The other day I was confronted by a well meaning and very concerned person who knows about and shares my evangelical background, but didn't know I am now involved in the Anglican church. It was an interesting conversation.
"I can't believe you are involved in a church so filled with empty ritual.", said my friend.
Thus began a long conversation about this so called "empty ritual" which I find myself participating in. I was rather surprised that she used that expression when, as it turned out, she knew nothing much at all about Anglican belief and worship. I had no idea when the conversation started out what she was talking about....and she didn't either.
Apparently one of the things she was thinking of is our liturgy; something she has never actually read herself and has never seen being used in a worship service. I was somewhat surprised by her vehement assertion at the start of our chat that I have fallen off the Christian path by participating in a liturgical service when she has no idea what a liturgical service involves. Apparently the use of the crucifer, the wearing of albs and stoles, the priestly heirarchy, the set up of the eucharist table, the receiving of the host from the priest and the chanting of the litany also fall into the category of "empty ritual" even though she didn't start by asking me why such things are used in our services. It was interesting to say the least to be accused of something I am not guilty of by someone who has done none of her own research into the practices of my church denomination. I am grateful to God that I was able to end up having a fairly reasonable discussion with her.
The use of the liturgy is comforting to me and I think I have blogged about that before. Each and every symbol in the service, from the Eucharist table linens to the Eucharist itself, to the banners, to the "holy hardware", to the robes, to the crucifer, to the Eucharistic practices, to the readings, to the litanies, to the shape of the sanctuary, to the set up of the furniture, to the stained glass windows, to the candles, to the liturgical calendar, to the seasonal colours points to a grander spiritual picture than just what goes on inside our church walls. Everything involved in our services has a reason, a meaning, a direction from God to us, from us to God and from God and ourselves out into the community. Everything about the service is deliberately meaningful, intense, spiritually directed, from the order of service each week to the prayers to the annual arrangement of daily scripture readings. How on earth could a service of such depth be considered "empty ritual"? I don't know when I have been so bamboozled by an accusation.
I didn't bother to explain to my friend that I left the evangelical church because for myself, personally, I found it devoid of continuity and depth, rather cold and seemingly without a strong hierarchy of leadership/accountability in many cases. That is not to say that all evangelical denominations are devoid of such things. My own experience in them was that way. For other people those services are wonderfully fulfilling and edifying and that is how it should be. We are not all the same and do not all respond the same way to the same kinds of worship. Diversity is a good thing. I am not interested in denigrating the worship experiences of my friends in their particular evangelical denominations. For me they simply didn't work all that well and I spent decades being far less excited about the church than I should have been.
Where we each attend church is not supposed to be a battle leaving us with hard feelings toward each other. It always surprises me when I am called upon to justify my choice for church and worship. BUT my friend's motivation was just fine: she was attempting to "save" me from making what her church would consider to be a huge mistake in my spiritual life. Her particular denomination is very strongly based upon having a "correct series of doctrines" and "righteous lifestyles", so those who are not obviously believing and practicing those particular things may be in spiritual danger and should be warned. Fair enough. That is the way she has been trained to respond to people like me who choose the mainline churches in which to worship. I am grateful she cares enough about me to want to warn me away from something that she believes is suspect.
She was not convinced when I explained to her what the so called "empty rituals" actually mean to Anglicans, but she was open to listening to my explanation and she and I parted friends as always. I am grateful that she was able to hear me out and yes, she has every right to disagree with what I am doing, but her decision needs to be based on facts she can accept or not as having validity rather than on things someone else equally unfamiliar with our denomination tells her. It is so easy for all of us to judge something based on a second or third hand report and make our judgements accordingly without doing our own research......in all areas of life, not just church denominations. We all do it. It is a human tendency and I cringe to think how many times I have done the same thing...in all areas of life, not just church denominations.
I know the present state of our denomination when it comes to the authority and interpretation of scripture upsets a lot of people. I definitely understand why some of our churches have pulled out and attached themselves to more conservative leadership. I also realize that some of our friends and family do not understand why my husband and I have not pulled out as well. But we feel that each person/leader/church is capable of hearing how the Holy Spirit is directing them and all we ask for right now is the same credit for our ability to also hear the direction of the Lord that our evangelical friends and family claim. My friend left our conversation the other day with an open mind that we are actually still capable of understanding how God is leading us and the recognition that she is being led in a different direction at the moment, but that it is all right for such things to happen. It could all change for all of us at any time.
For now my friend feels fulfilled in her church denomination and I feel fulfilled in mine. We can be friends despite differences. She realizes that I am not in a place of needing a change and I recognize that same thing about her in her own circumstance. She loves the open and free church services she attends where everything in the church service is different every week and there is a definite lack of the symbolic. I enjoy the litanies that bond me to my church community in ways that didn't work for me in her denomination.
I am grateful for the chance to spread some facts her way and to have a chance to explain why I personally do not find the symbols and rituals in our church empty and devoid of meaning. God is at work in both of our lives. It is all good.