Tuesday, April 07, 2015

When There Is No There There in a House of Worship

This past Easter Sunday I decided to skip Quaker Meeting and attend a high church Episcopal service instead. My religious past was low church Protestant, as is true for most of the American South. I was raised in a very humble Methodist church with a few ornate trappings here and there, most of which followed the colors of the Christian season, but no holy relics present and a modest, wooden baptismal font. So you might say there’s something exotic about the incense, the Holy Eucharist, the big booming organ, ornate music, and the layer upon layer of liturgy. It is, you might say, the very opposite of Quakerism.

The eccentric, but memorable author Gertrude Stein coined a famous quotation. Following the end of a lengthy speaking tour in the 1930’s, Stein found herself once again in California, intending to visit her childhood home. She discovered, much to her disappointment, she could not find it. In a subsequent book, Stein noted the incident by saying that “there’s no there there.” The quotation has always stuck with me because it has fit so many applications in my life over the passage of time, and for the lives of others as well.

In this context, I’m talking about the failings of unprogrammed Quaker Worship and the people seated in the benches who comprise it. Without priests, without hymns, and without recitations of faith, to name but a few, we are expected to fill in the gaps ourselves. It is an awesome, holy responsibility, one that can never be taken lightly. We are Radical Protestants, and our bloodline runs back to the super-serious Puritans of the 17th Century, whose desire to purify the church took it in a variety of directions, even into Civil War itself. Indeed, our founder, George Fox, was raised in a Puritan household and those strains of his upbringing are often evident in his words and deeds.

History is one thing, but today’s responsibilities are ours. If we don’t take the time to listen closely to the Holy Spirit, we are as Paul wrote, little more than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Or, similarly, we are as Jesus said, babbling like pagans, for we think we will be heard because of our many words. If we saw vocal ministry as a reverent responsibility rather than an automatic reflex, we might understand our duty better.

We may have removed the there there on one level, no longer Anglicans, but in reality, we are called to be that of eternal substance and presence. It may take different forms than what we might call programmed worship, but much as we know, silence is deceptively meaningless to the newcomer. The words we add to Worship are not written down beforehand on a piece of paper or memorized ritual to be recited at some point in a service.

Personally, I think vocal ministry should be delivered with sincerity and without ego. Some of the very best messages I have heard were given by those who were clearly unaccustomed to the practice and very uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience. The right to speak during Meeting for Worship is a right given to each of us. I wish I heard more from others, but some Meetings resemble their earlier incarnations, centuries ago, with a core of seasoned ministers who share ministry regularly.

As I sat and listened quietly, I imagined the church where I spent my Sunday morning being interrupted loudly by George Fox or some other rabble-rousing Quaker. The practice would have seemed rude, as it would have wiped the smiles off of the faces of happy worshipers eager to celebrate the risen Christ. But we must not forget that we are the children of that sort of conduct, believers in true worship, unforgiving of those who we deem as missing the point. What we practice now in unprogrammed worship was defined “Primitive Christianity Revived,” as a later convert named William Penn put it.

In recent decades, we have de-emphasized a strict observance of purity. We’ve become a religious group that seeks to keep its marching shoes well-prepared for use and are eager to follow peace activism. A previous epoch in Quakerism could be harsh, and perhaps we went too far. When, as a strict pacifist faith group, we read out (disowned) those who fought in the Civil War, or read out those who married a non-Quaker, we may have gone too far. But it could be argued that we removed our compass in the process of over-correction, a lacking of compass that sometimes renders messages in Worship a rehash of NPR stories or an activist's koan.

Taking ourselves too seriously is a problem every house of worship must confront. We may not take our Worship too seriously, but sometimes our private causes are often given the status of idolatry, substituted in place of God. Whether we prefer it to be this way or not, Quakerism is a complicated faith that demands much of us. In truth, it always did, even as we've softened some of the harshest bits. Some might see our faith as ridiculous, to think that a group of laypeople without even a single seminary class could convey the majesty of God. Done well, we can prove our doubters wrong. Done poorly, they have a point.

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