Last night, after returning home from our weekly service of compline at St. Paul’s School, I sat down with the intention of writing some thoughts about what it means to be in an active worshipping community. After a few minutes of quiet rumination, I set aside my computer in favor of catching up on my latest Netflix addiction – Shetland. My mind had gone in the direction that says, “Come on, you know your just going to get all preachy about your opinions on what is good and what is bad, and manufacture yet another narrative about why your beliefs are worthwhile.” Well, isn’t that what blogging is all about? Yes, but sometimes it’s good to back off a bit. Then, I woke up this morning to an e-mail from The Living Church, with a link to the latest online article – Faithfully Facing Congregational Decline. I took this as a sign to pick up with last night’s train of thought!
To give some context, my role at the school where I have been for six years is packed full of challenges and rewards that differ substantially from work in a parish church or even a cathedral environment. While many of our services here are open to the general public, including Thursday night compline, the emphasis on our religious and liturgical life is firmly rooted in offerings for the school community. Some of these are “required” for all the students and teachers. Convocations, termly evensongs, last night services, and four morning gatherings for 30 minutes each week at 8:00am. For these services, there are almost 700 people crammed into the chapel. Many of the additional services we offer are voluntary in nature, much like a parish church, and these include Sunday afternoon choral evensongs once a month, a weekly Sunday eucharist at 4:00pm, a weekly Wednesday eucharist at noon, and compline every Thursday night at 8:00pm. Choral evensong attracts a healthy crowd of locals and some school folk. Maybe 50-100 total, depending on the day. The weekly eucharist and compline are very small gatherings, often with as few as 3 or 4 people in the congregation, sometimes 20 or 30. Last night’s compline was an example of this, where 4 students attended, while 14 members of the choir chanted elegantly, spontaneously and respectfully for 20 minutes. It was magical, mysterious, spontaneous, restorative, deeply musical and satisfying to all. Most importantly, it continued the routine that has been established recently of a repetitive act of worship each week of the school year. Same time, same place, same choir. The ability of the ensemble has grown exponentially this year, in terms of their confidence and group dynamic, and we have offered an oasis of peace and tranquility to the greater community.
For those who are surprised by the relatively small attendance, let me offer some additional context. When I was organ scholar of Clare College, Cambridge, we would routinely offer Tuesday and Thursday choral evensong to a handful of people in the congregation. Often 2 or 3. Sometimes none! The music was rehearsed to an exacting standard of professionalism, and nobody questioned the reasons for doing so. While I’m sure we all wished that more people could have heard us, this was never voiced by choir members. The value of offering an exquisite 45 minutes of beauty, calm, and other-worldliness, manifested itself in a tightly-knit group of like-minded people who knew that what they were doing was far, far greater than the sum of its parts.
When I was assistant organist of Washington National Cathedral, we would sing evensong with the boys of the choir, 20 students from St. Alban’s School, every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. This was in addition to the daily rehearsals and the Sunday services. Some of my most satisfying musical experiences came during these services, when there would frequently be glorious moments of treble sound, underpinned by organ accompaniment, soaring through the gothic arches as the sun came down on Mt. St. Alban. Again, we would sometimes have just a few attendees. Other days, we would have 200-300 or more people gathered. We didn’t often know what kind of attendance to expect. The point is, we were ready to deliver the goods in a well-rehearsed, elegant, respectful liturgy. It was repetitive, it was valuable, and it was what we did. We did it well, and we invited anyone to come and share it with us at this International House of Prayer (lovingly referred to as the IHOP) for All People.
Last week at St. Paul’s School, we offered our termly “evensong” for the whole school. (I say “evensong” in quotes because in recent years this service has strayed from being a true service of choral evensong. It has held on to the name, but the structure is often a little looser around the edges.) This May 11th offering was a sequence of readings, reflections and music, for which the choir had been rehearsing long and hard since the beginning of April. The main piece was Benjamin Britten’s REJOICE IN THE LAMB. The other anthems were my setting of THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS from Philippians, and an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s BOTH SIDES NOW. The readings were carefully chosen from the writings of Jean Vanier, and the speaker was Amy Julia Becker, who delivered a series of three incredibly beautiful and powerful reflections on Love and Knowledge, with an over-arching theme of Theology and Disability. There was a movement of a Bach Cello Suite, and two processional hymns – Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life and Lord Of All Hopefulness. The service flowed with a grace and beauty that is not often experienced when the whole school is gathered. It was incredibly gratifying to see the young voices of the Chapel Choir rise to such an occasion, and to feel that the thoughtful preparation of clergy, musicians and school leaders had achieved an interweaving of theme and direction that was brought about as much by the Holy Spirit as it was by design. Totally and utterly glorious, in every way.
The differences between these events? All were offered with a high degree of careful preparation, to the best of the participants’ abilities, and with a goal of achieving something transcendent. All succeeded, and this is the point. The results would not have been changed in any way – for better or worse – if the number of attendees had been reversed. Whether there had been 7, 70 or 700 people at any one of these services, the careful, orderly, graceful and respectful liturgies would have reached people, any number of people, wherever they were in life. Whether a Cambridge student, choosing to spend an hour in quiet meditation between study sessions; or a pilgrim coming to the National Cathedral for the first time, perhaps the only time; or a high school student, attending under duress, frantically racing from a sports practice to sit through a service, before running off to a formal dinner for the whole school. Some of these people will be affected in surprising ways by what they experience. Some will be nonchalant. Some will be critical or annoyed. This is the key, however. Unless the purveyors of the product are truly invested in what they are doing, thoroughly prepared, and communicating through music and word their profound convictions in the value of the results, the offering will be compromised in some way. As leaders and directors, we must preserve our core values, often in the face of derailing challenges.
The three “Rs” here are repetition, ritual, and respect. The “Rs” to avoid are reimagining, reinventing and reacting. Yes, I have drawn attention to three scenarios which, in one way and another, do not face the regular, everyday pressure to attract more and more people to fill the pews in order to pay the bills. But, in simply reading that last sentence, does this not draw attention to one of the fundamental flaws in the direction our churches have gone? Let us not try to be all things to all people. We will succeed in none of them.
As Amy Julia Becker said in her reflections on a person’s usefulness versus their value, we cannot, and should not, judge a person with Down Syndrome to be any less valuable to society than a person without. In fact, they can be of greater value. They have a third copy of chromosome 21, and they are able to teach all of us incredible lessons in life. Attending a formal liturgy may not seem useful or valuable to everyone. However, if it is thoughtfully prepared, gracefully presented, with no apology for the content; if it is believed in by the people presenting it as a worthwhile endeavor; if it is preserving something counter-cultural to a broken world, offering an oasis of mindful calm; if it is welcoming people into an experience which will nourish them in unexpected ways, where rather than meeting the secular world halfway, or responding with that which society tells us people want, we offer something far removed from the outside world; if it achieves all of these things, and elicits an unexpected response from someone on the receiving end, or even if it generates absolutely no response, it has been a worthy event of great value.
Patience with, conviction in, repetition of, and respect for what we do will surely reap reward. The character building benefits of participation in such endeavors are far-reaching and proven. As Cole Hartin says in the article mentioned at the beginning of this essay, when he saw the reaction (visible pleasure) of the middle-aged woman with flowing brown hair…rows and flows of angel hair…”I then knew it was all worth it. We quietly slipped back out into the wet green world, silently thinking our own thoughts. This was my first experience with the Episcopal Church, and the living Anglican tradition.”