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"The Usual Thing"
It was 1996 and I was as new as a bishop could be. The episcopal waters were even less charted for me because I had never had the advantage of being a coadjutor or suffragan and had spent the previous eight years as a professor with only part-time duties in a very small parish. To add to the general uncertainty on this occasion, Diana and I were visiting a parish that had no rector or interim rector. Nonetheless, the liturgy got started and seemed to go well enough through sermon, confirmation, and peace. Then came the offertory. The table was set. Everything suddenly came to dead halt. Clearly something was expected from me before the offertory concluded, yet there was nothing in obvious need of blessing, elevating, or touching. People started to stare. I whispered to the deacon who always accompanies me to "find out what comes next." He inquired, and returned somewhat distraught with the message, "He says to do the usual thing."
"The usual thing" has in the following decade become code between us for situations in which we have no idea what is going to happen and no way of finding out. While we no longer worry about it very much and do go with the flow, a little sting remains, and now I cannot help but smile when I read liturgical guides that say that the liturgy "continues in the usual way."
After my jaw returned to its full upright position I simply plunged into the eucharistic dialogue, without learning what I had left out. I am comfortable enough in my role these days to just go over to somebody else and ask what is to happen, but the "usual thing" experience that day in church prompted several resolutions.
The first was that I would always discuss with the rector or person in charge of each parish what happens in the key action areas that the rubrics do not explain, such as entrances, censings, offertory, the version of the Lord's Prayer to be used, and the preparation of vessels for communion.
The second was the decision to provide all parishes with an outline ("customary") of how things would flow insofar as that is my decision, leaving room for what is distinctive in the life of each parish. Priests and musicians have been very grateful to have detailed customaries, especially since those documents invite them to respond with questions or points where what I propose is not useful or not possible in their space.
We are a western church. Liturgically this has never been more true than it is in the wake of the majority of the reforms of 1979, despite the revival of a few ancient eastern texts. The original spirit of the western liturgy is simplicity and clarity, almost austerity. Recapturing this spirit was the major work of the last century's reforms in Roman, Lutheran, and Episcopal liturgy. Creative and crisp liturgy, fully expressive but without wasted time or pointless movement, happens most easily when bishops and parishes plan together and together form a sense of the arc of that day's celebration. Bishops know what they hope will happen on a given visit; the parish often has a list of things they wish to express or celebrate. These conceptions need to meet. Some bishops report meeting personally with the rector a month before the visitation to plan it in detail.
One factor that makes planning complex is the existence of those two sets of expectations. The other is that spatially no two Episcopal church buildings are the same. Thus, although it would make life simpler, one cannot provide an exhaustive point-by-point cook book with an all-inclusive recipe for every episcopal liturgy in every circumstance, as all writers concede. The specimen customaries provided at the end of this book are only that, specimens: each customary will need to be adjusted or totally replaced, depending on local circumstances. In addition to the limitations just mentioned, it is true that the prayer book provides too many textual options for one formula to fit all. Finally, the freedom enjoyed in our churches in how the simple ceremonial directions of the prayer book are to be carried out makes every liturgical experience something between adventure and nightmare for those who only rarely preside at liturgy in the same place two Sundays in a row. Thus a word about itinerancy seems in order.
A Wandering Minstrel, Host and Guest
None of this would matter if the bishop's appearance in a parish were simply that of a magnified supply priest or visiting dignitary. Neither is the case, however, and bishops live the identity of both host and guest at visitation liturgies. In North America we experience something historically and geographically rare in Anglicanism (and something not contemplated by other churches possessed of the episcopate, historic or otherwise). We expect that on Sundays bishops will be preaching and celebrating in the parishes in their care. It should be said in fairness that the bishops of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches would be shocked to learn that there are churches such as ours which do not observe the ancient norm of the bishop presiding and preaching in the cathedral on the Lord's Day.
Rather than visiting firefighter or interesting guest speaker, the bishop comes to visit in a number of ways that have liturgical consequence.
The first is that in her own person the bishop comes as the one who has ultimate pastoral responsibility for the parish, so the weight of the event is different: the family table is fuller. Furthermore, because the bishop is by ordination and canon the chief evangelist and pastor of the diocese, the assembly rightly expects an extraordinary word of gospel proclamation and a genuine interest in its own mission. As one bishop put it, "I had to learn a new way to preach."
