[We] must affirm Christ’s objective presence in the Eucharist, and must maintain that “Spiritual Communion” is not the same as the Eucharist. We can understand liturgical contemplation and “Spiritual Communion” as receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit by recalling the sacraments we have already received, recalling our baptism, which is praised by the Early…
In a seedy hotel in Paris, Oscar Wilde lay on his death bed. His life had been a search for beauty and elegance. He had been a master of wit and adventure; until his life crashed. On his death bed, two things happened. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church and he made one of his funniest remarks. Known for his…
“Homecoming” is a term that usually evokes a lot of maudlin blubbering in Evangelical circles (especially Southern ones.) Images of “old-time” religion and hymns, “dinner on the ground,” and churches and families getting together cloud our eyes with tears and our minds with nostalgia. Bill Gaither was wise in tapping into this the way he did.
These days this isn’t going to happen, not the way it has with “social distancing” and churches closed by a society whose own vision of the eternity of its members is as cloudy as the eyes of sentimental Evangelicals; it doesn’t help that the “leadership” of many churches has rolled over and played dead to boot. Many churches are scrambling to create “virtual church” to at least tide things over until better days come.
Some churches were better prepared to be catapulted into a virtual state than others. One of them was my old home church, Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach. They’ve been putting their services on social media for some time (that was the first revelation in this adventure.) I’ve said a lot about this place, but with “stay in place” the rule I decided to take a look at a streamed service or two and see what was up after nearly a half century of absence.
I wanted to see what it looked like before we were all scattered like sheep by COVID-19. I started with the First Sunday in Lent, but they started it with the Litany (something I don’t remember doing growing up) and felt that this wasn’t going to be “typical” enough for a fair assessment. Bethesda had a real talent for dragging its services out in High Church fashion, and that was the first lesson: they’re still good at it. After a little more digging I decided to use last year’s Tenth Sunday after Pentecost service, which you can see here:
This obviously took place during the summer, which is the “off-season” in Palm Beach, so it was interesting to see what kind of crowd they had. It was also in “ordinary time,” which was (as I explain here) my favourite time at Bethesda. That moulded my reaction to the service, as will be plain below.
Let me just make some observations about what I saw and my impressions thereof.
The first thing that struck me was how little the look and feel of church at Bethesda has changed in the last half century. The look being unchanged is no surprise: Bethesda is on the National Register of Historic Places, changing anything there is very difficult. (I’ll bet ARCOM helps out with that too.) But the feel of the service: even with the major changes that have taken place in society in general and the Episcopal Church in particular, including women in ministry, the dreadful 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and changes in church music, the mood and execution of the service was very much the way it was fifty years ago. There is still only one instrument: the pipe organ, which accompanies the (probably paid) adult choir. The procession and recession pretty much goes the same except that choir and clergy no longer process from the narthex but through a side door and from there into the main aisle.
This is amazing because I’ve spent most of the time since I left Bethesda in the church I’m in, and the changes in worship style and music have been pretty dramatic. This is necessary, we are told, because we must keep up with generational changes, and we would find ourselves empty if we did not do these things. The attendance in this service at Bethesda was, truth to tell, pretty decent. Although this needs to be seen in view of the the demographics and other peculiarities of Palm Beach and Bethesda, change for its own sake needs to be considered carefully.
One thing that brought back an amusing memory was the processional hymn: “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” The definitely paid youth choir did this when I was growing up. There are two conspicuous rests in the score, and we felt compelled in rehearsal to either clap or stomp our feet at the rest, something which irritated the organist and choirmaster at the time, Adam Decker, to no end.
As is the case with most Episcopal churches these days, the Holy Communion is standard on Sundays. Years ago Bethesda was more “Protestant” in its routine of the Eucharist once a month and Morning Prayer the rest of the time. Even with this, I noted that they do not elevate the Host at the consecration. I also noted that Bethesda still uses the altar rail for communion, something that is a sine qua non of the “trad” Catholics. Same trad Catholics would sour at the exchange of peace, which was reasonable.
