Thursday, 19 November 2015

Ancient Future

As part of my pilgrimage in the West, I had the opportunity to visit with two communities that are rooted in the liturgical tradition but are so in a fresh and engaging way - House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver and Church of the Apostles in Seattle.

Founded by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber, HFASS describes itself as "a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient-future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination." They are just that. It was November 1 when Glen and I visited.  As we came to the church door you knew something good was going to happen. Along with the sandwich board announcing that this  progressive Christo-centric liturgical community was gathering, there was a black velvet painting of Elvis propped at the door welcoming us in. As people arrived, several went to makeshift "altars" to place on them memorabilia of loved ones. On one was a bobble-head Martin Luther and on another a pencil sketch of Dorothy Day. The liturgy began simply with a rung tone of a singing bowl. After Nadia and Reagan welcomed everyone, the very diverse crowd of mostly young adults rose as we joined in the "Litany of the Saints", shared some brief prayers and then processed into the hall (their usual worship space) to "When All the Saints" where the liturgy continued with readings, sermon, a time of "open space" where people could participate in an activity to help them integrate what they'd heard, and the eucharist.

Also founded by a Lutheran pastor, Karen Ward, COTA is an ecumenical community supported by the Episcopal Church along with the ELCA. They too are predominantly a young adult congregation, exploring what it means to be as they call it "ancient faith - future church". When I visited with them in Seattle last Sunday I was struck by the similar energy to HFASS. The space was dim and reflective. A band played cool music in the background as people gathered. Then Ivar (Karen has moved one) welcomed everyone and invited people to light a candle and any point in the service as a sign of solidarity and expression of lament for the bombings in Beirut and Paris. COTA generally share original music and that night was no different as we joined in a poignant version of Psalm 16, expressing a deep yearning for protection in a time of distress. Like HFASS, there is a time for "open space" after the message followed by a sharing in the eucharist. I opted to spend time praying at an icon of Christ and lit a candle. As it turns out Nadia visited COTA when she was founding HFASS so it's no surprise there are resonances.

As I shared with members of COTA during a potluck after worship, the "open space" time is an important way for people to connect with G-d and explore the message at a deeper level. It honours an important value of COTA (and I suspect HFASS), namely a truly inclusive spirit, not just in terms of affirming LGBTQ folks but also affirming people's spiritual journeys. It names the fact that no one's relationship with the Holy is the same and that we all need to be able to explore what that means for ourselves. It creates space for people to be authentic and vulnerable and in that a true sense of community is born. The open space time varies from week to week. That inclusiveness is also expressed in fairly flat ecclesial structure and leadership style. Both communities take very seriously the priesthood of all believers and honour it by sharing the parts of the liturgy as broadly as they can. At HFASS they also read out the prayers that people have written down as part of open space.

Another important part of these communities is the reclaiming of ancient practice. Be it singing the "Litany of the Saints", lighting candles, having icons, walking the labyrinth, chanting together, there is a desire to be grounded in less cerebral, more physical prayer forms. "There is a need for this in our world," Ivar mused as we chatted together. "Because the world is changing so much, people are looking to ancient practices as a way to feel rooted again."

He may well be right. There is clearly something about both communities that is speaking to the hearts of twenty and thirty somethings. Perhaps before we write our eulogies for the church, we need to look to our past as a source of energy and inspiration for our future.

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