Reformation Redux- Anniversary and Action

by Nathan Proctor

Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts and questions about how and why we celebrate World Communion Sunday, and mentioned that how we observe and remember the Reformation is also worth exploring together.

Reformation Sunday

Each year on the last Sunday of October, we dust off the red paraments we haven’t seen since Pentecost, hire brass instruments, create a liturgy of historical creeds and confessions, and bust out some of the most beloved hymns of the Protestant church.  How great is that moment when with joined voices we get to joyfully sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God or I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art?  I love that these hymns are not only strong and beautiful melodies to sing but they have a tangible connection to our history.  Our services talk of Luther and Calvin and then in well-loved song we get to experience something these reformers shared with the church- we suddenly are connected with believers and congregations across time!

While I think our understanding of how to honor Reformation Sunday is a worthy effort at connecting our faith with the history of these important reformers, could we also stretch beyond the historical component, and allow ourselves new space to think and celebrate?

By always having this celebration on the last Sunday in October, tying it to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, we minimize the Reformation to simply a historical anniversary to observe.  Instead of marking a specific day, could we change it up and celebrate a church that is still reforming on a different Sunday of the year?  I think if we are freed from a specific date or historical occurrence, we can in turn be free to look at reforming as a broad and wonderful concept -an idea of change and growth that is bigger than ourselves and ultimately bigger than any one day or season.

Instead of a Sunday that traces the history of the Protestant church, what if we looked at a bigger picture of our world and witnessed how the church, through God’s grace, has been (and still is) a reforming agent? Maybe then we could focus on how our congregations have been praying and growing over generations when faced with hard questions about race relations, or gender equality, or poverty.  How interesting would it be if we celebrated Reformation on “International Day of Peace” in September or on “World AIDS Day” in December? What if we celebrated reformations multiple times a year? I think days like these suggestions would challenge us to think about how we care for the sick and the outcast, or work for ways of peace in the world. Yes, we would discover that the church has made missteps along the way, but I think the bigger picture is what we could learn from this honest history, and to dream how we might do things differently. How are we, as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination called to reform our world?  A fresh date might allow us new insight in trying to answer this question.

There is also something that feels odd to me about celebrating only one side of the story without acknowledging that the actual Reformation event spurred one of the biggest schisms in church history.  I realize that it’s more vision than reality to imagine all of us living peacefully together in faith, and that the church has always had some sort of fracture as it reflects the fractured people that take part in it, but I long for ways of reforming that bring us closer together to be the church we think God is calling us to be.

Can we be intentional about training our celebration towards some of the more beautiful ways we have all reformed? I am struck by Martin Luther’s idea to translate the scriptures into the vernacular.  In the midst of a divisive era, it created new ways for people to unify together around the word of God.  Hearing God speak your language breaks down barriers and proclaims that language does not separate you from God or one another.  Imagine all the reforms the church has made since that time that continue to break down divisions – your country or political regime does not separate you from God, your gender or sexuality does not separate you from God.  Neither does family, diagnosis, disease, physical limitations…and on and on.  Reformation can be about widening the circle, opening gates and welcoming people, not just about breaking away and dogmatic disputes.

Reformation is clearly both an anniversary and an activity.  Can we see it as a celebration of something in history, and as a driving force in the future story of the church?  I dream that as we next encounter a Reformation Sunday we might be able to bring about more justice, more hope, more unity, and more beauty to our world.

{This post is the second of a two-part series; Part one discusses sharing communion from a universal perspective on  World Communion Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and then leads three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and conducts choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.

World Communion

by Nathan Proctor

I think about worship a lot. Like, a lot. In my current church, I plan and lead music in an average of two hundred worship services a year. As I look back on the hours of planning and rehearsing to prepare for worship, every year I get caught off guard by October. The two church celebrations that frame the month, World Communion and Reformation, throw me into a mind-spin. Having just gone through the month, I cautiously look back and wonder about next year. I wonder if as a congregation we remembered and celebrated these occasions faithfully and lovingly. I wonder if we found the right balance between remembering our history and dreaming about the future.

As the church changes and we witness to the church that is becoming, the big question that weighs on my mind is this: Will we reach a time when we can no longer answer why we do this? Will we discover a time when we need to outgrow these occasions? As compared to celebrations and feast days where the church year marks the life of Jesus Christ, how can these ecclesiastical occasions, to honor the church itself, grow and change with us as a reforming church?

World Communion

I grew up Lutheran, so it wasn’t until my first Presbyterian church job that I experienced a tried and true World Communion Sunday in October. I quickly learned that this day was a special part of the Presbyterian heritage. At its very core, celebrating communion with the entire world is a beautiful and holy thing to do. However, over the years I have seen lots of “interesting” ideas: wearing traditional costumes, speaking in different languages, sharing global music, and even using “global” bread during communion. I worry that these ideas can cheapen our grand vision for the day, and we end up at some sort of costume party eating pita bread together. While I am grateful for people who share ideas and for the hours it takes to bring them to fruition, I also wonder how we can expand our visions and search for ways to celebrate that have less to do with our own perceptions of the world and more about what God’s view of the world might be.

First, I think God calls us to see the concept of world as “welcome,” not geography. Our current technology allows us to connect with people living afar so quickly and effortlessly compared to the first time we celebrated it in 1936, so the notion of World Communion takes on (or should take on) a different meaning. Instead of exotic geography, perhaps we should focus on radical invitations to the table. Maybe the church that we are slowly becoming is one that thinks less about how our own church specifically does communion and instead looks outward to how everyone could feel welcome to share in the feast. Do we dare to suggest a new idea in that the world celebrates communion with us EVERY single time we partake in the sacred meal? What if the real gift of World Communion and its history and tradition is that it brought about an openness — a step outside of ourselves — within our practice of communion?

Second, I think God hopes we are open to new ideas every time we gather to worship. World Communion has given us permission to experiment, to be playful, to try on something that might not feel like our own tradition for one Sunday out of the year. Why not allow that to happen other Sundays (if not every week)? Local tradition is important because it gives us continuity, history, a sense of belonging, but let’s build and honor local tradition out of “music,” not subsets of “our music” and “global music.” Let’s allow all language, fabric, movement, color, faces, tastes and smells from God’s creation to inform and inspire our weekly worship, not just those that have always been in our church closet.

Costume parties are fun because you can try out a different character while knowing you will change back to the old you in the morning. Shouldn’t we expect more from World Communion? Shouldn’t encountering the world transform us? Shouldn’t seeing the face of God in different forms and hearing the stories in different tongues alter our relationship to our brothers and sisters? Maybe the measure of success for World Communion Sunday is when we no longer need one token day of remembering, and instead invite the whole world to supper each time we gather together.

{This post is part one of a two-part series; come back later this week to continue exploring how we worship — on Reformation Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music and White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and lead three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and directs choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.