One of the things I wanted to see was whether Bethesda had toned down the offering a little bit. In my review of Latta Griswold’s book The Middle Way, I noted the following:
Anglican-Episcopal types “trash talk” prosperity types, but this was a fault my home church Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach was notorious for. We had the largest silver trays I have ever seen, and the celebrant’s elevation of same at the altar, accompanied by the organist’s all-stops-open rendering of the Doxology, outdid the elevation of the Host at Communion. I’m sure the Philistines said some ripe things!
They’ve ditched the elevation of the plates, but everything else is pretty much the same.
I mentioned early the expansion of women in ministry in the Episcopal Church. Bethesda had an indirect role in that: the first Episcopal bishop to consecrate women, Robert Appleyard, was Rector at Bethesda before he became Bishop of Pittsburgh. In any case this service featured women in both lectern and pulpit. There are two extreme claims made about this: either the women are so much better they will save the church, or that they are so much worse they will destroy the church. If Bethesda is any indication, neither is the case: the women pretty much step into the mould and role the men left behind. (One thing: did I detect a Southern accent or two? My brother and I were made fun of when we brought ours from TN to Palm Beach in the mid-1960’s.)
That became obvious with the sermon. One of the reasons I like Ordinary Time (to use the Catholic term) best is because it presents some of the most challenging of Our Lord’s teachings, and this Sunday was no exception. It’s worth reproducing the Gospel reading here:
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
- father against son
- and son against father,
- mother against daughter
- and daughter against mother,
- mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
- and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:49-56)
Most of this passage has a pretty straightforward message: you follow Our Lord the way you’re supposed to, and you will have division in your family. I certainly got that message at the time, was experiencing some, would experience a lot more before it was over with.
For me, the homily fell flat, as those which were preached at the time. Sure there are allusions to the conflict that following Our Lord will bring. Some of that conflict was framed (in a subtle way) to a left-political commitment. (She had to be careful about that, there are doubtless numerous Trumpettes in the congregation.) But left-political commitments are not countercultural today; they may have been at Bethesda fifty years ago, but the world was changing very fast, as my years at St. Andrew’s were to demonstrate.
The core problem, then and now, is that the Episcopal Church in general and Bethesda in particular are averse to the dramatic, life-changing event of salvation that naturally engendered the kind of division this Gospel reading described. I’ve said it before numerous times, but I was lead to believe that such dramatic transformations–and telling people they needed one–were in bad taste. Political substitutes on either end of the spectrum are not substitutes for that transformation. It’s little wonder our minister “pulled punches” on this topic.
I felt that there were many pulled punches from Bethesda’s pulpit. And that was a factor–but not necessarily the most important one–which inspired me to take my leave and “swim the Tiber” in Form VI. My parish priest introduced me to the writings of one John McKenzie, SJ, who put the transformational/revolutionary aspects of the gospel in stark terms. (You read that passage, along with my thoughts on renouncing privilege, here.)
But such is the course of a walk with God. My “homecoming” was overall a nice experience, and an enlightening one. And no blubbering either.
Every single morning now, when I fire up the interwebs, there are at least three articles about the “new normal.” Some of them ponderously explain that there will be a new normal. Others disparage the very idea of there being a new normal. The more interesting ones try to imagine what the new normal will…
I was worship leader in an Antioch CA prayer group and an Assemblies of God mission for 5 years in the ’90’s where I used these songs. I first heard them at Friday night Healing Masses at Holy Redeemer Center Oakland, CA.
There’s a lot of history packed into this little comment, and some lessons to be learned.
First: yes there were such things as “Healing Masses,” people like Francis McNutt were very much in the forefront of things like this. Current interest by Pentcostals in liturgical worship and how to integrate the full Gospel into it would do well to take a look at what actually happened. (This was also very evident at the Steubenville conferences of the early 1980’s as well.)
Second: in all of the discussion of the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s, there’s very little attention given to the obvious dumb question: “What were the classical Pentecostal churches doing in response?” Since they had carried the standard of modern Pentecost since the turn of the last century, it’s reasonable to ask this question. The answer is simple: it depends…the Assemblies of God churches tended to be more receptive to some kind of involvement in the Renewal. That paid off when many Catholic Charismatics (and others) realised that the metastable nature of communities and prayer groups was unsustainable, and suddenly Pentecostal and independent Charismatic churches reaped the rewards of new members. In some cases (like this one) they brought their music with them.
