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Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Here are some notes from watching the Super Bowl and noticing what the liturgically-trained theater-person could not help but notice.

There was another national anthem disaster. This has happened many times before, yet some people still get upset. Consider that this might be because a ritual moment was turned into a personal expression by an entertainer.

Instead of delivering the song of praise for this moment of civil religion, Christina Aguilera attempted to demonstrate personal style and artistic creativity, to draw attention to herself. One can do that in a ritual moment only if one is simultaneously delivering the expected words. For a national anthem, the melody must be recognizable also.

For the half-time show, the person who had the biggest job was the director. Can you imagine how many hours of rehearsal time were involved in putting all the pieces together? How far in advance did the director have to inform the producer and technical staff what equipment was needed? How much effort, before rehearsal, went into making sure all the physical pieces went together? How much planning went into moving people and things so that everybody got where they needed to be exactly when they needed to be there? How far in advance did parts of the stage have to begin moving in order to deliver the next performer exactly on cue? Did you notice that the audience never had to wait for someone to get in place? That there were no pauses or hesitations?

Whether one liked the entertainment content or not, the presentation had one continuous flow overall and from one element to another. Does anyone at your parish work on maintaining such a smooth flow for your services? Do all know their cues and begin as soon as they should without adding or omitting anything? Does everybody come to rehearsal and follow the script as adapted for your worship space and congregation's needs?

Unfortunately, the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy was a great contrast to the half-time show.

Roger Staubach is a man worthy of admiration, but he was not well treated by the planners or by those around him.  He was standing in the midst of the crowd, looking as if he did not know what to do. He was announced, but he still waited to get encouragement to do what he was supposed to do. His route was repeatedly impeded and interrupted. He arrived on the platform after being out of sight for a while, but nobody was prepared to receive the trophy from him, and the whole world saw the awkwardness of Terry Bradshaw guiding Staubach as if “audibilizing” and redirecting some lesser player.

Bradshaw was a great quarterback and is now an admired entertainer, but he has no idea how to conduct a ritual. There were no ceremonial words from him or Roger Goodell.   First Bradshaw handed over the trophy, then he put a microphone in the commissioner's other hand.  The person Goodell addressed was not the person who was given the trophy. The ceremony was over without having an ending, because Bradshaw was now asking one of those obvious and pointless TV reporter questions.

Yet, the ceremony was not over, there was the announcement of a physically non-existent award for the Most Valuable Player. This involved no trophy or plaque, but Bradshaw delivered his most formal words of the ceremony, the carefully rehearsed advertising copy for the automobile which was more visible on the field than the MVP was on the overcrowded stage.

Compare this lack of clear flow to that of the half-time show. Compare this lack of ceremony with how neatly and ceremonially each individual Olympic medal is presented or soccer's World Cup. Compare these events to the coming Oscar ceremonies.

When you find some event to be annoying or distracting, ask yourself why. Was it something that was done or not done? Was it awkward because it was over-prepared and mechanical or because it was under-prepared and rough-edged? If it was too long, what could have been omitted? If it seemed rushed, was it because of the speakers or the overall pacing? Was the event respectful of all the participants or were some more focused on their own parts rather than caring about the others involved?

How can an event possibly be done well if all are not clearly agreed on what are the purposes and priorities of the event?

Friday, February 4, 2011


Let's make the liturgy a little less wordy

An editorial from the author of Lector's Notes
It's the not so humble opinion of this writer
[of Lector's Notes,  ]
that we talk too much at worship.
Before you even get to [any] proposed Scripture introductions, your assembly will have heard a minimum of 270 words, not counting any hymns or ad lib calls to worship, calls to penance, etc.

As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said about modern architecture, "Less is more."
We risk letting The Word of God get lost among many, many other words, in the hearing of our people. That's why [my] introductions to the readings are so terse.

Some spots where you're likely to find superfluous words:
  • Redundant greetings, like both "Good morning" and "The grace of our Lord Jesus, ...
  • Directions to stand, sit, etc., when a hand gesture, or no direction at all, will do
  • "The second reading is a reading from the first letter ..." instead of simply, "A reading from ..."
  • Explanations of ritual gestures that really speak for themselves
  • Those preachy petitions at the general intercessions
  • Post-communion announcements that duplicate what's printed in your bulletin
November, 2006

Since Greg and I have discussed liturgy with each other for decades, it is not surprising that I find his words to be in agreement with my thoughts. On the other hand, I would not be in favor of adding introductions to the readings.

However, he is right on target to say that the most significant words of our liturgies can get lost if they are scattered among crowds of other words.

Here is an exercise for you to try. Find the shortest version of your denominational service of the Eucharist. You can use either a printed service text and marker or you can download and edit your denomination's service on your computer. If underlining or highlighting text, mark only those words which absolutely must be said. If editing, delete everything, all directions and headings and any optional texts, which is not absolutely required to be said. Be sure to exclude things you usually say but are not required to be said.
What you have left are the minimum number of words for your rite.

For the presider, the second part of the exercise is to study and rehearse each word, phrase, and sentence of this minimal Mass text.

First, to whom are these words addressed? How does that answer affect where you look, your expression, your posture and gesture(s)?

Second, are these particular words declarative, imperative, or interrogative?

Third, do these words guide the service, proclaim or recall faith or Scripture, offer praise, seek forgiveness, give thanks, or make a petition?

Fourth, how does each word, phrase, and sentence relate to or differ from the ones preceding or following them?

Fifth, what else about these words should affect how one decides to say them?

Having studied the words of the service, and decided how one wants to say them, the presider must rehearse them, aloud, in the worship space, with or without helpful commenters. Remember, these are the well considered words of the church; they are not the presider's own words in the presider's own style. How one decides in quiet study to speak certain words will not always be comfortable in practice.

If you are a presider for Eucharist, consider the idea of using only the minimal number of words in addition to your preaching for a few weeks.

You can do this for Lent or Advent. You could do this for the beginning of Ordinary Time as part of a process of gradual parish liturgical renewal, with this reduction followed by a slow, thoughtful, and preached explanation of every tiny element added as time progresses.

Most Sunday services could benefit from both fewer words and better prepared words if the words of worship are not to get lost among all the words around them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


The feast observed throughout the United States this week is Super Bowl Sunday, the annual banquet in the presence of the television set which requires copious amounts of finger food and beer. 
The minor feast of Valentine's Day intervenes between Super Sunday and Oscar Night, which is a lengthy evening banquet, also requiring the gathering of a household congregation before the television set, but with more elegant finger foods and wine.

As a surprise, I am asking you to actually participate in both of these celebrations. As ministers always do, I ask you to arrive on time and to stay for the entire service. Please be present for all the elements of the service which take place in the worship space, including the opening anthem or monologue. Please do not leave until the awards have all been presented. The multi-hour pre-game and post-game programs are optional, but please do not disturb the devotions of the fervent while entering or exiting the congregation.

Observe these two feasts, and ask yourself, “Why do so many people both celebrate these events and complain about them?”

Use the comments section of this page to explain what is wrong with them as events.
What works and what does not work in the manner in which they are presented?
What could most obviously be done to make them better?

Once we have observed these pagan rituals, let us see if some of our presentation judgments are applicable to our Christian liturgies.