The first worship service in an Episcopal church I ever attended was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio. It was July 4, 1982. The hymns, lessons, sermon, and prayers tended to the special day by focusing on the relationships among faith, nation, and freedom. The rector offered collects for peace among nations as well as for those serving in the U.S. armed forces. I liked that these two prayers, which seemed to me to be polar opposites, could be offered together. The practice assumed that God is wise enough to hear all of our concerns and guide us in a way that is best for us. A distinctive feature of the service was the way it explicitly tied together liturgy and the occasion. That was the moment I became hooked on liturgical worship.
A set liturgy for the Eucharist, like Rites I and II from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, always makes connections with the moment, but the connection is usually implicit: the individual congregant makes the link through personal reflection and insight. That a set liturgy can speak in a helpful way to different people dealing with very different challenges is one of its great strengths. One drawback to this type of liturgy, however, is the potential that some people will never make the implicit connection between the words on the page and their own reality. In short, liturgical worship can become disconnected from daily lives.
There are many ways to confront this challenge. One I have found helpful is what is known in the Episcopal Church as “Rite III,” a liturgy that follows the prescribed order for the Eucharist but does not follow the set words found in the prayer book. Instead, it allows the celebrant to craft a liturgy (extemporaneous or written) aimed at a specific facet of the congregation’s story and experience. The liturgy itself—which tells part of the story of God’s redemption—can be fashioned to make explicit connections with the personal stories and challenges of parishioners’ lives.
At the Church of the Epiphany in Richmond, Virginia, where I served as rector until recently, many adults have been through the difficult experience of losing a brother or sister. This pastoral challenge created an opportunity to address sibling loss in public worship. The gospel reading was taken from John 11, where Jesus offers comfort to Mary and Martha after the death of their brother Lazarus. The sermon spoke directly to sibling loss. At the Eucharist, we used the following Rite III liturgy:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
It is a right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who called Lazarus back to life, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended, and you have prepared for us, for [here we inserted the names of deceased siblings], and for all those we love but see no longer, a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.
Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels, archangels, and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name.
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
All praise be to you, O God, for you only are immortal, and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to the earth we shall one day return. Your love for us is so deep, so high, so broad that you do not abandon us to the power of the grave. You sent your son Jesus in the fullness of all humanity. He lived and died as one of us and rose victorious from the dead. You bid us to be baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection so that we might die to sin and rise to newness of life. You assure us that one day Jesus will take us by the hand as we pass through the grave and gate of death to our joyful resurrection
On the night before he died for us, Jesus gave us a sign of this promise when he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and shared it with those gathered, saying, “Take, eat: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”
After supper he took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and shared it with his friends, saying, “Drink this, all of you: This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
And so, Father, we who have lost loved ones cling to the faith that Christ died for us, rose again, and one day will return. We offer to you this bread and this wine, humbly asking you to sustain us in this faith. Sanctify these gifts by your Holy Spirit that they may be for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. Sanctify us also, that as we receive this bread and wine we may embody the life of the One who is resurrection and life.
Give courage, through this meal, to all who are bereaved, that they may have strength to face all their days in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope. Grant to all of us who are still in our earthly pilgrimage the gift of your Holy Spirit to lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days, confident in a joyful expectation of eternal life with those we love.
All this we ask through your son Jesus Christ. By him and with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.
This liturgy draws upon language from other rites in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as well as from church hymnody and the scripture lessons of the day. It also picks up on key words, phrases, and themes from the day’s sermon.
Pulling together a variety of resources and crafting them into a liturgical service helps worshipers see the interconnectedness of all of the elements of the worship service. This, in turn, creates an explicit link between the liturgy and personal stories in the congregation, largely by placing those stories within the wider story of God’s redemptive work and care. In other words, what is made explicit helps worshipers attend to what is implicit in the set liturgical rites of worship.
And, at least with this particular service, it helped to open doors of conversation, not only with God but also with other members of the congregation. Paula, who over the course of a few short years lost a 42–year-old brother and 49-year-old sister, recalls that the service gave her a sense of peace by having a worship experience that spoke directly to one of the biggest challenges to faith that she faces. Colleen, whose 22-year-old brother died after a lifetime battle with a rare illness, was particularly touched by the number of people who spoke to her after the service. She noted how many coffee-hour conversations revolve around surface and superficial topics. On this Sunday she was glad that so many elected to ask her about her brother. Both Paula and Colleen were struck by the number of people in the congregation who had experienced sibling loss. This, too, offered comfort.
A good deal of teaching and preparation paved the way for our first use of a Rite III liturgy, which occurred during Lent in 2006. Even more thought, planning, and preparation went into the service on sibling loss. Weeks of announcements prepared the congregation for what was to come. The congregational response was very positive, and people expressed a desire to have a printed copy of the liturgy to read during the service (we Episcopalians are, after all, a people of the book). We returned to Rite III the next year, and this time had printed Eucharistic prayers for everyone to use. This format allowed for even greater flexibility by giving the congregation more opportunities to speak as one during the prayer. We subsequently used Rite III liturgies on Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, and on my final Sunday at Epiphany.
Don’t be afraid to fashion your own liturgies for special occasions, crises, or pastoral needs. Doing so helped the Church of Epiphany to experience liturgy in a whole new way and strengthened its members’ ability to see the deeper, personal meaning of the church’s liturgical rites. Youth Sunday, homecoming, a blessing of the pets, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and commitment Sunday offer interesting opportunities for a self-styled liturgy, and every congregation has special times when composing its own liturgy may be useful. For example, a faith community that celebrates with vigor the anniversary of its founding could craft a liturgy that names its founders and draws parallels between biblical stories and events from the congregation’s own history. Prominent pastoral needs in the parish, such as Epiphany’s experience of sibling loss, can be addressed as well.
As a person who has crafted Rite III liturgies, I enjoy the spiritual challenge of converting lesson and sermon into Eucharistic prayer. I know that it helped me when I first came to liturgical worship, and many at Epiphany have related how it has helped them. It is not something for every Sunday or every celebration. I would never want to diminish the liturgy’s ability to speak in many different ways to the diverse spiritual needs of the congregation. It is my experience that from time to time an explicit focus nourishes each person’s ability to make deep, implicit, personal connections.
Keith Emerson is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Suffolk, Virginia. He previously served for 10 years as rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Richmond, Virginia. He was ordained in 1987 after graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary.