Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 1

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read the second installment of this series…

Gordon Lathrop asserts that the role of the presider in the assembly’s worship is to “make the center strong.”1 Throughout my work in pastoral ministry, either in proclamation, leadership, or the arts, my formation as a presider for worship has been a pattern of challenge, epiphany, and growth. My understanding of the role of presider when I first entered pastoral ministry as a worship minister nearly a decade ago was shaped by a paradigm of authority. The presider receives authority from God to act toward the assembly. In the past several years, this thinking has shifted. Recent research in liturgical architecture, Table imagery, and an experience and understanding of God’s presence began the work of synthesizing our tradition’s emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ with the work of presider. Though the presider’s calling and work is an act of divine importance, the authority of the presider rises from the assembly itself which God has empowered.

The Triune God of our faith meets us in this place that has been created for us. Our response is a rhythmic gathering toward and sending from that presence to expand the renewing power of the divine initiative. It is in this rhythmic gathering and sending, when the assembly is engaged in the rituals of story and meal, that the presider finds authority and empowerment. It is dynamic divine-human interplay: God and the assembly engaged in a sacred dance of illumination and response.

What follows in this brief report is my work with an urban Church of the Brethren parish, re-imagining and rehearsing these essential ecclesiological principles in the form of architecture and ritual. My goal as presider, and as advocate for faithful worship, was to “make the center strong” in response to the full revelation of God’s presence.

Grounding Worship in the Love Feast

In the Church of the Brethren, the practice of quarterly or monthly observance of “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” is held in tension with our two annual gatherings for the Love Feast. We have valued the Love Feast as an expression of the community’s unity and obedience to Jesus: services of feet-washing, a simple fellowship meal, and the sharing of bread and cup. The principal ethos of Love Feast is often confined to the celebration of the event itself. In the past decade, many leaders across the denomination have worked to encourage congregations to learn to speak with a distinctly Brethren voice. The Church’s broadening development of the peace tradition has produced polity statements calling for social justice, environmental stewardship, and a purposeful conviction that Jesus intends to renew the entirety of creation. These missional perspectives should be shared in our liturgical expression. The self-giving renewal of God’s shalom begins in the illumination of God’s presence and the assembly’s ritual response to God’s revelation. The Love Feast in the Church of the Brethren is the community’s engagement in story and meal around the Table. As the primary holy day in the life of the communion, should not its spirit impact the weekly worship of its people?

The ecumenical spirit that has permeated the Church of the Brethren has been reflected in our parish since its consecration in 1953. Inhabiting a former high-liturgical Baptist facility, our liturgy embraced the typical Presbyterian style that characterized mid-20th century Protestant worship: a choir in robes and stoles, elevated chancel and pulpit, a robed minister, and the two-folds of extended gathering and the service of the word. It was a worship built upon the experience of the intellect engaged with educated clergy. Throughout the following years, changes in the worship order and content progressed organically with the changing styles of the presiding ministers. Because our congregational practice gives ministers broad influence over the shape of worship, the liturgical environment shifted from formal Presbyterian in the 1950s to informal Baptist by the late 1990s. There was little that was distinctly Brethren in either form or content.The liturgical place itself betrayed the historic Brethren emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ An elevated chancel and pulpit from which the minister presided looked down upon an auditorium-style pew arrangement. A large stained-glass window displaying a crown hung recessed in the chancel. These elements, though aesthetically beautiful, highlighted the feeling of God’s distance from the midst of the assembly, holding implicit yet strong formative influence over the community that gathered for worship.

Understanding the history of the parish in changing worship, the broad vision of the denomination to reclaim a distinctly Brethren voice in worship and witness, and the theological implications of ecclesial expression, our congregation engaged in a process of liturgical exploration and renewal to discern our awareness of God’s presence through architecture and ritual.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 Read on for part 2

  1. Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 94 []
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  • James Benedict

    Good reflection on liturgy. Such reflection is too seldom done in the CoB. Thanks. And Gordon Lathrop was my favorite professor at the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia a decade ago.

  • Scott Holland

    Thanks for this congregational case study and reflection on Brethren liturgy. The story you tell about Drexel Hill is a familiar one to those of us who have pastored urban and suburban CoB congregations. The Presbyterian envy morphing into a low church Baptist aesthetic over time as leadership and membership shift is a standard plot. I am interested in reading more about what you see as a more authentic Brethren aesthetic and liturgy. Much of this, it seems to me, relates to the question of a religion’s nearest analogue. If a group sees art as religion’s closest analogue then the liturgy will be attentive to the experience of “transcendence,” for art and religion in this view are about the phenomenon of transcendence. However, if the group or collective understands religion’s closest analogue as “practical morality” then this shapes the liturgy, aesthetics and polity.

    In my view, the contemporary Brethren, both conservatives and progressives, believe that practical morality is religion’s nearest analogue. This is why we go to Annual Conference and fight fiercely about the specifics of morality. This is also why I now see more and more Brethren on spiritual quests in art museums and at concerts in the park on Sundays rather than enduring one more church chat on morality in the sanctuary.

    • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com Brian R. Gumm

      “Presbyterian envy” – I’ll have to remember that one!

      I’d resist, though, framing “religion” and “art” and “ethics” as hermetically sealed categories – too modernist. Ethics, from a Hauerwasian/Wittgensteinian perspective, is rather an aesthetic endeavor, artfully attending to “the rough ground” of life together. Ethics is politics is art. And where I think you and I would probably agree, Scott, is that Brethren do neither art nor ethics very…well, artfully.

      Hauerwas and political theorist/community organizer Rom Coles also have a way of short-circuiting “immanent”/”transcendant” binaries, what they call the “radical ordinary,” which I find compelling. (They even take this as a critique to “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor, whose work I otherwise find tremendously helpful from an historical-intellectual perspective.)

      But this is mostly a response to Scott; sorry to derail your post, Christopher! I’ve become increasingly convinced that the Love Feast is about the only “distinctly Brethren” thing that Brethren have left for the very reasons you illustrate here, Scott’s “Presbyterian envy.” So I’m deeply sympathetic to your insistence on grounding worship in the Love Feast. The biblical narrative-shaped, aesthetic-performative qualities of the practice are too rich a treasure to let slide into disuse or uninspired repetition.

      I see this is “Part 1,” so I look forward to the next installment!