As for the Church of God…well, not so much, there was some hostility to the Renewal, probably because they didn’t go through the ordeal of legalism that was usual in those days. There were exceptions, the largest of which was Paul Laverne Walker’s Mt. Paran church in Atlanta, but they were exceptional, at least for a long time. (The Church of God eventually rewarded Paul Walker by making him General Overseer in 1996; his son Mark is the new President of Lee University.)
When I joined the North Cleveland Church of God, it was inconceivable that worship music such as the Word of God would be used. It went against nearly a century of music tradition in a stylistic way; most in the Church of God preferred a more lively worship style. That is going by the wayside; that’s one of the complaints I made in this post, what was considered heavenly in the past is no longer, now we are going for a worship style that is slower and more repetitive than was practiced in Ann Arbor! But now we know it’s possible to use Ann Arbor’s music in a classical Pentecostal church.
I think the lesson from all of this is that church music and worship styles are products of many things, including doctrine and theology, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic and generational preferences. To simply get up and proclaim that “this is from the throne room, that’s it” isn’t helpful and has led to a great deal of the conflict on this subject. We need to worship in a way that really does draw us closer to God, and not just because someone says that it should.
Note: my YouTube channel, which is now mostly music from the “Jesus Music” era, has gotten a little boost during this COVID-19 isolation era. Maybe people are taking my suggestion seriously about checking things out!
Fr. Schmidt: We don’t often consider that for huge portions of the Church’s history, frequent Communion was not all that common. To receive at only the highest feasts, just a few times throughout the year—always after making a good Confession—was the much more typical practice. Otherwise, Catholics would attend Mass every Sunday or more often, […]
It’s a little late in the game, I know, but I just discovered that the venerable Society of St. Pius X had posted for this Lent soon past a series from Bossuet’s Meditations on the Gospel. The series is as follows: Jesus’ Victory and Power Over Death Jesus’ Friendship Is a Model For Ours Profusion […]
We have explained elsewhere the sacred oracles of the prophets on our Lord Jesus Christ. I will say here in brief that they have seen everything: his two births, the first all divine, from the days of eternity; the place marked for the second in Bethlehem; a virgin who conceives him and gives birth to him; a child who was born to us; a son given to us. Child, man from the first day, and altogether strong and omnipotent God. Let us recognize with Zechariah the humble mount of this just, lenient and gentle king, when he enters his royal city. Let us consider with him the thirty denarii for which he was sold, and the use of this money to buy the field from a potter. Everything is accomplished in due time. The shepherd is struck and the flock dissipates. The disciples each retreat to their homes, and Jesus dies alone. We spit on his face, and he does not turn away to avoid the blows and infamy that come to him. We pierce him, and all Israel sees the openings of the wounds it has made to him. As another Jonah, to be thrown into the sea to save the entire ship, and like him he comes out after three days.
As time approaches, its mysteries are revealed more and more. Daniel counts the years when his anointing, his sufferings, his death followed by just vengeance and the eternal desolation of the ancient people who despised the Holy of Holies were to be accomplished. He sees in spirit the Son of Man to whom is given a dominion bounded by neither place nor time. This dominion, the most august that would have been and will ever be, will be the dominion of the saints of the Most High. Daniel, surprised at its size, is disturbed in his thoughts and keeps this word in his heart. But this Son of Man must suffer a violent death.
Isaiah teaches us to taste his sufferings; he must bear our sins, and thereby acquire and share the spoils of the strong; and the cause of his victories is that he gave himself to death. He was numbered with the villains, crucified between two thieves; he is the last of men and altogether the greatest. It is not by force that he suffers death; He offered himself to it because he wanted it. He has not opened his mouth to defend himself, he is as silent as the lamb under the hand that shears him. The silence of the Son of God among so many outrages and so many injustices, which is the most remarkable character of the Son of God, caused the admiration of this prophet. One believes him struck by God for his sins, he who is innocence personified; but it is for ours that he suffers, we are healed by his wounds. The prayers he pushes up to heaven in this state of suffering are the salvation of the sinners for whom he is praying. A long posterity will come out of him, because he has voluntarily suffered death; and his sepulcher, from which he will emerge victorious and immortal, will be glorious.