What does a priest experience when he worships from the pew, not from the altar, for an extended season? That was a question I carried into my sabbatical almost twelve weeks ago. I will return to Apostles this Sunday after experiencing worship from the pew this autumn, and I will be a different celebrant and preacher because of these Sundays in a pew.
In preparation for my sabbatical, I decided to attend only one church in my hometown instead of visiting numerous churches. Visiting several churches would be a good practice for another season, but that’s not where the Spirit led me during this break. With the good counsel of my bishop, I decided to attend one church during sabbatical. I know myself too well. I would turn worship into a research project if I visited several churches. And that’s not what I needed. I needed to enter worship with my soul, not my mind. I needed to experience worship in the pew like any other person or family on an ordinary Sunday.
Liturgical Worship, Bells, and Sunday Bike Rides
Because my sabbatical took place from September through the middle of December, I made a decision to attend a church that would celebrate Ordinary Time, All Saints Day, Christ the King Sunday, and the Advent season. This sequence in the church year is one of my favorite seasons and I didn’t want to miss these holy days. In the end, I chose a Catholic church near my home.
I attended this church for simple reasons–they observed the church year, their church is beautiful, and I could ride my bike to Mass. Sundays in the autumn are beautiful and I wanted to fully experience the golden serenity of those mornings. So I rode my bike to Mass most Sundays. Hearing the chiming of bells during my approach on the greenway prepared my heart and mind for worship. The ride to church was just long enough that I didn’t arrive a sweaty mess in the pew.
The View from the Pew
When I began attending the Catholic church near my home, I was seeking the comfort of Christ in the beauty of ancient liturgy. I came to worship for the care of my own soul. But over these twelve weeks, I learned much about worship in the pew, however it was learning for the heart and soul, not the learning acquired through intentional research. What follows are the lessons I received from experiencing worship in the pew.
1. People are hungry for reverent liturgy
The first Sunday I attended this local Catholic church, I arrived early and almost didn’t find a seat. I looked to the back of the church and there were about twenty or more people standing for the entirety of the service. This was on an average Sunday in September. I thought it was a fluke or an outlier, but it wasn’t.
On another ordinary Sunday in October, I started off from home a little late and had to make good time on my bike. I arrived just in time for the processional hymn. No seats were available. I stood for the whole service. This was not a holy day or a special Sunday for the local church. It was the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The preaching at this church is solid, not spectacular. The rest of the service is beautiful, but not the only outstanding expression of Catholic liturgy in Knoxville. It’s a completely unscientific conclusion, but I came to believe that the standing-room only pattern in this church speaks of a hunger. It is the hunger for reverent worship.
It’s very surprising to find standing-room only liturgical worship in the American South. Knoxville isn’t exactly the epicenter of southern Catholicism. But the crowds consistently present on ordinary Sundays in the autumn spoke of a hunger for ancient worship in our city.
2. The Gospel preached in the pews
I’ll never forget how the Spirit revealed the Gospel in the pews on an ordinary Sunday between an elderly couple and their young grandson. I cannot remember the sermon from the front, but I will remember the sermon among this family for many years.
Nothing spectacular happened with them, nothing out of the ordinary. When they arrived in front of me, their view to the altar was almost completely blocked by a pillar. Still, I witnessed reverence and joy in the way they entered worship. They gently guided their grandson in the rhythm of worship–when to kneel, what prayers to pray, what hymns were sung. The faith was being passed down before my eyes in the most ordinary way. It was the glory of God within the ordinary.
As we knelt to pray during the Great Thanksgiving, the grandson knelt between his grandmother and grandfather. The hands of the grandmother and grandmother clasped together around the shoulders of their grandson. Here was the unity of faith in an affectionate marriage of many years, embracing the generation to follow with the love of Christ. They were icons of Christ for me, hidden behind a obstructing pillar on an ordinary Sunday.
I also saw the Gospel when a girl of middle school age rushed down the side aisle to embrace a nun whom she dearly loved. If you have eyes to see, you’ll see holy visitations that resemble Mary greeting Elizabeth. A holy embrace, a divine visitation–these proclaim the Gospel to my heart from the margins of the nave.
3. Singing the Psalms (and the liturgy) builds a house of prayer within
To sing or chant the Psalms is nothing new to me. We sing the Psalms every Sunday morning at Apostles in our traditional service. This isn’t an entirely new lesson, so much as seeing a familiar truth in a new way.
Singing the Psalms to new melody settings made me experience these ancient prayers anew. Instead of chanting every word as a congregation, I learned a way of singing the Psalms by singing only one refrain. Those refrains lodged in my mind and heart through the week and I would spontaneously pray a verse from these psalms because of the short and beautiful melody.
As with psalms, so it was with other portions of the liturgy. The Gloria, the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus–these sung portions of the liturgy lodged in my mind and I’d find myself singing these songs later in the week. Far from somber, archaic melodies, these tunes were bright, modern, and joyful songs. When you experience the goodness of God on an ordinary Tuesday, it’s good to have a song of praise to sing. In learning a few more tunes for psalms and liturgy, I know that a house of prayer is being built within my soul.
4. Parents in the pews are heroes
Until my sabbatical, I’ve never sat in the pew for an entire service with my family. I’m always leading worship from the altar. Emily and our kids joined me for some, but not all, Sundays during sabbatical. Contrary to most churches in Knoxville, there was no nursery available at this Catholic church. Our five year old would be fine. The two year old boy would be quite a different question.
On the whole, they both did remarkably well these Sundays. I did have to take the boy to the cry room for half of the service one Sunday, but even then I was reminded of parents for whom this is their weekly experience. I gained an even deeper appreciation for my wife who wrangles two kids during worship by herself every Sunday.
There’s no beautiful revelation here, just the appreciation for parents who bring their children to worship faithfully each Sunday. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of children in worship for twelve weeks, but I’m less bothered by a bit of crying and fussiness. Parents are called to teach their children reverence in worship and it’s going to be a messy process. The best I can do is practice patience and offer grace and support to parents who sacrifice their own undistracted experience in worship for the sake of rearing their children in the faith ‘once for all delivered to the saints.’
5. The Gospel in the Invitation to Communion
In choosing to attend a Catholic church, I knew that I wouldn’t be permitted to receive communion for twelve weeks. I accepted that reality, knowing that Christ could speak in the midst of that awkwardness. As I wrote earlier in sabbatical, I sought the voice of Christ in the ache of that experience, longing for a deeper union among all the churches who worship God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But the absence of the word ‘welcome’ for all baptized believers at the Eucharist was a profound experience. Here’s the irony I experienced attending Mass these twelve weeks: while I have deep appreciation for worship in the Roman Catholic tradition, attending a Catholic church has reinforced my identity as an Anglican. I love our theology of the Eucharist, particularly this invitation to communion for all those who have been baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When the words of welcome at the Eucharist are spoken at an Anglican service, it can sound like an instructional rubric, but there’s the Gospel within it. All who by baptism have entered the death and resurrection of Christ are welcome to receive his Body and Blood.
I cannot wait to announce those words of welcome at Apostles this Sunday, knowing their importance to everyone seated in the pews. I’m grateful to experience worship anew in this sabbatical, but I’m ready to come home. And I pray that I will be a better preacher, knowing the best proclamation of the Gospel may resound in the hiddenness of the pews, even more than the pulpit I occupy. I pray that I will be a better celebrant, knowing the experience of those who come hungry for liturgy. It’s a great season to return home and experience Christ with my church family. It is Advent, the season when the coming of Christ is ever new.