My first Sunday at my current Church I stood in front of the congregation before the service began introducing myself, asking for patience as I learn what they do, then I took a big breath and said,
“You need to know something about how I celebrate a service. Anglican worship is full of movement. We sit, stand, kneel, and move around the building. I don’t announce any of these because we are here to worship God and every body does that differently. I want you to make choices that will help you worship God. Which might mean you are doing different things than the people around you. We will trust that you are making decisions to help you worship God.”
I had stopped announcing liturgical movements years before. After years of listening and participating in clergy debates about if and how you should announce the sit/stand/kneel things and nascent questions about if we should insist that everyone do the same thing, I didn’t have an answer. I watched too many beloved older parishioners struggle to stand or kneel that I couldn’t do it anymore. So I stopped. But they didn’t. Patterns and the social expectation of everyone else doing a thing trump your priest not offering cues.
Then the hip issue that has been lurking in my medical history started acting up. (That it took me a long while to realize this is another story.). And suddenly I wasn’t struggling to stand but kneeling or sitting for too long or on poor seats or on the wrong day and my only prayer was that whatever was going on would end faster. I’d hear someone say, “I invite you to kneel” or, “Please stand as able” or, “Rise in body or spirit” and it would grate over my pain stretched nerves because everyone else was doing the thing. Do I join them and cease worshipping? Do I worship and wonder who is wondering about me?* And thus cease worshipping anyways. It was a painful lose-lose.
The pain has to be really bad for you to not do the thing every one else is doing. Really bad. Some days it was that bad. Some days it wasn’t just bad.
“I invite you to kneel” or, “Please stand as able” or, “Rise in body or spirit” are all attempts to expand worship practices. They are fine at acknowledging that not everyone may be able to assume various worship positions. They still reinforce normative worship positions. I believe that every priest who has chosen these or similar phrases is attempting to be more welcoming in worship. I also know that ableism is deeply entrenched in our society and church. It’s subtext but it in the middle of pain I heard, “Your body doesn’t fit here. Faithful bodies can sit/stand/kneel like the rest of us.”
I had joined the beloved parishioners struggling to do the thing because everyone else was and needed to create my own alternate option.
In scripture faithful bodies are lowered through roofs because they can’t walk. Faithful bodies limp. Faithful bodies come from all regions; fail to produce children; beg for divine mercy in deserts; wait hopefully beside healing pools. In Scripture, the body of God’s own son is flogged, stripped, deprived of water, mocked, stabbed, crucified, and bore scars in resurrection.
I worried, standing before my brand-new congregation, in the moment before I made that announcement. But they had called me—all the parts of me they knew from paperwork, sermons, and interviews and all the parts of me they were going to learn. I took a deep breath and said what I believe.
I don’t tell people what to do with their bodies in worship. I believe that we come together on Sunday morning to worship God. Faithful bodies are worshipping bodies.
Afterwards I saw a few parishioners smile.
*Are most people in worship wondering about you? No. Absolutely not. When most of the times you are not leading worship are with your colleagues and boss and you know quite well how much clergy gossip? Who knows.