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?
Featured image: https://www.quora.com/When-does-the-Catholic-Church-use-incense-Do-they-ever-use-it-in-November
This story makes those of us in the older generation quite sad. Worship services should be a time of quiet contemplation, not the equivalent of a Bon Jovi concert.
It is truly hard to understand why this is not sufficient for young people. Does a church service really require the passing out of balloons and lollipops to hold people’s attention?
We must be ever on guard that worship does not get subsumed by spectacle. That is one of the reasons the founders left the old world and why people come to the new world today. If that were not the case, we might as well bring back Kaiser Wilhelm II himself to lead us in the chants of the so-called high church.
JCS, I missed the Bon Jovi, balloons, and lollipops in the OP. Perhaps you read something different or are, more likely, projecting your worst intentions onto someone else and their ideas. Either way, not really appropriate or helpful.
Now, in relation to the OP, I wholeheartedly agree. I was listening to some powerful traditional-inspired, elegantly and masterfully harmonized music from somewhere in Africa (I don’t know where, sorry), and realized how much more I was inspired and edified listening to it than to anything the CoJCoLD[t]CaTS (or Mormon Tabernacle Choir as it used to be called) had ever done. And then I remembered the Minerva Teichert painting controversy and all those terribly mundane, uninspired, and unrealistic Greg Olson and Simon Dewey stuff and it came back to me how completely bland and stagnant approved arts in the Church are.
Art is powerful medium to convert truth. And the Church currently isn’t tapping into it. A loss to us all.
When it was my turn (bishop in the mid-1990s) :
1. We made the simple decision that we would devote resources—people and time—to making Sacrament Meeting a good experience. (Some wards put any excess resources into the youth program, some in the Primary. We chose Sacrament Meeting.)
2. We called a liturgy committee (that’s really what we called it). Under the direction of the bishopric (to stay within the Handbook) the committee’s charge was to plan meetings with a three-month horizon. Theme, music, speakers, all looking at other church’s liturgical calendars and expected events, including General and Stake conferences.
3. We developed and printed a graphically appealing program, visitor information, and directory.
We were blessed by musical talent. Equally important, these several extra roles did not have rules attached, so we could involve everyone willing—men and women, gay and straight, active and less active. Willingness instead of worthiness makes a difference.
We did have visitors call the Stake President on us. He visited, looked around, and said “carry on.”
Somewhere around 25-30 years ago the then-RLDS Church (now Community of Christ) began using the Revised Common Lectionary as a guide and framework for congregational worship services. It was all a bit much for some traditionalist members at the time, as I recall, but now looking back I can say without a doubt it’s been a wonderful, life-altering change for the church. Although Lent has never caught on quite as much as Advent (for perhaps the obvious reasons), the rhythm of the church year and the three-year cycle of the lectionary have been a plus for congregational worship and personal spirituality.
We had one ward where the bishopric went to the back doors of the chapel during the closing hymn so they could shake hands and greet people. Like in your ward, it didn’t last long. Not being in a position where I heard why they discontinued, I can’t officially blame it on a stake president, but I suspect some stick in mud SP of deciding that if the handbook doesn’t instruct you to do it, you had best not use your own brain about what might improve the meetings. I heard him make the remark of never going “beyond the handbook.” While we were doing it, there was a noticeable improvement in friendliness and some inactive returned to sacrament for the first time in years. They were neighbors of ours and the wife had explained to me that they dropped out because “the bishop had not said so much as hello in over a year.” But obviously, someone thought being friendly and shaking hands was bordering on Catholicism and needed to have a stop put to it.
John LacksCharity Spring, please speak for yourself and not all us “old people.” I am your same age and think church is dreadfully dull and boring and lacks any real worship or spirituality. Not everyone finds comfort in the same old same old. Some of us would welcome a chance to learn new information, to feel inspired, to be made to think, to be given cause to examine our lives for ways we can improve. So, I would be all in favor of more emphasis on real spirituality, following the liturgical calendar, more variety to the art and music, or almost anything to give our meetings a bit of CPR, as they are within inches of death. A little “hell, fire, and damnation” might even keep the bishop from falling asleep up on the stand.
