Worship paradigms


I think it was shortly after I attended a Sunday morning Episcopal service for the first and only time a few months ago that I began to grasp something about nature of the variety of worship paradigms that exist within Christianity. An Episcopal service is, I realized, structured as a kind of narrative. It has a beginning (the procession of the cross), leading up to narrative climax that consists of the Eucharist, and finishing with the denouement (the recession of the cross.) The climactic role that the Eucharist plays in Episcopal worship is illustrated by the fact that published Episcopal service times are almost always described in terms of the Eucharist; they will say something like 8 AM Eucharist (Rite I), or 10 AM Eucharist (Rite II). Everything before the Eucharist in a worship service leads up to it; everything afterwards is a post-climactic conclusion.

I thought that this recent entry by ePiscoSours, an Episcopalian blogger, served as an interesting example of this point. The writer in this case described how he felt about the experience of the taking communion:

I still feel awe and joy and passion when I go up to the altar rail to receive communion. At the dismissal, I can’t stop myself from smiling in relief and gratitude as I say, “Thanks be to God.”
Now just contrast that reaction to the Eucharist to the fact that some mainline Protestant churches don't even do communion every Sunday; the UCC church I attend, for example, does it once a month. Quakers don't do communion at all. Neither do Unitarian Universalists.

As I've mentioned before, I don't always partake of communion at the church I attend. The times when I have taken communion at the church I attend have only been when it was not as much about relating to the body and blood of Christ, and more about a celebration of the kind of open commensality that Jesus practiced. The former pastor, who has just recently left the congregation, would sometimes introduce communion by stressing in great detail that you didn't have to believe anything or do anything to participate. Those were the magic words of inclusion for me, enough so that I overcame my reluctance and participated. But just two Sundays ago, the person who led the monthly communion didn't introduce it with those magic words, and as a result I felt no desire to participate. I don't see communion as a sacramental act.

Most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, communion at a UCC church has none of the narrative function that you find in Episcopal worship. It is seen as a sacrament, but, unlike the Episcopalian Eucharist not performed within any broader narrative context.

So what are some of the other worship paradigms? For Quakers, it is about silence, listening, waiting on God, the ministry of all believers. It is defined by what George Fox expressed when he said, "There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." It is about God speaking to all of us, and thus building an entire worship experience around listening to what God has to say.

There are other denominations and movements that have their own unique paradigms, many of which I just know little or nothing about. I know nothing about Catholic worship services, for example, but perhaps they have a narrative structure of their own. I once attended a Pentecostal church when I was a teenager, and I can't comment much on Pentecostalism, being mostly ignorant of it, but it would seem to me that its worship paradigm has much to do with ecstatic celebration.

So what is mainline Protestantism's worship paradigm? What is the paradigm, for example, of the UCC church that I attend? I admit that this one has me stumped. Perhaps this is because I was brought up in a Protestant denomination (not a mainline one, but not a Pentecostal one either), and the sort of non-ecstatic, non-silent, narrative-free structured service paradigm is so ingrained in me that I can't step back objectively and describe what its paradigm is. All I can describe is what it is not. The services do have a structure, to be sure; but it is a structure that I think is flattened out, without a rising and falling narrative.

I am afraid that the Episcopal narrative structure at the church I attended, along with the pomp and formality of the procession and recession of the cross, left me cold. It came across to me as dryly formulaic. But that's a purely personal reaction, and is by no means a judgment on how others feel about it. By contrast, as the above quote from ePiscoSours clearly shows, many other people are deeply drawn to Episcopal services, in ways that give them "joy and passion". All of which suggests an important point--God is much broader, much more expansive, than any single denomination or style of worship. Perhaps the reason why there are so many different worship paradigms is that people have different spiritual needs that can be met in distinct ways.

It also suggests that loyalty to a church can come from many sources. It can involve doctrinal agreement. Or it can involve approval with the values and practices and polity of the denominational organization. It can involve a feeling of attachment to the people in one's local congregation. Or, perhaps, it can involve a simple appreciation of the worship paradigm of that church.


Pisco Sours said...

Thanks for the linky love, MS!

I should think that one's background forms one's worship style. Orthodox Judaism, where I was raised, is if anything even more strictly formulaic—AND IN A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE! For me, having six choices for the Eucharistic prayer alone, let alone the oodles of other stylistic and liturgical nuances in the service, means that no two services are the same for me.

I haven't even considered the use of hymns, which Judaism doesn't really have so much.

By the same token, however, I've gone to churches that are much more freer and loosey-goosey with the order of their services, and I just don't like them. I'm hard of hearing, so I really like to have some notion of what's coming up next, so the structured-but-variable format simply works best for me.

I do try to go to different churches every so often, however, to learn what other people do. I'm sorry the Episcopal service didn't work for you, but ultimately the correct way to pray is whatever brings you into closer communion with God.

Eileen said...

Perhaps the reason why there are so many different worship paradigms is that people have different spiritual needs that can be met in distinct ways.

As you know, I very strongly agree with this comment. As well as your final paragraph.

Worship style is very much impacted by culture, personality, emotional needs, and social needs. Churches fill many of these needs. I'm very comfortable in TEC because I'm ex-RC, and I have always worshipped with a structured liturgy. Even though, I'm "heretical" in that I'm sort of unorthodox in my beliefs, it's still the style of worship that most comforts me.

Catherine + said...

The very mystery of Christ in the liturgy of Episcopal worship is for me, a supremely spiritual experience. It is incarnational, especially if you understand what all the symbols, signs, colors and the structure mean. It is the unfolding of our Christian history in many ways that transcends normal life and has the potential to help us see the divine. I am also sorry that your one-time experience left you "cold" because for many of us, it has the direct opposite affect, especially as we return to it repeatedly for spiritual nourishment. I am not trying to denegrate anything you have expressed in your post but I simply wish to share what it means to this Episcopalian. Thanks for listening.