Sunday, October 31, 2010

What To Wear?

A seminary classmate of mine served as a “student assistant” in a Philadelphia church where the minister wore striped trousers and a morning coat, common attire for many Protestant clergy back then. The minister generously presented his student with a pair of the pants expecting that he would continue the custom. (He did not.)

Most of us in those days wore the traditional black robe à la the Puritans, called the “Geneva gown,” with or without collar and Geneva tabs, probably with academic hood displaying one’s credentials. And that’s the way it was for a number of years.

Black was the color of choice for sixteenth century Reformed clergy in reaction to the elaborate color and décor of the vestments donned by the Roman Catholics and their kin. Such a splash of design and hue was considered a blinding distraction from the central emphases of worship, namely the proclamation of the Word and administration of the Lord’s Supper…

…until finally Protestants began to catch on that color in dress was not necessarily a distraction, but might help focus the worshippers’ attention on what is taking place. Then we started taking peeks at the garb of our peers down the street and borrowed fashion ideas for our own use. Now, among Protestants, the black pulpit robe is probably somewhat of a rarity.

The black robes in olden times were designated “pulpit gowns,” and were the appropriate costume for a preacher, preaching being most of what he did when leading worship. Only occasionally would he be presiding at the Sacrament of Communion, when the appropriate color would be white. (Worship leaders then were all men, so “he” is accurate.)

Now, for many Protestants, white is the color of choice. One reason is likely that the Ecumenical Movement and joint worship opportunities showed everyone how much more celebrative white is than black. And, after all, worship is supposed to be a celebration.

A woman in the church I served came to me one Sunday after the service and offered to buy me a white alb from the local religious supply store. “That black thing,” she grumped, “is so funereal!” And she was the local funeral director! So I agreed, and from then on I’ve slipped into a bright white vestment whenever I lead worship.

Another reason white is appealing is that we’re beginning to realize that Reformed worship means Word and Sacrament, and that the sacramental garb is always appropriate because it is also appropriate to have the Eucharist every week.

Now I wear a while robe (alb) with a stole representing the yoke of Christ and showing the color of the season of the church year. I don’t bother with the robe cincture—it has a monastic look that seems out-of-place to me—although some of my colleagues do. I also wear a stylized crucifix as well.

It may seem that we’re all making it up as we go along, and in a way that’s true. Yet we are more intentional about what we wear, trying to communicate symbolically about worship and our leadership role.

It’s interesting to see the diversity in dress among worship leaders. It’s a good thing too, as long as we are being careful in our apparel to be liturgically and theologically informative, and not just strutting like peacocks (or peahens) on Sunday morning. Then the Puritans would be right to drape us all in black again.

What is worn by you or your pastor when leading worship? What is communicated to the worshippers by what the presider/leader wears?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Worshipping with Kin

Within the past week or so I’ve participated in two services of congregational worship which any reasonable person would place at opposite ends of the liturgical pole.

The first was a Saturday service at an Orthodox Church of America monastery not far from where I live, and the second was at a Southern Baptist church in Florida where my nephew serves as one of the church’s ministers.

Eastern Orthodox and Southern Baptist churches would appear to be the “high” and “low” of church liturgies, as worship styles are often categorized. Differences are all too easy to spot, and we do enough of that anyway in our society, in particular when we discuss religion .

Those on the “high” end tend to discount those on the “low” end, or in the “middle” as being “non-liturgical.” * And those on the “low” end tend to agree with them, but wear the label proudly. Those of us in the “middle” smugly figure we’ve got it right.

Rather than set the two poles off against each other as a study in contrasts, I think it’s much more interesting, and perhaps more informative as well, to see what, if any, might be the similarities. So let’s look at these two liturgical snapshots and see if we can spy what kinship there might be between the two.

The most obvious thing should be easy: both congregations assembled to praise God and pray in the name of Jesus Christ. In short, they are both Christian churches, and it showed clearly in their worship.

In both services music was of prime importance, especially congregational singing. Music in each service was designed for easy repetition and response from the people in the pews.

Both churches provided choirs and professional musicians to prompt and promote the congregational singing. Solos and duets were sung in each service.

The “presider” in each service was the leader of the religious community.

A number of other people had leadership responsibilities in both services.

Scripture was read, in both cases from one of the Gospels, and was interpreted by means of a sermon.

Each service included the celebration of a Christian sacrament: the Baptists baptized, and the Orthodox celebrated the Eucharist.

Visuals were used in each service to give focus to the liturgy—admittedly very different: iconography and PowerPoint on a screen.

A time for greetings between and among worshippers was incorporated into both services.

Neither church used a printed order of worship. You found out what was coming next when it arrived.

Both services included announcements about other activities of the day and following.

There are probably other similarities that I didn’t take proper note of, but this is enough to remind us that when people gather on the Lord’s Day, there are similarities in their liturgies.

Of course the most important thing that all Christian worship services share is that God has promised to be there. Therein is revealed the unity of our faith and the essential kinship of all worshippers.

Share a worship experience with a friend from a different church background, and see what similarities you can spot.

