Towards the end of February, about 80 ordained and lay folk from a variety of churches and denominations from as far east as Winnipeg, Prince George in the north, the Gulf Islands, Victoria, Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley made our way to St. Mark's Kitsilano to have our hearts, minds and bodies fed at a gathering focused on the transformative power of liturgy and service.
The event was initiated and organized by St. Mark's. The intense and exciting conversations that took place suggested the event was timely. The comments that follow are based on my personal assumptions, observations, and learning. My first assumption is that we chose to spend all or part of 2 1/2 days with Sara Miles and Paul Fromberg from the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco because we wished to be challenged by, and learn from, the liturgical practices at St. Gregory's.
Since very few churches can be described as homogeneous gatherings of "believers" and every church works within its own context, what 'works' in one place is not necessarily appropriate for another. Still, we know that examining what is done elsewhere can prompt creative thinking for one's own worshipping community. What I found most exciting was discovering that the folks at St. Gregory's are very clear about why they do what they do and that this material is available on their website (http://www.saintgregorys.org/worship/resources) for use by anyone.
|Sara Miles of the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, speaking at St. Mark's. (Wilna Parry photo)|
My personal list of highlights begins with the discovery that St. Gregory's conscious focus is on the stranger and the question: what is the experience like for strangers This focus is based on the expectation that strangers bring us something from God. Since all members understand their responsibility to welcome strangers and since everyone wears a name tag, (church members' nametags are a different colour than visitors'), it's easy to identify who can help if help is required. This system makes it possible to do without printed bulletins or PowerPoint ("an abomination!") or hymnbooks.
The refusal to use printed bulletins is based on the understanding that worship is a communal experience, and reading a private experience that separates one from the community. Instead, hymns are announced by the first phrase and singing is generally unaccompanied, easy-to-follow chants; those easy-to-identify parishioners nearby help those who wish help. And email bulletins keep informed those who wish/need to know about meetings and events. The focus is always on the communal liturgical experience. "Did we pray" is the important question, not "Are we doing it right"
The St. Gregory approach to worship includes silence, reflection and response. During our time together Paul would ask us after each Eucharist: "What happened What did you see" The question was clearly not what did you like The background to Paul 's questions is explained in one of the website's articles. "At St. Gregory's, a sermon is literally not complete until the people who have listened to the preacher have their say...."
I've never been very good at obeying someone simply because s/he has a title or more education than I do, so it comes as no surprise that I was attracted by the ways in which St. Gregory's acts on its commitment to the priesthood of all believers.
We followed St. Gregory's practice of having the Gospel read by a lay person who had been accompanied to the lectern by Paul or Sara, an experience one observer called "hospitality."
Following Jesus' practice of eating with "inappropriate" people, Communion is open to all people. We gathered together at the altar to offer to each other the bread and the wine; what might have been chaotic was instead a well-organized and profoundly rich experience.
My decision to attend this event was prompted by my response to Sara Miles' book Take This Bread. I was deeply moved by her description of the impact on her life of entering a church because she was intrigued by the architecture-and being offered bread at the Eucharist then taking place. Her description of how the spiritual hunger she didn't know she had was met made me want to know and understand more about feeding one's own spiritual hunger. We didn't discuss this directly but I think I came away with some clues, one of which involves welcoming the stranger into our midst.