The second is that in these liturgies the bishop is joined at the table by the local presbyters who are the bishop's first-line colleagues. Certainly every liturgy on every occasion should look and feel like a team effort of the entire assembly. But when the bishop and colleagues stand together at the table it is to demonstrate that clergy are also part of a team of colleagues—there are to be no Lone Rangers or Wonder Women hiding inside collars. The visitation is a good time to enact ritually the truth that presbyters are not ordained because the bishop cannot be everywhere: presbyters are ordained so that the bishop's ministry can indeed be everywhere. According to the formularies of this Church, presbyters and bishops form one thing, a college in which no member acts independently or arbitrarily. The more we enact this truth liturgically the more we may come to inhabit it effectually. When liturgists speak of a norm, they do not refer to what necessarily happens as a rite is routinely celebrated, but to the characteristics of the rite in its fullness. The norm, the fullest expression, of the eucharist is the gathering of all the people together with their bishop, priests, and deacons as a community of the altar. This is the original meaning of the circumadstantes in the old Roman canon, all those "standing around" the holy table.
The third factor is that very often the presence of the bishop means that seldom-seen liturgical rites (confirmation, blessings of chrism, church buildings and equipment) are celebrated. Questions will arise about how much of these rites require explanation, and how and when that explanation is given. Some dioceses provide bulletin inserts explaining the occasion; others rely on rectors to prepare the parish for what it will experience. All should relax with the idea that no one will be out of the building in an hour, just as we know that Thanksgiving dinner lasts longer than the usual family meal.
The fourth is that the presence of the bishop is meant to connect the parish with the larger community of which it is a part, so the liturgy ought to feel a little different. The parish ought to become aware that its table is part of a larger board. This task is becoming more difficult because increasing numbers of laity and clergy in the church are from non-episcopal or non-liturgical traditions and really have very little grasp of our ecclesiology. This connection is not necessarily made by liturgical grandeur or reproducing cathedral liturgy in a wayside chapel: Aida performed in a shoebox can never edify, and such events ought not be attempted. However, the slight alterations in text (for example, the episcopal blessing), the number of people involved, the overall thickening of context, and in most cases the increase in vesture and insignia, create the sense of contact with what is not normally quite so much a part of consciousness: each parish is, as Bishop Claude Payne brilliantly said, a missionary outpost of the diocesan effort to follow Jesus and make him known. Beyond this, if the postmodern movement succeeds in its announced agenda of increasing our sensitivity to mystery, all these shifts in context and content should enhance the ability of the episcopal visitation to help the parish feel more deeply its connection to the matrix in which its ministry is situated.
Finally, since it is a special occasion and involves the chief pastor, there will be anxiety, despite the bishop's attempt to put everyone at ease. Some of that anxiety is part of the fun: people are doing something special and would like what they have planned to come off well; they want to look their best—in every culture it is what people do when company comes. The poor of the developing nations have a great deal to teach most of us about celebration in this very respect. I have deliberately used the word fun. Until the joy of knowing and praising God in the community of the redeemed is a species of fun, liturgy will fall flat.
There is a freeing word in all of this: given all the variety of place and circumstance that faces the visiting bishop, the bishop can be assured that almost no liturgy will go exactly right—these are live performances as compared with studio recordings, where every track can be endlessly revised until a perfect sound is produced. While we care and we try, the goal is to get from the beginning to the end in a way that enacts the drama, assuming all the while the imperfection of our service. Public displays of irritation over mistakes made by liturgical assistants have in fact had far-reaching consequences; unkind words uttered during the liturgy have been known to propel people out of what fragile relationship with God they had been able to maintain. Custody of the eyes includes not rolling them.
We cannot resolve here the enormous tension between catholic ideal and congregationalist reality that complicates pastoral and liturgical life in the Episcopal Church. Those tensions play themselves out differently according to the diocese, bishop, rector, and parish involved in a given visitation. We can try to respond to what each place could reasonably expect of its bishop and to honor the integrity of their community. The more challenging part is to do that while not becoming someone other than one's self, maintaining integrity and self-definition while respecting theirs.
Seldom does this mean conscientiously doing something unfamiliar to a parish or declining to do something people are used to. More commonly it means trying to maintain a persona that is genuinely and recognizably oneself no matter the circumstances, the episcopal version of the Stoic ideal. This is as important in preaching as it is in presiding: if the presence and voice in the pulpit are significantly different from the presence and voice in the sacristy or parish hall, nobody is fooled or helped. True transparency in preaching and prayer comes from lack of affectation. This applies doubly in the liturgy, where the affected voice or unnatural gesture can betray the cleavage in the presider's own soul and disorient the worshiper. If necessary, it is well to pretend to be unaffected and grow into it! Youth are not beguiled by old people trying to speak more than a word or two of their language. They develop their language primarily to separate themselves from their elders.
