A Tale of Two Churches

st. johns bellefonte  A few weeks ago, on Easter, I attended an Episcopalian church service with my boyfriend and his family. It was a very High service with lots of reciting, standing, kneeling, standing, and sitting. The priest sang almost all the prayers. The chapel was very ornate with high, decorative ceilings and stained glass windows. The altar at the front of the church was beautifully decorated with lilies and daffodils. The priest and deacons wore white and gold robes. There was a (I’m pretty sure) professional organist who played beautifully; the organ itself was set in one corner of the church. The building was probably 200 years old so it was a pipe organ, beautifully carved. When it was played you could feel the air vibrate. There was incense and candles.

It was basically the opposite of what Sunday services are like in my small YSA branch. We meet in a renovated post office on folding chairs. The only prayer that is the same every week is the blessing on the sacrament. Services are much more relaxed and much less liturgical. My branch president generally wears dark suits; they are nice suits, don’t get me wrong, but they are not embroidered with gold thread. I am the pianist (we don’t have an organ), and between you and me, I fake my way through most of the songs. We don’t even have a real piano; it is an electric keyboard.

Though these two church experiences were very different, there are different lessons to be learned from each.

There is a lot to be said about Mormons’ simple, straightforward presentation. What you see is what you get. There is no fuss. The homey atmosphere lends itself to feelings of belonging and community. The knowledge required by the church of a lay clergy and by pulling speakers from the general congregation fosters thought and study and insight. In addition, having a lay clergy means that each member has a sense of responsibility for making the church work on a day-to-day basis. The flexibility of prayers and sermons, and lack of ceremony allows services to be tailored to the needs of those attending. Perhaps most importantly it provides a context to think about God and Christ, and what they mean.

There is a lot to be said about formal, liturgical services, too. There is a richness of symbolism and history. Things are taken seriously and treated respectfully. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer with 50 other people lends itself to feelings of togetherness and oneness in Christ. In order to understand the ceremonies being presented, insight and knowledge and thought are required; additionally, each time you hear the words recited, new layers of meaning can be revealed, much like learning something new every time you read a familiar parable. Having a full time, professional minister to tend to the flock creates a sense of continuity, stability, and care. The tradition and grandeur are awe-inspiring, and point to the power and glory of God. Perhaps most importantly it provides a context to think about God and Christ, and what they mean.

Maybe they are not so different after all.

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12 Responses

  1. Emily U says:

    I was married to a professional organist and went to church with him for a long time, so I’ve seen what you describe. I’m married to the same guy, but he changed careers 🙂

    Yeah, plusses and minuses. As a worship service, I prefer mainline Protestant churches (who have not chosen “contemporary” music) to Mormon services in most ways. Their hymnals are much better, you get to hear professional musicians, the setting is lovely with stained glass and candles, and the sermons are given by clergy who’ve studied theology and know how to deliver a speech. However I must say that hearing from the same person almost each Sunday of the year gets old, unless they’re really unusually talented. I agree with you that their services are usually more awe-inspiring, and “point to the power and glory of God.” I guess the temple is supposed to do that for Mormons, but it doesn’t do it for me.

    I also like how the mainline Protestant churches I’ve been a part of and attended have a lot more autonomy than a Mormon ward or stake. But that’s a big can of worms and I see some advantages to being part of a hierarchical international church, too.

    But as a church that pushes the average member to grow individually, I think nothing compares to Mormonism. Because we don’t rely on professionals at the local level, if we want something done we have to do it ourselves. I think anyone who’s served in callings can say that they were challenged to grow in some way by them. On average Mormons know their religion extremely well, too. While other Christian churches certainly offer Bible study, there is nothing like having to teach a lesson yourself to make you study the material, and a lifetime of 2 hours a week of what is basically “Christian Ed” means we soak stuff up, even if we don’t put in much effort at home. In addition, there is a certain “clerical class” that develops around professional clergy, where they’re expected to know stuff and the average person, well, only if they’re really interested. There can be a certain privilege that develops around what I call the clerical class, that can look ugly at times. I think Mormonism has its own clerical class, though smaller, that suffers from the same pride and privilege.

    Also, because Mormon wards and stakes are geographically dictated to us, we attend church (unless you’re in some super high density Mormon areas in Utah) with people outside our demographic, and that’s really good. We may not mix with other members of or wards as much as we should, but home and visiting teaching assignments force us to mingle with people we normally wouldn’t, and serve people we normally wouldn’t. My view of mainline Protestant churches is skewed because I attended churches in affluent areas, but I definitely saw less mixing between demographics there. On the other hand, those churches reached out to local groups in need and orphanages in other countries in ways that Mormon churches I’ve been in don’t. They certainly provided their members with service opportunities, they just look different than ours.

    Anyway, clearly you’ve made me think about the differences and similarities! I do think the experience of being Mormon is really unique. Not better, just quite unlike being a member of other Christian faiths. As I said, I find Mormon Sunday worship services pretty impoverished compared to other worship services, but that one hour a week is only a small part of being a Mormon.

    • Amelia says:

      “On average Mormons know their religion extremely well, too.”

      I agree with that with a qualifier: Mormons know their correlated religion extremely well.

      Which is good. And not so good. In my lifetime I have watched the church correlate some of the unique and original doctrines of Mormonism almost out of existence (becoming Gods, for instance). I think it’s wonderful that Mormons, because of their responsibilities in making church services work on a weekly basis, know their religion well. But I think it remains true that only a small, highly motivated sub-population truly knows their religion–its scripture, its doctrine, its history–beyond the tight confines of correlation.

      • Emily U says:

        Good point, Amelia. I think you’re right.

