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Episcopal priest Christopher Webber takes the reader from the sidewalk outside the church, guides them through the service, and sends them out again when the service has ended. Webber explains the postures, the Christian ...
Episcopal priest Christopher Webber takes the reader from the sidewalk outside the church, guides them through the service, and sends them out again when the service has ended. Webber explains the postures, the Christian year, the colors we use during various seasons, and all the elements in the Service of the Eucharist.
As in Webber's very popular Welcome to the Episcopal Church, the tone of the easy-to-read book is conversational, making it useful for parish study.
Where and When
Outside the Building
Let's begin our study of worship on the sidewalk outside the church. Stay in your comfortable chair if you like and just picture in your mind the nearest Episcopal church. It may be a gothic building like a small English cathedral, a simple New England meeting house of white-painted wood, or something very modern. Despite all the architectural possibilities, you will almost certainly know an Episcopal church to be a church by one unmistakable sign: a Christian cross on the steeple, wall, or signboard. Of course, many other churches use the cross as well. Is there anything that distinguishes an Episcopal church from any other kind of Christian church? Not necessarily. New England Episcopal churches are more often built of stone, while the buildings of the United Churches of Christ are more often made of white-painted wood, but some Episcopal churches in New England are also wooden and painted white. Nationwide, an Episcopal church is more likely than others to be of stone and use pointed gothic arches, but there are far too many exceptions to make any guidelines possible. Christians, after all, have much in common and increasingly tend to express their faith in similar ways.
Does the church have a tower or spire? Some churches have both, and they make a statement. The white spires of New England churches stand out above the trees as a focal point in the landscape. Whole towns have been built around these landmarks, making them not only the spiritual centers, but also the geographic centers of their communities. The spires point upward, drawing our eyes up and reminding us to look beyond the material concerns of daily life. Churches are here to help us do that. Often the spire is eight-sided: seven sides signify that God made the world in seven days, as recorded in Genesis; the eighth side symbolizes Jesus' resurrection. Traditionally, Christians have viewed the resurrection as the beginning of a new world, an eighth day, an opening to an eternal day. An eight-sided spire points the way to that eternity. Sometimes an eight-sided spire rises from a four-sided tower, symbolizing the "four corners of the earth" that the church draws us from, toward the everlasting day of heaven. There are sermons to be heard from a church without our even going inside!
Still outside, think about the direction in which the church faces. Church builders in America often have little choice about how to site a church: there is a plot of land available and a street on one side. The door must be on the street side and the altar at the other end. But where there is a choice, Episcopal churches normally are built to face east with an entrance at the west end. Why? Because the sun rises in the east, and the first Christians expected Jesus to come again in glory with the rising of the sun. Therefore they built their churches with the altar at the east end so the congregation would be facing east to see Jesus' coming. Whatever way the church actually faces, the altar end of the church is, as a result, called the "east end," and the entrance is usually located in what is called the "west end." If a church has been built the other way around, this can be very confusing! But knowing the building traditions within the Episcopal Church helps us to understand this terminology, and again, it preaches a sermon without words.
Now, let's look at the door. Church doors are usually bigger than the doors of houses or even stores. Sometimes several doors all lead into the same entrance area. Churches are usually designed with access in mind. They are built to be entered; their ample doors open wide to be welcoming. Often, too, church doors are painted red. Some say church doors have traditionally been painted red for the same reason that barns are: red paint was cheap and durable. Maybe so, but a red door also makes a statement: it draws attention to the entrance. No one should have difficulty finding a church door.
Inside The Building
Now, step inside (you may have to leave your chair!) and you will usually find yourself in a sort of vestibule (or narthex), a place to make the transition from the world outside to the worship space further in. Here leaflets with information about the church may be displayed on tables or racks. Perhaps there's a bulletin board with notices of church events. On Sundays ushers or greeters are almost always on hand to welcome you and give you a bulletin with details of upcoming services as well as church activities. Both the literature and the people are there to provide a welcome and to answer questions.
Beyond the vestibule is the space used for worship. What, after all, is a church building for? But worship can take various forms, and the arrangements inside reflect different priorities. One definition of a church building often used in the Episcopal Church is "an altar with a roof over it." Some churches are exactly that. In tropical areas, sometimes churches consist simply of an altar, a roof, and seating, with only the most minimal walls to reduce outside noise. In most Episcopal churches, the altar is clearly the focal point, whether it is against a wall at one end or at the head of the central aisle. It can also be in the center of the worship space with seating on all sides. But not all Christian churches are altar-centered. Some churches think of preaching as primary, and the altar, if there is one, may be a small, seldom-used table.
