Like repeating fifth grade

By Donald Schell

“Services in Episcopal church are like repeating fifth grade. There’s no place for me there.”

“Do I have to be able to read music to belong to this church?”

My colleagues who heard this observation and this question, one from a friend, the other from a stranger, are seasoned, committed leaders in our church, but both felt they were hearing something significant in the impression of a first-time visitor to an Episcopal Church. The ‘repeating fifth grade’ remark was made by someone who was visiting because her longtime friend worked in the church. The ‘have to be able to read music to belong’ question was from stranger’s first visit to an Episcopal congregation. Both were responding to our odd habit of doing ritual from printed text.

Another colleague, serving as interim in a church that had just won its building back from “Anglican” dissidents, attended a town council meeting, met a number of people who were excited to hear of a more open, progressive voice returning to their town’s religious community and several promised they’d come to church. They did come, and as my friend watched their faces in church that, he felt their bafflement at how we pray with our noses in the book, at the disconnection from friends and neighbors they felt scattered in pews unable to see any face but the priests, at juggling books and interpreting different kinds of page numbers. One by one, he said, he saw his new friends’ faces registering, “nothing for me here.”

The book is our splendid resource. It’s also a serious problem. Sunday I caught myself in an ultra-Episcopal moves. Presiding at a spoken 8 a.m. liturgy, we were using the Apostles’ Creed, which we had printed in the service leaflet. I couldn’t find it in the leaflet and fumbled for it as the creed began before it dawned on me that I didn’t need the leaflet. I could say the creed without text in front of me. I made myself speak the familiar text, but felt the loss of that conditioned security of the paper and print – whether Prayer Book or leaflet. And later when we came to the Lord’s Prayer, I lifted my hands to lead the prayer and noticed an entire congregation of people who know that prayer reading it from the book.

Sunday afternoon, my wife was running lines for our actor son. Running lines means she had the script, he mostly had his lines memorized, and they were practicing with her speaking other parts and him speaking from memory to refine his memorization. His leading part in a new verse translation of Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande. It gives him a heavy line load of gorgeous poetry he wants to get right. The director had scheduled cast to be off book for the next rehearsal, a full month before the play would open. So, many hours into learning his part ‘by heart,’ he was refining and polishing the memorization to get ready–for rehearsal–not even for performance, but for early rehearsals, because the directors knows actors off book discover new things as their characters are literally speaking to each other. They’re not ‘saying lines’ any more, they’re acting or playing their part.

Occasionally, going to a lot of theater, we’ve had the experience of being in the audience when an understudy takes the stage on book. We saw an Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello on book. It was exciting to watch because the understudy was stretching so hard to be the character, to get the lines without looking, to maintain eye contact with the other actors or speak the lines to the audience, and because the other actors were working so hard to make the whole production succeed. It was a beautiful performance and I still picture a charged moment when he held a sword in one hand and book in the other in the murderous final scene.

Aren’t we, in church, hoping to be at least as alive and present as a company of actors? Why aren’t we finding strategies and means to get people off book? Where are we valuing the voice and contribution of each regular attender and each visitor?

Praying with our nose in the book can’t touch the elation of watching that understudy play Iago. The book isn’t our springboard to freedom; instead it’s there to anchor us, to make sure we don’t go anywhere. Actually, it’s very possible that in 1549 some people felt elated, expectant, and even ecstatic to have printed English texts of the liturgy that they could hold and read themselves. My colleague’s friend in 2011 felt like unison reading put her back in fifth grade.

Where do we invite, allow, or even admit energy and emotion?

My hunch is that a lot of people in our culture, some consciously, some not, suffer from loneliness and isolation. They fear their voices don’t count. “Don’t you want your voice to be heard?” the paid pollster inevitably asks when I decline yet another unsolicited phone survey. That trained caller hopes the stranger picking up the phone will feel lonely enough and powerless enough that his formulaic questions to make me into data bits gives will give me enough hope that I might count and feel like I was finally someone that I’d cooperate. Usually I say. ‘no thank you.’

People do come to us, to our churches, lonely, feeling isolated, not knowing or trusting their God-given experience and power. So when, in our Sunday liturgy, do we bless the experience and authority they brought with them to church? When do, we help them find a resourcefulness that would empower them for Gospel living outside of church?

My question isn’t what we’re ‘telling them.’ Our message can be pretty clear, but we silence it when we contradict the message line by line and movement by movement in the liturgy, making people feel childish or incompetent. And which will people hear from us, our message or our practice?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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