A Pleasant Sunday Experience

The girls and I normally head down to M’s church on the first Sunday of the month to show our support for her ministry there. This past Sunday, however—being Labor Day weekend and there being no education—she had the day off and we had the opportunity to indulge ourselves as we liked. As a result, we headed into the city and went up to the parish of a good friend and mentor who presides over the finest example of an English Rite parish I’ve ever experienced. We knew that he might be away as he travels in the summer and, upon walking in the door and seeing a bulletin for Mattins, surmised that he was not, in fact, present.

What followed, however, was a testament to his parish and his devotion. A full altar party entered, complete with two blue-scarfed readers who were the senior and junior wardens. One led the service with the able assistance of a cantor, the other presented the message. The psalm was read responsively; the canticles were sung in Anglican chant by the congregation; the Creed was intoned; the Suffrages were sung. The message was a good, solid exposition of the Gospel text verbally tying the text back to and reinforcing Christ’s Summary of the Law. Its clarity and orthodoxy were evident, and surpassed several clergy sermons I’ve heard recently on both counts.  In short, the service was everything that I had expected from the rector and congregation—traditional, reverent worship in the Classical Anglican tradition—only without the rector.

At the notices, the junior warden thanked the congregation for bearing with them over the summer even though Mattins was not the favorite service of all. It had, however, enabled them to conduct services on their own without the need for supply clergy. He noted that he was proud of the parish; having three licensed lay preachers they could rotate the efforts without it being overly burdensome. I found myself nodding in agreement when he reminded them that not many other parishes could pull off something like that.

To manifest this kind of devotion requires a parish culture that is committed to doing church in a particular kind of way. It didn’t just require a few people having the knowledge of how to put together a well-done Sunday Mattins, it also required the collective will to accomplish it. I would imagine that it’s easier to turn it over to supply clergy.

It’s also more expensive.

I do believe that the day of full-time clergy in the vast majority of our parishes is coming to a close. In some locations (especially those not near urban centers), it’s a matter of finding priests; in most others, it’s a matter of shrinking budgets. We lay people will need to step up. But will we be ready when the time comes? Are our clergy mentors giving us the tools to do so when we need to?

7 Replies to “A Pleasant Sunday Experience”

  1. Sounds wonderful. Mattins (Rite I!) was the service that really hooked me into Anglicanism to begin with, to tell you the truth; I got goose bumps when I first heard the Lord’s Prayer chanted by everybody in monotone.

    It’s a great shame that it’s so neglected these days, I think. It wouldn’t be hard to get into the swing of it, though, actually; when you get used to Morning Prayer on a regular basis, even during the week, then the rhythms of it become very familiar, and more parishes could do this, I think….

  2. I just read this very heartening post aloud to my husband, and we both agreed that indeed, the parishes that would currently have both the knowledge and the will to pull this off are few and far between. An experience like this on one of my free Sundays would reinvigorate me for about a month.

  3. I actually know of one such parish, I think – and it’s a parish that does have regular, almost daily, Morning and Evening Prayer on its schedule.

    The thing is: laypeople always lead those services, and they are used to it. I’ve been there for weekday mass when the priest didn’t make it back from the hospital in time, and a layperson simply stood up, went and got vested, and came and led Morning Prayer instead. I would think there are people there who could preach well, too (although I haven’t seen that happen, myself).

    So I think – apart from the music – it is quite possible, but familiarity with, and regular participation at, the Offices is key. And, of course, to achieve “good, solid exposition of the Gospel text” there has to be a developed faith life in the first place. I would guess that “licensed lay preachers” have already been found to have talents in this area? I didn’t know there was such a thing, actually; there may not be, in my diocese….

  4. It seems like a very reasonable approach to coming social changes, but it’s attended by numerous drawbacks.

    First, everything you describe works best (works at all) when congregation and lay leadership share a deeply-grounded sense of the liturgy. That’s a big drawback when novelty, improvisation, indifference, and the deliberate soft-pedalling of understanding the liturgy prevail over enculturation into the liturgy, familiarisation, education, and practice. I’ve served a couple of parishes where lay leadership could have done quite well without clergy, at least for a short while. In one, the liturgy was deeply engrained, the music program functioned as an integral part of liturgical leadership, and the congregation cared very much about teaching. In the second, the engrained habits of the congregation were so firm that they could have repeated the liturgy without variation whatever the circumstances (I can imagine them in the rubble of a burned-down, bombed-out church walking to exactly the same places, led by exactly the same community leaders, as for the past generation).

    Second, one would have to identify, work with, and bring along a cadre of lay preachers. Since (as I believe you’ve noted in the past) preaching is not always the Episcopal Church’s leading clerical skill, a great many clergy would have qualms about leaving the star turn of the week’s liturgy to someone who might do a better job than the rector or paid clergy staff.

    Third, another section of clergy leaders don’t themselves understand what they’re doing well enough to teach anyone else to do it (let alone ‘do it well’). If the Us Episcopal Church were willing to intensify its emphasis on education (from collegiate chaplaincies through seminaries to cultivating and upholding lay theological (as opposed to ‘administrative/political’) leadership, it would be easier to imagine a generation of clergy who value their own learning, who recognise the urgency of passing along an understanding of the tradition they inhabit and who are comfortable enough with their capacities that they need not fear being shown up by a warden or verger or church musician. ‘Mission’ used to be very closely associated with ‘education.’ Alas, ‘used to be.’

  5. Since (as I believe you’ve noted in the past) preaching is not always the Episcopal Church’s leading clerical skill, a great many clergy would have qualms about leaving the star turn of the week’s liturgy to someone who might do a better job than the rector or paid clergy staff.

    Glad you said this and not me…..

    ;-)

  6. I’ve had a similar experience several times when visiting my parents in England. ‘Readers’ (as they call them there – we call them ‘Lay Readers’ in the Diocese of Edmonton) are very well trained and I’ve heard some excellent sermons as well as seen some very competent liturgical leadership.

    Thanks for this post – as a parish priest who does all in his power to encourage the ministry of lay readers I found it very heartening.

  7. Perhaps the best known of the Readers in the C of E is novelist and essayist Ronald Blythe, whose regular column “Word from Wormingford” in THE CHURCH TIMES is always a treat. A friend posts them on a blog of the same name at http://wormingford.blogspot.com. Blythe is nearing 90, I believe, and I notice that the recent blog entries were published some years ago. I am not sure if this is due to his not producing as many or copyright concerns from THE CHURCH TIMES or even Blythe himself. The little essays have been collected often (I have seven volumes on my shelves), first by Penguin and more recently by Canterbury Press, Norwich. I highly recommend them.

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