As far as specific suggestions, I would like a meet and greet in the cultural hall after sacrament meeting. Other denominations serve coffee and doughnuts, but I am sure we could find something that would not violate the WoW. Or even do like many singles’s wards do and have a pot luck dinner right after the meetings. I would like to see sacrament meeting kept more reverent by putting babies and toddlers in a nursery with paid staff. And could we please not recycle general conference talks as sacrament talks AND lessons, over and over. It gets really redundant to hear the same boring messages repeated several times. Let’s go back to making speakers research and write a talk on an assigned topic rather than boring everyone to death. And for the lessons, could we please allow material beyond the tiny bit covered in the manual. This rule against any “outside information” just keeps the lessons flat and empty. Can we please allow the use of some of the modern Bible translations. They are so much clearer. And often just hearing the same old idea in fresh words will make it inspirational, rather than just trite phrases.
I might even attend with my husband if church were the least bit interesting, but I refuse to be bored to death.
I’d like to see the hymns played*/sung at the tempo they were written. That would add a lot to the beauty of the meeting. Less funeral dirges, more sounds of joyful worship.
*I don’t know how to play the organ, maybe playing up tempo is dreadfully difficult.
I would suggest music, music, and more music. It seems that the cherished (and somewhat hokey) tradition of the ward choir has fallen out of favor in recent years. In my ward growing up, we were fortunate to have a gifted and unrelenting choir director who had the ability to bring out the best in the most mediocre voices. A true unicorn, I know that does not exist in most wards. Why not create stake calling or even a paid position (gasp!) – call it Stake Musical Director or Consultant.This would ideally be a professionally trained individual who would work with wards to improve the musical quality of sacrament meeting.
Also, could we get a little color and natural light into our cookie cutter correlated chapels? Floral arrangements, art work, or just opening the curtains (where there are windows) would help. Honestly, what’s wrong with color, naturally light and even some tasteful spiritual iconography? It would be nice to go to sacrament meeting and be inspired by my surroundings, rather than feeling like I am a member of the Church of UPS.
Orthodox churches include icons & incense for a reason: they enliven the senses to the glory of God’s creation. Quite the opposite happens in our chapels: members fall asleep. Sometimes they actually snore. What a delight and a relief to get the hell out of there and enjoy what remains of the sabbath.
Some really good comments here. I likewise think more and better music as well as more color and socialization would be wonderful.
One other thing I would change: applause. I think it would be a boon to the mental health of every youth who stands up to give a talk or sing a musical number, if that moment of courage and vulnerability were answered with the audible, vigorous sound of congratulations and approval rather than the coughs of the half asleep.
It’s weird that we don’t clap for good things in church. Too loud? Why, we sing, we laugh. We speak into a microphone for Pete’s sake. We should clap too.
Cloves, I’m a pianist who was called as an organist. There are two issues involved in hymn tempi. (And thanks for giving me the opportunity to use that plural.) First, the organ is VERY different from the piano, and many of us do struggle with the music on an instrument we’re not trained to play. If nothing else, the bass part should be played with the feet, so I’m working hard any time the basses are having fun singing. If you get to sing Christ the Lord Is Risen Today this Easter, send some special thanks to your organist! Second, there are very real philosophical issues at play. I alternate with another organist who feels that the chorister and I always rush the hymns. She sincerely believes that playing hymns at a fast tempo does not allow the congregation time to contemplate the meaning of the words. Between those two issues, I think it’s unlikely that most wards will ever sing hymns at what I consider to be up to tempo.
As a piano player turned organ player, and as someone who loves music, I completely agree with the more music ideas and playing the hymns at a decent pace. One time they played How Great Thou Art so slow in our meeting it had people looking around and laughing. Special musical numbers can really make a good sacrament meeting.
