I had the pleasure of attending the chapel at Episcopal Divinity School this afternoon for their midday Eucharist. While I had a wonderful time, I must admit to feeling a disconnect between what was promised in the introduction and what was delivered. The celebrant started by telling us that we would be trying out a “paperless” service which began with hymn 317 in the hymnal. We then used one memorized opening prayer (the collect for purity) and one improvised prayer (presumably an opening collect). The scriptures were read from the Bible, but the psalm was sung All Saints Company style, that is to say by ear and voice in a circle, rather than from a printed page. The Eucharistic Prayer was, I believe, extemporaneous. The variety of styles was somewhat confounding.
For me, the benefit of paperless music generally come from the organic feeling of the gathered community. The ability to sing harmony with a group, particularly when you can make eye contact, changes the worship experience for me. It allows me to feel more keenly the communion of the gathered church. Switching from hymnal to song booklet to paperless music seemed to keep the awkwardness of learning songs on the fly without generating a sense of community. Similarly, I love the informality of extemporaneous prayer (when the prayer leader knows what she’s doing), but switching from set prayers to improvised felt a little odd. This feeling may have been intensified by the use of such classic; I tend to associate the collect for purity with the Elizabethan English of Rite I.
As I walked away from the service, I began to wonder what it would be like to have services that were entirely paperless/textless or entirely impromptu. What would it mean to carry through “all the way” as it were with these ideas. I wouldn’t advocate doing so on a regular basis, but once a year, it might be interesting to try out.
1) The entirely paperless scripted service. What would it be like to attend a service where everyone knew all of the words already. For most Anglican and Roman services this would not be difficult, as the congregation is meant to be able to pick up the responses easily. The work in this service would fall to the ministers of the liturgy who would have to memorize their parts.
In particular, I wonder about the impact of having someone walk to the center of nave and proclaim the Gospel from memory. There is, I think, something profound about the idea of human as living symbol of the living word. In past centuries many people have memorized the entirety of the Bible. That may be rare today, but having someone recite 20 lines of scripture should not be that difficult.
The prayers would be even easier, especially for those of us who grew up in the church. Many of us have the Eucharistic prayers near memorized already, along with the common prayers.
I think the presence of large impressive books (Gospel and missal) adds to the symbolism of the ritual, but I also think that replacing them with people makes an important theological point. As we consider whether we can replace the Book of Common Prayer and Gospel Book with iPads (yes, I’ve been part of that discussion countless times), let us also consider whether we could replace them with people who had internalized the rites that define us.
2) The entirely unscripted service. How well can we express our faith in the words of the moment? I think it would be interesting and worthwhile for a community to regularly check in with their faith by trying out an unscripted service. Can you tell the Bible stories accurately and compellingly without appealing to the specific words of any translation? Can you break and share the bread and wine without reaching for the words of others?
I will be the first to defend written prayers. I love and value the words of the saints polished over centuries of tradition like prayer beads or a meditation stone. [Thank you to Bill Countryman for that image.] I want to come to church every Sunday to hear the same comforting words, but I also recognize the value of challenging myself and challenging my community to express those same truths in new and different words.
The teacher in me firmly believes this, that if you cannot express an idea in multiple ways, you don’t really have a hold of it yet. It think it would be worth the experiment, every now and then, to say, how would we do this, even if we lacked all the trappings of Christianity, but still had a community gathered to celebrate.
So I leave this as a challenge to all of my friends who are rectors and vicars and pastors and chaplains. Will you challenge your community – just once – to experience themselves as the fullness of the tradition? It might just spur them to learn more and engage more deeply in the tradition, not just to experience, but to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest what it means to worship.