Recently, I have had two experiences of being a member of a congregation that are worth telling you about.
The first experience was one that I would call ‘relaxed’, to put the most positive spin on it. The presiding priest seemed not to have prepared properly. He took a long time to find the right place in the prayer book for the seasonal variations and the prayer of thanksgiving, as though his arrival at the altar, was the first time he had looked at them. Things that were in the liturgy were forgotten and it seemed to me that the ‘feel’ or ‘spirit’ that the priest was conveying said ‘We are having a nice chat here. I can put in asides and commentary to what is going on because we all know each other. We are having fun, and a ‘nice time’ ”
Some of me ‘gets’ this. An atmosphere of informality can be good. It helps to put people at their ease. But more importantly for me, as a priest, what I do on a Sunday morning is the expression of what I am ordained for. Of all places, this should be the place where I am most prepared, not least prepared. What I am doing is the most important thing that anyone can do: preach the Good News, and ‘show forth Christ’s death until he comes.’
However, during that Eucharist, my internal dialogue reminded me of two other things that I believe about the Eucharist. The first is, that the presence of God in the Eucharist is guaranteed not by the quality of the performance, but by God’s own promise. Eucharist is not something that happens for the people in the pews by the people up the front. Eucharist is something that God offers us: Gods own self in the presence of Christ in bread and wine. It is not about ‘us’. I don’t go to Church as a consumer of religious goods and services, to ‘get something out of it’ but to play my part in it, and to receive what God is offering me.
The second thing in my internal dialogue is this: that the structure of the liturgy itself will do the work it is designed to do. Whether it is done well or badly, what counts is whether I come with a heart open to God, bringing my desires and secrets. What matters is whether I come, aware of my own sinfulness, and in need of God’s forgiveness. What matters is whether, in the intercession, I offer my thanks and pain for the world, and come ‘standing in the need of prayer’. At the Eucharist, I am one of the celebrants, so how the thing goes depends to some extent, yes, upon the quality of the president, but it also depends of the quality of the other celebrants, that is, most of the congregation.
How this goes does depend to some extent upon the leadership. If the intercessions are offered in a way that prevents me from offering my prayers, then it has failed. If the readings are read in a way that prevents me from saying ‘Yes” when the reader says ‘This is the word of the Lord’, then they have failed. But my take away from this Eucharist was that although the quality of the presiding matters, what also matters is what I bring to the Eucharist.
The second experience of Eucharist was so different, but equally perplexing. The parish where I went had a very good choir of young people, but a small congregation of older people. The church itself was absolutely beautifully presented. But the setting for the sung parts of the Eucharist (all of the responses and the psalm) were so difficult that I could not sing or learn them. Hardly anyone else sang much, except for the Choir. The preacher had no notes. I felt that the perfection of the whole Eucharist had excluded me. It seemed to be done in such away as though it was a performance of the people ‘up there’ for God, maybe, but which left me as an observer, not a participant. I felt that the preacher’s speaking ‘off the cuff’ did not do sufficient justice to the Good News. Did he not prepare? This sent me a message that the preacher, like many clergy, was protecting what was most precious to him through a studied indifference, rather than bringing his passion to the preaching.
There, I did not have the ‘internal dialogue’ about the Eucharist. If they were going to be ‘perfect’ (which they clearly knew how to be) they could have been ‘perfect’ in facilitating the standard of worship which Vatican 11 commends: that of ‘full, conscious and active participation’ of all members of the congregation.