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When Tradition Falls Short

I was at a discernment retreat the weekend before last and had an awesome time. There was one piece to the weekend with really frustrated me. Each day we'd have morning, noonday and evening prayer in the chapel. The services themselves were great if confusing.

You see, in the Episcopal church we have a Book of Common Prayer (or in layman's terms, the red book). It has a line by line description of what we do through a service, when to kneel and stand, what prayers to say, etc. It can certainly be a bit confusing the first couple of times since you jump around the book a lot, which is why we have a program for each service to explain where to jump to at a given time.

The retreat center had a different book which was all about service of special orders. Things like the morning, noonday and evening prayer. Sounds all well and good, I cracked mine open and flipped to the evening prayer section.

The problem was that we never followed the book at all. I was incredibly confused. There was some opening prayer with a two sentence response apparently I should have known by heart, since it was never written or spelled out anywhere. Needless to say I enjoyed silent reflection during this prayer. The entire service went on its own program with no leadership at all, except how to respond to the prayers of the people.

All I could think about was that this was a retreat center with lots of people from all different faiths showing up. It seemed amazing to me that someone would show up to a service and it was assumed people would know what to do. If I hadn't been to church much I would have been immediately turned off and made the simple realization that church is for those who are already included, those who aren't familiar with our ways are outsiders who must conform or leave.

I wasn't going to even mention this until I came across Scot McKnight's blog entry titled "Advice on Attending an Episcopalian Church". I love the Episcopal Church, and some of that is because of our tradition. It's good to know that no matter which Episcopal Church I go to I will have a familiar structure, familiar prayers and everyone will go to receive communion together as one community. It's familiar and comfortable.

The problem comes up when that familiarity excludes those who aren't already familiar with it. Scot mentions

Which led to at least three times that we were sitting when everyone else was standing, or standing when everyone else was kneeling (the most embarrassing moment of all, when Kris glanced behind her and whispered "We are the only ones standing."), or sitting when everyone else was kneeling.

While the traditions were never put in place to embarrass someone, people who are new to the church want anything but to be recognized as doing the wrong thing. People are already uncomfortable enough being in some strange situation, when I feel called out as different all I want to do is leave as quickly as possible.

I know this was not what Scot was thinking about when he made the post. It's gotten me thinking though that whether it's in church, school, work or even in your home. When someone new comes in we need to do whatever we can to stick by them and make them feel welcome. We need to gently walk them through the service and let them know that someone is taking a genuine interest in them.

What sort of things to do you every day that makes it hard for you to welcome someone different?




Anonymous said…
T2, I fully understand what you say here about knowing the ropes. At Richmond Hill, I was happy to "pray along" and not be bound by the book. It was a rich time of prayer and reflection for me personally. However, that said, when you receive your 1st copy of the Richmond Hill newsletter, you might email Karen to suggest she speak to this a bit more in her welcoming comments to retreaters. Hoping you and yours are all well and good. Peace & Cheers, SS
Tom said…
That is a great point and I'll definitely mention it. I too actually enjoyed simply praying along with the group and especially listening to the prayers for Richmond without the distraction of anything else to read.


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