Words, words, and more words…

Recently my husband and I traveled to South Africa. One Sunday we worshiped in a Dutch Reformed church where the service was entirely in Afrikaans. That was all right with us; we know the shape of the liturgy and figured we could follow what was going on. Our host was congenial, and people smiled kindly at the American strangers. I was taken in by the beauty of the historic sanctuary and surprised to find I knew most of the hymns and songs that were sung (even if the language was different). Even though we were halfway around the world, the service was more familiar than not. There was just one surprise: there were so many words. After we sang several songs to begin the service, the minister stood up and began to talk. He seemed to be giving information, then he made people laugh. We sang another hymn. Then he talked some more, this time to give a sermon. After another song, he said a prayer, gave a blessing, and then we left. I was struck by the fact that, aside from the singing, the entire service consisted of words—thousands of words, spoken by one man.

I was dismayed, not just because it was unnerving to withstand a barrage of words with nary a break, but also because the experience caused me to reflect on my own American Presbyterian denomination. It is no secret that churches in the Reformed tradition are word-bound. We come by it honestly; our ancestors believed that teaching the Bible and communicating sound theology was paramount, and our historic liturgies prove it. We love our words, and we haven’t been concerned with much else.

Since Vatican II, however, we have learned a few things. We are still learning, of course, but little by little we are finding out that words aren’t everything. We’ll never give up on them—nor should we—but we are starting to listen for the sound of water. We hunger more often for bread and wine. We are shifting in our seats as we yearn to use our bodies, and not just our minds, to worship.

In 2006 the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued a study called Invitation to Christ: Font and Table. Our churches were encouraged to adopt five simple practices:

1. Set the font in full view of the congregation.
2. Open the font and fill it with water on every Lord’s Day.
3. Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.
4. Lead appropriate portions of weekly worship from the font and from the table.
5. Increase the number of Sundays on which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.

The idea was that by keeping baptism and eucharist front and center and actively using the symbols of those sacraments—even when there was no baptism taking place and no celebration of communion—congregations would deepen their sacramental life.

Is it working? In fact, I think it is. More churches have pulled their fonts from dusty corners and dark closets to where they can be seen. Sometimes you see a minister, or a church member, or even a child pour water into the font at the beginning of a service to signal the gathering of the baptized people of God. Other times, water may be lifted or poured before a corporate prayer of confession, or as part of a declaration of forgiveness, to signify the washing clean of sin and the pouring out of mercy.

When a cup and a plate are placed on the communion table every Sunday, people remember that the table is not just a convenient place to set flowers or candles, but the place where disciples gather for a meal. The majority of PC(USA) congregations celebrate communion monthly and on feast days; seeing the cup and the plate every week remind some people of their hunger for the sacrament when it is not celebrated. Intercessory prayers are often led from the table, reminding worshipers that we gather to offer gifts (including our prayers) to God as well as to receive gifts from God. Often the charge and benediction are spoken from the table as well, highlighting that we receive the body of Christ so that we can be the body of Christ in the world, fed that we may feed others.

There are Presbyterians who yearn for weekly communion, although few of our congregations make that possible. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in the number of churches who celebrate the eucharist each week during at least one of their services. This is significant for a denomination whose churches observed communion only quarterly just a generation ago!

Certainly, some questions of doctrine divide Catholics and Reformed Christians, but from my corner of the body of Christ, I see more similarities than differences. We Presbyterians have learned a great deal from the liturgical developments that took place after Vatican II. And although I still experience “ritual envy” from time to time, I am grateful for how far we have come. I still treasure our words—I’ll never stop wanting excellent preaching, and I will always crave beautiful, lean, poetic, liturgy—but I’m glad that in many of our churches, the water flows more freely and the table is set more often with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Thanks be to God.

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2 comments

  1. As a liturgically oriented LCMS Lutheran Pastor I have, in each of the parishes I have served, introduced the celebration of the Eucharist at every liturgy, even encouraging it at weddings and funerals. This has been enthusiastically received by all 3 of the congregations over a 30 year tenure. Being “retired” now, doing vacancy and vacation coverage for brother Pastors in the Phoenix area, I am struck by how difficult it is for me to preside at a non-Eucharistic liturgy! It seems so unbalanced. I have explained that God gives the Church two “arms” to care for the faithful: Word and Sacrament. A liturgy without the Eucharist is like asking me to take on sin and Satan with one arm tied behind my back. Folks get that imagery and have been most appreciative of my conviction that my Calling as a “steward of the mysteries” is to provide those mysteries to those who gather to receive them.

  2. It’s about presiding style, once again, as in a recent thread.

    I have encountered many Protestant ministers who seem to think that theirs is the responsibility for everything; and so all the words that are spoken come from them. Others have clearly understood the concept of a network of collaborative ministry, and are comfortable having other voices taking parts of the service.

    It is most encouraging to see, as Kimberly indicates, a move from words towards the good use of symbols. This is something that Catholics also long for.

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