Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Impressions of the 8:45 Service

As I mentioned in my last post, I attended the 8:45 service at St. Paul’s this past Sunday. I did so for convenience, but I was also interested in seeing what the service was like, as I had not attended an 8:45 service for some time. I was also interested in seeing what attendance was like, but Sunday School teachers were being honored, and that clearly increased the size of the congregation and the number of children present.

Service booklet coverMy experience began badly. Because I was close to the stairs nearest Mayfair Drive, I walked up those stairs to get to the church. I found no service leaflets there. It soon became obvious why; the musicians made it impossible to enter the church through the south transept. I tried going in back of the chancel, but the door was locked. Instead, I had to return to the undercroft and walk up the other flight of stairs. I was given a booklet and found a seat in the nave.

Service Booklet

The service booklet was relatively free of errors, I am happy to say. (I found things I would change if I were editing it, but most of those lapses would go unnoticed by the less obsessive.) I did find that the addition of “A beacon of Christ’s love for 175 years. 1936 - 2011” at the top of the cover and “175th Anniversary” at the bottom of the cover made the page look rather too busy, particularly since the descender of the final “y” of “Anniversary” was cut off. Also, on the calendar, I did wonder if the EYC End-of-Year Cookout was really going to be held in the youth room. Serious errors, however, were not in evidence.

That said, I was surprised that the service leaflet did not indicate when people were to stand, something the 10:30 bulletin does show. The leaflet was generally helpful, however, and I never had to turn pages in the middle of a hymn—or whatever we call what we were singing—as I did during Bishop Price’s visit. (See “Putting Our Best Foot Forward?”)

Service

A few aspects of the service surprised me. Clearly, the service is intended to be friendly and contemporary, though, in most ways, it is really rather conventional. For a contemporary service, I was surprised that the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer was said. (Does anyone use the more modern version in the prayer book?) I was surprised, too, that most of the Easter blessing in the service booklet was skipped, though perhaps this was an oversight. As was the case at the 10:30 service when the bishop visited, “God” was substituted for “him” at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving in the service booklet . (See “Putting Our Best Foot Forward?”) Finally, I though it odd that the pulpit was not used for reading the lessons. Instead, a lectern—or perhaps it was simply a music stand—was employed. No doubt, this is done out of some mistaken sense of democracy. The pulpit is located where it is so the reader can be seen.

The sermon, of course, was not delivered from the pulpit. Instead, Mabel, who had the preaching duties, gathered the children in front of the altar and sat down with them to deliver her very short sermon. From a few pews back, of course, I couldn’t see her. No matter, the sermon seemed more an excuse to interact with the children than a talk intended to make any particular theological, moral, or philosophical point. Apparently, however, I shouldn’t fault Mabel for the sermon, since these pointless sermons aimed at amusing the pre-kindergarten set seem to be a “feature” of the 8:45 service—something to earn its billing as “family-friendly.” (Every 8:30/8:45 service I’ve attended included such a sermon.) Most families that I have known, however, have included at least one adult, and there was nothing in the sermon for adults other than an opportunity to look at cute children. (Surely, even this must get old after a few Sundays!)

Music

Other than the sermon, the most conspicuous distinguishing feature of the 8:45 service was its music. Much “contemporary Christian music” or “praise music” is—not to put too fine a point on it—simply awful. I had hoped, however, that when St. Paul’s used more modern music, we would select from the better material that’s out there. Sunday’s service was not encouraging.

The best hymn we sang was Richard Gillard’s “The Servant Song.” In contrast to other hymns used in the service, I thought this one actually had something interesting to say. The words are set to a pleasant tune that is easy to sing. Here, for example, is the first verse:
Won’t you let me be your servant;
let me be, as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace
to let you be my servant, too.
Two additional verses follow.

