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Worship and the Other

2012 April 11
by Julie Clawson

In my ethics class in seminary we’ve been discussing the problems of race and racism and the challenge of respecting the dignity of the other. As part of that discussion, my professor mentioned that the diversity task force had discovered that most of the minority students who attended the seminary over the past decade felt like they never truly belong at the seminary – that the culture of the seminary never welcomed them for who they were. I didn’t find this surprising in the least, but one of my classmates seemed rather taken aback by the report. She asked if specific examples of how the seminary was unwelcoming could be shared.

It was one of those really uncomfortable moments for me as just minutes before I had sat there feeling like a completely unwelcome outsider as my fellow classmates joined in on mocking the church tradition I come out of. The banter had been meant in fun, more as a way to make fun of themselves than others, but it had still been an awkward exchange. Per new seminary policy, all the ordination track students had to participate in the seminary’s Triduum services over Easter – a very old-school high-liturgy that consumed their whole weekend. The purpose, as they explained to me, was so that they could be trained in the right way of doing vigils since the parishes they serve will rarely know the correct forms for such things. So as they came off of the Easter frenzy exhausted as classes started again, the joke that morning was that next year they should petition to do the whole thing low-church style. This started everyone in on joking what sorts of appalling low-church stuff they could do – from spending the whole service doing announcements to giving into the congregation’s consumer demands to sing hymns people actually know. It was all meant in fun so I just sat and listened to them mock the cultural church traditions I am used to, but as the only non-Episcopalian in the class it was hard not to feel like an outsider.

And then we started class and the question was raised as to how minorities at the seminary might not feel welcome. It was difficult to not speak up about the discussion before class – . Or to mention that every time I hear my classmates discuss things like Enriching Our Worship (liturgies that include prayers and hymns from other cultures) it is only to mock it. Or the incredulous gossip-like statements of “have you heard, there are some churches that actually use grape juice and crackers for Eucharist?” Or the arguments I’ve heard that only 17th century high-liturgy done with the finest of serviceware available is proper worship. Or that what feminists and blacks do is not true theology, but merely an expression of Christian spirituality. When one form of culture is upheld as the God-ordained norm and everything else mocked, then of course those who differ from that norm are not going to feel welcome.

The seminary is very white and reflects one segment of cultural worship practices of white middle class Americans. I knew as a post-evangelical I was an outsider going into seminary yet even as an outsider I respect the culture forms of worship practice that most of my classmates find meaningful and beautiful. But I struggle when such forms of worship get in the way (even unintentionally) of respecting the dignity of others. It is one thing to choose to participate in a particular cultural form of worship, but quite another to mock the forms of others or expect them to convert to your ways in order to be a proper Christian. This goes far deeper than silly worship wars, but gets at the very core of what it even means to worship God at all.

As I’ve come to understand it, to commit oneself to ascribing worth-ship to God one must embrace the patterns of life that God deems worthy. As the biblical prophets repeatedly assert, rituals of worship that seek to draw us close to God or that proclaim God’s worth are meaningless if we are not actually living in the ways of God. The purpose of worship is this pursuit of righteousness – being in right relation with God and in relation to all that God has created. As Isaiah declares, this involves more than just fasting or participating in convocations, but engaging in actions that work to right those relationships. We might be strengthened, or shaped, or comforted by our community’s rituals, but those are forms that should never be mistaken for the deeper function of worship. More significantly such forms should never prevent us from engaging in the ways of life God deems worthy. Ritual should never stand in the way of our caring for those in need, of respecting the dignity of others, or loving our neighbors.

It is difficult to see the pain of my classmates who do feel unwelcome at my seminary especially when it is it cultures of worship creating the division. Yet as an outsider myself it is similarly difficult to know how to work to help resolve this tension.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Ann permalink
    April 11, 2012

    Speak up!! This is evil of the “ignorance” sort. Especially when there is a strong “in” group, they all reinforce the ignorance. They cannot do better if they don’t know better, and you are in the perfect position, as an observer, to bring the behavior to light.

    My daughter who was adopted from Korea and now lives in Texas has taught me this as she has had to deal with racism/ignorance within her family of in-laws and with her children on the playground. It works!

  2. Loren Peters permalink
    April 11, 2012

    Good on you, Julie.

    I’m well aware of the seriousness of what you write. I must say, though, as a former student who was dinged by some faculty for my “pious” (Anglo-Catholic) devotional practices, I can’t help but be a bit amused.

    Interesting how “banter” can alienate and marginalize so many different people all at the same time. A good lesson for all of us to remember. Thank you.

    Peace and Joy.

  3. April 11, 2012

    Why are we so focused on divisive division instead of disparate unity?

    Why do we find it so easy to say “No! But…” and so hard to say “Yes! And …”?

    Why, when we enter into a room are we so ready to fight for our “rightness” and so unwilling to lovingly and humbly start out admitting that we might be wrong?

    Why would we rather stand, point and preach … than sit, hold hands and listen?

    How did we ever end up taking Jesus’ prayer for us, for all future believers (the last third of John 17) and ignoring it?

    Why do we find it so much easier to be a Pharisee, a self-appointed gatekeeper of orthodoxy, than to follow the leadership of Christ and let Him decide?

    Why is it so much easier to uncontrollably hate than to unconditionally love?

    Is it because we ate of the forbidden fruit and hunger for its evil sweetness to this day?

    Hand me that apple, would you? Thanks! [chomp, chomp]

  4. April 11, 2012

    On a side note, I would love for us to move away from any categorization of each other based on skin color. I am not white. I am actually a light reddish-brown with scattered dark brown spots and some bluish streaks. I am, however, American with a varied ethnical heritage.

    My family tree contains Central African, Hispanic, and assorted Western European ethnicities. The whole idea of a “race” (a “breed” of humans) is quite distasteful to me. I would hope that we can move away from that language, for in a few short generations, the whole idea of a “race” will be meaningless. We are all God’s beautiful (multiracial) mutts.

  5. April 19, 2012

    That sucks that you had to listen to them mock your tradition. But really, they mock Enriching Our Worship and denigrate feminist and black theology, too?!? First, EOW is probably the best idea the Episcopal Church has had in years, aside from ordaining openly gay and lesbian people to the priesthood. I almost went to Seminary of the Southwest for my Anglican year. Reading about your experiences makes me thankful I did not.

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