* The distinction between “non-liturgical” and “liturgical” worship is a false one. What is different from one church to another may be degree of elaborate style, use of ancient prayers, formality, etc., but all worship is “liturgical” in the sense of it being the work of God’s people in praise of the Almighty. Most every church has a standard liturgical order of some sort.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I don’t think we pay enough attention to posture these days. Liturgically, I mean.

When I first started in ministry half a century ago, most congregations were more or less sedentary, with not a lot of movement involved in their worship. People seem to prefer to stay put. So once they had parked in a pew, they’d just as soon settle in for the duration.

Apart from singing hymns and a few other pieces, worship was done sitting down. We sang hymns on our feet because the musicians told us that we’d sing better if we did—a good practical reason.

Most of the hymns and other songs we sang (but not all) were hymns of praise and enthusiasm, and deserved the reverent and respectful posture of standing. There’s theology in that reason, and for most hymns, it’s a viable rationale even now.

Prayer, on the other hand, was almost always done by the congregation sitting down. Not to be boisterous as singing might be, prayer was considered a quiet, personal, even private exercise. With head bowed and eyes closed, each person retreated into his or her own exclusive prayer-chamber.

Not a whole lot has changed these past five decades, at least not in understanding what the different postures might signal in terms of the theology behind our worship. But some things have changed, and point the way to new understanding.

We now stand at other times than just for hymns and songs of praise. We now stand for other reasons than we will sing better vertical, and it’s good to stretch our legs every now and then. We’ll stand to say a creed—confessing faith publically is praising God.

We are clearer now that standing is a posture of honor and respect. So, we stand, for example, for the reading of the Gospel. In the Gospel text, the Word Jesus Christ is most clearly present to us, and it is in reverence that we rise to our feet in greeting and welcome. I also like to think that standing for the Gospel reading indicates we are at attention and ready to hear our marching orders from the Master.

We also are called upon to stand up for the Great Thanksgiving as we approach the Lord’s Table. Again, it is a sign of our need to be attentive and reverential at this Holy Meal wherein we will be fed and nourished by spiritual food. Standing for prayer has biblical precedent to commend it (see 1 Samuel 1:26 and 1 Kings 8:22, as well as Matthew 6:5 and Luke 18:11). Note that kneeling for prayer is biblical also (see Luke 22:41 and Acts 7:60), yet most Presbyterians seem to stay seated instead.

The use of the Psalter on Sundays is a new development for most of us. The Psalm appears as a response to the Old Testament lesson, and is considered a reflection on or response to the reading. Most often, the Psalm is a prayer, and even though it is sung, may be offered seated. There are occasions, perhaps, when we should consider staying seated for a hymn with a prayerful tone.

Seated with heads bowed and eyes closed is not always the preferred posture for prayer. The closed quality of such prayers seems to deny the commonness of our common worship, as though one should go to church and, among the gathered community, indulge in one’s private devotions. If seen this in Catholic services, but in Protestant, even Presbyterian ones as well.

Praying with eyes wide open is a good option to consider. Especially at the Great Thanksgiving, we should be aware of the community around the Lord’s Table. The Prayers of the People deserve our awareness of our sisters and brothers uniting their prayers with our own.

The point is that posture has significance and adds meaning and emphasis to specific acts of worship.

In giving liturgical instructions, of course, about standing or sitting (or kneeling), one needs to be careful about choice of words as they might apply, or not, to worshippers with disabilities.

When do you stand and when do you sit during Sunday worship? What changes would you suggest?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


In many, if not most, Protestant churches these days, members of a congregation come forward each Sunday to read the Scripture lessons. This has become popular since the modern “liturgical renewal movement” was crystallized by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.

The idea is that the Christian Scriptures themselves arose out of the early church gatherings, and even then non-clergy would read from the ancient writings, and from new gospels and letters that would one day become “scripture.” Therefore it’s appropriate to have people from our congregations do the reading today. In many churches, the reader actually emerges from the pew to the lectern as a physical symbol of this meaning.

It’s a good idea because it stresses the responsibility of the people in the pews to be conversant enough with the Bible to be able to read a passage publicly every now and then.

Certainly, a prime principle of the Protestant Reformation was the restoration of the Scripture to the people, available to everyone in their own language. Having lay people read from the Bible in Lord’s Day worship emphasizes that principle.

One other advantage is seen on the other side of the coin. A layperson reading Scripture counters any notion that the Bible belongs to the clergy, as though no one else were worthy of presenting Holy Writ orally. Even if rank clericalism is rare, it can be implied if lay people are not permitted the privilege of reading Sunday’s lessons aloud in worship.

All that being said, there are some issues to be considered.

First of all, not everyone in a given congregation should be a reader. Shyness, incapability, lack of interest, and any one of a hundred other reasons would eliminate one from the list of potential readers. Therefore, some selection process is needed.

The reading of the Word of God in Scripture to the gathered faithful is a critically important task. It requires at the very least people who are capable of communicating what is on the printed page through their voices.

