March 2, 2011
Last Sunday I was privileged to worship at the venerable Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, where the pastor is John Buchanan, editor and publisher of The Christian Century. He was also the preacher on this occasion with a well woven, classically Presbyterian sermon—personal stories and intellectual content with some relation to Isaiah’s message to people in exile. The Church building is elegant. The bulletin was informative and the announcements gave a sense of the energy of the enterprise.
Our Cathedral of St. James is not far away and I have not worshipped there on a Sunday for some years, but Fourth has visibility and much that would appeal to many Episcopalians. If I lived in Chicago I might want to belong to Fourth but for the liturgy. Yes, it was beautifully done. And yes, it was well prepared. And Yes, the sermon bore some relation to the scripture and the hymn after the sermon, some relation to what had gone before. Those who lead worship there could and should be proud of what they do. That said, for me, it didn’t quite ‘work’. Certainly I was able to pray and sing, but somehow there was no obvious logic to the worship. I was not able to grasp the flow of the service.
We began with a beautiful Introit, --something like an entrance rite although one of the worship leaders was already seated in one of the thrones in the chancel (if that is what it is called). The procession of vested choir and robed clergy was led by someone carrying a supersized Bible. Fine so far. We were then welcomed and introduced to the ‘concerns of the church’ which essentially were the announcements and felt a bit like business rather than offering or worship. Either immediately before or after that was what was advertised as a ‘discipleship moment’. I gathered that this was a regular time for someone in the congregation to offer testimony. This is something that one of the presenters to the clergy meeting at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes had urged us to consider finding a way to include in our liturgies. On this day a member of the fifth grade Sunday School class gave a polished account of a recent trip he had taken with his group. I know it meant a lot to his family and probably to the congregation, but it had no context for this visitor and so was tricky to appropriate or celebrate. I associate such a talk with the report of a pilgrimage or with Sunday School itself. I applaud the idea of our becoming proficient in talking about what God is doing in our lives, but on this occasion did not think the ‘moment’ was integrated in any way with the rest of the service.
We were on to the scriptures with Isaiah read by a Scot—sonorous, understandable, well done and enough to quicken the pulse of any good Presbyterian. The gospel was read from the pulpit by Dr. Buchanan as the lights dimmed before his sermon. From there to the prayers, led by the Scot in a way that was very inviting and actually served to encourage my own prayer. The concerns of the world as reflected in the newspapers were not forgotten and al bases appeared to be covered.
We drew to a close with what is basically the General Thanksgiving of our tradition of the Daily Office, introduced by something like the Sursum Corda; then a benediction r prayer of blessing before the procession out.
On the way out of church (as most of the congregation appeared to be heading the opposite direction presumably for coffee or Sunday School or to collect children who had been conspicuously absent) the minister who had introduced the service and welcomed us from the lectern (and who distracted me fairly often out of the corner of my eye by fiddling with her hair throughout the service—one of those things that does not matter in the great scheme of things and of which I suspect she is totally unaware) stood at the door making eye contact and smiling. I did not sense any expectation that conversation was ‘the norm’ at that point and so headed to the street and on to check out of the hotel.
I had certainly been able to enter into worship in some way. I expected a fairly passive experience from previous times with my Presbyterian sisters and brothers.I had forgotten how clergy centered the (non music) leadership tended to be, but appreciated the care and professionalism with which they led the service. What I really missed was the sense that we were not simply telling the old, old story and doing some intellectual (and possibly emotional) work in connecting that with our lives, but that we were also in some way, enacting the story. I don’t think that absolutely requires Holy Communion but it means some literal and metaphorical movement beyond the processions in and out. Maybe an altar call or an African style offering where we all go to the plates instead of them coming to us would suffice. But something.
Once again, even appreciating what I had been given to experience at Fourth, I find myself grateful for what we enjoy at All Saints’ and count myself privileged.