A very big tent

September 20, 2012

“O love, how deep, how broad, how high…”

These words from a popular hymn have been pulsating in my mind for weeks.  As I would learn from Hymnal 1982, they were translated from 15th century Latin during the 19th century.  I recently visited a 19th century outpost of the Oxford Movement that contributed a more elaborate worship to our church.  Some would say it moved us more toward the Roman Catholic side of our history.

I had an opportunity to worship at Grace and St. Peter’s Church in downtown Baltimore.  Having grown up Roman Catholic with vivid memories of pre-Vatican II liturgy, I felt nostalgic in the presence of incense, seeing the altar book moved from epistle to the gospel side, and the fiddleback chasuble.  I was a little surprised by hearing the Angelus sung after the dismissal when the altar party stopped in front of a statue of Mary.

This was an Anglo-Catholic expression of the Episcopal Church I had only glimpsed elsewhere.  Most of my time in this denomination has been spent in the western United States where Anglo-Catholicism is rare.  Low church cassock and surplice-vested clergy leading worship is even rarer.

But now, here I am in Maryland with parishes dating before the country was established.  That Sunday visit completed my experience of visiting our three downtown congregations.  And what I’ve been reflecting on was the real diversity of worship styles, especially how they reflect the great diversity of our denomination.

Emmanuel Church is but three blocks away from Grace and St. Peter’s.  It has had a tradition of Morning Prayer and monthly celebration of Holy Communion.  Five blocks away is St. Paul’s—called Old St. Paul’s because of its 1692 founding—which is more “broad” church.  Only recently did this congregation add a third Sunday morning service using Rite II and a Holy Table facing the congregation.  The other two services are Rite I.

Despite my nostalgia, I was put off at first by the Anglo-Catholic worship.  But as I observed other worshippers in the pews and the energy with which they sang their 1940 hymnal tunes, and the stories I later heard at coffee hour about the social ministries members were doing, I found myself appreciating our church’s diversity even more.  I’ve learned of the efforts made by so many in our church to hold in tension divergent views.  Now I was seeing the fruits of those fought to embrace widely different liturgical forms.

There are those who take us to task for allowing such diverse expressions of worship within the same tent.  But what a gift to the Body of Christ that we are willing to be so different and yet remain members of the same denomination.

“If the Anglican tradition has in any respect excelled,” writes Frederick Quinn in his book To Be a Pilgrim (Crossroad, 2001), “it has been in providing conditions that allow ordinary Christians to freely practice their devotional life and find a meaning to life, while functioning fully within the world.”  Also in this book, Quinn underscores the fact that many Anglo-Catholics were leaders in several movements that viewed the social gospel as essential ministry.  Another but less popular hymn came to mind as I reflected on my experiences.  It happened to be a favorite of my liturgy professor at the Seminary of Southwest or I probably would not have happened upon it.

“Not here for high and holy things we render thanks to thee, but for the common things of earth…Awake, awake to love and work!…So let the love of Jesus come and set they soul ablaze, to give and give, and give again, what God hath given thee; to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously…”

Those words can be prayerfully sung and loudly proclaimed regardless of the vestments, incense or lack thereof, whether we are in a beautiful stained-glass adorned neo-gothic building or a tent in the parking lot of a football stadium.
We are a deep, wide and broad church indeed.

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