Seeing Christ in One Another: The Assembly and Worship

I wrote recently about the experience of worshiping this year in temporary space because of the chapel fire.

One of the biggest blessings for me in this time has been directional.  Our old Chapel was set up, like most Episcopal Churches, so that the entire assembly faced one direction.  Before the changes instituted by the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II, even the priest faced the altar, which was mounted on the  back wall.  I will say, I have worshiped this way, and there is something wonderful about it.  When everyone faces the same direction, you feel like you are all walking somewhere together.  But, there is another blessing when you turn around and face one another.  In our current configuration, we see one another’s faces across the Communion table.  As the priest lifts up the bread and wine, we don’t just see these symbols, we see each other.

This has profound theological meaning.  Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the product and summit of the reform of worship in all of the liturgical churches, stated clearly that Christ is present in the Eucharistic species (read: bread and wine), the word proclaimed, the priest who presides, and in the assembly that “prays and sings.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium I.7)  Not only the word proclaimed, not only the bread and wine, not only the priest/minister, but in the assembly. When we pray the epiclesis, the portion of the prayer that asks the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts, we don’t just pray for bread and wine.  We ask the Spirit to come upon the gathered people.  St. Augustine in a sermon on the Eucharist said: “If, therefore, you all are the Body of Christ and His members, your (plural) mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you all receive your (plural) mystery. To that which you all are, you all answer: `Amen’”  The Body of Christ is not something magical that appears for moments under the form of bread and wine when the right words are said.  The body of Christ is always present whenever “two or three are gathered together in my name” (Matt 18:20).  But I rant.

Scott Chapel
Scott Chapel

Some in the Virginia Seminary Community have expressed their distaste for “seeing other people’s faces when I worship.”  I think this is a problem.  Worship isn’t something we do alone.  We can pray alone, but worship isn’t the time for individual prayer.  Worship, and especially the Eucharist, are about the mystical body of Christ of which we TOGETHER are members.  Seeing each other, we encounter the mystery of Christ.

Our faith comes from a time when the collective, when the village, when the tribe and society were more important than the individual.  In this, Christianity is counter-cultural today.  Our presiding bishop really set off a firestorm when she made the claim, in her 2009 General Convention opening address, that “the great Western heresy” is individualism, that we can be saved as individuals.  The thing is, we’re not.  We are not saved alone.  We are knit into an active, living, moving body of believers.  If we are to worship Christ, we have to look at one another, at least sometimes.

That’s what’s tricky about Christianity, it means we have to work on reconciling one to another.  Christianity calls us to deal with the really hard issues and divisions between us.  Gathering together, looking at one another while we worship, reminds us that building relationship is hard work.  Community is hard work.  Love is hard work.  But it is the gift of God’s presence among us.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

5 thoughts on “Seeing Christ in One Another: The Assembly and Worship

  1. The post and the comments are great. I’d like to add the musings of an off-beat (renegade? no, not exactly) Sister/nun. For years we had choir seating in our chapel – facing each other and not the altar. It bothered me, especially at first. I was a late blooming Christian, and newly minted Episcopalian. The only worship I knew was old fashioned – altar with priest facing it – but it had drawn me into the church, converted me and all too soon revealed a dawning religious vocation. Too much and too fast. Nevertheless, I was there, and face to face (or side by side, or lined up with) other members of the Community everywhere, every day. And I didn’t like it. It interfered with worship, etc, etc. Fortunately, the rule of silence took over, and I learned to accept what I didn’t much like not only in worship but in all the ways that close living with people can get on your nerves. A convent (or monastery) is no way to escape life: you get your nose rubbed in it!

    Today we are in a newly built convent, a beautiful chapel (the old one was beautiful too!) with movable chairs facing the altar. And I find that I miss the faces across the aisle. I am increasingly aware of my need to reach out to my Sisters, not just at the passing of the peace but especially elsewhere, to overcome the handicap of severe loss of hearing for my sake but also for theirs. We do experience unity in chapel as we participate in the offices and Eucharist, but to live out that experience in our daily lives seems to be a constant struggle.

