order and tradition

When it comes to liturgy, a fancy word we preachers use for worship services, there is a common mistake people make when pinpointing a worship leader’s preferences. I know I initially get pegged as someone who is hell-bent on changing tradition, shifting a worship tradition from one thing to another. When I was in seminary this was a common refrain, students were schooled by their professors on the best technique to do this, how to be most effective. I remember a dispute among the professors, some told us that we should always wait one full year before we change anything, lest we be perceived as making it “all about us” rather than waiting and building support for change. Organic change, that comes from the ground floor up seems to be the most acceptable form of change. But there was another school of thought that believed that when you are new and the honeymoon period is strong it is best to leverage those good feelings into change.

I always found it odd that liturgical practices seemed to be where we clergy set our sights most intensely when it came to change. In my own mind and heart the focus of my own ministry would be hospitality and outreach, thus I was anxious to see and hear how the church I was beginning to serve already offered those ministries. If the church had enthusiasm and passion for hospitality and outreach my role was more of a cheerleader, to affirm what already was going on and help celebrate that the ministry was perhaps in stronger shape that the church realized. If there was no a passion for one or the other of these ministries I would look for allies, lay persons who shared my passion and together we would partner to break new ground, albeit grounded in the local context.

The liturgical context was always an afterthought to me, not that I wasn’t interested in it, but that it was not a priority. For instance it bugged me that United Churches often put the Baptism Font off to the side, in a corner, or even in a closet. If the Table was a symbol of openness and the presence of Jesus as host then surely the Font was a symbol of grace and unconditional love. I am also someone who loves order and thus the fluidity of the service makes a difference to me, I like the notion of Approach-Word-Response in liturgy, the idea we come together, we hear the Word and we go out in love and passion to put the Word into action. There is a satisfying flow to that.

But to my colleagues who loves the unspoken symbolism of worship, the subtle moves, the use of our body language, the spoken word used with intention and skill, the design of something beautiful and lovely, liturgy has a much deeper calling. There is also the matter of inclusion language, which was a very big issue for we clergy ordained in the late 80’s but does not seem to resonate as much these days. I use inclusive language, I don’t even think about it, inclusive language just comes naturally to me. But I don’t change the hymns, it is too much work, and I still use “Kingdom of God” because I can’t seem to find an alternative, “Reign of God” just seems so foreign to our speech. But I can work with traditional worship as easily as I can contemporary worship, it is “order” that moves me more than tradition. I think traditional people, who are initially so frightened when I arrive on the scene, usually come to realize I am no threat to them, I can work with their traditions as long as they can be molded to hospitality and outreach. The only thing I can’t give them is a sense that I share their love of tradition, because I don’t. Tradition does not move me unless it holds within it the possibility of reminding people of their sacred connection to hospitality and outreach.

Order and tradition can be close cousins but they are not of the same genetic stock!