Part 3- Becoming an Episcopalian: The Sermon, Crossing Oneself, Smells & Bells

St Lukes Altar

The Altar at St. Luke’s

*This is the final essay of my 3 part reflection series “Becoming an Episcopalian,” reflecting on my transition into the Episcopal Church. Please scroll down to see parts 1 & 2 as your leisure or desire so determines*

6. Sermon in Support Role, Eucharist Central

One of the striking dissimilarities between a formal and “informal” liturgical order is the presence of the sermon. In the Nazarene Church, as for many low church or free church traditions, the sermon is the pinnacle of Christian worship. Everything in the service revolves around, and moves toward, the proclamation of the Word. This is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the elevation of the proclaimed Word/word above all else. As a corrective to abusive Catholic Church power, many Protestant Reformers gave the reading and explication of Scripture primacy in worship. A Renewed emphasis on Scripture, as seen in Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, was a welcome but unexpected historical development. Even though Anglican tradition emerges simultaneously as the Reformation in Europe, it, however, remained in harmony with broader Catholic tradition and the Eucharistic table retained its central importance.

First, let me acknowledge that I love listening to sound biblical preaching. As a vocational minister, I love to preach, and I enjoy the study of homiletical method. I have a passion for wrestling with the biblical text and delivering a well-crafted idea from the pages of scripture. I cherish the unexpected presence of the Holy Spirit that brings clarity of thought, words of power, and emotive delivery to the Word that is Jesus as I proclaim the words of men in the text. However, this foray into Anglican tradition has been a good check on the central importance of preaching and a much-needed relief.

One of the many temptations of making preaching central is the pride of the preacher and the pulpit becoming a personality cult of sorts. We all want to do well, especially pastors, preachers, helpers of any sort really. We want our words to inspire. Preaching is a practice preserved and performed within the institution of the church. Yet, preachers are humans and humans can be subject to the trappings of pride and inflated egos at the expense of the gospel. Of course, this is not merely a “low church” problem but in a tradition where there is so much pressure on the sermon because it is THE THING each Sunday, pride can seep into even the most sanctified of gifted speakers.

Consequently, the sermon being the pinnacle of worship, there is an unspoken amount of pressure many educated pastors place upon themselves to have a “great sermon” or be a “great preacher” all the time. After all, people come to church to worship and to hear a good sermon. They got their families ready, woke up early after a long week of work, and despite proclivities to maybe sleep in and enjoy coffee on the back porch, they came to church. Older folks, for whom attending church is sometimes a physical struggle, made coming to worship a main part of their day; they need a good sermon for their efforts. The preacher must make sure the sermon is worth listening to! Rarely will people remember all the songs of praise, or out of tune pianos, but most certainly the congregation will remember at lunchtime a sermon that lands with a thud (even as it fades quickly from memory).

Anglican tradition is full of great preachers, past and present. However, in Book of Common Prayer and liturgical rubrics, preaching is tangential and supportive of the central act of worship each Sunday: The Communion Table. The main attraction of each Sunday is not the preacher, whether that preacher was John Wesley, John Claypool, John Stott, or even the very alive NT Wright and Fleming Rutledge. Jesus, and him crucified, is the main attraction each Sunday.

The priest climbs into the pulpit, not at the center of the church, but to its right, when the Gospel is preached. The preaching matters; it is a lesson for the church and should be done well. Priests should not shirk behind the liturgical primacy of Eucharist and produce shallow or anecdotal sermons. There is a place in Anglican tradition of powerful proclamations of the Word.

However, the priest knows that no matter how well the sermon is crafted or how much insight they can demonstrate, the role of the sermon is to always move the church toward the paschal mystery of Jesus that takes center stage in worship. Regardless of the voluntaries played, hymns sung, prayers offered, or the homily presented, all of that is wrapped up into the mystery of the table and the sanctification of the body of Christ by eating the flesh of the savior. This is the direction of worship.

I am thankful that my words will fail before that mystery and that I have discovered, and learned, the efficacy of the Word does not rely on my clever rhetorical packaging.  I rest in this new tradition knowing that while I do matter, I don’t matter near as much as I would like to think, and the table can always accomplish infinitely more than I can with words that will eventually always be forgotten.

7. Crossing Oneself.

For those outside of catholic practice this is an odd thing to see and an even odder thing to begin doing. We often associate this practice with Roman Catholicism but church members in the Anglican Communion do it as well. This is one of those practices that can give the impression to some of the “dead traditionalism” noted by Jaroslav Pelikan. I have been in conversations with evangelical/lower church folk who have commented that it is a routine done by Catholic’s that doesn’t mean anything; it is a “going through the motions” without intent.

Of course, I cannot speak for the motivations of others regarding crossing oneself, or the automations humans develop over time, but I can share my own.

First, the act of crossing oneself is an act of consecrating yourself to God; it is my way of claiming my body for Christ. It reminds me of who’s I am and from where I have come. Whatever I am, I am foremost identified as one that identifies with the crucified Jesus. There are moments when I cross myself that I sense the Holy Spirit testifying to my physical affirmation through this simple act. This is a physical way of identifying with Christ, nothing flashy or presumptive

Scripture notes several ways people “mark” themselves, identifying with God or against God. Of infamy, the Book of Revelation notes the “mark of the beast.” The other mark noted is noted in the Old Testament at various places refers to carrying God’s law on our foreheads.

