Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Jesus' Table, Without Barrier

In her book, Take This Bread, Sara Miles describes her first impression of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco:

...The rotunda was flooded with slanted morning light. A table in the center of the open, empty space was ringed high above by a huge neo-Byzantine mural of unlikely saint figures with gold halos, dancing; outside, in the back, water trickled from a huge slab of rock set against thehillside. Past the rotunda, and a forest of standing silver crosses, there was a spare, spacious area with chairs instead of pews, where about twenty people were sitting.

Later I learned much about the mission of St. Gregory's, founded by two priests determined to reform the ossified Episcopal liturgy by reclaiming the ancient Middle Eastern roots of Christian worship. I'd learn about their struggles with the hierarchy, their theology of open communion and baptism, their radical ideas about architecture and music. And I'd learn, also, about the blindness inside the vision, the contradictions inside the prophecy, the struggles inside the community. I couldn't forsee then how I'd be changed and moved by the people I was meeting, or how much I'd come to love the very beams of the building...
You can watch a slideshow of St. Gregory's liturgy here.

Donald Schell, a presbyter at St. Gregory's, describes the significance of the open and inviting Communion Table:

...St. Gregory's was among the very first congregations in the Episcopal Church to go beyond the familiar (and originally bold) invitation to communion, "All baptized persons are welcome to receive communion in this church." For the sake of the integrity of our sign and to remember that Jesus' community broke down barriers, we began welcoming the unbaptized to share communion. About 1980 we began formulating a new invitation to communion, saying, "Jesus welcomes everyone to his Table, so we offer communion to everyone, and to everyone by name."

Our congregation of largely unchurched people and of lapsed, disaffected Christians welcomed this practice. The open invitation supported our basic work of mission. The invitation to friend and stranger in the name of God defined a gathering that would continue reshaping and being a part of their daily lives outside of church.

In 1995, when we built the new St. Gregory's church building, we defined our architectural space around this open invitation to communion. Arguing from Jesus' practice, we did our best to remove any barriers so our building would also declare our theology and practice of Jesus' open table fellowship. The Communion Table beckons immediately to friends and strangers entering St. Gregory's Church. It stands open, undefended, and accessible to all, with no intervening baptismal font, no steps that raise it above the people, no altar rail - simply Jesus' Table greeting them without barrier.

Some would say our architecture contradicts Christian tradition. What we have built is particularly unusual for a congregation committed to renewing the liturgy. Placing the baptismal font as a noticeable barrier or entrance marker at the door is much more typical of contemporary congregations renovating old structures or building new church buildings, though such a barrier is also a break with tradition. In fact the tension between these two new approaches reminds us that we are among many congregations and faithful communities seeking ways to renew (and reinvent) the sacraments. This, we maintain, is the living witness of Christian tradition, two millennia of faithful communities reinventing the sacraments generation by generation, making their best response to their sense of the Spirit's work in the church community and to the missionary opportunity of that community's moment in history...
Some who look at this may disagree with parts of it. I ask that you keep in mind that this expression of worship has not been developed casually, or "on the fly." It has been carefully crafted after many years of study and prayer.

Liturgy is not something that can be simply "studied." It must be lived. It must be prayed. You may recall the various "trial liturgies" that are periodically produced. Before any final decision is made regarding their inclusion into our corporate life, various communities were invited to pray them first, and then engage in an evaluation process.

Personally, I'm not immediately inclined to embrace everything I see going on at St. Gregory's, but considering what they are doing has been quite helpful. It has informed some of the "issues" I'm currently confronted within the "project" I've been working on for the last couple of years.

I think there's some wonderful and creative things going on at St. Gregory's. I would hope that we would all encourage their explorations, as I have little doubt that one day their efforts will deeply enrich the worship of the Episcopal Church.

Having said that, I don't think there's one right way to "do church". St. Gregory's appears to be meeting a need in San Francisco. I'm not sure how well that experience can be transferred to South Jersey, for instance. But the questions that are raised seem to me to be indeed universal:

How do we invite the stranger to experience the radically inclusive love of God through our liturgy? In what ways might we be excluding them?

It is Jesus' table, after all. All are welcome.

Now I must be off to set up tables for our second Free Community Fellowship Dinner. Fried flounder is on the menu. All will be welcomed, with no strings attached. And I have little doubt that we will encounter the living Christ in our midst at this feast.

More about this, and the connection between communion and service, next time.


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