Worship: it’s more important to be real than to be perfect

by maggi dawn

Introducing the “Marquand Chapel philosophy” at our new students’ orientation last month, I mentioned that our daily worship walks on the edge of failure fairly regularly. I don’t mean that we lack quality, talent, skill, or preparation, for we have these in large supply and take them all seriously. What I mean is that we are prepared to take risks, and any worshiping community that leaves the safety of tried-and-tested for untried ground is bound to make some errors along the way. Without taking risks, though, nothing new is likely to be discovered.

One view of liturgy is that it is precisely its consistency that makes it “work” – like eating breakfast every day, you don’t much think about what you eat most days, you just eat because you need energy and nourishment. Occasionally breakfast is a special feast. And so with liturgy – its regularity and sameness makes it a source of spiritual energy and nourishment, and boredom is alleviated by an occasional break-out into special feasting with added extras. It certainly isn’t true that the liturgical traditions never change, but change is so gradual it’s almost imperceptible, and the skill of the liturgist in those situations is to make innovation feel timeless rather than new.

Still, not all traditions work that way, and we are multi-denominational at Marquand Chapel – 40 denominations at the last count, plus a crowd of people who don’t identify with any denomination, making it kind of 41+.  Taking inspiration from all of those is in itself a risky enterprise, in the sense that the capacity for creating misunderstanding is fairly high. Some days we ask people from different denominational backgrounds to work together. Some days we create entirely new worship – sometimes edgy and “alternative”, sometimes a new interpretation of an ancient practice. Then we invite an unusually large proportion of congregational members to participate at a significant level (all of them smart, and keen, but many of whom have no experience at all) – and offer people of widely different practices the opportunity to take the lead in worship. We are a singing community: rarely, rarely do we have a service where community singing is not the larger part of our worship, and most of the time it’s brilliant. Just occasionally a song will “flop”, and we have to work out whether it was just a bad song, or whether with revised pace, different instrumentation, or a better teaching moment, the same song would fly.  The final parameter for us is that our Chapel services are more like a monastic “Daily Office” than like Sunday Church, in the sense that Chapel is a brief service that breaks the working day – a 30-minute service in between the two main blocks of morning teaching. Taking that wild mix of ideas, traditions, people and practices, and honing it down to 30 minutes a day is in itself an almost impossible task – people almost always overestimate how much can happen in 30 minutes, and it takes a lot of thought to edit the “script” without making it feel either rushed or truncated.

With all of that going on, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it won’t always be “perfect”. The unexpected happens often, and we do a lot of on-the-hoof adapting. The Congregation doesn’t always respond the way you’d expect. One song will flop, another will “take off”. An interactive activity will captivate some, who want to stay long after the 30 minutes, and will offend others. The language of a service will offend some and delight others. There are moments of wonder, and not often, but occasionally, there are “clunks” when we try something out for the first time. But for me, prioritising participation above perfection remains the key to our worship: I mind less about it being perfect than I do about it being “real”.

And in the midst of all this, there is the reward – the flipside – of risk-taking. A few clunks there may be, but that is a very small price to pay for those glorious moments that exceed our highest expectations; when I look round a room full of singing, laughing, praying, loving people and think I have, in fact, caught a glimpse of heaven.