We’ve made two wrong turns so far, and that’s my fault. I keep looking up from the map on my phone at the mountains surrounding us here in northern Washington state. We are looking for a retreat center in Sumas, a town that seems to be mostly small farms patched in among the forested hills.
I am here with David Roseberry on behalf of LeaderWorks. We are here to host two webinars for the Anglican Church in North America’s Liturgy Taskforce, a group of faithful people who have been laboring for several years now to create a new and beautiful book of common prayer for our province. And it is my job to make sure these sessions go smoothly.
Purple Shirts and Ph.D.’s
I’ll admit that I am nervous. I’d done my due diligence and spent hours on the phone with experts and run my own tests, but I still felt daunted. And with good reason—I’m a former high school teacher, a new priest, and an even newer Assistant Director at LeaderWorks. I can send an email and create a slideshow, but I’m no tech-wizard. And suddenly I’m juggling audio adapters, high-definition cameras, live-streaming software, and webinar management. I could prepare all I wanted—this was still beyond my comfort zone.
There are some existential anxieties roiling here as well, if I’m being honest. Like I said, I’m a new priest, one who grew up in a liturgically agnostic evangelical environment. I have some education and experience now, sure, but I am about to walk into a room full of purple shirts and Ph.D.’s. I can’t shake the sense that I am going to be exposed as fraud because I can’t quote the Coverdale Psalter verbatim. Fine, it’s an unreasonable thing to be nervous about, but isn’t that sort of the point of anxiety?
At dinner that night, there are indeed several bishops in purple shirts and gold crosses. They introduce themselves warmly to me. Archbishop Duncan invites me to sit over at his table during the meal. While I am busy reminding myself to take small bites, chew with my mouth closed, and keep my napkin in my lap, he goes to work serving the family-style meal, embodying the serving role of a deacon. There’s a lesson here, probably.
I listen to the conversation swell with sudden laughter and recalled memories. These people are collegial in the truest sense; they reverence the work that one another does, and they cherish the opportunity to work together. They are pretty much like the rest of us—often so cloistered away in their own contexts with daily difficulties that a moment to step away, to gather with others who know so acutely the responsibilities and struggles of their calling, feels like a breath of fresh air.
The dinner conversation subsides and we have a few minutes to plan for the next day’s webinar. A gentle Canadian adjusts his glasses and leans in and speaks with clear and quiet conviction about the task ahead: to unify, to work lovingly and faithfully, to share the work with everyone. Some of those who’ve flown through three time zones begin to slump, and we all retire for the night.
A Nice Moment
The next morning as I’m still feeling out of place and checking and re-checking our technical set up, the Taskforce members gather around a conference table for morning prayer. There are some new arrivals—a laughing, hulking priest with a British accent that lends his words instant credibility and a gregarious bishop who introduces himself to me as the guy who still doesn’t know how or why he ended up on this committee among all these geniuses. Needless to say, this gives me some comfort.
They read the morning office, smiling to each other as many trip over the word devices in the General Confession—that’s one they’ve debated and revised several times now. The Old Testament reading is the beginning of Nehemiah—O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant…give success to your servant today. They reflect on crumbling walls and on setting shoulders to difficult work. They pray the Lord’s Prayer together. One reads the Collect for the Week: Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in continual godliness.
The first webinar passes without incident. In fact, once I got over the nerves, feeling the eyes of the committee on the back of my head as I double-checked recording settings and volume and everything else, it was pretty cool to see what developed. While David and Archbishop Duncan spoke, a chat conversation started up among the webinar participants. People shared links with each other, batted possible revisions back and forth, lobbed questions for me to relay to the panel. There was a genuine sense of willing engagement from everyone—a nice moment.
Down to Business
Now that the first one went smoothly, I can breathe a sigh of relief—there will be another webinar tomorrow, sure, but for an hour or two I’m free to sit in the back of the room while the Taskforce gets to work. While I pack away cameras and mics, the conference table becomes crowded with open laptops, scattered papers, piled books, and lots of coffee cups. In minutes, they are wading into the Eucharist texts, discussing how to ensure clarity through the rubrics without letting them become too cumbersome for use.
