February 5, 2015 by Worship, Community, Formation
The Lord be with you – And also with you
Lift up your hearts – We lift them to the Lord
Great is the mystery of faith – Christ has died; Christ is Risen; Christ will come again
Do you believe and trust in God the Father – I believe and trust in Him
Our liturgy is full of these little interactive patterns, nowadays. I’ve seen a lot of priests and worship leaders try to generate lively spoken responses from congregations – and I’ve tried it myself from time to time. A lot of our liturgy is highly interactive. We want people to respond, but at times we also want them to do it with purpose, gusto and energy. Some points in the Eucharist cry out for a firm response when spoken.
‘Lift up your hearts‘ is one example. Of course, some will say the response should best be sung, but that’s not always possible. Yet a limp ‘we lift them to the Lord‘ sounds pathetic if not downright hypocritical; the answer has to be confident, to mean anything at all.
Likewise, the response to ‘Great is the mystery of faith’ ought to be confidently stated, even if we don’t feel confident about the what we’re saying. This is an acclamation, and we’re reminding ourselves and each other of what it is we hold dear to, whether or not we feel we understand it at that moment.
But in truth, these are difficult sentences. Even when we know the liturgy well, and are prepared for these sentences before they arrive, we rarely give them the gusto they deserve. Occasionally we criticise our congregations or ourselves for that, but in fact it could hardly be otherwise.
Why? For one thing, these are not sentences we’d construct for ourselves, not things we’d normally say. Even the little sentence ‘And also with you’ would hardly ever be heard in a pub or on a street; the sentiment, if felt, would be expressed ‘and you’, ‘you too’ or ‘same to you mate.’ In fact, though the words are common enough, the way they’re arranged draws the congregation into an unfamiliar and exalted tone of speech, which makes them slow down and go carefully.
We, as a congregation, also slow down to co-ordinate. Complex games are going on, but basically we’re all trying to hit the same syllable at the same moment, and that too is easier done slowly. With the less confident voices going a split second behind, there’s always a softening of the sound, too.
If you want gusto and energy, you have to build up the mood and the confidence, to draw people in. You have to get people so engaged in their response that ‘getting it right’ stops being the important thing. I’ve never seen that done in spoken responses in worship, but I have found some text that might do it.
It’s been created by ‘outer estates’ parish priest Joe Hasler, and you can see it here.
I’d like to see how it works in practice, but what I notice on paper is how Joe uses many classic techniques of oral performance that have largely been forgotten in our regular worship. If you download the Ash Wednesday confession (about a third of the way down the page) you’ll see the use of repitition; slight variations, careful structure, in triads, building up slowly; and strong rhythm. It’s not obvious, but if you play it through in your head, you also get a sense of working towards a crescendo as the church develops confidence in what it’s saying.
It’s also interesting to see how the work of confession is split into two parts. There are responses for one half of the church; responses for the other half. Some responses involve the whole church. There is no leader’s role: the two parts lead each other through.
With simple, one-syllable words, often in phrases of daily speech:
When we can’t,
When we won’t,
When we don’t.
confidence will build up as the confession continues. I have no doubt that the energy passes from one side of the church to the other. A quick breath, and at the same time you hear what it sounds like free of your own voice. I dare say there’s a bit of competition too; the short fast words build speed, and speed builds volume. I’m sure each side tries to just outdo the other.
It seems to me obvious – in a way that isn’t in our Common Worship liturgies – just how this should sound. Here, the two sides of the church alternate:
I hope that side A finds its voice rising and strengthening on the second word (can, will, do) while side B finds its voice dropping and going quiet on the can’t, won’t, don’t. All of this is very much built into the words.
Joe’s text is very simple: there’s not much imagery there. But it’s well arranged, with a good rhythm and good momentum, and what would really make it work, I think, is that it turns the whole confession over to the people: they are in ‘calling out’ mode for a sustained length of time; they have the opportunity to get into it. This is worship as feeling, as much as word, and it doesn’t happen in a second. Like a hymn, it must be given time to absorb the congregation and to form them to work together.
Joe talks about shouting, which is interesting, but I’m not sure that’s actually the goal; shouting is basically trying to put your communication above everyone else’s. But his work offers a lot more: full engagement of the congregation; energy; collaboration. It certainly offers something very different from the little sentences we swap most weeks in the liturgy.