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Sunday, January 30, 2011


This Sunday, I attended a different service at a congregation which I have visited previously. It is amazing what one first notices when not present to do an evaluation, yet when the critical faculties kick in anyway.

There was an interesting processional cross which is certainly unique and would end the anonymity of the congregation, so I will not describe it, but it meant my first notice-taking was positive.

The presider was in alb, cincture, and stole, very traditional and not in any way distracting. Except, the cincture drooped under his belly in a very unflattering way. “Does he not look at himself in a mirror,” I wondered.

Unfortunately for my concentration, he now had my attention. What disappointing ways he used to lead the liturgy!

There were the multiple books and loose papers he handled or balanced on the end cap of the sedile. There was the indecisive positioning facing the corner of the crossing rather than the altar, congregation, or some point of devotion. There was the one handed position while praying, instead of using one of the many assisting ministers or an available lectern to hold the texts. There was the mono-tonal and eyes-down reading of the presider's prayers.

When he got to the altar later, there was no visible consistency about what his hands were doing. Why did he switch between orans and other postures? Why hold the bread above his eye level for breaking?

Finally, I got my mind off him. That was not why I came to church, even though these were things I could not help but notice.

There was, however, a final distraction. Glancing at the congregational handout. I saw that the ministers were named under the heading, “Liturgical Participants”.

The essence of the liturgical reforms of the past half century is that all Christians present are participants in the celebration. Usually a failure to understand this is indicated by describing the presider as “the celebrant” [as today's handout also did] as if the congregation were mere observers for a one-person party.

This handout was worse, presenting the entire group in the front, on stage so to speak, as if they were performing a show for an audience of non-participants.

The key phrase of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the liturgy of Vatican II which put so much ecumenical liturgical theory on the road to implementation, was “full, conscious, and active participation of all present.” If Christians can not get this right, how far have we advanced from the Levitical priesthood and its sacrifices? Without such a sense of participation, we have a clericalized ritual instead of a communal prayer!

Please, kind readers, do not take me to task in your comments for being judgmental toward this poor cleric and his well intentioned editorial staff. Rather, look upon this as an example of the need for evaluation of every presider and every order of service as conducted in each congregation.

If we do not evaluate, how can we improve? If only those who plan also evaluate what they have done, how can they see what they have completely missed? If the same person or category of persons always does the evaluation, what areas of expertise are not being consulted?

It was actually an average or better than average service this Sunday. It just could have been so much better if the details of the presentation were given more attention. 
The few criticisms above are not a fair and balanced evaluation. They are just what one person cross-trained in liturgy and theater noticed without intending to make any comments.
SEDILE: one of the seats on the south side of the chancel, often recessed, for the use of the officiating clergy
ORANS: with outstretched arms and palms up in a gesture of prayer, cf. Exodus 17: 10-13
LEVITICAL: of or pertaining to the Levites, the tribe which provided the priests for ancient Israel

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