In the film noir Dead Again, defrocked psychiatrist Robin Williams gives advice to gumshoe Kenneth Brannagh, who is trying to quit smoking but seemingly cannot. Williams tells him that ultimately there are smokers and non-smokers, concluding, "Find out what you are and be that." There are bishops whose style and presence I admire profoundly, but for a host of reasons cannot emulate, and I must live with that. I can never be mesmerizing or very extroverted, but I can be unaffectedly my best self. Liturgy works when the presider addresses God and the assembly from the core of the relationship she actually has with each.
It follows then that the maintenance of our own spiritual life will shape our style of liturgical presidency. As our lives enter ever further into the mystery, our leadership of worship may evolve towards a rich simplicity. In the movie just mentioned, I think Williams' line is meant to propel Brannagh's character into choosing who he will be, an essentially spiritual decision. Surely they who wish to lead liturgy effectively will be propelled into a place where their own spirituality deepens. Far too much in the episcopate can drive us away from our spiritual foundations, with personally and liturgically harmful effect. The last thing one wants to be is a technician of the sacred, personally alienated from that which is celebrated. The one genuinely poignant moment in the somewhat busy pilot episode of TV's "The Book of Daniel" occurred when Daniel asks Jesus, seated beside him in his Volvo wagon, if the Lord also speaks to his father, the bishop. There is a beat and Jesus wistfully says, "I used to."
I was traveling with an Englishman who said of someone on our ship, "He combines the arrogance of a surgeon and the vanity of a bishop." He was unaware of my profession, so the words had special impact. Not all surgeons are arrogant and not all bishops are vain, but each profession certainly offers manifold temptation along those lines. I leave the medical profession to tend its own issues but can assert that the deference paid to bishops along with certain aspects of our liturgical life can tempt one to a pernicious species of vanity. Daily self-examination is necessary in this regard. A serious impediment to effective liturgical leadership is, as innumerable ordination sermons mention, letting the mitre go to one's head. I have found repeated reading of Thomas Cahill's Pope John XXIII (New York: Penguin, 2002) a great help fighting this battle, both for the good example it celebrates and the many horrific tales it tells from church history.
Given that what follows in this book resembles something between a recipe collection and a football playbook, the reader may indulge my recalling that our effective liturgical presence will never exceed our own spirituality as it is disciplined by preparation and communal planning. The spirituality of a group cannot exceed that of its leader. If the leader puts on the persona of a game show host, the assembly will degenerate into an audience. Put another way, the fundamental itinerancy of our bishops and the relative fluidity of parish liturgical practices necessitate the bishop's having a clear sense of self and leading worship from that clearly defined self. It also necessitates everyone's being in on the plan and allowing themselves to be who they are and can be in Christ.
A bishop told me regarding this project, "I wish somebody had told me that it is more important to lead the worship of the people of God than it is to do things right." I found that statement profoundly true on one hand and a bit curious on the other. I agree that the focus of liturgical ministry must be on worship of the Father in the name of Jesus and the power of the Spirit. My colleague is certainly right to point out that when one lets go of performance anxiety or worse, any fixation on doing things right for obsessive-compulsive reasons, the liturgical event can come alive. At the same time, leading worship is itself a liturgy—a word that actually means work done for the sake of others. What is done for others requires skill, love, and effort. Six parts sincerity to one part "it's how I felt" is an entirely appropriate attitude for any activity of life—when there is nobody else in the room. When any activity is public there are some liberating constraints that I would like to observe.
Excerpted from The Bishop Is Coming! by Paul V. Marshall. Copyright © 2007 Paul V. Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing, Inc..
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2. Brief Survival Guides
3. The Parish Visitation, with a Note on Eucharists at Which the Bishop
Does Not Preside at the Altar
4. The Cathedral Ordination of Presbyters with the Reception of the Orders
of One Previously Ordained, and a Brief Note on the Ordination of Deacons
5. Vows and Oils: Redefining the "Chrism Mass," with a Note on Restoration
to the Ministry
6. Solemn Evensong
7. Institutions, Weddings, and Funerals
8. Through the Liturgical Year
9. Specimen Customaries and Documents