I have visited a number of other Christian denominations. I really like when a verse of the New Testament is read and then a short sermon about the verse is given. I really like more instruments and more lively choirs. I really like when Sacrament is the pinnacle of the meeting with everything building up to it. We rush through the sacrament to get to the ill prepared talks. I would love to see our chapels have more art and symbolism like our temples have. I would love better prepared talks and to get away from the KJV of the Bible too, but that is asking a lot.
We have the odd tension between a sacrament meeting with no ceremony, very dry, low church feel and a temple ceremony with much ritual and a high church feel. Especially when it was a live session. That is one of the reasons people feel so perplexed when they go to the temple for the first time. It is so unique to Mormons who have never sat through any other high church ceremony.
I don’t have any ideas of suggestions – music often feels like the best part of the meetings but that’s hard right now during the pandemic anyway and I’m currently not attending in person. I’m remembering a number of years back when we happened to be visiting the ward of a family member at Easter Time. It was also Stake High Council visit Sunday and it was obvious no thought or consideration had been given to the fact that it was Easter, not in the talks or the music. It was such a disappointment so I’m not thrilled to be reminded that Easter falls on GC weekend. I’ve already been dreading it. Contrast that to nine years ago when I was in Salisbury UK on Easter weekend and able to attend the Eucharist service – absolutely stunning in every way.
My grandfather was a Lutheran pastor. As kids, we were always excited when we got to go to one of his churches. He wore priestly robes, with sashes that changed colors throughout the year. Church service started with him ringing the church bell, Candles were lit. He led the congregation in song (or at least tried to, he was a bit tone deaf). Call and response. Lots of standing and sitting. Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, More singing. Then the children got called up to sit in a circle around him for a mini children’s sermon. After the kids returned to the pews, the adults got their sermon, which was always relevant to the season. Advent was always particularly special. Offering plates were passed. Then the communion at the alter, followed by a hymn. The candles would be snuffed. At the end he would walk to the back to the chapel, and while the choir sang he would shank hands and thank everyone who attended as they left. After the service, most people would then gather in a common area to chat, sip some coffee and have a light brunch. My grandfather would work the crowd and check in to see how everyone was doing. There was something special about the high church experience, rich with symbolism and ritual.
We Mormons do have a high church experience, but we keep it locked up inside temples where only the most loyal are allowed to participate. Maybe because our version of high church is kinda weird and creepy…
One of the great advantages of Easter falling during the pandemic lockdown last year, and of our ward and stake going radio silent on all worship services for four months (because the SP interpreted this as what SLC requested), was that it gave me incentive to do what I had been meaning to do for many years. Since most other local congregations had virtual Easter services, I could attend several other local congregations that day. Their services were wonderful. I definitely hope to keep doing that. It’s almost lucky that GC falls on Easter. Since I know that I will be hearing replays of that for the next six months in sacrament meeting anyway, its a no brainer to skip GC and attend to a real Easter worship service instead.
I loved attending the LDS Genesis Group (an official priesthood auxiliary founded to help retain Black members). Call and response, congregant’s questions shouted to the speakers, amens, halleluiahs, and clapping. The gospel song of praise, and ,oh, that choir. Cookies and punch in the cultural hall after. Best Mormon meetings in the state.
I did a year with the Presbyterians – not exactly high church (very young pastor in jeans) – but definitely not low church. It was my first experience with a liturgical calendar and it really changed my orientation for Christmas and Easter – definitely more Christ centric than the LDS (non) tradition. Call and response, lots of singing – some hymns, but some contemporary music as well. And coffee and doughnuts after.
The following story is not to pat myself on the back, but just to show the possible impact of not just doing the same routine every week.