The location of the altar reflects changing viewpoints on worship. A generation ago, almost all altars were against the far wall, and somewhat distant from worshipers; today they are often much closer to where people sit. The older pattern reflects an understanding of God as a Creator beyond human comprehension; the newer pattern reflects an understanding of God as one who draws near to us in love. Both understandings are true, but there is no way to express both in the same building. In a world where we often feel dominated by distant and hostile forces, the knowledge that God comes near to us in love seems more important.
Even church windows make a statement and contribute to our worship. Some are filled with stained glass reflecting the glory of God and the lives of God's saints, while others, especially in rural areas, are made of clear glass to let us see the beauty of God's world around us. The building and furnishings of a church are intended to speak to us. Episcopal churches especially use color and symbolism to facilitate worship. God is the Creator of all things, and all things can speak to us of God's majesty and God's love.
The altar, or Lord's table, is the focal point in most Episcopal churches. Those two terms—altar and table—are both commonly used, and each word indicates a different way of looking at what happens there. Here again, both viewpoints are valid. Those who use the term altar are those who stress the sacrificial death of Christ for us. He is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29) The altar reminds us of sacrifice and is often made of stone and covered with elaborate vestments. It is thought of not only as a place of sacrifice but as being itself the body of Christ. That is why altars are often covered for most of the year, but are stripped on Good Friday, as Jesus' body was.
The altar may also be thought of as the Holy Table, the place where Jesus fed his disciples at the Last Supper, and where he feeds us still today. It this aspect of our worship is stressed, the Lord's table may be made of wood and covered only with a white cloth. Since both ways of understanding the altar/table are important, it would be ideal if we could make an altar/Lord's table of wood/stone. But human minds and tools cannot represent all aspects of God's truth at once. We can only hold on to those aspects that have most meaning for us, at the same time trying to appreciate the insights that others value.
During the service a plate and cup (called the paten and chalice) are placed on the altar. Candles and vases of flowers may also adorn the altar, or these may be placed on shelves behind the altar. Separating the altar from the rest of the church, an altar rail may be in place, where people may kneel to receive communion. But today, people often stand surrounding the altar to receive communion, or line up and process to the place or places where as clergy and assistants stand, head of the aisle or elsewhere, dispensing communion to those in line.
Just as the altar, or Lord's table, cannot express both of its symbolic meanings simultaneously, so the church itself cannot easily have two centers, though perhaps it should. In some periods of church history the pulpit has been the central piece of church furniture, and it still is in some churches, especially those that stress preaching and downplay the sacraments. Sometimes a priest will preach from the aisle, but the pulpit is designed to lift up God's word and give visible dignity and importance to the preaching of that word. As a practical matter, it simply makes it easier to see and hear the preacher. A few Episcopal churches, dating from colonial days, may have a high pulpit in the center. Today most pulpits are located to one side. With today's electronic equipment and less formal society, pulpits in modern churches are often smaller and simpler. In some churches the Bible is read from the pulpit, but more often the Bible is placed on a separate reading desk or lectern, and the appointed passages of Scripture are read from there.
The one other important piece of church furniture is a font. The font (the word is related to the word fountain) is usually an eight-sided structure holding a bowl that is filled with water when baptisms take place. Traditionally, fonts are placed near a church door because it is through baptism in the font that we enter the Christian church and become members. In some churches, however, fonts are placed at the front so that it is easier for people to see what is happening there. Why is the font eight-sided? For the same reason as the spire: it is at the font that we become "heirs of eternal life" and begin the life of the new eighth day by sharing in Jesus' resurrection.
The largest part of the space inside the church is used for seating the congregation. Usually there are long benches called pews where people sit side by side with friends and strangers, but some churches have chairs that are more easily moved, providing greater flexibility. It may be a surprise to learn that pews are a relatively modern invention. Until long after the sixteenth-century reformation, churches had seating only for those who needed it due to age or disability. Most people stood or knelt to take part in services. As sermons became longer, however, nearly everyone began to feel the need for seating, and some individuals began to install pews for their families. The first pews had high sides and doors that isolated people from each other. It has been argued that pews were invented by dissenters, and that they were designed specifically to protect people from clergy intent on making them kneel or bow. Whether that is true or not, they certainly separated families and individuals from each other. Recently, in more peaceful and democratic times, pews have become lower and less divisive. But they still tend to make church members feel like spectators rather than participants. Some churches now encourage people to stand rather than to kneel, and to come forward, out of the pews, and stand around the altar during at least the second part of the service. Sitting, after all, is very passive, but the liturgy is active. Standing and kneeling are more active and involving postures.
Most of the pews or chairs are placed in the part of the church called the nave, a word related to "navy" and used because Christians traditionally have thought of the church as a ship designed to carry them from this world to the next. The area in front of the nave is called the chancel, and may include seating for a choir, as well as the space around the altar. The altar area is usually called the sanctuary, a word meaning a holy place set aside for sacred use. Some churches also contain smaller spaces called chapels, which may be used for weekday services.