Some Lutheran churches today, for example, will reserve the reader’s role to the deacons. As servants of the worship service, this is one duty that fits their title. But they do not leave it at that. Just because a person is a deacon doesn’t mean that he or she can do the job. So, deacons must be trained to do what deacons do, including read Scripture out loud.

People who would be readers, however selected, should be trained most likely by the pastor. All the important lessons learned in seminary speech classes should be resurrected and taught to the lay readers—projection, inflection, diction, pronunciation (especially of names) and so forth.

Busy pastors may not want to be bothered with this, but there is nothing more deflating than having a great sermon undermined by a poor reading of the Scripture lesson it is based on. If for no other reason than self-protection, pastors will see to it that lay readers are equipped to do an outstanding job.

One way to support initial training is to call brief after-church meetings of lay readers for the up-coming month or season, just to run over the lections they will encounter. This will help their comfort level and improve the quality of their reading.

Lastly we come to the issue of who reads the Gospel. In many churches it is reserved to the preacher (pastor/minister) rather than the lay reader. The reason behind this is that the pastor is the “Minister of Word [and Sacrament]” and by virtue of this office is the one to read that part of God’s Word where Christ is seen in his public ministry. Since as often or not the sermon is rooted in the Gospel reading, this makes considerable sense.

The Gospel narrative is set apart in another important way to indicate that it is of a different quality from the other readings. Because the Gospel presents Christ, the Word Incarnate, it is appropriate that the congregation stand to hear it read as a sign of reverence and respect.

A practical consideration is that it may be good for the preacher to hear the sound of her own voice just before speaking. On the other hand, as a friend of mine suggests, he welcomes the opportunity to hear the Gospel in another voice before he begins to preach on it. Sometimes it prompts a fresh insight for the sermon.

The role of lay readers is an important one, and is worthy of attention and encouragement from the pastor and others responsible for the worship of the congregation.

Do you have lay readers in your congregation? Are they usually deacons? What training do they receive?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Supper with the Saints

Growing up in the Midwest, I was accustomed to seeing stained glass windows in churches. Their bright day-lighted colors and iconic designs portrayed Jesus and his followers and other faithful souls of ancient times.

Coming to the Northeast and New England in particular I encountered another architectural style, simpler, plainer, including clear class in the windows. The Puritan view certainly accounts for the simplicity, wanting as they would to avoid any distractions from prayer and proclamation.

I soon discovered, however, that there was another reason for the clear glass windows, or at least another benefit.

Many of the typical white, steepled, churches in the villages of New England are located next to the burial ground of the church. When gathered for worship, the saints inside the church can look out and see the grave markers of their friends and ancestors, the saints gone before them. Believers gather around the Lord’s Table and a mere glance out the window recalls other faithful souls preceding them in the parade of the people of God.

One of the churches near my home recently built a new worship space attached to their traditional New England style structure. It was erected so that it would be next to the graveyard, and the wall to that side was mostly clear glass to make sure the worshipping congregation could not miss the historical and spiritual presence of the previous generations.

Far from being merely a quaint custom, this New England practice of having windows to look out of rather than just at, has something important to teach us—especially when the view is of the grave stones of the faithful.

There’s something to be said for continuity.

In so many ways, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the world started with us. Neglecting the lessons of history can be a very dangerous thing. For one thing, there is considerable hubris to the idea that we got here on our own, without benefit of the labors of anyone gone before us.

Even in matters of faith, we have all been blessed by the examples set for us by heroes and heroines of the past. Our own kinfolk and others we’ve known have brought us along. But there have also been many we have not known personally, folks we’ve come to know through the stories of God’s faithful through the centuries.

Remembering those saints and recalling them as we worship helps us realize that we are part of an on-going, great and wondrous body of people called the church of Jesus Christ. Such continuity is encouraging and challenging as we plunge onward along the pathways where Christ leads us today. It is also a cause for celebration.

Our Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Worship (1993) provides some clear-glass windows through which we come to the Lord’s Supper with the saints.

The introductory lines to the sung Holy, Holy, Holy make it clear we do not worship God alone:

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with the heavenly choirs
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

The Eucharistic prayers often conclude with something like this in Great Thanksgiving A:

In union with your church in heaven and on earth,
we pray, O God, that you will fulfill your eternal purpose
in us and in all the world.

or this in Great Thanksgiving B:

Give us strength to serve you faithfully
until the promised day of resurrection,
when with the redeemed of all the ages
we will feast with you at your table in glory.

or again in Great Thanksgiving D:

In your mercy, accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,
as, in communion with all the faithful in heaven and on earth,
we ask you to fulfill, in us and in all creation,
the purpose of your redeeming love.

or from Great Thanksgiving F:

And grant that we may find our inheritance with
[the blessed Virgin Mary, with patriarchs, prophets, apostles,
and martyrs, and]
all the saints who have found favor with you in ages past.
We praise you in union with them
and give you glory through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thanksgiving for and with the saints propels us into the future with confidence in God’s faithfulness, just as God has always been faithful according to many witnesses.

How to you remember the people of the past in your worship? Who are saints to you?