Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2
By Christopher J. Montgomery
Read part one of this series…
Early Brethren meetinghouses arranged their liturgical furniture in a rectangular or circular fashion. The benches faced inward to emphasize the community of believers gathered for worship. The presiders, often a panel of elders and ministers, occupied a bench as part of the group. There was no hierarchy of status, only a distinction of role. God’s presence was manifest in the faces of assembly.
Our first step was to re-arrange our liturgical furniture in this manner. Guided by our heritage and the prevalence of Table imagery in the biblical narrative, the pews were detached and removed. Of the 28 pews on the floor level of our chapel, we retained 11. The remaining pews were stored in the back portion of the chapel underneath the balcony. Our worship space transformed from a long rectangle to a square. The pews were positioned in a circle facing two tables joined as a “T.” These tables held dual representation: the section holding the Bible and cross (from which the presider would lead), representing the remembrance of God’s revelation in story and symbol; and the section holding the meal elements, including bread, cup, towel and basin (representative of Love Feast), and three candles representing the presence of the Triune God in the assembly’s midst. Each table was covered with purple paraments, the liturgical color for Lent. The tables were to serve as a visual representation of the larger Table of God, realized as part of the Love Feast celebration and now as part of weekly worship. We positioned the presider’s chair, formerly on the elevated chancel, as part of the circle to represent the shared presence of God and ecclesial authority in the midst of the assembly. The musicians were also included in an opening in the circle to accompany the congregation’s song.
The shifted pew arrangement in the chapel resulted in the elimination of our projection and screen. The reduction in technological dependence created anxiety in some, particularly because of an increased amount of paper being used each week in the printing of the bulletin. All prayers and song texts that were normally projected were now included in a 6 page folded bulletin. In our initial conversations, I encouraged the congregation to make use of the bulletin for their personal devotional practice during the week. I drew their attention to the ancient breviary, an abbreviated form of the worship used by priests and deacons for personal worship.
Engaging the Scriptures Together
The new pew arrangement involved a rethinking of proclamation and the delivery of the sermon. Since the entire worship space faced inward as a circle, there was no place to stand where the presider faced the entire congregation (except seated in the presider’s chair as part of the circle). In the week leading up to the first worship service in-the-round, I began practicing with various ways of delivering the sermon and addressing the congregation. Standing at the table portion containing the open Bible was one option, though it meant that my back was to part of the group. I decided to approach the act of proclamation as I was approaching the entire liturgical event itself: ecclesiologically. If the authority of the presider comes from the assembly where the presence of God is manifest, the work of telling the stories of Scripture and engaging the community in its interpretation must also be rooted in the actual gathered assembly. This meant adopting a conversational approach to the sermon.
The work in preparing for this method of delivery began in the research. Rather than preparing a written transcript as I was accustomed to do for the past several years, I spent that time immersed in the topic itself. I engaged in reading, reflection, and conversation with a small group of persons for the purpose of preparing for communal engagement. I then approached the delivery of the sermon conversationally. Our worship series during Lent focused on the parables of Jesus from Luke’s gospel, traveling with Jesus through Samaria to Jerusalem. This content provided the necessary framework from which to present the Scriptures. I memorized each parable to present as a story-teller, circling the table and addressing the congregation while moving. The interpretive work of the parable each week proceeded with full community engagement. Questions were asked, discussions enabled. The deep work in research allowed me to serve as the guide for the discussion, threading component parts together (either in circling the table or from a seated position in the presider’s chair). The conversation would lead into moments of silence for reflection, leading then into our day’s prayer for change. The interpreting of the Scripture became a communal act.
The Ritual Meal
As part of the emphasis on the biblical Table image and socio-spatial awareness, we participated in the ritual meal weekly during this project. Though the Brethren have historically limited their participation in Eucharistic activity to the Love Feast (or a handful of additional times annually), our specific context includes those from more liturgical traditions. Our group, though divided evenly on whether to engage in weekly Table communion, agreed to treat it as an exercise in submission and forbearance.
I decided to broaden our understanding of the meal service at the Table. Using our Anabaptist emphasis on the life and example of Jesus, I explored ways to move from an exclusive focus on the Last Supper in Eucharistic practice to involve the entire meal tradition of Jesus seen throughout the Gospels (which included the Last Supper narrative). This approach to content, coupled with the traditional Eucharistic prayer form of the historic church (the Great Thanksgiving), served to fuse our ecumenical leanings with our mandate to speak liturgically with a distinctly Brethren voice.
For the first three weeks of the ritual meal service, the congregation stood around the Table. This presented a physical difficulty for many as we attempted to pass the trays of bread and cups to each other while also holding our worship orders. In the final weeks, we adapted by gathering around the table for the sursum corda (opening greeting for communion) following the passing of the peace, and then returning to our seats. To maintain an Anabaptist ecclesiological perspective, we shared the bread and cup in pairs. One person from each pair would come to the table to retrieve a small wooden tray which held two cups and an unbroken fragment of bread for sharing. When each person returned to their seats with the elements, I led the congregation in the recitation of our sharing line (“Bread/Cup of heaven, hope of the earth”). This proved to be a more effective method of engaging in the meal service.
It became clear to the congregation’s key leadership over the course of our exploration together that our tradition’s emerging practice of forbearance and submission took greater shape in liturgical exercises. Those who may have been opposed to weekly Table service or engaging in worship in-the-round willingly submitted their preferences to those who found it particularly meaningful. We discovered that while some experienced the presence of God most fully in the music or silence, others experienced God’s presence in the bread and cup. While some found circular seating distracting, others discovered new joy in seeing the faces of each other as an act of worship. For many, the horizontality and verticality of the worship act met in the choice to seek the betterment of each other through self-limiting. Though none of us walked away from the experience with a complete worship service we would want each week, we discovered that we were engaging in the actions of liturgy that we needed as a community. Our joy in loving God was realized in our willingness to love each other.
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.