Saturday, September 8, 2012

Somatic-Sacramental Worship at Fountain Street Church

After a summer church hiatus, my wife, family, and I return to our regular weekly church attendance at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids. I've been thinking about sacramental worship lately, and I would like to offer the following reflections and questions: 

The Roman Catholic mass is outlined in two sections.  The first section is a liturgy of the word and the second is the liturgy of the altar. During the liturgy of the word, the prayers and movements are directed toward preparation for readings from the Gospels.  The liturgy of the altar is the congregation's generally active participation in the sacrifice of the eucharist where the host is believed to be literally offered sacrificially and the congregation eats thereof.  A mass can only exist with both liturgies expressed.

In Protestant traditions, the eucharist (more often called communion by Protestants) is not believed to be a sacrifice but rather a symbol, an intellectual assent to the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection.  High-church Protestantism aside, historically Protestants have not celebrated a liturgy of the altar: the focus of worship is on the liturgy of the word.  As a result, Protestant worship is markedly cerebral and more a matter of intellect or a thought exercise than acts carried out with the body.  For the historic Protestant, the Reformation affirmed that "works of the law" (read as human deeds) are not and cannot be a means of grace; therefore, worship is not sacramental.  Worship is foremost a matter of the heart.  This results in varying degrees of dualism -- separating the heart and mind from actions done with the hands and experiences of the body.  Enter many a Protestant into a Catholic or Orthodox church, and there are often reports of formalism and "works-righteousness."  In addition to a liturgy of the altar, in Protestant churches icons and high-church architecture are also often absent--diminishing the somatic-physical experience of the congregant.  More could be said here with regard to social justice and the fundamentalist-modernist divide relative to Evangelical-Protestant dualism.  

Fountain Street Church -- "a liberal religious community in downtown Grand Rapids" (a phrase rehearsed in our weekly self-definition) -- has a markedly Protestant heritage. Up until the mid-1900's, Fountain Street Church was a mainline-Protestant church in the American Baptist denomination.  Since I have been attending, most of its ministers are ordained in the Unitarian Universalist denomination, and one of its ministers is ordained Methodist.  Though officially independent, the congregation relies heavily on Unitarian Universalist materials (e.g., curriculum for Sunday school and the hymnals), and has a markedly Unitarian Universalist feel -- these are all attributes of Fountain Street that I love.  How, though, does Fountain Street Church compare to historic Protestants in regard to liturgies?  Is Fountain Street worship a liturgy of the word? Is there an altar liturgy?

Because Fountain Street is not officially Christian, it does not have an official word or altar.  There is no eucharist, no communion. The Bible often is present, but so are readings from rabbinic literature, Dr Seuss, the Quran, humanists, and other sources of edification.  However, in terms of worship service, Fountain Street's main service is more a liturgy of word than of altar, and this requires significant qualification. 

Entering into the sanctuary of Fountain Street is a moving experience.  It is beautiful.  The vaulted ceilings; stained glass murals of biblical scenes and people significant in the movement of our society toward democracy, scientific advancement, and inclusive justice (including Darwin, Hume, and Lincoln); icons of angels and Jesus; American-Gothic architecture (a true oddity for a Baptist church in Grand Rapids!); and the nostalgia-inducing, incense-like scent of "church" all work together to deepen the somatic experience of entry and worship in the sanctuary.  The building is a sort of sacrament, an encounter with something larger than oneself including the contributions of generations to the life of the church--its building and its people.  

However, largely true to its Protestant heritage, Fountain Street's main worship service is a liturgy of word, a exercise of the heart and mind.  I state this not necessarily as a criticism.  Catholic and Jewish liturgies are both areas of interest to me, and I value manners of worship that are more engaging of the body-person.  I write this, though, more as a launching point.  Can congregational worship in non-eucharistic, liberal religious communities be more engaging of the body-person?  Can they be more sacramental without hurting the independent and liberty-valuing nature of an inclusive, progressive liberal body?  

...a few thoughts on my mind this morning.

Note: these are my own thoughts and observations and not officially representative of Fountain Street Church

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