Transformative Liturgy

Volume 46, Issue 2

Recently I participated in the most transformative worship service in my life. It was held at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I say “transformative” because it demonstrated possibilities of imagination I had not experienced. I say “participated” because, although I had no formal role in the service, I felt fully engaged, moved, and impelled by the liturgy. This was the antithesis of the typical passive church experience. All my senses were engaged: sight, sound, intellect, and emotions.

We gathered around a font filled with water. The presider asked us to repeat portions of the Baptismal Covenant. As we moved past the font to our chairs, we baptized ourselves again with the water. Seating was antiphonal, with rows of chairs facing each other. The pulpit was at one end of the space and the altar was at the other. We faced one another as a community, with the liturgical action taking place first at one end, then at the other, and sometimes in the middle. At the Eucharist we all gathered around the altar. During Communion two large drums sounded with deep, sonorous tones that seemed ancient and deeply fundamental to us in relation to God.

I had a similar experience at an annual service of Lessons and Carols, also at EDS. The seating was arranged in a V formation, angled towards the center aisle. The choir was arranged in a shallow arc on the steps to the apse. A few hymns were traditional, sung by the whole gathering; some were medieval, sung by the choir in Latin; some were duets or solos. Song issued from the full congregation in the middle of the space, to the apse, to the organ loft, to the rear of the chapel. The readings ranged from the traditional to poems. While the music and the readings ranged over 2,000 years, there was unity and aesthetic wholeness in their selection.

For me, these experiences raised a question: Why can’t all services be like these, feeding us in so many ways?

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is experiencing modest growth, but much of the country is seeing a decline in adherence. With some exceptions, not many people between 16 and 56 even go to church. One reason, among many, is that the typical Sunday service is frequently boring and takes place in a building that smells musty, is dark, and whose layout stifles creativity, energy, and life.

The EDS Worship Team has a vision to change all that. They are experts in creative liturgy and the imaginative use of space to enable it. They have been brought together in an atmosphere of joy and creativity to make it happen. High standards and the appreciation for excellent music are key ingredients. These experiments are not 1970s, “feel-good,” “hang banners and all will be better” efforts. Rather, they are being tried with thoughtfulness and integrity as well as with spiritual and aesthetic wholeness. They appeal to all the senses and to the intellect. The truly exciting thing is that such experiments have the potential to change the Church and to make it again an exciting and life-giving place.

Not all these experiments will be successful, but enough will be credible models to influence the Church. Seminarians will be sent forth with a thirst to make worship more engaging and with examples of how to do it. The next question: How can we shape space to support these experiments?

The author is a principal in Donham & Sweeney Architects based in Boston.