Thursday, July 24, 2014

Counter-Reformation


We think, and rightly so, that we have a lot to teach our young people. But just as often, as our wonderful St. John’s youth leaders will tell you, the wisdom flows the other way around.

The photo shows eight-year-old Sierra Schwarz at a recent meeting of the St. John’s Parish Council, on which her mother, Bishop’s Committee member Erin Schwarz, serves. Sierra just happened to be reading a biography of Elizabeth the Great, founder of the Anglican Church and royal protector of the Book of Common Prayer, which unites Episcopalians to this day.

In a just few years, Sierra will be eligible for youth group – whose middle and high schoolers recently gave me a lesson of their own in Anglican theology.

For a couple of years, I’ve experimented with a deconstructed Holy Eucharist service that puts enormous emphasis on congregational participation. I first used it when Thom’s, Orange County’s so-called emergent community, worshiped at St. John’s. For the 2013-14 year, I adapted it for our monthly Youth Eucharist services.

If you listen carefully to the Eucharistic prayer on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday, you’ll hear the whole history of human experience. The wording varies from rite to rite, but the story’s always the same. God’s creation began in unity and love and fell into disunity and sin, to be called back to oneness in Christ.

During my deconstructed service – you might have called it a messy mass -- I closed Elizabeth’s prayer book and invited worshipers to retell the creation story in their own words. They took turns elevating the bread and wine, and we said the prayer of consecration together. By your Holy Spirit, make this bread and wine into your body and blood. (Don’t worry. I had a bishop’s permission!)

I thought that by stepping back from the familiar liturgy and celebrant’s role, I was giving people a renewed sense of ownership and individual involvement in a powerful sacrament that Jesus Christ gave not to the church but to the whole people of God. Hoping to attract a younger generation of skeptical seekers, many churches are experimenting with this kind of liturgical democratization, giving congregations a larger voice in worship, deemphasizing the ordained orders, and setting aside the old prayers and music.

But as it turns out, my experiment wasn’t that popular with the new generation at St. John’s. During their postmortem meeting at the beginning of the summer, our young people said they wanted the old service back.

Don’t get me wrong: Before last year’s experiment, Youth Euch was hardly the drill from Sunday morning. Using music and other means, I did my best each month to vary the first part of the service, the Ministry of the Word, when we hear scripture, share a homily, and pray for our needs and those of others.

But when it comes to the second half, the young people missed the solemnity, piety, and predictability of the prayer book mass, the words we all know and the traditional roles we play. Whatever we’ve experienced in the course of our day, whatever sadness or joy, we come together and bind ourselves to Christ and one another just as we have for 2,000 years. The Lord be with you. And also with you.

Patti Peebles, our chaplain and youth leader, put it best when she gave me the kids’ verdict on my messy mass. “They’re Episcopalians,” she said.

Elizabeth would be proud. And so am I. 

This post first appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church.

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