      • JT says:

        I’m not sure that the qualifier is necessary. Most churches have their own version “correlation” that most of their adherents buy into, especially as it relates to historical views on the Bible and the development of various theologies.

    • Ziff says:

      I love your thoughts here on plusses and minuses of attending the LDS church versus a mainline protestant church, Emily U. It’s particularly interesting to me, I think, because I have zero experience outside the LDS church.

  2. Amelia says:

    When I was young and had never been to another kind of church, I never really thought about the experience of church. It was just what church was supposed to be like. Now I kinda hate the experience of sacrament meeting as a worship service. The music is more often than not dirge-like and uninspiring (problems with amateur musicians; this is said as one of those amateur musicians who served for years as chorister, pianist, organist, or music coordinator or some combination of them; I did my best to keep things upbeat and interesting and celebratory, but there’s only so much one person can do). The physical space is deadly dull–not even art on the walls. There’s no liturgy. There’s no professional, well-trained expositor of scripture or doctrine. Talks are as often as not boring, meandering, and uninspiring.

    Maybe that all makes me sound like a sourpuss. But it is my experience when I attend sacrament now. Admittedly I attend very infrequently (only for family obligations). Maybe if I went every week, I would hit more inspiring moments. But I kinda doubt it.

    I also watch my husband, who grew up going to Catholic schools and attending Lutheran services (a high church Lutheran service) where he was an altar boy, at Mormon services and understand that for some people it is the repetition and rhythm of a liturgical service, combined with the setting, that creates a worship experience. For those people the plainness of our meetings doesn’t work. Of course, having been to a number of Quaker meetings, I also know that high church doesn’t work for everyone. I think this is more problematic, however, when you have a church claiming to be all things for all people (which the LDS church does when it comes to its truth claims).

    I’ve been very interested in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s work at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. They take an approach that remains liturgical, but where members of the congregation volunteer each week for some portion of the service. I haven’t been, but reading her description it sounds like they have found some balance between the more traditional, liturgical service in a lovely setting and the plan, volunteer driven service. It would be interesting to see what their service is like in person.

    Anyway. I find myself wishing the LDS church would pursue a professional clergy approach for many reasons. One of them is that I think Sunday services should be inspiring on a consistent basis and too often they’re just not given Mormonism’s current approach. At least in the American west.

    • Patty says:

      So, I admit up front that I am spoiled. We have a person with a master’s degree in choral conducting and a person who has served as a professional organist heavily involved in Sunday worship music.

      I have attended a few services in other churches. I think the liturgical year, which I understand forms the underpinning of music and worship, is an interesting idea, focusing on different parts of Christ’s life for instance. The music seemed uneven in the churches I attended. The organist was good but not as many people seemed to participate in the congregational singing; nobody attempted to sing a part. The sermons were okay.

      One thing I like about LDS services is that the sermons are given by people that you know. I tend to root for the less polished friends! It’s interesting to hear what people you know have to say about gospel topics. Sometimes people share about how they came to the gospel and how their life experience has shaped their understanding of gospel principles. Of course it’s not always that interesting and I have been known to nod off ;).

      • Amelia says:

        Patty, I do like it when people share their personal stories and personal takes on the gospel. And that’s something I’d definitely miss if member talks disappeared. That’s part of why I’d love to see some kind of hybrid approach, where a professional trained in doctrine and scripture and exegesis and public speaking shared a message, and members also had time to share a message.

        I also think that as we have shifted more and more to a model of being assigned General Conference talks to present in our sacrament talks, rather than being given topics to speak on, sacrament has gotten more boring and predictable and less interesting to me. We hear the talks once in General Conference. And when most people are assigned a GC talk to speak on, they just rehash most of the talk, rather than using it as an opportunity to do their own thinking about that topic. Maybe using GC talks as sacrament meeting assignments isn’t as widespread as it feels to me, but it seems like the approach I’ve seen used in all the wards I’ve attended in UT and CA in the last few years. When that’s the approach, I think we lose some of those unique voices that it’s good to hear from.

      • Ziff says:

        Great point, Amelia. It’s really too bad, the use of Conference talks to give sacrament meeting talks. In some sense, maybe it’s just the final end of Correlation, reaching in to correlate what had been before frequently stubbornly uncorrelated.

  3. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Jess R. I like the idea that we can go to different churches to fulfill different needs.

  4. Liz says:

    Oh, the stained glass. I admit wishing that there was more decoration to our every-week worship spaces. The temples are beautiful, but we just don’t have that in our chapels. And every time I go into a church with stained glass, it completely takes my breath away.

    I also like the idea that we can go different places to fulfill different needs. I still like having the flexibility and lay-church aspects on most weeks, but especially on days with so much tradition (Easter or Christmas, for example), I yearn for the more liturgical, high church experience.

  5. Rachel says:

    This was so nice to read. Like Liz, it is most at Easter and Christmas that I long for “the more liturgical, high church experience.” Sometimes in the past I have celebrated by attending various churches throughout the weeks leading up to those holidays. This year I had that hope, but didn’t quite manage to do it.

    Perhaps because I grew up LDS, there are things about LDS meetinghouses that feel so warm to me, even in their plainness. I realized it one day so strongly, when I walked into my (then) newly built Stake Center for the first time. For half a second I felt so sad that it looked like almost every other Stake Center I have ever been in, the same paintings, the same couches, etc. And then I was filled with a home feeling, that was so reassuring and safe-making. I was grateful for its simplicity and sameness in a way I never had been before.

    I also remember a conference I attended at BYU once on sacred spaces. An evangelical woman had a presentation showing the interiors of many different faith’s worship spaces, and talked about how the physical space said something about their theology, like how high up the speaker stood in relation to the people, etc. It was so interesting.

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