Liturgy for Lent: Moments of Transition

Mike: Let’s turn for a moment from Eucharist. I think we’ll still do a supplemental post on Eucharistic prayers, but I want to talk about the other moments in the prayer book. If you look at the order of the services in the prayer book, there’s a sense of order that emerges. After the daily office, services start to line up along the trajectory of human life. Baptism is followed by Eucharist. Next comes Confirmation or commitment to Christian Service, Marriage, Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child, Reconciliation (confession), Anointing the Sick, Ministration at the time of Death, and Burial. I always found it funny that after burial came ordination… I’d like to cover the big ones: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Burial. The prayer book seeks to accompany the faithful through meaningful transitions in life. In the church make the changes in life the liturgical work of faith.

Jason: During the ‘80’s and ‘90’s it became hugely popular in many evangelical churches to organize ministry around stages of life. Over time, this often became a ministry model of siloed age groups. Households went their separate ways upon arriving at church. On the heels of this era, I think what we’ve learned is that marking stages of life is more important than organizing around stages of life. The marking of stages of life is a very ancient, cross-cultural habit that many are rediscovering. And the integration of age groups in church programing is something we’ve found to be true, at least with young adults, in a study we did the Diocese of Washington last year. Mike, can you take us through how this occurs in the Episcopal Church?

Mike: Baptism really helped re-shape the 1979 Prayer Book. The framers of these liturgies wanted us to see baptism as THE initiation into the faith. It’s pretty obvious from the service that they had in mind adult candidates being baptized at the Easter Vigil. However, baptism is still usually performed in infancy in The Episcopal Church. We baptize babies, and their godparents and parents make promises for them. What is new for this prayer book, and has started to influence other churches is the idea of a Baptismal Covenant (pages 304-305). Ancient Christians had to profess the Creed to be baptized. The Baptismal Covenant returns to that pattern, and adds a series of promises about the Christian life to the liturgical work of the candidates. The idea is that we are a people shaped by our baptism. We return to this Covenant again and again in the liturgical year, to remember who we are as a people.

Jason: I baptized my two oldest children in the Pacific Ocean when they each decided they were ready to choose to live by such a covenant. Infant baptism is new for me. Nonetheless, I deeply appreciate how the Baptismal Covenant is framed in the Episcopal Church. It’s all about discipleship!

As you know, Brooke and I are planning to go through Confirmation. Can you unpack Confirmation a little?

Mike: For years Confirmation has been called “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Dr. Lisa Kimball from Virginia Seminary is part of a Lilly funded grant program to study confirmation across several denominations. She wrote a great post about the potential for confirmation in the lives of young people. Still, Confirmation is one of the biggest issues in this prayer book. Lisa points out in her post the contradictions written into the liturgies of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Part of what gives Confirmation life is that it is a ceremony reserved for bishops.  Confirmations can only be performed by a bishop, and the bishop represents the wider church. For most teenagers, and adult converts, confirmation is their first liturgical exposure to the “big church,” that is to the wider body of believers they belong to.

Jason: Lisa is incredible! Glad you sited her. Going back to that word ‘discipleship’ I like that confirmation takes membership in the church family seriously. It isn’t flippant. This is not a social club. It’s much more than that. It’s a way of life. As a priest, what is one of these stage-of-life marking moments that you appreciate the most?

Mike: One of the gifts of being a priest is getting to preside at weddings. I’ve really enjoyed that part of the work, and I’m really looking forward to where our denomination is going this summer around opening the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. There is one moment in our service that I think captures the sense of a liturgical wedding. Just after the bride and groom consent to take each other as husband and wife, the celebrant turns to the whole congregation. She asks, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” The congregation responds enthusiastically (if the celebrant coached them well at the rehearsal): “We will.” This moment captures the whole idea of liturgy. It helps us to understand that yes, marriage is in some ways a private relationship, but we bless marriages in public because there is a public dimension. We need one anothers’ support and prayers. I remember seeing newly married friends of ours sit on your porch when we used to live in San Diego. They were looking for you advice as someone who had been married awhile. Now that I’m married, I’ve turned to you more than once for pointers. Marriage helps us understand that the big moments in Christian life need the support of community. Marriage is public work.

Jason: After you left the east coast, Brooke and I found ourselves in a new place with zero community. (No guilt trip intended, friend) It was certainly one of the hardest moments in our marriage until we started developing a new circle of friends in DC. It does take a community to build a marriage. I’ve seen isolation kill more marriages than I’d like to admit. What you articulated, Mike, is one of the great gifts of being married within a Christian community. I could go on about this but let’s move on! We’ve talked about some of the happier moments of life that Church marks for us. What else?

Mike: Walking together through illness and death can be a profoundly sacred journey. When people ask why they should join a church, I often want to say “if you don’t, and you end up sick, who will visit you in the hospital?” I often come up with another reason or two to share first, because this comes off a little morbid. But I think it is one of the most important gifts of a faith community. We are a people who acknowledge that this life is finite, that suffering and sickness are real. We have faith that death is not the end of the story, that life continues in God. In moments of sickness and death, liturgy helps makes meaning of confusing and frightening life circumstances. In the burial liturgy we pray the ancient prayer, “Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Praying liturgy together through loss can help us make meaning, and remember our faith.

Jason: Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

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

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