Even this song is very much about the singer, rather than Christ’s gathered faithful, but it is not an unreasonable choice for corporate worship. Most of the other music we sang, however, seems to come from an Evangelical tradition for which only the question “Have you been born again?” seems important, a tradition in which the Church, as a body, almost assumes the role of necessary evil. This tradition is nearly devoid of theology, for which it substitutes repetition of its few shibboleths, particularly about praise, worship, and how worthless we all are. For example, we sang “Thank You Lord” by Melissa Nigro:
Jesus you are everything I need
You are more than life to me
You are my king.
Jesus you laid down your life
You paid the sacrifice
To set me free
All I know
I am nothing without your grace
Lord I bow to you and say…

(Chorus)
Thank you
Thank you Lord
To you be all the glory
To you be all the praise
Thank you
Thank you Lord
You deserve the glory
You deserve the praise
(I am reproducing the punctuation of all these hymns as they were printed.)

Here is the first verse and chorus of “More Love, More Power,” by Michael W. Smith. (This one has actual, if somewhat idiosyncratic punctuation.)
More love,
More power,
More of You in my life.
More love,
More power,
More of You in my life,
and I will worship You with all of my heart,
And I will worship You with all of my mind,
And I will worship You with all of my strength.
For You are my Lord
You are my Lord.
The service began with “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer,” a spiritual whose three verses are all minor variations of the first:
(Refrain)
It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
standin’ in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
standin’ in the need of prayer.
Even the service music had its problems. The Sanctus, for example, managed to insert “Lord, we sing your praise” into the traditional text five times. Most objectionable, however, was “The South African Creed,” which substitutes for the Nicene Creed. It has four verses:
I believe,
I do believe,
truly I believe it,
truly I believe it,
truly I believe it
I believe,
I do believe,
truly I believe it,
truly I believe it,
truly I believe it.

I believe in God
the Almighty Lord Creator,
Mighty Lord Creator,
Mighty Lord Creator
I believe in God
the Almighty Lord Creator,
Mighty Lord Creator,
Mighty Lord Creator.

I believe in Jesus
the Savior of the people,
Savior of the people,
Savior of the people.
I believe in Jesus
the Savior of the people,
Savior of the people,
Savior of the peopple ]sic].

And I do believe
in the Power of the Spirit,
Power of the Spirit,
Power of the Spirit.
And I do believe
in the Power of the Spirit,
Power of the Spirit,
power of the Spirit.
Notice that the corporate “we” of the traditional creed is replaced by “I,” consistent with use in the rest of the music. More significantly, however, the creed has been stripped of virtually all of its theology other than an acknowledgement of the Trinity. Our fourth-century forebears who worked so hard to hammer out the Nicene Creed would be appalled at the way their work has been castrated here.

Instrumentalists played the Clavinova, drums, three guitars, and violin. There was one singer who played no instrument. It was difficult to tell how well the ensemble worked together, as it was often difficult to hear anything but the drums and (perhaps) the Clavinova. (Churches with bands often place their drummer within a Plexiglas box to achieve a more reasonable balance of sound.) An unlisted piece was played and sung by the musicians during communion, but I found it impossible to understand the words.

Because the musicians were standing just inside the communion rail, I was wondering how we were going to do communion. As it turns out, we distributed the elements at stations, which avoided the use of the communion rail completely.

To sum up, I thought the music was very bad, and it did not seem to be performed, either by the musicians or the congregation, with any great enthusiasm.

Some Final Words

I left the service feeling seriously depressed. Admittedly, we used the prayer book (mostly) and celebrated a Eucharist, but the whole spirit of the affair was very Protestant and very Evangelical. Evangelicals do this kind of service much better than we can. Why do we not just let them do it?

2 comments:

Jim said...

Well I see we have something else in common. I am emphatically not welcome among the "liturgy study committee" which is the body making the worship decisions at my parish. I bet you do not get any invitations. Hmmm...


FWIW
jimB

Lionel Deimel said...

Jim,

I was on the Worship Commission for many years by virtue of being A-V Coördinator. I resigned my position because I thought I had done it long enough and because many of the tasks I had been doing were eliminated. St. Paul’s no longer has an A-V Coördinator.