The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

High church liturgy: Not just smells and bells

Posted by Ron George on May 31, 2017

Eucharist, by Daniel Bonnell

The moment of my debut had come. I stood eagerly in the sacristy of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, Texas, thurible in hand. The coals were red-hot, five of them, custom-made for this very thing, each plate-shaped to receive incense, the smoke of which would rise to heaven like prayers of the people of God, the church.

The late Rev. George M. Acker had trained me well. I was confirmed and confessed and thereby suitable for sanctuary service. I was 19 years old and had been attending St. Timothy’s for almost a year. I felt like a racehorse in the starting gate, raring to go. The bit in my mouth was held by a best friend who one day would be my best man, Don Wertz. Don’t rush, he said, but don’t dawdle. Find the dignity of movement that would complement that of the other eight players on St. Timothy’s liturgical stage.

How would I know? I’d feel it, and I did.

The cantor intoned the Introit. My cue.

Smoke billowed from the thurible as Fr. Acker put on three heaping scoops of incense from the “boat” I held in my left hand.

“That’s just great,” he said, soto voce. He took the thurible from me, moved to the center of the altar and, attended by the deacon and subdeacon, imbued the sanctuary with holy smoke. The first time my mother visited St. Timothy’s, she said the Introit censing looked like a dance by three beautifully vested men. She was right.

I would make three more appearances that Sunday morning – for the gospel procession, the offertory and the prayer of consecration. After the consecration, I retired to the sacristy, dumped the fourth load of coals and incense, then returned to the sanctuary to receive holy communion.

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving,” said Fr. Acker, gently reciting from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The late Rev. Dale Blackwell followed him almost immediately: “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”

I was no stranger either to church in general or sanctuary in particular, but this moment was almost exhaustingly beautiful. It seemed not to end but ended too quickly. I wanted to stay there, kneeling in the sanctuary for the rest of my life; but I also hoped it would soon be my turn, again, to serve as thurifer for the Solemn High Mass at St. Timothy’s.


My friends say I’m a good performer; critics call me a showoff. My friends are right, but so are the critics, because showing off is an unfortunate byproduct of whatever gift it is that enables one to perform well for an audience. There always seems to be a dark side to one’s talents and strengths. We mature as human beings by learning to manage the dark side while developing the other. I’ve not done either especially well, but that’s another kettle of fish.

I don’t get stage fright. Never have. I’m not nervous waiting offstage to make an entrance. I can’t wait to get “out there,” wherever that is. My anxiety comes in learning my lines. I don’t have a great memory and I stutter, which compounds the learning of lines – but not the performance. Go figure.

Untitled, by Jordi Bonas

I sing and dance pretty well. I know how to give a speech, make a presentation and assume a role. I’ve sung in church and civic choirs since I was eight years old, played piano recitals, been in school plays, played percussionist in concert and marching bands and performed in musicals at the community-theater level. I’ve done some Shakespeare. I’ve had little training in any of these venues, which is a damn shame, because I might have become really good at something instead of a rank though talented amateur at many things.

I also write well, which until relatively late in life I took too much for granted. There is a performance dimension to writing, and all of the pitfalls pertain – e.g., egotism, narcissism, superciliousness, to mention a few. (I’ve been guilty of all of them.)

It’s more than likely that I was attracted to high-church liturgy by this penchant to perform, and there’s no question that, once imbibed, high-church liturgy – and my sincere belief that the church was a divine institution – beckoned me to ordained ministry. That I lasted but six years in that estate – plus almost three years of seminary – speaks volumes about how ill-suited I was  despite my impressive liturgical presence. (I paid not near enough attention to the dark side.)

By that, I don’t mean there’s something invalid about Christian spirituality that emanates from liturgical worship. Quite the contrary; and, even though I can scarcely present myself as a good example, I do heartily recommend it, especially for folks for whom contemplative practices are a bit of a stretch.

My experience of performance tells me that true performers don’t play for applause, as gratifying as that can be. (Caveat: I can’t and would not presume to speak for any performer other than myself.) Recognition of a performance well done is important but not essential. Audiences are essential – they are the whole point, after all. No one wants to play to an empty house – but the performers’ reward comes from within.

Performers are people sufficiently disciplined to want their piece to be flawless. A lot of work goes into that; and, in fact, few performances are flawless, but it’s rewarding trying to get there – and you do, in a way, when the show is at an end and seems to have been effective, in and of itself. Satisfaction in a job well done is the seed within a performer that never ceases to grow, with or without applause – and here’s where we get to liturgical performance.

Liturgy is performance in the deepest and best sense of that word. From the outside, all one sees is ceremonial – the vestments, the candles, the incense! From the inside – it’s about growing proficiency, the mastery of a way of being and doing that takes one deeper and deeper into one’s humanity to discover or recover what’s naturally spiritual in all human beings; and, perhaps, to put one in touch with whatever one’s tradition considers divine.

There are, of course, many approaches to Christian liturgy, let alone the multitudinous approaches to worship among tens of thousands of humanity’s religions. Frankly, one’s liturgical preferences are a matter of taste but also the degree to which a given liturgy satisfies the human longing for spiritual experience and, perhaps, divine encounter.

High-church Anglican liturgy happens to be my cup of tea, but it may not be yours. The thing is, we need not be testy about it, as so often has happened in Christianity’s checkered, multifarious past; and, because such things are matters of taste, we need not apologize for the many ways our history has evolved Christian worship. To each their own.

My point, here, is that just because a given liturgy is long on externals doesn’t mean it’s devoid of internals. It all depends on the spiritual disposition of the worshipper, and that within the context of a particular faith community. Every form of Christian liturgy ever invented – yes, invented – has within it seeds of meaninglessness but also seeds of transcendence.

Take your pick.


2 Responses to “High church liturgy: Not just smells and bells”

  1. I heard Fr. Acker. HEARD HIM in my mind.

    It’s funny – what brings me comfort is the ritualistic progression of the liturgy. I love the “pomp and circumstance”, the incense, the chanting, the congregational responses in song, hymns enhanced and given the proper gravitas via organ accompaniment….I miss the smells of wood polish and communion wine, starched linen, musty robes, dusty prayer books and hymnals… *sigh*

    Hmmmm, wonder where I got my performance talent from? :) :)

  2. Patsy Durham said

    Wow! Well spoken. Thank you for putting into words what my own experience has been. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church in North Florida. So of course every time I moved, I sought out another Presbyterian Church. But in 1975 in Mafeking, South Africa, there was no Presbyterian Church. I settled into an Anglican Church because the service was in English and it was racially integrated and those two things were important to me. But I still considered the service to be rather empty ritual. Along the way, however, the ritual crept into my heart and became liturgy (the work of the people, my spiritual work/walk). Years later, when I moved back to the States, my parents were sure that I would return to the “sensible” church and abandon all that “mystical stuff”. But by then, I had fallen in love with the Eucharist and been confirmed in the Anglican Church. Now I cannot really imagine myself ever worshiping any other way.

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