Happy Clappy

FireworksLast weekend was a long weekend for those of us in Auckland: Auckland Anniversary weekend, to be precise. Now usually I don’t plan my holidays very well in advance and this one was no exception. In fact, it turned out that I planned my holiday so poorly that I didn’t actually have one.

I had, instead, agreed (in collaboration with my friend Alastair) to prepare the church service for that Sunday.

Now, it’s a great honour to be asked to do something like this and so I do take it seriously. It does mean a great deal of work, though, particularly around choosing the songs. If you choose a song that’s too old, then you scare away the young people (we have far too few of them at our church as it is). If you choose songs with too much “he”, “him” and “father” business, you upset the Lesbians (and we have too few of those as well). If you change the words to someone’s favourite song, however, you’re going to have a grumpy old man on your hands. Frankly though, we have quite a few of those at our church, so we can afford to ruffle a few feathers from time to time.

And ruffle some feathers we did! This particular Sunday was scheduled to be a “freestyle” service. Now, that’s not a type of swimming, writing or pornography. More precisely, it refers to the kind of liturgy that we follow (or don’t, as the case may be).

What’s a liturgy? Well, usually, when we refer to a “liturgical” service, we mean a service with a rigid format or structure: the priest says “peace be with you” the congregation says “and also with you”. If you’ve ever been to a Catholic service and found yourself marvelling at how everyone can say and do the right things in perfect unison, you’ve experienced a form of liturgy.

Most of the services at my church are “liturgical”. Specifically, they follow the Anglican liturgical format. Some of our congregation, however, find these so-called liturgical services boring and not very relevant to them. I guess this is because so many people have grown up in an orthodox tradition that they feel let them down and so they’re not too keen to repeat the experience. Personally, I love the Anglican liturgical services, probably because they’re so different to the Pentecostal tradition from my own childhood. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.

Because of this deeply felt need for variety, every now and again, we try to do a “freestyle”, “non-liturgical” service. “Non-liturgical” is a bit of a misnomer, however, because the literal Greek meaning of the word “leitourgia” just means “public work” and refers to a well defined public ceremony.

This relates to my developing theory about church services: when we prepare a church service, we don’t really do it for God’s benefit. If you go to church thinking it’s because you’re making God happy I think you’re fooling yourself. If I wanted to organise something for God’s benefit, I’d ask people to cook dinner for a single mother, build a house for a poor family, or spend half a day talking to people in an old aged home. Singing songs and chanting special words while eating & drinking magic bread & wine is not going to make God feel all warm & fuzzy.

The goal of a service is to give the congregation (the people attending the service) some sense of spiritual connection. A connection that they feel they can’t achieve on their own. How do we achieve that? Well, by some form of production, a theatrical production set to a very carefully calibrated formula: a liturgy, for lack of a better word.

Some people respond well to the measured Catholic or Anglican liturgies, some prefer the more Pentecostal services (replete with altar call and speaking in tongues), but all of these services are still liturgical in that they all are some form of “public work” that follows a script, even if that script is “sing for an hour with your hands in the air till you feel God is speaking to you”.

Now, it sounds like I am cynical, and perhaps I am to a certain degree, but I take my responsibility as preparer very seriously: the church body has been clamouring for a more “freeform” service for quite some time and I was going to do my utmost to deliver it.

So, we threw out all the existing liturgical stuff, replacing it with modern songs. We replaced a Bible reading with some poetry and did away with a whole lot of other things (including the ordained minister to preside over proceedings). The only problem with this is someone has to be around to maintain continuity. That someone, regrettably, turned out to be me.

I took my position at the front of the church, trying hard to remember how my Baptist ministers had done it in the past. As I stood there in the front of the beautiful old church, my eyes closed, my face red with exertion and a little embarrassment, my hands raised skywards in my best imitation of a Pentecostal worshipper, I wondered if this had been God’s intention for me all along.

The end result was quite gratifying: a great many people came up to me after the service and said they were so happy for the change, that it was long overdue and they wanted more services like that. Only one member of our congregation walked out on the service and that was kind of expected. Dear Alan has a very clear idea of how a good quality service is to be run and it would involve Gregorian chants more than modern-day Hillsongs.

But then again, that is one of the reasons I like my church: Peter’s idea of a great service involves a colourful delve into a hermeneutic exegesis of some obscure passage in the Bible. Charles’ idea of a great service involves a lot of sitting quietly while incense wafts at you from all sides. I would prefer a whole service filled with nothing but song and Bob would probably want us all to stand in a circle and pray for each other.

“You mean you were happy clappy this Sunday” Mom exclaimed. Even over the phone the disappointment in her voice was palpable. “Yes, Mom, but we don’t do it like that all the time”. It’s a good thing too, it takes a great deal of energy to prepare and run a happy clappy service, after all. I look forward to my peace and quiet (and perhaps a Gregorian chant) next Sunday.