Worship Wars

A priest and a pastor walk into a coffeeshop…

No, this is not the beginning of a joke. This is the continuation of a relationship forged months ago that has continued to bear fruit for mission and ministry to God’s heavenly commonwealth.

Anyway, a priest and a pastor walk into a coffeeshop and just open up and talk – about church, life, ministry and mission, church history, art, and our varying levels of coffee snobbery. On the surface, who would think that these two would have much in common? They are both young men in ministry, but, at least on the surface, the similarities stop there. One is an ordained priest serving in a large parish that prides itself on its formal, almost regal, liturgical worship. The other is a pastor of a modestly sized community that meets in a local school where you’re more likely to hear Styx than “sanctus.” And yet the conversation flowed effortlessly and the relationship was deepened.

At one part of this conversation, the two brothers in Christ talked about the divisions in the church – race, denomination, class, and even styles of worship. They talked about the redlining that historically divided their city and how the Church is called into the ministry of Jesus Christ who, according to Ephesians, destroyed the dividing wall. They discussed the schisms of Church history that have both created opportunities for churches to explore their call to mission and discipleship, but have also marred the Body of Christ. And they talked about worship bands and pipe organs, praise choruses and hymns, and how something so small and insignificant has become a bone of contention between Christians who fail to see the Spirit of God and the depth of relationship and worship that others find in worship.

I am tired of the conversation about whether churches should or shouldn’t have pipe organs, or whether praise bands are more entertainment than worship, or whether God speaks Latin, or whether God prefers choirs to worship leaders. I am tired of that conversation because it is too small and insignificant in the face of the challenges (and opportunities) that the 21st century Church needs to engage. I am most disappointed at the tone of the conversation from my denominational sisters and brothers who, unknowingly, speak from a privileged place of liturgical colonialism and cultural hegemony in participating in such conversations. For what are hymns, organs, and surpliced choirs but a reflection of worship from a particular cultural perspective? What makes repeating the Hail Mary ten times different from singing “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice…” ten times, aside from the fact that the former is older (and therefore somehow more “holy”) than the later? Demeaning the expressions of worship of other people does not serve the Kingdom of God and, in my opinion, is actually antithetical to the diversity of God’s commonwealth. What are many of our hymns today but yesterday’s folk music?

Almost six years ago, The Most Rev’d. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon at the 76th General Convention of TEC that completely changed my life. I’m not sure whether or not she knew that somewhere in North Carolina, a young man who had given up on Church would be listening to hear what she had to say about the mission of the Church, but her words have and will continue to challenge and inform this ministry to which God has called me. I haven’t been able to find her exact words, but, engaging the story of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples, she asked something like “is our message nimble and light enough to go out and take root in new communities and grow indigenously?” At least that’s what I heard her say.

I think this is a searing question that the 21st century Episcopal Church has to deal with. Is our message nimble and light enough or have we laden it with too much of our own culture for people to find it life-giving and narrative-affirming?

This is why I find the conversation about hymns versus praise choruses not only too small, but often offensive and demeaning. I was raised in a Christian tradition where we sang songs and hymns, 95% of which cannot be found in an Episcopal hymnal anywhere (not even the supplemental ones). Some of this music was simple and repetitive because it was crafted in the clandestine worship life of a people who were enslaved and forbidden formal education, yet engaged in a deep and liberating theology that successfully critiqued the theology of those who wanted to keep them enslaved. That music speaks to me. If you were to come into my office in the middle of the day, you are just as likely to hear Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir or James Cleveland or Crystal Aikin as you are to hear Hyfrydol or Helmsley or Coronation hymn tunes. The God of wind and flame, whose unspeakable name could not adequately be praised if I had ten thousand tongues to sing, is praised in the ten thousand tongues of humanity and the beauty of that diversity itself is praise to God. Instead of fracturing the Body of Christ or drawing lines between acceptable in unacceptable types of worship and praise, what if the Church drew the circle wider and grew to appreciate, or at the very least grew to respect, the ten thousand tongues with which humanity praises the ground and subject of our worship? What if the Church were open to experiencing the depth of relationship and spirituality present in communities of faith that worship very different from how we worship, instead of looking down our noses at them and furthering fracturing the Body of Christ? We have too much work to do in the world in bringing good news to the poor, setting at liberty those who are oppressed, bringing sight to the blind, and bearing witness to the Gospel to engage in such a small conversation. We act as if the Gospel is a limited commodity. The Gospel is deep and wide and there is room for all of us. It’s time to stop fighting and demeaning one another. The harvest is ripe and the laborers are few.

We live in a society that seems to take great pride in the walls that we are able to construct between ourselves and our neighbor. The walls keep us safe and make us feel superior to those who lie outside, but the walls also block us from relationship with our neighbor, or sister of brother. Jesus came to destroy those dividing walls and to stitch together a new family. There’s room for all of us, whether we bring a tambourine or a pipe organ, a book full of hymns or a simple song of surrender.

Perhaps one of silver linings in the gloomy cloud of Church decline is that former places of safety and security are being called into question and walls that used to divide are being torn down so that a non-denominational pastor and an Episcopal priest can walk into a coffeeshop and just talk to each other as friends, to discuss the mystery of God, and to bear witness to an incarnation of that mystery in their deepening friendship and fellowship.