Last month’s 40th anniversary of the first Episcopal ordinations of women to the priesthood evoked a wide sharing of memories and stories about a church breaking from inherited ways to make a significant rewrite of its identity and practice. That break did not happen without resistance and struggle, but the shift was irreversible. A less complete priesthood is now unimaginable.
But there was also another revolution underway in 1974, a campaign for liturgical renewal being carried out on many fronts. Scholars had been making the case for change for decades, leading to such major revisions as Vatican II and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. At the grassroots level, early experiments in “indigenous” youth culture masses laid the foundations for “alt.worship” and “fresh expressions.”
My first year of ordained ministry was at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, a campus ministry known for its coffeehouse concerts (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell played there) and its innovative worship. At the end of the Sixties, our congregation of college youth valued meaning over form, allowing us the freedom to re-imagine the way we worshipped on a Sunday by Sunday basis. Sometimes the results were sublime and indelible, while there were also some abysmal flops. But that was okay. Everyone understood that our liturgical mission was to experiment: it was as important to know what didn’t work as what did.
In the Seventies, I became liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s, Los Angeles, a gorgeous cathedral-sized church with a progressive multi-cultural congregation. Under prophetic rectors Larry Carter and then Bill Persell, it had become a well-known site of conscientious witness against war, poverty and injustice (Cesar Chavez and the Berrigans thundered from St. John’s pulpit). Although the traditional Sunday morning liturgy was satisfyingly rich, we instituted a monthly Sunday evening series of alternative eucharists (“The Third Sunday”) to explore a wider range of themes and experiential models.
It wasn’t simply a matter of utilizing contemporary texts or plugging in unexpected kinds of music (although bagpipes and synthesizers each provided amazing sounds). We also explored different ways to structure the entire underlying form of the rite. Sometimes we employed worship templates drawn from mythic literary motifs like the Book of Revelation, the Divine Comedy, or the Harrowing of Hell. On Palm Sunday, two “carpenters” (one of whom is now the dean of the National Cathedral) built a cross near the altar throughout the liturgy, occasionally discussing the morality of capital punishment. During the Words of Institution (“This is my body … This is my blood”), their hammers pounded nails into the cross.
My favorite Third Sunday liturgy was a very early example of installation worship: an Advent journey, in groups of six, through a long enclosed corridor circling behind the chancel. The dark, narrow space was filled with projections and recorded poetry (“Inferno,” “Dover Beach,” “Four Quartets”). There was even a descent into a solipsistic hell (a dismal basement room with only live TV images of your own face). But in the end, you emerged into a candlelit chapel of shimmering gold mosaics and exquisite chant, taking your place with those who had made the journey before you, as if you were being welcomed into heaven.
The year 1974 began with the grandest alternative worship experience of my life, at a national gathering of 400 Episcopal college students, professors, and campus ministers during the first week of January. This was a few months after the Episcopal General Convention had once again rejected women’s ordination, and replaced the progressive Presiding Bishop with a southern conservative. It felt like a double slap in the face for progressives. The collegiate Episcopalians, restless and discontented, were having serious doubts about the institution. Some expressed their anger by questioning the value of the all-night liturgy planned for Epiphany. Wasn’t it being designed by three white males (Bill Teska, Mark Harris, and myself)? Down with elitism and sexism!
They had a point. We were just three friends with particular skills who had volunteered to design something memorable. We hadn’t really thought through inclusivity issues. All our attention was on the product, not the process, and we got called on it. There was talk of staging a protest to bring the liturgy to a halt, but artful negotiation transformed the proposed rupture into small group discussions that would be an official part of the liturgy.
The gathering was in Florida, where the temperature would remain comfortable through the hours of darkness. The “Great Liturgy” of Epiphany began at midnight beneath the full moon, with the congregation singing and processing three times around the worship space – a circus tent with its sides rolled up, in the middle of an empty field. When we finally entered the tent, people broke into small groups to share their hopes and fears for the church. Once these conversations were reported to the whole assembly, the liturgy began in earnest.
A simple Compline was followed by a cosmo-political Penitential Rite: a ninety-minute trip through Creation, History and Apocalypse, using 12 projectors, sampled sounds from the news, pop music, poetry, movie dialogue and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Then the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation were opened by means of participatory theater games, climaxing with a ritual “dying” (falling to the ground) by the people, and then a rising up again, led by three Magi (one of them female). “We have come looking for the Holy One,” the Magi declared. And one by one we rose to our feet, crying “He is here!” and “She is here!” and “We are here!”
It was now about 3 am, time for a half hour pause of silent meditation, ending with a grand entrance procession of the eucharistic ministers preceded by six thurifers, filling the tent with incense. A jazz matins enlivened the Service of the Word, then a ninety-minute Offertory presented the gifts of the community before the altar – heartfelt testimonies, dance, a Navajo healing chant, a gospel quintet. By now the full moon, overhead when we began, was setting into the trees beyond the tent.
During the eucharistic prayer, a revolving mirror sphere painted the interior with kinetic light, and pulsing strobes flashed upon the bread and wine during the Words of Institution, making an almost hallucinatory intensification of the elements (definitely more Baroque than Cistercian!). After communion, we all processed out of the tent into the light of the rising sun, singing an Appalachian spiritual:
Bright morning stars are rising,
Day is a-breaking in my soul.”
Seven and a half hours from beginning to end,
moonlight to sunrise,
a Christian dreamtime.
It is the nature of liturgy – and language – to consist of mediating symbols. We aren’t allowed to see God face to face. As Isaiah realized in his Temple vision, such an encounter would obliterate us, swallow up our particularity, which is only made possible through the degree of separation we are given from the All. We don’t get to grasp “total presence” in this life, but only the words, images and sacraments that connect us with that (absent) presence. And yet there are times when the divine leaps across the gap, the bush burns bright before our eyes, and we hear the Voice calling our name. That Epiphany in a circus tent was one of those times.
So when I think of the church of 1974, I not only remember how we began to embrace a more inclusive priesthood, but also how free we were to explore both the means and the meaning of our deepest rituals. May it be so again.