By Raymond Harbort
At the “cleansing of the temple” Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer but you have made it a den of robbers.” I have often wondered if what Jesus was objecting to was, at least in part, the “din of robbers”---the noise made by moneychangers and sellers of animals so that prayer, knowing the presence of the Holy God, was made difficult if not impossible.
There was a time when, as you entered an Episcopal Church (anywhere, of any stripe of churchmanship), you would find quiet. As people gathered for worship they knelt and prayed or they sat in silence. If people found it necessary to speak, they did so in whispers. This silence told you that you were in a holy place, a place set apart for prayer and worship, a place in which God’s Presence could be known. The silence spoke of the congregation’s awareness of the holiness of what they were about to do. And it created a space and time that enabled and encouraged prayer and worship.
There still are parishes where silence before worship is still observed. But, what you find on entering most Episcopal churches today is a “din of robbers”, people chatting----robbing others and themselves of the quiet most of us need to pray. Anyone wanting to pray will find it difficult. (I confess that too often I find myself judging and grumbling to myself about the talkers rather than praying.) Sometimes, admittedly, the conversation is expression of the love we ought to have for one another (words of sympathy or support, inquiry about health, etc.). But couldn’t that wait until after the service or coffee hour? More often it is just chitchat about things like “where we went for dinner last night”. It seems to me that what loving one another should mean as we gather for worship is praying for ourselves and others or being silent so that others can pray.
If what we do during worship is of supreme importance (and it is---for we are seeking to enter into communion with God) then how we come to worship---the heart, soul and mind we bring to worship is of great importance. All of us struggle with distraction in prayer and worship. But if we are chatting and distracted as the service begins we will not be prepared to worship God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.
I do not know how we got this way---how over the last 20-30 years we seem to have lost this custom of silence in the presence of the holy. Does the atmosphere of “friendly informality” that so many clergy and parishes adopted since the 1960’s and 70’s have something to do with it? Or is it perhaps a tendency to treat the church building as an ordinary place (not “sacred space) except during the times of worship (and, perhaps, sometimes not even then)? Is it that worship has come to be seen as a form of entertainment so that people are inclined to behave beforehand as they would at a concert? I have heard it said that the chatting before the service is a sign of the congregation’s love for one another---and therefore a sign of welcome and hospitality to the newcomer. (Hmm? I wonder if people interrupt their conversations to greet the newcomer? Perhaps.) On the other hand, if the ushers or greeters have exercised the ministry of hospitality at the door, then perhaps, once inside, a reverent silence would be more welcoming? What if a visitor, drawn by the Holy Spirit, came in deep spiritual hunger, seeking God, wanting to pray and couldn’t because of the noise? Yes, if visitors show up, welcome them in a whisper. Help them find their way through the service. And then, when the service is over, invite and escort them to coffee hour and introduce them to the clergy and members of the parish.
I don’t know how we got this way and I’m not sure how we get this counter-productive genie back in the bottle. I, like many others, have tried but have sometimes meet with resentment and little success. If I had it to do over again I think I’d try to enlist the understanding and cooperation of the vestry, parish groups, and those matriarchal/patriarchal pacesetters that everyone follows and who are present in every parish. Over time, by praying or sitting quietly in their pews before the service, their example could change the culture of the parish.
Finally, people not spending the time in prayer before the service raises another concern: have they prepared themselves to receive their Lord in Holy Communion? It is possible (but unlikely) that people have “made their preparation” at home the night before or that morning. More likely, they are coming to Communion having made no preparation whatsoever. When I raised this concern with a friend he replied, “Who can ever be “properly prepared?” True, nothing we can do, no amount of repentance and prayer, can ever make us worthy. It is all grace. But it seems to me that love and reverence bid us to at least make an effort. Preparing for Holy Communion by examination of conscience and prayer is grounded in Paul’s counsel to the Christians in I Cor. 11:28 and has always been part of the tradition. The many devotional manuals of all stripes of churchmanship witness to this as does, most eloquently, the Exhortation in the Prayer Book (p. 316-317). When was it last read in your parish? Maybe it would be a good subject for some preaching and teaching.
Let us pray.
---(The Rev.) Raymond Harbort