Most people don’t feel comfortable visiting a new church…especially if they don’t already know someone there. Honestly, I’m a priest and I even feel awkward visiting an unknown church when I’m on vacation or out of town. And for those who are visiting an Anglican church for the first time, it may be helpful to know a few things about what you’ll see. Mainly, to know about how much personal participation will be expected of you. But please know that our churches want visitors. We are happy to have you there. We want you to feel welcomed, and to be free to observe and ask questions.
Although you will not be pressured or required to participate, you will observe many liturgical movements and actions during worship. The acolytes, lay ministers, and clergy process behind the cross. Bowing, making the sign of the cross, genuflecting, and even the positioning of certain elements of the service are of high significance.
One of the more cherished Anglican maxims is “All may, none must, some should” which means that no one is required to participate. Observers are welcome, and even those who participate only in part may find a home. Some Anglicans find great significance in signing themselves (making the sign of the cross) and so participate in that way. Others do not. Some raise their hands while singing; most bow to reverence the cross; some genuflect when facing the altar. While all may do these things, none must do them, but some should.
The last part of this maxim may puzzle some. Why should some people participate? Our personal inclinations toward some aspect of worship may direct us to avoid an action, event, or prayer. But there are times when our human inclinations need to be stretched and we need to be encouraged to join the community fully through participation. The ritual actions of a community, and participation in them, often help the individual not only relate to that community, but also to fully join it in heart and mind. So, yes, there are times when people should participate in the ritual actions of the worshipping community; it’s just that Anglicans have chosen to seek freedom of the conscience to worship God without any coercion. As a visitor, please don’t feel like you are expected to do anything except just be present and observe, and to enter in as much as you desire appropriate to your faith.
So why do we do all of these things? The most important reason for ritual movement, action, and liturgical patterns is communication. For example, the Deacon walks to the center of the congregation of people to read from the Gospel Book. Why? This communicates to us the centrality of the Gospel in our parish life. These movements are significant, since human communication is largely nonverbal body language and movement. The action itself has meaning. And while the movement conveys the meaning, it also is a message.
But Christian ritual movement also conveys a meaning beyond the actual significance of each action. Implied with each movement is an adherence to a continuing tradition of worship which we have inherited from previous generations. In other words, we are simply repeating the actions of previous Christians. Of course, these actions change over time, and new actions are added. But the core movements and most central actions have remained strikingly similar over the years. Even as they are re-interpreted and re-shaped, the idea that we are part of a continuing tradition remains intact through each generation.
So please check us out! We’d love to meet you.
Photo by woodleywonderworks on flickr.com through creative commons.