Today, as two first-year students and two staff members gathered for evening prayer (our pattern for Lent), I named something I recognized.
Besides the student who had planned and was leading the service, our organist, and me, who was the cantor, one student came to prayer this evening. It has been raining for what I am certain is 700 days at this point, students are busy, Dr. Shore is away on business (or she would be there), and there are surely other reasons for such low attendance. (Like, seriously, we worship at 11:30 a.m. Mon-Thur all year long…except during Lent, we are gathering for Morning and Evening Prayer on Thursdays, so simply forgetting is easily possible.)
I was grateful for the precious and intimate time we four shared as we prayed ancient words and asked for mercy on our aching world. I really was grateful. And also, I told those two students about times in the parish when one or none showed up. I planned a two-hour Holy Saturday prayer vigil the worship committee had asked me to do. This included asking for prayer petitions in the bulletin for weeks prior, gathering those petitions and writing some prayers around their concerns, setting out candles, and imagining who might come, for whom it might be their first time at a prayer vigil and how I might help them feel comfortable. The day came. The hour came. And I sat in the sanctuary alone for more than an hour before I decided no one was coming.
One December, I planned a Longest Night service. Because Advent is such a busy time for our musicians, I learned to play the hymns we’d be singing, so our organist wouldn’t have to commit to one more service. I crafted a service, printed a bulletin, created a gentle space with candles and such. One person came: a retired pastor who was a member of our congregation. We set the bulletins aside and spent time together talking about our lives – and ended our time with prayer.
I told those stories after worship this evening because what happened in our chapel will likely happen to them in the parish. Even this is formation for ministry. It may not be a worship service. It may be a Sunday school class or a service project, and practicing “where two or more are gathered” is something that takes some getting used to. So, I am, at once, grateful for the gift of Brandy, James, Jim, and Jennifer around the organ this evening and thinking about why worship attendance is often so low – even at a seminary.
This is not news. I was a student here a decade ago, and we were asking the same question. We don’t make chapel attendance compulsory because, I suppose, that makes it a chore rather than a choice. And that doesn’t feel right somehow.
The argument could be made that chapel is a class, I suppose. Monday through Thursday, we explore various forms of worship from various hymnals and prayer books. At the end of last semester, I counted up all the hours one would be in worship if one never missed chapel during the semester. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, chapel is about 30 minutes long; Wednesday we have Holy Communion, and the service is more like 45 minutes long. Meeting for 2 hours and 15 minutes each week is nearly as much as a 3 credit hour class. It’s the equivalent of 30 hours of practicum.
Those who have attended worship daily have been exposed to the United Methodist
Hymnal, This Far by Faith, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, With One Voice, Taize, Lectio Divina, Campfire Worship, Common Prayerbook, and various other patterns of worship.
They have heard scripture from the Revised Common Lectionary for Sundays, as well as the daily lectionary texts.
They have received communion around the altar, in a line, and in their pews – intinction, common cup, and individual cups.
They have watched as other seminarians lead, seeing what seems comfortable and what doesn’t, how people handle it when they mistakenly jump over a part of the service or ask the assembly to turn to the wrong page.
They have heard sermons from seminary seniors, staff, faculty, and visiting preachers.
Since we are an ecumenical seminary, those who attend chapel daily have experienced the leadership of Baptist, Lutheran, United Methodist, AME Zion, Presbyterian (and more) students. This also means they have experienced the worship leadership of students from religious traditions rooted in congregations of people of African Descent, Asian Descent, and European Descent.
If a student were to worship daily in Christ Chapel for the 2 or 3 years they study here (Master of Arts in Christian Ministry and Master of Theological Studies are 2 year programs. Master of Divinity is a 3 year program.), they could have 120 or 180 hours of worship practicum apart from the worship course which
equips them with the proper names of communion vessels, the patterns of prayer the church often follows (how to write them and where to find them), the practice of learning how to preside at the Table, and other matters of worship leadership.
The student who is rarely in chapel misses out on lots of opportunities for learning.
But, of course, chapel is not just a class.
LTSS Chapel worship is the gathering of women and men at the foot of the cross of Christ, who are about the work of teaching, forming, and nurturing one another to be faithful ministers of God’s word. When I am serving holy communion, and I get to look you in the eye, say the ancient words, place in your hands a piece of God, and see you through that lens, I am taught, formed, and nurtured by you…and maybe you by me. When we kneel shoulder to shoulder to confess our sins, we are what we need: the broken body of Christ. When the organ carries our voices like incense unto God who loves us in ways we don’t deserve, we experience what we need: the mystery of God’s presence among us. When we gather, two or more, we join the chorus of multitudes around the throne of the Lamb of God, singing, Holy, holy, holy!
How great a gift it is to dwell in this place with these people in the name of Jesus.