Mennonite Worship: A Multitude of Practices Looking for a Theology
When Anabaptism began, its worship broke free of the symbolic world in which a priest mediated the Holy Spirit and the people were passive recipients. What was revolutionary about the left wing of the Reformation, including Anabaptism, is that it made ordinary people the direct agents of the Spirit. In Roman Catholicism at that time the priest took Communion without need for a congregation; in Anabaptism the congregation took Communion without need for a priest.
Even though Anabaptism was anticlerical and antisacramental, like any community, it expressed itself by ritual means. In fact, it was born in a liturgical act. The celebration of baptism and the Lord's Supper in Zurich in January of 1525 constituted the believers church. These events were duplicated in many settings. The radicals purged the root symbols of the Gospel of their dross and set out to practice them in the Spirit. Their model for spiritual worship was I Corinthians 14, where everyone with a word from God was free to speak it. The congregation was the actor in worship because it was composed of people who had received the Holy Spirit. In state churches worship was an act of religious conformity; in Anabaptism it was an act of religious nonconformity. By offering baptism on profession of faith and refusing to have their infants baptized, the Anabaptists disobeyed the law of the land. Their worship was an act of theological and political dissent.
II. A Developing Pattern
Anabaptism was a first generation phenomenon, whose revolutionary nature is far removed from us. So it is of relevance for us how the heirs of the Anabaptist fire kindled their worship two generations later. Their assemblies took on an identifiable style and form. The simple and heartfelt ways of praying and interpreting the Bible in the first years of the movement became more and more a predictable pattern. At first there were no books, as was the case with the state churches, which set down a uniform liturgy. Rather, originally spontaneous cries of faith were memorized, internalized, and improvised on.
Of equal significance for us is that gradually the actors in worship changed again: the people still sang but increasingly it was only the leaders who prayed and preached. For example, the once common spontaneous commentaries from the congregation on the text and sermon were now reserved for the ordained.
Soon prayer books appeared. Our modern Free Church instinct is to say that that is where the problem really began. But my sense is that written forms were turned to in order to keep spiritual fires burning. For Leonard Clock, a Mennonite minister who set down a formulary of eighteen prayers which was printed in 1625, the goal was to provide a compass to the user. He hoped that offering up these prayers in public worship would provide believers with models for their personal piety. In much the same manner as the first generation's spontaneous prayers, these written ones were improvised upon, internalized, and hand copied with elaborations and deletions. In the longer sweep of mennonite tradition praying from a book and not praying from a book have not been as different from each other as we imagine. One was not completely static and the other completely free; both involved memorization and improvisation.
There is a further stage in the pattern of Mennonite worship. During times of renewal, conventional liturgical forms, whether codified in a book or a preacher's mind, were discarded when they became too confining. New visitations of the Spirit issued in new ways of speaking and of doing things. As the original fire waned, prayer books were written to rekindle the flame. These were memorized and improvised upon. And so the pattern repeated itself.
III. The Significance of this Pattern for Mennonite Worship in the 21st Century
The great upheaval in North American Mennonite worship in the 1960s is in keeping with the overall evolution of our worship across the centuries. But there are also novelties. The first one is that the process of discarding inherited forms went in two directions. One was charismatic, the other liturgical. It all began rather tamely, with one congregation including a responsive reading and another encouraging worshippers to raise their hands during a hymn. Now we seem to have arrived at mutually exclusive forms and pieties of worship. But is this really so?
Both tendencies arose to restore a voice to the congregation, to forge fresh language, to disrupt old patterns. The liturgical movement offered worshippers fuller participation through structured responses; the charismatic movement did so through ecstatic experience. Both were more democratic than hierarchical - nonordained people were empowered to shape public prayer, in liturgically inclined groups through the worship committee and in charismatically inclined ones through the worship team.
What is novel, second of all, about the current revolution in worship is that it is being shaped, directly and indirectly, by cultural expressions from around the globe. Mennonite congregations of a charismatic bent have been more open to these influences, especially as stylized by American pop culture, and have been more successful than liturgical ones in becoming multicultural. I note two weaknesses in liturgical worship. One is its tie to elitist European culture (or elitist North American culture, e.g., with the use of jazz);1 the other is its related emphasis on rationality and control. I note two weaknesses in charismatic worship. One is that its focus on immediate experience is so total that it is indifferent to tradition and memory; the other is its related lack of self-awareness in not being able to acknowledge that its worship has also become routinized.2
Where does this leave us? Is there a recognisably Mennonite way of worshipping which emerges from these shifting patterns, even when they seem to go in opposite directions? An unforgettable observation was made at a Mennonite conference on worship in Toronto last fall. 'Mennonite worship today is a multitude of practices looking for a theology'. Mainstream groups in our tradition in North America worship in astonishingly diverse ways because we have become an astonishingly diverse people. I laud this outcome of following the NT mandate to do evangelism and justice.
