This is the second episode of a series of articles written for the website in which our Rector Tony Billett tries to explain some of the reasons behind why we do unusual rituals and actions in worship. He sets the ‘story’ within a fictitious setting called St. Jarman – a collection of Anglican parishes in South Norfolk trying to operate a minster model at the start of 21st century. All the characters exist only within his over-imaginative mind and are not copies of real people.
Abbot Anthony was waiting for the knock on his door. He was expecting Brother Markus who was coming for his second session about why the religious houses belonging to the benefice of St. Jarman insisted that all should stand at the start of their worship. Abbot Anthony had thought long and hard about what he was going to say to this younger member who had no background in what he had concluded as ‘fussy and unnecessary actions’ in their common worshipping life. Earlier in the day the abbot’s priestly colleague Prioress Wendy – the leading female priest of the benefice – had voiced a concern about the very subject. Being a deeply pastoral person, and always keen to show thoughtfulness to the brothers and sisters in her care, she wondered whether such a practice should continue given the age and physical being of many of the members. ‘To stand, for some, is proving very difficult’, she had noted and, not unreasonably, wanted Anthony to think about changing it. Everyone was entitled to have a reason, and with Markus’ arrival, Abbot Anthony had the chance to clarify his own thinking and reasons for continuing it.
But the knock did not herald brother Markus. The person who opened the door at the Abbot’s invitation was Sister Sarah who wanted to justify to the Abbot her reasons for leaving the benefice for a new church community. Sarah had for some time been finding the worshipping life dull and ‘not meeting her needs’. People outside the benefice had told her that she should be enjoying her worship and that it should meet all her needs. That it did not was an indication, according to her friends, that for her own sake she should move to a community where she could get what she wanted. Don’t stay somewhere where you are not being fed properly was their advice, so she had come to tell the Abbot of her intentions.
Abbot Anthony listened with some sadness. For some time he had known of her discontent and was hoping to find the right occasion to ask her about her feelings, but the opportunity had never arisen. After she had finished telling him of her decision Anthony said, ”On the day of our baptism we were all introduced into the Christian community that welcomed us as a gift of the Holy Spirit. As a result of this we slowly grow into the life of the community and learn the joy of being ‘us’. All Christians are ‘communitarians’ who live in the image of the Holy Trinity; each of us never lives alone, since whoever is in Christ is a member of the communion. This is why we can call ourselves brothers and sisters. When we gather in the sacred space to worship we live the life of those who are united in the name of the Lord. Our assemblies breathe the divine not because we have not chosen to be there but because we believe we have been called. Jesus has snatched us from our loneliness, our egos and emotions, things which enclose us in our brief and limited horizons, and places us in a world with no human boundaries only the endless possibilities of eternity. Worship is about singing the ‘we’ of the Trinity and not the ‘me’ of myself. In worship ‘me’ should be the very last thing on our minds because we need to breathe the air of the Trinity in order to know eternity”.
“My dear Sarah,” the Abbot continued, “I am sorry you have come to the decisions that you have but I wonder if you might have forgotten your calling from God to be with him in his community and not just to be somewhere where you can indulge yourself? Please promise me you will take one last look at your motives and think about the call to breathe the air of the Trinity. If your needs are so great to do what you feel called to do then may God go with you where you may begin again to desire to be in the Trinity. Worship is about changing the heart and understanding that this is always done with others and not just for yourself.”
At that moment a second knock came on the Abbot’s door preventing him from saying any more. As Sarah left and Markus entered an exchange between the two younger members was noticed by the Abbot. The look was understandable. Both were new to the community, and being much more grounded in the culture of the day than Anthony, both found the ‘older outlook’ confusing and irrelevant. Anthony wondered if it had always been thus. He remembered his own Abbot Lewis, who constantly shook his head at the questions he had asked when first joining the Christian community. Like Markus, Anthony was always searching for meaning. But then he remembered how patient Lewis had been with him, and how gentle he was with thoughts and opinions which he himself had put forward when less aware of the rich theology that had shaped the Christian Church. ‘Yes, I thought I was right once’ he reminded himself, and faintly smiled as he looked Markus in the eye. ‘Why do we do all this standing Markus?’ he asked. “Let’s begin.”