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Speak up, Episcopalians! Sing!

By John Stewart

Why is there all this talk in the liturgy? Outside church, we silently stare at our smartphones, smiling and frowning at Facebook and Instagram posts, thumbs flying in reply. But inside, lectors read Scripture aloud, intercessors pause to let the people respond, sermons are spoken rather than distributed in written or electronic form, and we’re even expected to sing together — out loud! Why can’t we just worship in silent silos?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks answers when he explains that speaking and listening is what makes the three Abrahamic monotheisms different. All of us believe that God acts in the world by speaking. “What makes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam different from other faiths is that they conceive of God as personal, and the mark of the personal is that God speaks,” he says.

Through spoken words, God creates the world. Acting in the image of God, humans create order with spoken words. The first thing Adam did was name the animals. Through spoken words, Adam also related to the first “other” in history — Eve — when he said, “This time I have found bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”

Silence and silos

I notice that many 21st century Episcopalians forget the importance of speaking-listening contact when we worship. Some of us mumble when we read Scripture aloud, or we concentrate on the print version in the bulletin or on the screen rather than what’s being spoken by the lector.

Sometimes we do this because the reader is hard to hear or understand, but often it’s just habit. We forget that the point of having scripture read out loud is to re-create a version of the formative experience of our entire religion — God speaking and humans listening.

Some of us also recite familiar creeds and prayers without paying much attention to what we are saying out loud. Maybe we’re forgetting the special power of speaking something in public. What you speak out loud, you own; When you speak in the presence of others, you get marked by what you say.

This is why most people don’t say “I love you” without really meaning it, and when they say, “OK, I’ll be there,” they realize that they’ve made a pledge. We know that a public utterance is a public commitment, and yet we mouth the words of prayers and creeds without thinking much about what we’re saying.

Many of us also don’t join in singing. When the Psalm is chanted, we skip it because the Gregorian-like tune seems strange. Many are silent during the hymns, because, we claim, we “can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

We forget that Scripture asks us to “make a joyful noise,” not to produce a professional performance. Rather than being strengthened and supported by the community-building power of group singing, we huddle in our silo of silence.

Am I being too critical when I say that this preference for strategic silence and solitude is un-Abrahamic? Or at least incompletely Episcopalian?

Hearing and making joyful noises

Our Creator originally entered the world by speaking to chosen humans — Moses, Abraham, Noah, Isaiah, Paul and many others. Most importantly for Christians, God spoke to us in Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ speech. This emphasis on speaking and its partner, listening, suggests a limitation to the translation of the Greek word “logos” as “word” at the start of John’s Gospel.

According to Strong’s “Greek Concordance,” logos did not just mean “word,” in the sense of a symbol like “ball” or “democracy.” Logos originally meant “reasoning expressed by speech … discourse, communication-speech.”

So, “In the beginning was the logos” means more than “In the beginning was the word.” More adequate translations might say, “In the beginning was communication-speech.”

John’s gospel calls attention to the point Sacks makes. Speaking is God’s unique way-of-being for us. Jesus is God’s way of being present to us as God’s speaking (“the Word”). This is a pretty unusual way to describe our Lord, and I think we should take it seriously.

To be made “in the image of God” is to be one who lives in language. Humans are uniquely, like God, beings who can listen and speak. To be God’s people, children of God, is to engage these capabilities. Among other things, this means actively listening, singing and speaking at appropriate times in our worship.   n


John Stewart is a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent book is “Personal Communicating and Racial Equity, 2nd ed.,” and he blogs at www.johnstewart.org.

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