Engagement in worship

Roger Homan visits the twenty-first century and finds that it does not work

There’s a minute or two to go but the organ hasn’t started. I’m used to a piece of music to get me in the mood, to adjust the spirit, but the congregation is still talking. Then there is a click and a hiss and a tap on the amplification system and the noise level drops a bit.

‘Welcome to today’s mass,’ says the voice. ‘On your way in you should have collected three things, the mass book, a hymn book and the weekly sheet. Those of you at the back will find them where you came in. For those of you nearer the front they are at the side doors. If you don’t have them, will you go and get them now?’

There’s something of a kerfuffle while strangers like myself go to collect our worship resources. Then the voice comes on again.

Fore-warned and Four-armed

‘My name’s Sean and I’m your cantor for today’s mass. If you follow me, we should not go wrong.’ Clearly this is going to be an intrepid journey and we need a pilot. He gets us to open the mass book at two pages and to keep a finger in one ready to turn over. Meanwhile – with the other hand, I suppose – we find the opening hymn and start singing it.

Enter a priest with a chalice. This couldn’t be Sean, could it? But I still haven’t located the source of the voice. It just comes from the walls like Big Brother. Perhaps it is not a real person. Perhaps it is a cassette that the church gets when it buys so many mass books. Or perhaps it is downloaded from the internet. The Vatican II vision of lay participation and engaging the people has come a long way.

Bedside mannerisms

‘My dear friends…’ is the greeting from the walls that follows the hymn. This new voice must be the priest we saw when he came in. So sensitive is the amplification system that he is able to address us intimately. He has what is called in another profession ‘a good bedside manner’. So we form another relationship with another voice. The worship is to centre on the key players, elusive though they are. After words of introduction we are asked to turn to halfway down page so-and-so and the priest waits while we find the place.

The two pages where we have been holding our fingers in the mass book now come into play and we have some responses to learn from Big Brother. The organ plays the melody then Sean sings the words and then we imitate Sean. He is very friendly and helpful. We would never manage without him. We soon become dependent on the voice from the walls. We spend some time rehearsing the responses. But that’s all there is to it. I get caught out. I am still thinking I am learning only to find that it is all over. We will never need those responses again because they are especially for this single Sunday in Ordinary Time.

I thought it was just like hymn practice, but it is time to move on. I have found this to be a problem in places where they have the responsorial psalm. I concentrate so much about my cue and whether the lector’s verse has ended or is only halfway through that I miss the meaning of the psalm itself. Office staff tell me that they can type letters without knowing whom they are addressing and it is just the same when one does not have the space to ‘rest into’ – to borrow a phrase from the Quakers – a familiar text.

Back to Big Brother

Now comes more resource and stage management. We turn to such and such a page and please feel free to sit or kneel as we say… Adopt just whatever posture you feel most comfortable with but there’s nothing to kneel on, so put that one out of your mind. I feel more of a bond with clergy when I am worshipping alongside them than when they are choreographing my movements. Education researchers have for some years been interested to measure how much classroom time is spent in learning activities and how much in transitions and in the complementary activities of moving, finding books, getting pens and paper, clearing up and so on. Some classroom methods require more logistics than others and the amount of time available for learning is diminished. The same is true of worship. The kind I am used to has hardly any time given to management of bodies and postures and finding places. Cranmer slips it into the text as in ‘make your humble confession to Almighty God meekly kneeling upon your knees.’ But in modern forms choreography takes over. Count up the minutes given to physical preparations and rehearsals and there is not much time left for the real thing.

Positive thinking

There are no Commandments and the Confession is soon over and done with. They like to think positively these days. They don’t want to dwell on the darker side of human nature or mention the word sin. All there is in the script to regret the way of the world as evidenced in Kosovo, East Timor, Northern Ireland and on 11 September 2001 is the phrase ‘we are truly sorry’, the kind of words that a child would use if he had not done his homework. I need to say ‘the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.’ And it is not just for the shortcomings of the human race of which I am a member that I need to take stock. I need to use the occasion to register my personal failings, for which purpose the Ten Commandments provide a checklist. The time once given to the recitation of the Commandments is now usurped by Big Brother with guidance on how to find the page.

The Unkissable

We exchange the Peace. I don’t know anybody, so I just stand there. I don’t want to gatecrash the circle of the younger generation that surrounds me. Obviously, they all know each other and they are locked in bodily embraces. I hear one of them behind me say, ‘Did you have a nice holiday?’ I see a lady who has also been left out so I impose a greeting on her. We unkissables must stick together. She was in front of me in the queue for the worship resources. Later at the communion names are used if the priest knows them but hers and mine are not known.

The lesson is read by a layperson. I should think he is a teacher or something, maybe even an actor. He has a very clear voice. There cannot be many like him in the congregation. Similarly, if Sean is real, they are very lucky to have his singing voice at their disposal. These are the lay elite for whom participation is high profile. There are also those who administer the sacrament. Then there are hewers of wood and drawers of water. The whole church is organized like a beehive. But we also serve who only stand and wait, listening for the instructions, finding the right page, trying not to miss our cue, uttering the right words at the same time as everybody else. At least they can say that we have participated.

But I am not used to this kind of stratification within a worshipping community and it makes me feel uncomfortable and excluded. Should we sanction a manner of greetings to a few that we cannot offer to all? In my own tradition the worshipping body is organized along more egalitarian lines: the priest is a fellow worshipper using the same text in the same way and there is neither intrusion of the middle man or manager nor the emergence of an elite in the conduct of worship.

The parting of friends

So I come away feeling rather unfulfilled. My voice has been engaged but my spirit has never been in gear. Sean has done his best to be helpful and where would we have been without him? But he has got in the way. He was like a travel guide who gives you a lot of information and tells you when to be back at the coach but doesn’t allow you time to see, still less to gaze. The relationship of dependence upon a voice from the walls is alien to me and I have not found it edifying.

Finally, the priest thanks us. We have been, I suppose, a good audience. Then we receive the blessing and then the people are gone, most of them passing through the west door before the priest manages to get there himself. These escapees are the ones he has addressed as his ‘dear friends’. I am not used to that. I normally go to an eight o’clock Prayer Book communion service after which everybody stays around and talks. The Peace, it appears, has passed for fellowship. That moment in which one felt so excluded, that ostentatious celebration of networks cliques, was all they had. And the social encounter of priest and people is avoidable by all those who are fleet of foot. The effect of locking fellowship into a ritual moment is to replace its voluntary expressions outside the time of worship.

Non-nostalgia

This account is not nostalgia for a past practice that was cosier and was more comforting. Rather, is it a sense of need for a pattern of worship that is not less disturbing of the soul but more so and that happily is still available. Nor is it the cry sometimes heard for beautiful or archaic language. It is, however, a desire on the part of an inheritor of Oxford Movement spirituality to recover something of the challenge that Keble and others found to be inherent in the words of the Prayer Book. And it is not a disapproval of social intercourse among Christians: it is, on the other hand, a critique of coercive forms of fellowship and of the exclusiveness that they engender. It is not a resistance of lay participation: but it is an observation that participation in the conduct of worship is reserved for a literate elite while the rest are engaged as film extras. Above all, it is a lamentation that we are now so attentive to occupying the bodies of those who come to worship that we allow no space for their spiritual selves; we give them an hour or less of things to do when we once offered them an hour or more of a way to be.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies in the University of Brighton

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