    May you all be blessed in your knowledge of God’s love and in the expression of that love in your lives.

  2. Kyle: I think worship is beyond extroversion/introversion. I think what has happened is people have seen worship as “private prayer time,” in a way that is inauthentic. I think an introvert having a hard time worshiping in choral seating is akin to saying, “It is hard for me to eat dinner at a table where people can watch me eat.” I get that the adjustment may be difficult, but not being able to make the adjustment is problematic. I also think “conflict” in worship style is exactly the hard work of worship. Worship necessitates (and maybe even brings about) dynamic community, community comfortable with pushing one another to grow.

  3. Totally with you, Mike. I love the choir seating. But what do we say to the introverts who continue to press the point that it is difficult for them to worship in this configuration? I’m inclined to agree that there’s an extent to which they’re not appreciating the full theological picture, but so many people have made this point that I worry eventually about a disconnect between what feels to them to be a high-minded matter of liturgical theology versus an experienced pastoral concern impacting their worship. Then again, I guess those kinds of conflict happen at every site and occasion of worship.

  4. I think you are on track!

    I, too am an Episcopalian, although not of a stripe to be particularly fond of our Presiding Bishop.
    But I remember the line from her you quote, the firestorm it created (or rather, fed. The storm was well in place) among folks on ‘my side’ of our present distress; but I think she had a very valid point, if incomplete.

    As the years have progressed, I have become more and more convinced about the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity, and its impact on topics such as this. It seems almost axiomatic that if (or since) God, the fundamental thing in, and prime cause of all existence has the character of being a “Plural-Unity,” distinctly three while indivisibly One, that trait may well show up across things He has made, especially in things He seems to particularly value, in us. Jesus prayed that we would all be one, just as He and the Father are one.

    You of course remember that the two great heresies against the Trinity are to divide the essential Unity, or to fail to acknowledge the individuality of the three Persons.

    I am convinced that His purpose for us is to continue this act of creation in us so as to create us as just such a “plural Unity” Western religion (particularly western protestant Christianity) tends to not discern the unity; Some other religions tend to subsume the individual into the corporate, making the opposite error. But they are both Trinitarian errors.

    With this model, I can well understand the private prayer, private confession, personal acceptance of what God is doing through the work of Jesus, personal salvation –I do have Baptist roots!
    But I can also understand Bp. Schori’s comment, and find the ideas to help me greatly with the idea of what it means to be “in Adam” or “in Christ” – how the Sin of one, or the righteous obedience and sacrifice of the other has actual effects on me.

    My first 20 years as an Anglican were in a Church that was very much taken with the question of corporate worship, corporate life; and what does it mean to say “we are the body of Christ.”
    (This was the “Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal (Houston)), the final chapter of which called for a few posts of my own. But in spite of the ways human sin corrupted the effort, and it seems that we will corrupt any such project, at least until that day!, but the experience of worship that was intensely private, intensely corporate, and arising from an individual encounter with God inside an intensely corporate life, was rich beyond compare. Even for someone whose tastes are far more Cranmer than Charismatic, there was a profundity in that sort of worship that was far more important than simply the “style” of a worship service.

    Please forgive me for at least something of a “hijack” of an important post by you!
    This topic has become something of an obsession for me in this past month as I’ve processed the closing of that parish, and I could go for some pages unless I have a kind hand telling me to “Hey YOU! Knock it OFF!” in the kindest way, of course!

    Blessings on you (That is the plural you!)
    -R. Eric Sawyer

  5. Great post!! I have blogged of late on the issue of Christian fellowship/community. Sometimes genuine fellowship (not just socializing) seems so hard to find. I get discouraged. As an analytical type of person, I’ve tried to figure out why genuine fellowship seems so evasive. Some believers seem caught up in the rat race of life, and just don’t have the time to invest in others. Sadly, I think true fellowship has never even been observed or experienced by some, so they don’t even know what it is or that they are missing it. But I think you may have hit the nail on the head: “…that building relationship is hard work. Community is hard work. Love is hard work. But it is the gift of God’s presence among us.” Thanks for your thoughts. I am a seminary student too.

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