The last time I spoke in sacrament meeting, the bishop called about half an hour before church and asked my wife and I to come to his office in 15 minutes. When we got there he basically said “You guys have had a lot of sensitive stuff in your family that probably isn’t appropriate to talk about in church so don’t do that.” “Ok, Bishop.” In my head I’m saying, that would have been great direction to share a week ago.
The conference talk was on “being anxiously engaged”. Those were the only three words from the talk that I used. We hear so much about service within the church, I thought I would focus on the service our family has done outside of Mormondom. After the bishop came up and apologized for his earlier “lack of faith” that we could be appropriate. He said that most talks will be forgotten by lunchtime, but that this topic will be talked about for months and will inspire change.
The current correlated format for all the Sunday meetings is boring. It takes an exceptional teacher willing to put in hours of preparation to inject some life into it.
About 12 years ago, the ward I was in at the time did a lovely Easter service. The choir took over the meeting, with choir members taking turns giving dramatic readings of The Last Seven Words of Christ, with a song related each passage after each reading. Then the choir director (a professional vocal coach who had a gift for coaxing decent performances out of untrained singers) sang a solo a cappella version of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)”–absolutely moving. For the finale, the choir and congregation joined to sing an enthusiastic version of “He is Risen”. We didn’t need to go “full Catholic” with ceremonies and pageantry, but anybody who was there felt something different and special about that particular Sunday. I’ve lived in several wards since then, and none has ever come close to replicating that experience.
Today was Palm Sunday and it didn’t even get a passing mention. Almost nothing about Jesus at all. What a lost opportunity to teach of Christ.
Well, Buddhist Bishop, it looks like you are getting your wish. President Nelson just issued a Palm Sunday/Holy Week speech. You aren’t the only one who has yearned for high church rituals and holidays (Jana Reiss, Zelophehad’s Daughters blog, a few of the big names in the blabbernacle, er, I mean Mormon blogs have opined for this as well.)
I’m afraid I’m stubbornly in the low-church camp, for all the reasons the reformationists articulated and that I won’t re-hash here. In order to feed the spiritual hunger you describe and that I know exists, those in the low church need to be independently aware of Christian history, ritual, and calendars. Only then are they able to celebrate and animate those elements of Christ’s light in more authentic and less rameumpton-ish ways. While early LDS church members were taught to read using the Bible and were much more familiar with its contents, current members seem to fumble through early Christian events. I totally agree that we overlook so many aspects of Christ’s life and the NT that could be both taught and practiced by the rituals of high church. At the same time, I would challenge us to celebrate/enlighten them without rising “higher”.
Mormonism has not been able to balance the growth of the church well, and let’s face it- correlation is nothing short of a run-away train. Now there’s a push to introduce high church rituals and formalities. If history repeats itself, and if I’m reading the winds of our already over mass-produced and mechanized modern church environment, high church elements are going to be adopted and get waaaaaaay outta control. By that, I mean we are positioned to quickly treat high ritual in the futile ways that frustrated the early reformationists/low churches. Seriously- how many bloggernacle posts have lamented the fact that we ritualize/indoctrinate cultural aspects of Mormonism? We don’t differentiate. It’s gonna be gasoline on a fire. Sure, the pendulum can swing back, but usually at the cost of apostasy/reformation. Do we have to start this cycle? Ugh.
The church just posted this guide to Holy Week …
Stained glass windows. I possess a healthy dose of holy envy for those, the way the light plays on the sanctuaries I have visited moves me.
This last weekend I was able to attend the virtual Sunstone UK events, culminating on the Sunday evening with a Palm Sunday service, courtesy of Community of Christ, which I found to be so refreshing. In stark contrast to our local online meeting that morning, where we did sing the one and only Palm Sunday hymn from the hymnbook to open (because I’d been asked to select the hymns), but where there was no mention of it being Palm Sunday from either of the stake speakers (it being a 4th Sunday) who had been assigned the topic of ministering. We did get to cover Palm Sunday in our online primary however, with our amazing primary music leader.