) disembodies the service, and so destroys much of the community’s act of worship.

Next time you go to an Anglican parish, sit at the back, and see how many people are looking down at a book or a bulletin during the readings, during the Creed, and during the Prayer of Consecration. In most congregations, few people attend to the liturgical actions around them, or even simply to the presence of other people. This is the privatization of worship at work, and we aid and abet it when we provide parishioners with the means to read along when they should be looking up.

The typical Sunday bulletin provides myriad other, more basic distractions: announcements about fundraisers and reading groups, financial reports of the parish, schedules of lectors and servers for the coming weeks, sometimes catechetical notes, contact information for parish leadership, and so on. For many practical and ultimately spiritual reasons, worshipers need to receive this information. The question is how we convey it to them.

I propose a simple solution: provide at worship only what the congregation needs for worship. The list of necessities will likely be very short.

Does the congregation need to have an index of the texts in the prayer book that the service will use? Probably not.

Does the congregation need the hymn numbers in the bulletin, when they are already on the hymn board, and will be announced anyway? It’s unlikely.

Instead of printing the readings in full, why not simply put a Bible in the pew and tell the lector to give the full citation?

Announcements may be printed on a leaflet and placed at the back of the church to be picked up as parishioners leave; let them take that initiative. It may turn out that your bulletin becomes very small, or even unnecessary.

Whatever remains of the Sunday bulletin should reflect the beauty and grace of the liturgy. Like the sacred vessels and furniture of the Old Testament Temple, the objects in the Christian temple are holy by association, because of their proximity to the glory of the God who indwells the house that they furnish. They ought to be beautiful. In the case of a Sunday bulletin, this requires thinking about typesetting as an art.

Since most pastors and parish administrators are not typographers, a few basic questions will suffice: What font is clear and dignified? Is the style consistent throughout? Does the arrangement of text draw attention to the most important things? Are there images? Are they tasteful?

A worship bulletin is no ordinary piece of paper. We ought to treat its composition with the care fitting for any sacred object.

Benjamin von Bredow is an MTS student at the University of Notre Dame, concentrating in liturgy. He entered Anglicanism in the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, while studying classics at King’s College, Halifax. He attends Christ Church Anglican, South Bend (ACNA).

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Scott Knitter

Thoughtful and interesting. I’d like to know about any church that’s doing bulletins well as you describe. Thank you.

Benjamin von Bredow

Thanks! Well, I would first point to the majority of Orthodox churches (which almost never have a worship aid) and Catholic churches (which might have a “prayers of the Mass” pew card, but no weekly publication). If possible, NO bulletin might be the best bulletin. But that might not actually be possible in many Anglican contexts. I would hold up St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg as example of great worship aid making. Although I’m not a fan of the fact that it is presented in a restaurant-style menu/brochure format, their seasonally-published worship aid has only the rotating prayers that the… Read more »