Liturgy for Lent: The Eucharist: Too Much Structure?

Mike: We talked in the last post about the WHY of Eucharist. Now I think we should talk about the HOW. You’ve expressed to me a discomfort with how much structure we have. I think we need structure. I think it helps sometimes to think of liturgies like poetry. Different kinds of poetry have different rules, different ways of rhyming, different lengths of lines, different rhythms. You can break iambic pentameter every once in awhile, but you can’t throw the structure out entirely and have a recognizable sonnet. Jason, as someone who grew up in evangelical circles, how does all this structure around Eucharist strike you? Does poetry help as a metaphor?

Jason: Sort of. Like you said, I did grow up around informal, impromptu and abbreviated liturgies in celebration of the Lord’s Table. In the Episcopal church, the Liturgy of the Table can be beautiful! Yet, it often feels lengthy and insincere. As I hope our last post makes clear, this practice means a lot to me. Because of that I would like those that lead us into the practice to feel the same way.

Mike: I think you’re right, authenticity and sincerity are key. I wrote a post about preaching a few weeks ago when I railed against “preacher voice.” The only thing to me worse than “preacher voice” from a pulpit is the fake sounding “stained-glass voice” that some priests use when celebrating. That said, the Eucharistic Prayers that you’re worried go on too long are usually officially approved texts. I’ll give you that some of the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer and especially in the supplemental Enriching Our Worship do feel too long to me. I don’t often use them for that reason.

Jason: Does this mean that everything in the service, with the exception of hymns and homilies, are to be read verbatim? As a priest, then, how do you make this feel genuine?

Mike: Officially, yes. The Book of Common Prayer is an authorized liturgical text. The printed words are our Common Prayers. We are meant to use them verbatim each week. The other side of the coin is the old adage that the rubrics (liturgical rules) are there to protect the people from the whims of the pastor. I’ve been in services where I’ve wished they would have stuck to a book, because the prayer that the pastor made up made me uncomfortable. I think to make liturgy feel genuine, the prayers have to be “Common” and still somehow the priest has to own them for herself. That means some adaptation, but I’m pretty conservative about how we go about the adaptation. I think we need to make any big changes together in dialogue, with more than just my opinions being heard. (Shocking, I know.)

Jason: I feel like I should make clear that I deeply appreciate reciting and praying the same things week to week. But I also feel a tension with doing things with sincerity of delivery, in terminology that people actually understand and a length folks can tolerate. Make sense?

Mike: It does make sense. I have to admit, I have a love/hate relationship with our structure. I love the predictability and consistency of the Prayer Book, but sometimes the metaphors, especially for God, are a little old-school. Our Reform Jewish sisters and brothers just released their new prayer book. In their new book they have prayers that address God as a “Holy Presence who spreads Her wings over you.” The linked article talks a bit about another supplemental book The Episcopal Church has just released for Daily Prayers. In our next post, let’s talk a little bit about what some Episcopalians (mistakenly) call “Rite III,” the outline of “An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist” that allows for experimentation with liturgy for the sake of honoring a specific culture or context. This “Order”/Outline also distills the essential elements of the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Published by Mike Angell

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

3 thoughts on “Liturgy for Lent: The Eucharist: Too Much Structure?

  1. “preacher voice” and “stained glass voice” are verrry good descriptions of something that has bothered me for yearrrsss!! couldnt really put a name to it, but these are perfect! Can we just be real??!! thank you for insight and naming this!

  2. The new Reform prayer book is for High Holy Days, I don’t think they’ve changed the others yet (they have weekday, Shabbat and festivals books) but they use words like “the Eternal” in the older/current prayer books, which is just lovely and I wish we could adapt our BCP to include more views than the male gender …

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