By the Rev. Canon Patrick Wingo
While on vacation recently, I had the opportunity to go to a fundraiser. The purpose of the fundraiser is not what I’ve been reflecting on since that night. What stood out about this event, at least to me, is the effect that particular Saturday evening – and the following Sunday morning – had on my thinking about our churches.
The event was held at a place where my family and I have spent many summers, and many other families come back to this place year after year. Most of us know each other, and we care about this place we return to. We are not unlike a congregation. That particular Saturday evening, about 120 of us gathered to share food and drink, and to hear four talented musicians play a two-hour concert. We sat at tables around a low stage, watching four men in their 60s tell stories, play country music, and banter with each other and with us. These guys are Nashville fixtures: Three of them are songwriters and the other is an internationally acclaimed harmonica player. These are not the names you see on the charts or who perform at the Country Music Association awards; these are the guys who write the songs that become hits. But boy, are they talented.
The two hours they entertained us were touching, funny, beautiful, meaningful and in some way uniting. We laughed together, shed a tear or two together, and had a wonderful time as we heard songs about love, the importance of place, family, friends and even a street. The songs touched our hearts and there was an intimacy that doesn’t often happen in big groups. It was about all the joys, hope, sorrows and pains that life brings. By hearing their voices and their stories, we experienced a bit more of our deepest humanity than what we felt when we arrived at the venue. And I would say that somewhere in that we experienced a bit more of God.
The next morning, many of the same people gathered together for a Sunday morning worship service, again in a place that we have come back to over and over. One of the men who had entertained us the night before preached. We sang old, familiar hymns. A collection was received, although I’m sure the total was far less than what had been collected at the fundraiser concert the night before. That service had every opportunity to be as touching and meaningful and alive with God as the night before – but something was missing.
I’ve thought about the two events, and I have realized that both of them were liturgy. One definition of liturgy, found on the website of the Episcopal Church, says this: “Liturgy is a public and social event. It engages our lives and faith, our thoughts, feelings, hopes and needs -especially our need for salvation in Christ.” Certainly the Saturday night songwriters were able to do this; indeed, to a certain extent, they even expressed our need for salvation in Christ. After all, country music needs God to be effective as much as it needs pick-up trucks and beer. The troubling part for me was that I think it was done better than the Sunday morning liturgy.
The late Terry Holmes, who was the dean of the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tenn., from 1973 until his death in 1981, once wrote this: “When Anglicanism is at its best, its liturgy, its poetry, its music and its life can create a world of wonder in which it is very easy to fall in love with God.” The Saturday night event created a world very close to that about which Holmes has written. The Sunday morning liturgy I attended – not so much.
And this is my fear about which I came to a deeper understanding in that 18-hour period: that we’re not creating that distinctively Anglican/Episcopalian world of wonder in our liturgies, and people are looking for and sometimes finding that world elsewhere. Of course, there are almost innumerable reasons why our Church and others have had difficulty over the last few decades, and there is a noticeable shift in American culture away from institutional religion. But I believe, as a former bishop I served under put it, that the Episcopal Church is “the best kept secret in Christendom.” We have all the pieces to create that world of wonder: an open, honest theology that asks questions rather than prescribes answers; liturgy that has ancient roots (something that the Millennial generation is attracted to), but is adaptable and flexible; and music and preaching that can touch hearts when prepared and performed well.
I don’t write to criticize. But I do write because, while I’ve been talking about this topic around our Diocese for a couple of years, I’ve never come up with a metaphor that, for me anyway, makes it clear where we are in our denominational life. The altars and pulpits of country music can teach us a lot about ourselves and why we do what we do. But while they can move us, the Church has proven over its 2,000-year history that we can create a world of wonder that makes it easy to fall in love with God, and in doing so change lives, and indeed change the world. Let’s not keep that secret any longer.
Pat Wingo is canon to the ordinary on the diocesan staff.