A STRUCTURE FOR WORSHIP
Thursday, July 7, 1996
Location - FNCA 1996
Historically, there were individual Swedenborgian churches in this country before there
was a Convention, and given the state of transportation and communication in the early
nineteenth century, it is obvious that they lived in relative isolation from each other.
Of necessity, they developed their own orders of worship, and in fact the first "books of
worship" were published locally, for local use. The General Convention was initially no
more than the name implies-a get together of independent churches that shared a common
It seems that one of the stronger motives for the strengthening of the central
organization stemmed from the conviction that there was need of reliable standards for
ordination. There was an understandable tendency for local bodies to organize and ordain
according to practices they were familiar with, and these would vary from place to place.
The feeling grew that "New Church ordination" should have some more consistent meaning,
that a minister from one congregation should be recognizable as such by another
Convention gradually became more than a yearly meeting. Eventually it was incorporated,
and held funds. It began publishing, and when it published liturgies, these began to set a
standard, to be a kind of hallmark of affiliation with Convention.
We would not find ourselves at home with the early liturgies. By contemporary standards,
they were long, using no words but words of Scripture, and using them copiously. The First
Order of Service in our 1950 Book of Worship, which in some quarters is regarded as dated,
is very different from its nineteenth-century predecessors, and met with some resistance
when it was introduced.
The question of Convention-wide uniformity is a delicate one. On the one hand, people's
tastes do differ, and it is surely a mistake to think that what moves me ought to move
everyone else. On the other hand, I cannot help thinking that it would be a strength if a
member of any of our churches could feel at home in the worship of any other. I mentioned
in my last lecture that when Muslims engage in the prescribed daily prayers, they know
that they are joined by millions of others. They know that wherever they go, the calls to
prayer will come at the same times, and that the gestures and words they have used all
their lives will be the expected ones. There can be no doubt that this is a strong factor
in the sense of global solidarity that is characteristic of Islam.
There is a way to allow for variation in taste without losing the sense of solidarity or
familiarity, but it would require some concerted effort and intentionality. It would be to
develop a common underlying ritual structure of worship, one that rested in a shared
understanding of how worship works rather than on habit. Then different "particulars"
chosen to fill in the structure would be recognizable by their function.
In previous years, I have proposed that the structure of the Biblical theophanies offers
such a structure, and I want this morning to press this proposal a little further than I
have in the past. A "theophany" is an appearance of the Divine, and there are at least
five in the Bible that follow the same pattern. These are the appearances to Moses at the
burning bush, to Isaiah and Ezekiel when they were called to be prophets, to Peter, James,
and John on the mount of transfiguration, and to John on the island of Patmos.
You can review the details for yourselves if you wish. You will find in each case that
there is the statement of the setting, there is the proclamation of divine presence, there
is a human response of fear or humility, there is a divine response of comfort or
absolution, and there is a commission.
Most of this can be found in the First Order of Service. The opening sentence proclaims
the Lord's presence. This is followed by a prayer of confession, the response of humility,
which is followed by the prayer of absolution. Then comes an extended section of
instruction-Scripture and sermon-and finally the token of commitment, the offering. What
is missing is attention to the setting at the outset; and it can surely be argued that the
element of commitment is both brief and obscure.
At one of the meetings of the Council of Ministers last June, Randy Laakko pointed out a
feature of the First Order of Service that is usually overlooked, namely that in its
rubrics, the italicized instructions that are incorporated in it, there is considerable
room for variation. Let me start with the exceptions. The Lord's Prayer is preceded by the
words, "All say," the Sanctus by the words "Here is sung without announcement," the Old
Testament Lesson by no rubric, and the New Testament lession by the words "Then will be
read." It is stated that the prayers following the Adoramus "will conclude" with
particular words, and that the closing benediction "will" be one of those printed. Other
than that, the verb is consistently "may." An opening hymn "may be sung." The Minister
"may use the following or other introductory sentence," after which the congregation "may
then join" in the responsive invocation-and so on through the rest of the service.
In other words, if we actually follow the printed instructions, the only fixed parts of
the service are the Lord's Prayer, the Sanctus, the Scripture lessions, the grace that
closes the pastoral prayers, and the benediction, and in the last instance there are three
alternatives to choose from. If we had become accustomed to availing ourselves of this
flexibility, recognizing that different words were being used to fill the same functions,
we would feel at home" wherever that basic sequence was followed.
In Swedenborgian terms, this would be a movement toward internals. It would be a release
from attachment to particular words that could be afforded because attention was focused
on particular meanings. There are Scriptural proclamations of the Lord's presence other
than "The Lord is in his holy temple." There is even one that is startlingly inclusive, in
Psalm 123: "Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and as the
eyes of a maiden to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes wait on the Lord our God, that
he may have mercy upon us." There are any number of Psalms that might serve as responsive
invocations, some focusing on gratitude, some on praise, some on confession, some on
petition. Just as we do not expect to sing the same hymns every week, or hear the same
Scripture readings, there is no need for us to use the same liturgical words every week.
There is no need, that is, provided we are clearly focused on meaning, and here I continue
to believe that the First Order of Service can be improved. to begin with, I would urge
that explicit attention be given to "the setting." Moses was tending his flocks, Ezekiel
was by the river Chebar, John was on the island of Patmos-where are we? If our worship is
to be related to our lives, then surely we should take time at the beginning to reflect on
who we are and what concerns we bring. This could be facilitated by a few minutes of very
simple guided reflection in which we would be asked to call to mind the people we had
dealt with in the past week, any words or deeds that we particularly appreciated or
regretted, issues that remained unresolved, all in the spirit of Matthew 11-"Come to me,
all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," or of Psalm 55-"Cast
your burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain you."
Then it would seem that more than a single sentence is called for to awaken awareness of
the Lord's presence.