Monday, August 11, 2008

The Strength of Ritual

Episcopal Life has excerpted a column from the Rev. Patrick Malloy's book Celebrating the Eucharist: A Practical Ceremonial Guide for Clergy and Other Liturgical Ministers (Church Publishing, 2008). Malloy is the rector of Grace Church, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has served on The Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. The essay says in part,
Nothing is more important to the life of a community than what happens during that one hour on Sunday. At the most pragmatic level, the Sunday liturgy is the only time in the regular life of a community when everyone gathers.

From Sunday to Sunday, individual members of the community and subgroups within the community live out their particular vocations within the baptismal vocation. On Sunday, however, the body of Christ experiences itself in its totality. The Sunday Eucharist is a pivotal moment, both in the church's expression of what it is and in being formed into what it is.

If the Sunday liturgy is largely a clerical affair done by the priest for the people, so that the people are mere responders or observers rather than key actors, the chances that the parish will grow into a group of integrated, self-starting, empowered ministers is greatly decreased.

The liturgy will have expressed a worldview and simultaneously instilled a belief that "Father knows best" or "the priest has all the power" or "we lay people know how to take care of the nuts and bolts of this operation, but when it comes to God, that's better left to the professionals."

The liturgy is precisely common prayer, expressing and creating a common life. For the majority of the worshipping community, the liturgy's message is not easily resisted.

There always will be those in any Sunday assembly who are not members of the church, but seekers who have come hoping to find something that will give their lives meaning and direction. They are true participants, but they usually keep a safe distance, often literally, from the group. The Sunday Eucharist paints a picture for them of what the church is – or, more truly, what the church aspires to be.

It is not the only place they could explore the church. They could visit the parish soup kitchen and see the church as a force for social change and compassion. They could sit in on a midweek reading group and experience the church as a community of learning and exploration. They could observe the children's Sunday school and see the church as an agency that cares for the vulnerable and includes everyone, regardless of age.

At the Sunday Eucharist, though, all of what the seeker might see in any of those venues is on display at one moment. The Sunday assembly of the church is the most important moment in the church's relationship with itself and in its relationship with the world. Done well, ministering at the Sunday Eucharist facilitates the church's seeing and experiencing itself as the body it is growing into and, at the same time, showing the world an image of how human beings live when God's kingdom comes on earth as in heaven.

Ultimately, all of this depends on God. But, as the catechism says, the sacraments are means of grace, of an encounter with the Divine. They change people, and so they change the world, even on those normal days when hearts are not moved to conversion and worlds do not seem to be blowing up.
The full text of the Episcopal Life column, which also makes a thoughtful comparison to underground nuclear bomb testing in North Korea, is online here: The Strength of Ritual