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Monday, 8 June 2009

"This is bigger than you are"


"Real Live Preacher" is a blog written by Gordon Atkinson, the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio. Gordon has been on sabbatical for a while and has been going to different Churches to experience different kinds of worship. Recently he wrote about his visit to the St Anthony the Great Orthodox Church. (See: Not for Lightweights.) He writes in an amusing way of unfamiliar ceremonies:
Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn't too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer.
Having stayed with the worship (and the standing) for two hours, his conclusion was enthusiastic and he planned to go back for another visit. It is interesting that coming from an entirely different tradition, he got the point very well:
There is so much for you to learn. There is more here than a person could master in a lifetime. THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE. Your understanding is not central here. These are ancient rites of the church. Stand with us, brother, and you will learn in time.
At the second visit, he did not make the mistake of trying to follow every word in sequence from the service book but tried to watch and hear, becoming immersed in the Liturgical action. He said:
I think a lot of my peace on Sunday came from the simple fact that I didn’t have to understand everything.
The comments on the post led me to a good article by Fr Stephen, an orthodox priest, on non-linear worship (The Problem with History.) As he says:
Many things happen at once. They are all written in the book, but while you’re looking at what someone else is supposed to be doing or saying, you yourself may very well be required to do something else and say yet another thing. At some points, it will seem like the entire liturgy is like juggling six or seven things.
He also comments on the question of scripture in Church, pointing out that the question "when is the scripture read in the Church" cannot be answered simply without reference to the feast or season on which it is read, what other texts accompany it in the context of the Liturgy.
And so go the questions that begin to realize that Scripture is not able to be read in a merely linear fashion, for the “linear” world is purely the product of imagination – a rational construct and not a description of reality.

A page of Scripture may consist of several thousand words. But the words are several thousand feet deep (at least and some have no bottom at all). Thus reading and interpreting are very difficult things indeed – much like knowing the Living God.
The Baptist minister's experience of orthodox worship has many parallels with the experience of somebody accustomed to the newer form of the Roman Rite attending Solemn High Mass in the usus antiquior. Different things are happening at the same time, and it is hard to follow every word in a service book. For this reason I do not really recommend people attempting to "follow every word" to begin with - it is possible to read through the ordinary of the rite later and become gradually familiar with what is happening at various different times. With the scripture too, it is not a matter of inserting a bible reading class into the Mass but of various texts in the proper, put together over time because of the teaching of the Fathers, and custom for various feasts and seasons so that there is a tapestry of sacred texts offering a multiplicity of facets in which one can deepen in one's participation in the sacred mysteries.


(BTW - I found this article via the excellent New Advent daily list of stories. I have added the rss feed to bloglines and it works there OK but the list on the sidebar only gives a link back to this blog. Anyone know why this happens and how it can be fixed?)
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