There was a time when Sundays were different from any other day of the week. Stores were closed, factories stopped, and people who worked a six-day week were freed to spend one day in worship. Both getting ready for church and getting to church took longer then because dress was more formal, and transportation slower. The whole pace of life was slower. Services were not limited to an hour as they often are now; pulpits sometimes held an hour glass to keep the sermon in bounds, but many churches felt no need of even that limit. And, of course, the sermon was only part of the service. And the morning service was not the only church event. People often returned to church in the afternoon for Bible study or a late afternoon service. After all, what else was there to do? There was no television or radio, no shopping mall, no professional sports to watch. In the Puritan tradition, no one was allowed to play games on Sunday, either.
Although the Puritans significantly influenced American history, their customs were never the norm for many other Christians. The Puritans left England, in part at least, because the government refused to prohibit Maypole dances and other such harmless recreation on the Lord's Day. Episcopalians come from a tradition that favors a more balanced approach. Worship must be central, but the Fourth Commandment calls only for rest, not for worship. The fourth of the Ten Commandments tells us to "keep holy the Sabbath day." The Sabbath is the seventh day, or Saturday, and was established to provide a rhythm of rest and work. The Bible says that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day; therefore God's people were to observe the same order in their lives. Logically, the day of rest then became the time for worship because people were freed from the daily routines of their work. Jews still observe the seventh day as their day of worship. For Christians, however, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead created a new world, so they thought it best to worship on a new day, the first day. As we have said, what they initially referred to as the eighth day, we now call Sunday. Every Sunday is first of all a celebration of the resurrection. Even in Lent, Sundays are days of celebration. We have documents from the very first centuries of the church's life that tell how Christians came together on "the day of the Sun" to give thanks to God for the gift of life.
In those first years of the church's existence, Christianity was illegal and Sundays were days of work like any other. Christians came together for worship at daybreak, before the work day began. In recent American history, when the country's business stopped on Sundays, an eleven o'clock service was customary, not only for Episcopalians, but most other Christians as well. By the twentieth century, most Episcopal churches had added an eight o'clock or early-hour service for people who wanted communion each week or who wanted to get an early start on the day. Then, in the last half of the twentieth century, as social patterns changed and an increasingly secular society made Sundays more hectic, most churches replaced the late morning service with one in mid-morning, at ten o'clock or thereabouts. Still more recently, a Saturday evening service has become popular. The biblical day begins at sundown, so Saturday evening is the beginning of the new week. Nowadays, Saturday evenings are often more peaceful than Sundays. A congregation can gather for a service, a potluck meal, and a program without the conflicting pressures of Sunday mornings.
One of the great gifts Episcopalians inherit in the Book of Common Prayer is a pattern of daily worship. The English reformers hoped to preserve a pattern of prayer similar to those of the monasteries, but simplified those prayers so that all Christians could pray together daily and hear God's word. The services of Morning and Evening Prayer were created for this purpose. There is no reason to limit worship to Sundays alone. If heaven is a place where worship is the primary and constant joy of God's people, we can begin to get into the rhythm here and now. Sunday and weekday worship can and should provide a framework for the whole of life, and all our time, every day.
Questions for Further Thought and Discussion
1. Do you agree with the modern view that having altars closer to where people sit, reflecting the knowledge of God's nearness, might be more helpful than the older pattern of having the altar distant from worshipers? Why or why not?
2. Do you think of the altar as a symbol of Jesus' sacrifice or do you see it more as a table, representing the Last Supper? How did you come to view it as you do?
3. The author describes the changes in the way people have kept the Sabbath over time. How do you, personally, keep the Sabbath? Is that different than when you were a child? How so? How do you think the Sabbath will be kept in the future, say twenty years from now?
The Ministry of the Laity
One of the unique characteristics of the Christian faith is the belief that every member is called to ministry. Priesthood in Judaism was inherited, but at baptism all Christians become members of the body of Christ and, therefore, are given a share in his ministry. The New Testament says we are "a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). The first Christians understood they were sharing in a ministry simply by saying "Amen" to the Prayer of Thanksgiving over the bread and the wine. But they also understood that ministry involved more than coming together for worship: it involved all the church's members all the time. Most of us understand that the ordained clergy are always on call. We may not be as clear about the fact that we are all involved in ministry seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. We can't stop being who we are just because the church service is over.
Excerpted from Welcome to Sunday by CHRISTOPHER L. WEBBER. Copyright © 2003 by Christopher L. Webber. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Introduction: What Is Worship?......
1 Where and When....................
2 Who: Ministry....................
3 How: A Way of Worship.............
4 The Christian Year................
5 The Word....................
6 The Sacrament....................