Palm Sunday is tomorrow, the kickoff for Holy Week, the most sacred period of time for most Christians around the world. Except maybe Mormons. We do absolutely nothing different on Palm Sunday, and, worse, we will go through this next Saturday of Glory and Resurrection Sunday listening to talks from the pulpit during General Conference, one or two of which might address the resurrection. Nothing at all to reflect the solemnity of this occasion. Not the slightest bit of sacred liturgy to mark this as time set apart.
It seems we do not appreciate the use of the lyrical in our meetings. We are all business! But art (just another word for liturgy?) can be a powerful portal to the numinous, an element sorely lacking in LDS services. What follows is a digression on what we could do to add a little lyricism into our worship services.
The High and the Low of It
Once reason for this legacy of lacking liturgy is that we sprang out of the Low Church, which split off from what became the High Church more less during the Reformation. The High Church ended up with all the liturgy and pomp and circumstance. The Low Church ended up with, well…, nothing. But that’s the way they wanted it. The Puritans, our intellectual forebears, were on the low end of the Low Church (not meaning low down, but rather a low emphasis on ritual and liturgy). These were the folks who banned Christmas for a while. Liturgy and the lyrical –bah! Humbug! At least they let up on Christmas later on.
But maybe there were some ways in which we threw the proverbial baby, or at least part of it, out with the bath water when we went the Low Church route. A little bit of special liturgy helps to set apart holy time. Now don’t get me wrong, I really like the Mormon version of the Low Church. There really is no difference between local leaders and members—at any time any one of us could be called to be the bishop or the RSP. And our units are just the right size to foster community interaction. When attendance starts pushing 200, we know its time for a split.
Maybe just a wee bit higher?
But I really, really miss special liturgy. High and holy hymning and all that. Swing a censor? Maybe not that. Let’s just play around with this just a bit. What kind of liturgy could we bring into our church to foster more reverence (not just quiet—it’s really more about awe).
In my last years as bishop, I experimented just a bit –maybe too much since some of this got me released early. My favorite innovation was the “contemplative hymn.” Right after the Sacrament, a person would come to the stand say something about the hymn he or she had chosen. Maybe it was the turn of a phrase, maybe a verse with special meaning about a loved one, etc. They got, at most, 2 minutes. Then, while the organ quietly played the hymn, another person would step up and read one of the scriptures found at the bottom of the page. And then we would all sing the hymn together. I found this to be quite spiritual. Many moist eyes in the congregation. My SP said this was too much like the Baptists. I asked him if he had ever been to a Baptist meeting. Well, no he hadn’t, but his accusation still held. (Baptists by the way are fellow low churchers).
The Middle Way
Can’t we find a middle way between the Low Church and the High Church and still stay true to the “Mormon way?” There is no question that Joseph largely copied from other churches to establish Sunday school and all the rest. Maybe we could do the same for our time.
Let’s toss around a few ideas about what we could add to sacrament meeting, to make it more awe-inspiring. There are so many things we could do to liven things up (just a bit, not too much!) without violating the mandates of the General Handbook, which actually just says there can be a combination of talks and music, in no specified pattern. Not every SP is going to shoot down every idea. (My last SP is an exception –but he is a good guy anyway!).
Here are some of mine.
First –lets have meetings that follow the sacred calendar. Lent! How could we incorporate that? Through art of course –singing special numbers, a special talk or two. Could we even somehow practice Lent –give up something for the 40 days? Maybe not drive our big SUVs on Fridays? And above absolutely all else –celebrate Easter as it there really were an Easter. That means at the very least moving GC when it falls on Easter weekend. It also means serious high and holy hymning!
[Parenthetically, you don’t have to be a TBM to enjoy these kinds of services. Let me suggest to you Allain de Botton. He is a total atheist. But he loves the high and holy hymning and the rest of High Church liturgy, and he actually comes together with other co-religionists, as it were, to sing those hymns! Remember—its all in the metaphor!].
How about call and response? I have enjoyed this in some Lutheran services that revolved around a Bach mass. A person standing out in the congregation leads out in a scripture or something similar, and the congregation responds back with a specific “fore-ordained” shorter piece of scripture or piety. This could be overdone, but once or twice during a sacrament meeting would not hurt. We need to do more to incorporate the lyrical into our liturgy.
Could we jazz up our choirs just a bit? You don’t have to have the full regalia, but how about they all get the same kind of table runners and just drape them over their necks. Just a small touch of class.
I have been to several other services where at some point the pastor or leader asks every one to turn and shake the hands of people on either side. This sounds like something we as Mormons absolutely should do!
Some things are so very simple. Just making the priests slow down in the sacrament prayers, enunciating each word. I think that makes a difference.
One thing that got me into trouble was just the standard greeting we see at the end of services in other churches. As the last verse of the last hymn started, the two members of the bishopric not conducting and the RSP and counselors would proceed down to the exit(s). They would be ready at the close of the meeting to ensure that absolutely everyone got a sincere greeting, especially those not seen too often at church. That seems like a natural to me, but not to that SP.
I look for a good discussion here. What would you add to our mundane sacrament meetings? Maybe things you have seen in other churches? Can we move up the scale just a little to be more of a Middle Church, without returning to the excesses (as we see them) of the High Church? What would add to the spirit of reverence or awe?