'What gets changed in the Eucharist? Sam gets changed."
"Change is what the Christian assembly is after when it gathers for prayer" reflects Bryan Cones.
‘Among the symbols with which the liturgy deals, none is more important than this assembly of believers.’
When I first read this sentence as a student of liturgy and worship, I had to pause. I was used to thinking of symbols the ‘things’ we use in common prayer: bread and wine, water in a font, oil for anointing, along with crosses and candles and so on.
All of these had actions that went with them that made them work. We bless and eat bread and wine, wash with water, anoint and lay hands with oil—those all point to the presence of Christ in their own way. But people? Aren’t the symbols for the people, who use them to praise and thank God? How can a community gathered for worship be a ‘symbol,’ much less the primary one?
Still, something about this claim caught my attention. Even with all the words and actions of our common prayer, the people in the room are primary—all the rest is for our sake, to change us more fully into the presence of Christ. As a man named Sam replied to the question ‘what gets changed?’ in the eucharist: ‘What gets changed? Sam gets changed.’ The Sam in question was an African American man in Cleveland, Ohio, part of a video project in the 1990s to document good liturgical celebration in Roman Catholic parishes.
He was a part of church whose diverse members embodied the Black-White ‘colour line’ that marks not only U.S. society but U.S. churches. The ‘human symbol’ of that eucharistic community pointed the way every Sunday to a different state of affairs, one that joined them together as one body at one table without erasing their differences, a Christ embodied in Black and White (with many shades beyond and between). In its worship of God, this human symbol was proposing what Robert Hovda, a Roman Catholic priest and the author of the quote that opens this post, described as a ‘kingdom scene’ of ‘liberation and reconciliation’ to the community around it.
Ethnic and cultural heritages, of course, are not the only differences present (one hopes) when the church gathers for prayer. There are differences of age and ability, of gender and sexuality, of language and country of origin, among others. Churches often trumpet their ‘welcome’ or ‘inclusion’ of such diversity—but there is always a danger all that difference becomes ‘generic,’ what one theologian has referred to as the ‘motley mixture,’ though one without its complex detail. But if we take the human symbol of the liturgy seriously, it is worth dwelling on those differences in their specifics and how they interact, lest the ‘welcome’ becomes a washed-out diversity that serves the majority, since, after all, ‘we are all the same.’ As a gay person in majority straight congregations, I’ve experienced myself a well-meaning welcome of my sexual minority status coupled with the presumption that ‘we’ are all more or less the same. But we are not, and many experience harsh treatment on account of their differences. And that matters in the human symbol gathered for prayer.
Exploring all differences for the new contours of grace they propose in church is what This Assembly of Believers is all about. I wrote it because I am convinced that the human symbol gathered for prayer produces different images of Christ depending on who is present, and in doing so adds something new to our encounter with God. Paying attention to who is in the room also uncovers ways some ‘differences’—being (temporarily) able-bodied, or being an adult, or male—get preferred, while others are excluded or rendered invisible. Coming as I do from the context of the Episcopal Church, which counts baptism as the source of all ministry, the full and active participation of everyone, with all the gifts of our differences, in our ‘public service’—one meaning of liturgy—is paramount. Our common prayer is the primary place we might allow Christ to propose in us those ‘kingdom scenes’ of liberation and reconciliation.
Consider the baptism of a child born of two women: Such a family is controversial still in many contexts, both in church and outside it. If an assembly chooses to baptize that child, their human symbol is proposing a different state of affairs, one that not only ‘welcomes’ a family headed by a same-gender couple but recognizes that family as a ‘house church,’ where a new Christa can grow and flourish. That human symbol’s public service also contests as unjust this family’s exclusion both from church and society. Affirming the grace of their difference unveils a new meaning to ‘baptism’—one not to be found in the scriptures or prayer texts we have received, and even contradicted there. That child’s baptism proposes a change—and a new encounter with Christ.
That scene begins the second chapter of This Assembly of Believers in its exploration of baptism. A later chapter engages how a change in the gender of the presider at eucharist troubles the conflation of maleness with ‘the person of Christ,’ particularly in an ordained person. Another explores the full participation of persons with developmental or physical impairment and the manifold ways they refract the presence of Christ—and train the church’s gaze on what Thomas Reynolds calls a ‘cult of normalcy’ that excludes so many (Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, p. 60). A chapter on marriage asks what changes when a difference in gender is no longer a prerequisite for the celebration of marriage, and how that change might also affect the heterosexual majority.
After all, change—both in practice and imagination—is what the Christian assembly is after when it gathers for prayer. Liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh famously describes the divine encounter of common prayer as the ‘adjustment to deep change caused in the assembly by its being brought regularly to the brink of chaos in the presence of the living God’ (On Liturgical Theology, p. 74). I am convinced—and have experienced myself—such ‘adjustments’ among those with whom I have prayed: a child washing his mother’s feet on Maundy Thursday; a young man whose life was profoundly altered by schizophrenia bearing the cup of Christ’s suffering and transformation among those who knew his story; a transgender presider who proposes in their person a more richly gendered image of Christ; a baby who had barely survived her first months baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, having already experienced that mystery without even knowing it. Each one has been a privileged moment of encounter with the living God available only in ‘this assembly of believers’—if and when, that is, we allow the Holy One to draw us beyond our comfort zones toward the chaotic brink that transforms us.
Bryan Cones is a presbyter in the Episcopal Church, a former book editor at Liturgy Training Publications, and was managing editor and columnist at U.S. Catholic magazine. He has served as adjunct faculty at the Episcopal Divinity School, and holds a doctorate in liturgical and practical theology from the University of Divinity
This Assembly of Believers: The Gifts of Difference in the Church at Prayer, is available to order from the SCM Press website.