As a longtime member of AP and reader of OPEN, I remember critical reviews of worship at General Conventions, although a quick search did not uncover such reviews for 1997 or 1994. When the editor asked me to review General Convention worship this year, it was clear that as a first-time convention- goer it would be a challenge. Planning worship for ordinations and diocesan conventions has been a frequent responsibility, but the question of scale and the related issues of distance and immediacy were in striking contrast to my diocesan experience. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to plan daily worship for two to three thousand people; it is good that someone has learned, and I hope that Associated Parishes Council member, Clay Morris, who was responsible for the overall design and the detailed planning, is writing a handbook for those who eventually will come after him.
Beginning with Wednesday, July 5th, the first full day of the convention, and continuing until the last legislative day, Friday, July 14th, there were celebrations of the Holy Eucharist at which Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold preached, various bishops presided, and deacons and lay persons exercised the liturgical ministries of their orders. Members of the convention community were seated at some three hundred circular tables of ten, so that there might be some sense of intimacy and an opportunity for sharing in the large convention hall set aside for worship.
As one entered from the lobby passing under a huge banner of the face of Christ (which closer examination revealed as composed of small photographs of many individuals), there were large glass bowls of water, presumably blessed, which recalled our baptism and which were for many an occasion for blessing oneself. The large hall itself was used in its plain state rather than decorated to look like “church.” Centered at the far end was a large raised platform with the altar, pulpit, several tall candles, and seats for the chancel party. Attention was focused on this sanctuary by a number of banners which proclaimed “Jubilee” and showed more faces. A large cross commissioned for this occasion was carried by two acolytes in processions and placed in a stand on the platform during worship. On each table were found a daily service book with the music and texts for the day’s service, as well as a smaller leaflet with additional information about the day or about the remaining daily services. Each of the leaflets contained the following statement of explanation:
When we gather in corporate worship, we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments. Book of Common Prayer, page 857
It is with that thought in mind that the worship for the 73rd General Convention of the Episcopal Church has been planned. The liturgies that mark these days seek to embrace the richness of our heritage as they explore the directions in which the Holy Spirit is calling the church to move in the future. Several fundamental assumptions have guided the design of our common worship–
With these fundamental points in mind, the planning committee has sought to keep the worship of Convention simple, appropriate to the gathering and the space, and to provide symbols that are visual and tactile reminders of who we are and to whom we belong.
- a commitment to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the challenge of the Baptismal Covenant,
- an acknowledgment that extraordinary gatherings should not attempt to replicate the worship of a local faith community,
- an awareness that essentials should not be overwhelmed by non-essentials.
This parish priest found this statement and convention worship in consonance with each other and setting a standard which all liturgical believers might hope to emulate in their local assemblies. For all its dated character, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer gives a rubrical pattern which could transform our worship. It is my observation that few parishes or clergy have fully applied that pattern, but where they have, worship is indeed rich and enriching.
In Denver this simple structure was fleshed out with a wide variety of liturgical and musical sources. A variety of musical groups and styles were balanced with appropriate congregational music. The electronic organ was of an appropriate scale and used with sensitivity.
The texts of the service and music were drawn from a variety of sources. There was no discernible lectionary used for the readings; they had apparently been selected in consultation with the preacher as appropriate to the occasion. The eucharistic prayers used from Rite II and from the supplemental texts moved from one to another on subsequent days with ease and comfort. This reviewer was struck by the way they all seemed to be “of a piece” with different emphases and images, but all clearly thanking God for life, love, redemption, and the hope which moves us into the future. The attention given in recent years to enriching Episcopal worship has clearly been of value.
Four areas around the edge of the hall were designated as communion stations. The loaves of substantial whole wheat bread and flagons of wine were at the stations on tables as the service began. During the offertory they were carried to the altar and placed on tables flanking the main altar where the celebrant was able to visually include them in the offering of the eucharistic prayer. During the fraction anthems, which were suitable hymns which varied from day to day, the ministers of communion went to the platform, retrieved the consecrated elements, and arranged themselves in a spacious fashion at the stations. (Communions for roughly 3000 people took about ten minutes.)
It is hard to fault the worship of convention. A few voices were raised in protest of the limited amount of ethnic variety in texts and music, as well as the liturgical ministers. There is some validity to the criticism, but one can also observe that the worship accurately expressed the overwhelming Anglo character of those at the convention.
Sunday, July 9th, was the United Thank Offering Ingathering in an adjoining large hall, with the Rt. Rev. Simon Chiwanga as preacher. There were no tables or discussion, but with these exceptions the service was much as the weekdays. A massive choir, a very large contingent of young people, and Episcopalians from local congregations swelled the throng to near 10,000, but one was not aware of being overwhelmed, except by processions of bishops and UTO representatives which could not be seen by most of the congregation.
Perhaps readers would like a sidebar or two describing other opportunities for worship. One evening a large crowd jammed St. John’s Cathedral for the Integrity Eucharist. Where the convention worship was low-key and, with the table conversations, somewhat discursive, this service was full-blown, no holds barred, exuberant high mass. Huge processions with incense pots swinging, familiar hymns sung with full voice, a stimulating sermon by Bishop Steven Charleston, and a massive concelebration made no secret of the fact that Integrity, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and their friends were ready to fly.
At the other extreme were the daily masses celebrated in a nearby hotel at the same time as the Convention Eucharist and discussion. The one service I attended was in a hotel meeting room arranged and arrayed like a 1950s parish church. A Rite I celebration of the “Vigil of the Holy Angels” featured hymns clearly photocopied from the Hymnal 1940, three male ministers, and a congregation of some 75 people. If folk really felt it necessary to worship by themselves, the way the service was done clearly said more about them than it did about convention worship.
The convention worship was clearly and carefully planned to set the tone of the convention, and may well have gone a long way to help the business move as it did. Although there were no blinding insights about different ways to do things on the local scene, this was not intended as “show and tell.” The major learning was perhaps that we’ve come a long way with how we worship, and that when convention is ready to fund substantial revision and enrichment of the Book of Common Prayer there is a new consensus of what worship can be like. I’m finding it hard to wait.