How can we develop a sense of belonging and shared symbols strong enough to accomodate the baffling differences of culture and conviction? This question has obvious implications for theology and mission. But its deepest relevance is to worship, the bedrock of Christian faith and community. In worship past and future, memory and promise are made palpable; in it the raging ambiguities of life are stilled and our passion for God is rekindled.
Passion always takes a particular form, rooted in a community's experience. For instance, at the Lord's Supper our Manhattan congregation is most deeply moved by the subdued singing of a hymn like 'Here, o my Lord, I see thee face to face'. Another New York City Mennonite congregation finds its most profound moment of encounter in the enthusiastic singing of a chorus like 'Wash me'.
We should not try to find common ground by altering the ethos and icons of different streams of piety. In fact, we have worked hard at honoring them all, e.g., in the new hymnal and in worship assemblies at district, national, and world conference sessions. But that still leaves us with the question of what we have in common. The answer, of course, is the liberating ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Spirit to pass Jesus' mission on to us.
In the realm of ritual, actions are more layered and primal than words, and thus, more inclusive. That, I think, is why Jesus gave us sacraments. They not only speak; they enact. They not only inspire us for mission; they make it happen. In the table fellowship of the Lord's Supper Jesus' practice of mission is actualized. Jesus' ministry was characterized by crossing boundaries of religious and social convention. One of the most striking forms of this ministry was the meals Jesus initiated with excluded people. His offer of bread became an offer of reconciliation. (Is not the most anguished question of the MC-GC transformation process how to understand and practice such table fellowship?)
One problem is that most symbols of inclusion are smaller than those given to us in the Gospel. We need ones that are bigger than any one theology or class or ideology. Ethnic solidarity - Mennonite or WASP groupishness, US or Canadian nationalism - creates too small a circle of inclusion. So also does an insistence on the same experience of conversion or the gifts of the Spirit, the same recipe for evangelism or social action.
Baptism is the most radically inclusive sign of aceptance which we have. Its only condition is an encounter with Christ and a pledge to join his mission; all else is negotiable. (Perhaps the basis of admission to the Mennonite Church USA should simply be the questions we ask of a baptismal candidate.) The Lord's Supper is the most radically inclusive sign of belonging which we have. At the table all of us realize that we are beggars telling one another where bread can be found.
One of the pleasures of a conference such as this one is that of being asked to prepare a new set of thoughts, without having already sewed them into a seamless garment. That is the case with my concluding two thoughts. They fit with what I have said above but the point of intersection is not quite clear. Having offered two symbols of worship, I now offer two dimensions of worship which I believe are capable of grounding a wide diversity of expression and conviction.
One of them is that worship has an inescapably ethical, even political outcome. It asks us who has our final loyalty, what our ultimate source of security is, who our first love is. These questions are the great equalizers: none of us - left or right wing in our politics, conservative or liberal in our theology - has an edge over the other in answering them. All of us are accountable to God in the world and for the world. Thus our mission is inescapably personal and social. Individuals can claim a vocation to evangelism or social action but the body of Christ is alive and well only when both are happening and when those who carry them out know that they cannot do without each other's work. In Balthasar Hubmaier's Communion service of 1527 he magnificently holds together the personal and the political: in the breaking of bread we pledge to lay down our life for others (brother, sister, neighbor, enemy) just as Christ laid down his life for us.
The other dimension of worship I want to lift up is the need all of us have for unequivocal gestures of blessing, for moments when we bask in the goodness of God, are assured of the sufficiency of Christ, and know the embrace of the Spirit. Mennonite worship should offer us such ecstasy, such self-forgetfulness in the presence of divine and human love. The Lord's Supper is the most tangible communal form of God's grace, if we let it be that. But there are others. Music gives words and emotions flight. How can different kinds of music fill us with passion from God and for God? Preaching, as a word from God breaking into our reality, is much undervalued in our circles, on both sides of the divide. Passionate, Biblical, trinitarian, preaching can offer us this encounter.
I have suggested a few beginning points. I hope that I have offered a smattering of historical and liturgical thoughts that can lead us to ways of worship that will mark our hearts and wills and enlarge our love for God's world.
1. Why is it that liturgical worship is gender inclusive but culturally exclusive? Even its forays into forms from other cultures seem not to be ones that people from those cultures living in Canada or the States are at home with.
2. Why is it that charismatic worship is culturally inclusive but largely patriarchal and gender exclusive?