If I didn’t know where the opening Eucharist of the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church was being held, it would not have mattered very much. A stream of people headed in a single direction–pointing toward the huge convention hall that had been appointed with 2,000 or so chairs, giant and colorful banners depicting the beauty of the Utah wilderness, and an altar that was broader and taller than almost any I have ever seen.
As I filed into the choatic and cavernous space, I looked around for a familliar face. I know perhaps 50 or 60 people out of the 2,000 in attendance so odds were slim. I told myself “Well, if you can’t sit with a friend, then make friends with the person you sit with.” I introduced myself to someone with an empty seat beside her and slid into place.
In the moments before the service began, I pulled out my iPad and found the PDF’s of the worship bulletin. The service was paperless–only available in digital format. I suddenly had the feeling that I had wandered into one of the Protestant mega churches that I’ve read about. I began wondering about praise bands and altar calls. Could we be Episcopalian’s in such a large group?
I glanced at the bulletin, um, I mean, my screen, and saw a prayer printed on the first page:
Oh God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit, lift us, we pray, into your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And just then, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Shori, Presiding Bishop, appeared on the vast stage and her voice echoed throughout the room in welcome: “Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” After the dutiful reply of the assembled crowd, music swelled as the hymn “Comfort, Comfort ye my people” began. Clearly, we were very Episcopalian…. I had not stumbled into the wrong church.
The propers for the day celebrated the Feast of John the Baptist, the one who cries out in the wilderness. Bp. Katharine talked about what it is like being in the desert. She said “We are building roads in the desert and that takes teams of people to make peace out of violece and racism, to forge paths for wheel chairs and the feet of little ones alike, to take us to places where food and water are plentiful, to make a road that will lead us home.”
The Eucharist unfolded wtih familiar words and all the usual parts: the opening, the sanctus, the fraction and communion. We all followed directions–and everyone was fed (and there were gluten free wafers too).
Worshipping as the assembled church with a couple thousand people did change the service a bit:
- The reading from the Hebrew scripture was read in Spanish–as well as half of the Eucharistic prayer. I liked that, knowing that we all were taking turns relying on the bulletin (which was printed in both English and Spanish to know exactly what was being said.
- The Deacon read the Gospel from the pulpit, so that all could see and hear it proclaimed. She would have disappeared in the throngs if she had tried to go “into the midst of the people” as we customarily do.
- For the prayers of the people, everyone was invited to submit prayers in advance by Tweeting them with the appropriate hash tag, or by posting on Facebook or Instagram. Now, they are preserved so that we can go back and pray for newfound and uknown friends in the extended community.
- The biggest difference though was the energy in the room. Every amen reached the rafters. Every verse of every hymn was sung with gusto. We were invited to say the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father) in “the language of our hearts” and the voices raised and blended as we prayed together, one family with many unique voices. What a blessing… What a gift.
In the end, the Presiding Bishop blessed us and the deacon dismissed us. We had done it all, and just a little bit more. It was everything that Episcopal worship can and should be… and as we filed out, I glanced reflexively at my watch (I’m told that people get antsy if worship lasts “too long” which is about an hour and fifteen minutes): the time was 10:35. We had done it all (the hymns, the scripture, the prayers, and the feeding of the 2,000) in just over an hour. A miracle. Maybe we need a few Episcopal megachurches… I had a moment where I almost felt that I could get used to it.