Marking ourselves (identifying) on the head or body is a common thing done in scripture for both ill and good, for both men and women. The “mark” in Revelation is juxtaposed by this Old Testament mark of the people of God. Crossing oneself is a means of not being marked with the mark of the beast, not succumbing to the powers of darkness that seek to inebriate us with false power and sin. It reminds me of all the promises that lie beneath the cross that has just marked my body.

Secondly, as crossing oneself is often done at moments when the trinity is named, after prayers or repentance, prior/after receiving consecrated elements, etc., it is a reminder of God’s otherness and my submission to the mystery of God. When I mark myself, it is my physical confession of acceptance of this Christ and affirmation of participating in this great mystery.

What I have discovered is that marking oneself is not something done out of a false sense of piety, as if this is a Timothean (2 Tim. 3.5) version of having a form of religion without the power thereof. It is a physical gesture of an aphysical reality that centers and reorients the one who crosses themselves with intent.

Lastly, as part of the liturgical renewal movement of several decades ago, fonts were placed where the nave and chancel meet. Fonts are also traditionally at the entrance of churches, prior to the sanctuary space. I sometimes mark myself with holy water (crossing myself) when exiting the chancel post-communion or when entering a church. I have seen fonts at both places (entrance of church/exit of altar area) and have used the water from both. This is a simple act of dipping one’s fingers in water (that has been consecrated) for the purpose of sanctifying the one that uses it and reminding us of the sanctifying power of our baptism. There is surely some grand baptismal theology do be done here, but my personal experience as an act of piety is that it takes me back to my baptism, reminds me of that birth in Christ, and extends grace to me through the watery chaos of death overcome in Jesus. For these reasons, with a thankful heart I dip my fingers and mark my head or body with the waters redeemed in Christ and presided over by the Holy Spirit.

8. Smells and Bells

As one who had never been in a service wherein liturgical time/events were marked with bells, nor the divine presence of God noted with incense, I too had the common “eye roll” over these sorts of activities. It was easy to sit on the outside and wonder “why” and then equate these sorts of things with traditionalism. I would argue at this point that I was wrong in these leanings and offer these remarks to those who wonder at the smells and bells we do in church. Key word of this section (as well as Eucharistic theology) is anamesis.

First, it should be noted that every context is different. I have been to churches in Cleveland, TN (where I attend), Chattanooga, TN, Orlando, FL, Philadelphia, PA and Glenmoore, PA. Each church has a tradition within the tradition and within their context have all been faithfully Anglican. Some churches chant more than others. Some use bells, some do not. Some use incense, some do not. Some have a full slate of Holy Week Services that culminate in the Great Vigil, some do not. Etc, etc. As in the Nazarene tradition, there is more latitude across region and context in the Episcopal church than many outsiders know.

Secondly, the smells and bells are not a dead traditionalism. They perform key functions in worship through sensory means. The smell of incense reminds (anamnesis/re-member) one that we are in a holy space, the presence of God, and takes us back to the same sorts of experiences that would have been shared by ancient Israelites. The smell permeates the space in much the same way the holy spirit can be sensed, but not necessarily seen. The incense is a cue that we are “somewhere” with this unique air and invites participants to ask, “what is that smell? What’s happening?” That, my friends, is the point. The smell is a trigger to look for what is happening, to seek out the reasons for the smell. The incense means we are in a different place, a place where this smell resides and that means there is something special about this place. Pay attention.

Likewise, the bells are a notation of action. The bells are typically used during the Great Thanksgiving to denote the sacrificial action of God in Christ. When the bell is rung, the intent is to look for the place from which the ring comes, to look for what it announces. When literacy was not as prevalent as today the bells were used to communicate various parts of the liturgy. This is the simple role of bells: they are an alarm, stop what you are doing and take caution, etc.

In the liturgy, the bells draw our attention to the table when the Christ has given us his body and blood. Jesus is lifted via the elements, and to make sure we do not miss this divine act, the bell brings our attention to the drama unfolding at the table. There may not be anything biblical about ringing a bell in worship but that does not mean that worship cannot incorporate means of drawing one’s attention to the central drama of worship.

*I trust that these brief reflections have been as edifying to read as they were for me to consider. I have not written all that can be said (or debated) on these issues  and I invite you to explore and reflect your own experience as a part of our deeply rich Christian tradition. May the peace of God dwell in your hearts and shape your lives continually*

2 thoughts on “Part 3- Becoming an Episcopalian: The Sermon, Crossing Oneself, Smells & Bells

  1. Good evening Nathan, having just finished your article in our quarterly newsletter I have found your thoughts and words to be inspirational. I am looking forward to reading your articles on your website and hopefully talking with you at church. I too was raised Nazerine and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church 2013. We definitely need to talk about our men’s conference, I think that you would enjoy it.
    Thanks, Stephen +.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s