I’ve been thinking about liturgy this week. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the word “amen.” It is so short and so common; I wonder how much people have thought about it.
The word amen comes from a Hebrew word for “truth.” It signals consent, and it plays a particularly important role in the liturgy. It allows the congregation to assent and participate in prayer.
Sometimes a single person will speak a prayer during a service. In the case of intercessions, only one person speaks, because only one person knows what is in their heart. The congregation speaks to affirm what they have said, to pray with them, and to enter into the prayer they only now are discovering.
In the case of communal prayer – such as the “prayers of the people” – only one person speaks as a symbol that the congregation speaks as one. Often everyone knows the words, even speaks them in their heart, but only one person says them out loud. This time, the amen allows the congregation to be part of the prayer retroactively. The whole church prays with one voice, and that single communal syllable communicates the will of the whole.
In the case of priestly prayers, the role of spokesperson for the community has been intensified by years of ritual, training, prayer, and practice. The Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer provides an excellent example. Only the priest says the words, not because she has some magic power, but because she, in that moment, represents not only the people gathered, but the whole Body of Christ, the church near and far from the time of Jesus to the present. This is why many Anglican priests raise the bread and the wine (the Body and the Blood) above their heads for the Great Amen (the highest elevation during the prayer), because the defining moment of the consecration occurs in that one powerful word of participation. It is a communion not only of food, but of will and action. This is why I always say “Amen” enthusiastically at the end of the prayer.
We can underestimate the power of things done on our behalf and the importance of our assent, even if it is only outwardly manifest in one word.
I try to be mindful of my amens in the same way I am mindful of my signature. I don’t say it unless I mean it. I don’t assent unless I truly believe what has been said is right and good and joyful.
I must admit, I also use the amen as a safety net. If my mind has wandered while I was saying the prayer, or if it has wandered while someone else has spoken important words on my behalf, I use that moment of mindfulness to return to the intent and love of the prayer itself. I want to participate fully, even when my mind is not cooperating. And I have this marvelous tool to do so.
As a presider, then – as a leader of prayer – I take special care not to invite an amen without care. No, I do not complain about loud amens during a sermon. If the congregation agrees, they should say amen. If the sentiment, the thought, the intention is important, they should say amen. Episcopalians could use more of that kind of heartfelt participation. What troubles me more is when preachers invite an amen at the end of their sermon. I do this sometimes, but only when I need to reaffirm for myself what I have said, and only when I feel the congregation has come with me.
We should never shame people into agreeing with us. A particularly troubling instance of this appears in the invocation “And God’s people said…” I know it’s hard when you’re a presider and the congregation doesn’t know when to add their voice, but this really should be accomplished through education, before you ask for assent. An amen should be a conscious choice. Nor would I wish to imply that anyone who doesn’t assent is, therefore, not one of God’s people.
So I’d like to make a request in this post. Congregations, be mindful of your amens. They are an opportunity. Presiders, please stop expecting me to say amen by reflex. It means something more if it comes from my heart.