Sometimes their discussion digresses to the conventions of older prayer books, or precedents in other rites, or the present-day connotation of a word as opposed to its 17th century use. For a moment, it seems that the sentence or phrase is going to end up clumsy or bloated, too long or too unmetrical or too opaque. Someone will say: This thing looks like a platypus. I look at my notebook and discover I’ve been scribbling variations—a child imitating adults.
Then the room settles for a moment, while they look together at the current proposal. After a beat, one offers a quiet suggestion—what if we…? Now the ball is rolling. Another chimes in—yes and that would work with…it scans nicely…It feels like they’ve just come through turbulence with one engine out and suddenly found themselves intact on the runway in the full sun.
The Necessary Tension
They refer often to their guiding principles: continuity, memorability, musicality, and clarity. They remind one another of the charge to emphasize the biblical, missional, and unifying spirit of the province. And their representation reflects all of this, in tension together.
One will stump for a particularly hefty word, arguing that the church should teach, should inspire, should raise people up. Another exhorts everyone to consider those who know little English or whose literacy is low. And both of them are right.
In another moment, one bishop will cite Roman Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, reminding everyone that the prayer book should carry an ecumenical posture. Another will chime in that our tradition has distinctions we should honor. And they are both right, too.
Graduate students devoted to the study and use of language wrangle with septuagenarian practitioner-priests. Those who can recite the ’79 text by heart reckon with Canadians who have no familiarity with it at all. And somehow the conversation advances at a steady pace. They scroll down to the next line as one of them quotes a Latin translation and another softly sings the doxology to himself.
That Was Beautiful
I gather with them again at Evening Prayer—they’ve elected to use their newly polished text, to see how it sounds in corporate worship. We recite the Phos Hilaron, hear from Nehemiah again—Let us arise and build—then Hebrews—Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. After the final amen, Ben (the Brit) pumps both fists over his head.
Ben is in charge of tracking and archiving all suggestions and criticism. He sifts through hundreds of emails (some offered in a less-than-charitable tone), distills every comment to bulleted notes that are painstakingly organized so that they can be considered one-by-one by the committee. It is an exhausting and sometimes discouraging task.
But now, hands still raised, he marvels at the screen where the words are projected and exclaims, “That was beautiful!” He looks around to the rest of us for confirmation. There is no hint of ego or arrogance in his voice or face, only a child-like appreciation for a good and beautiful thing.
Later, over dinner, two bishops at my table hold forth on the origins of the American episcopacy, hammering away on the reception of Seabury and the Scottish prayer book. One raises a finger and a rebuttal, the other appeals to the rest of us, marshaling support—we give half-nods, but have long since lost the thread. I feel myself leaning, fairly rolling toward them, the collective weight of these figures like a bowling ball set on a taught cloth. In the same breath that one offers a counter-claim, the other asks for salad. A moment later, they are swapping stories about grandchildren. They ask what my little sons are doing back in Texas while I’m away.
At the other table, some of the younger members are buzzing, talking animatedly and gesturing with their rolls. Impossibly, the cause of their excitement is the sub-committee work after dinner. That’s right, they can’t wait to sit down in sub-committees and dig into some revisions to propose tomorrow morning. They are still jet-lagged, it’s getting dark, and they can hardly wolf down dessert fast enough so they can get back to work.
In the Room
My wife and I have watched the television series The West Wing all the way through a few times. It’s a smartly-written show about the inner-workings of the White House—the speech writers, the chief of staff, the press secretary. When there’s a conflict among the characters, there’s a single phrase oft-repeated:
You’ve got to trust the guy in the room.
That’s what I’m walking away with after this trip. To this point, I had a limited understanding of what this project was all about and who was steering the ship. I didn’t know enough to muster any skepticism, but I was staggered by the scale of the project, the difficult balance required, and the logistics of completing such a work in the midst of so many other pressing ministries. After hearing these individuals speak from their hearts, and—more importantly—after watching them work so diligently and lovingly with one another, I’m convinced that we can trust the people in the room.
I can’t wait to see and hear more from the Liturgy Taskforce, and I encourage everyone to check out the videos, put the working texts to work and provide them with feedback of your own. I am certain that it will be met by Ben with a smile.