Communities across the church are searching for new ways to worship that makes use of the tradition, but somehow addresses new needs and concerns, perhaps especially with generational differences in mind. This is one example of a community in New Orleans that came together to explore the struggle of the early church to express a new faith by inventing a new form of worship. They started a worship society, not a new church by any means, and named it after St. Polycarp.
On a Monday evening, as most workers were on the way home, I joined a group enthusiastically gathering outside of Rosy’s Jazz Hall. The entrance hall led us to a table laden with wine and cheese in a bright room in which stand two large trees. People were laughing and talking as adults lifted glasses and children snacked. Noise from the kitchen spoke of food preparation. I was aware that the people were there to celebrate; eating typical New Orleans fare, drinking wine, singing, and perhaps doing a bit of “dancing” – all familiar activities to the venerable and lovely jazz hall on Tchoupitoulas and Valence. But these people were there to do this as part of Christian worship. I wondered at that. But, as we entered into worship, it all began to seem perfectly fitting.
Some people were there out of curiosity about the Christian faith and/or the church, and some were pretty skeptical. At least one was not a Christian. Most of the people present were devout Christians who regularly attend churches. All shared a sense that the church has lost the imagination of this society, especially of its young people. They have concluded that what is going on in worship, in whatever tradition or denomination, is not able to satisfy most people of our culture and is not drawing the unchurched; several find that it does not satisfy them personally. They believe that the church faces the need for significant reform.
Their response is to start experimenting in a search for what will “work” today. They are not doing this by conjuring up brand new ideas. Instead, they have decided to go all the way back to the beginning to examine, experientially, how worship started, and then how and why it began to change. In the process, they hope to rediscover the gold and separate it from the dross. At the same time, they seek to discover new ways to do Christian worship that emerge out of the old. They think the limitations and assumptions of contemporary church furniture force them to meet in a different sort of space, and they think that nothing could be more suitable within the culture of New Orleans than Rosy’s Jazz Hall. So, they meet there as a “worship society” in the name of St. Polycarp, a second century saint – a name that sounds rather odd today but is, perhaps oddly appropriate, as it means “many-bodies”. The Society of St. Polycarp seeks to include persons of all identities – generational, racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual. A disciple of John the Apostle, the saint represents a crucial transition from the loosely connected early church under the leadership of the original apostles to an international and institutionalized church, with liturgical and governing structures suitable to a different era. He represents the necessity of adaptation by the church to different times and cultures.
I began with curiosity. I left with curious feelings of satisfaction and a lighthearted suspicion that something important was happening. First, the experience had simply been fun; but, while it was ordinary and earthy and human it was also extraordinarily profound and deep and all about the transcendent.
Music is key. Songs are skillfully led by song-leaders and do not require holding texts or music in hand. Even the readings and psalms are chanted.
Participation is key, and a high level is encouraged. The homily is open for anyone who feels so moved to preach or to respond to what is being said. It takes place as table conversation during a typically Monday night meal of red beans and rice (or a vegetarian dish).
Any part of the service can be performed or joined in by a new-comer. If one makes a mistake that is OK; really there is no way to make a mistake, and if one were to feel that one has, a room full of people would be found in support. Spontaneity is valued.
During the Great Thanksgiving it is abundantly clear that everyone is engaged in praying and in the blessing of the sacramental elements of bread and wine along with the ordained celebrant, usually a bishop. The Eucharist is shared by passing the bread and the cup around the room from person to person.
The worship society started by seeking what worship would have been like in the upper room where Jesus presided over the Last Supper – working under the assumption that it was a certain form of vigil service (a Caburah) in preparation for the Passover.
Then, the Worship Society of Polycarp moved to the next stage of liturgical development – experimenting with worship as it might have occurred during the first generation of the church. In this first period the followers of Jesus saw themselves forming a movement within Judaism. Thus, at first all Christians considered themselves Jewish Christians. Even after the Council of Jerusalem decided that gentile converts could be baptized without becoming Jews, Jewish Christians continued the practice of going to synagogue on the Sabbath and to Christian worship on the Lord’s Day. Consequently, the society shaped a service with two distinctive parts: synagogue and home. Taken together they reflect the earliest form of Christian worship.
The service I attended took place in two separate spaces, one set up as a synagogue space for Sabbath worship in the manner of first century Jews; the other as a home of a Christian where Jewish Christians met on the first day of the week to worship in a service based on the one Jesus instituted in the Last Supper.
Eventually, the society will offer another first century service, used by one small rural community that had formed very soon after the death of Jesus, and still very much in the formative stages. They wrote a little manual for how to live a Christian life and perform the services. The manual is termed “Didache”, Greek for “Teachings”. This will be followed by the second century liturgy of Justin Martyr in Rome, and then the third century liturgy of St. Hyppolytus, Bishop of Rome.
I discovered that everyone is invited and will be welcomed at any time.
The Worship Society of St. Polycarp
Rosy’s Jazz Hall – Valence and Tchoupitoulas
5:30: Gathering and preparing for the service with wine and cheese, and goodies for the children.
7:00 – 7:15: clean-up
The Society and its visitors seek satisfying liturgical experiences for ourselves
We seek to offer an obligation free, institutional-neutral place where people can explore the Christian faith.
We seek to influence congregational worship by offering new and renewed insights.
(1) A sense of “starting over”, that is, by experientially examining forms of worship of the first three centuries as original models before present-day tradition, such as Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, became distinctive. We are exploring the models that became foundational for each of these traditions.
(2) We seek experiences that incorporate and employ the values and ethos of our society rather than those of past eras. We seek experiences that transcend and judge our particular culture. We wish to step outside of our social community into the threshold of the kingdom in order to return to it with a more profound commitment.
(3) We desire participation across racial, ethnic, gender, generational, and sexual orientation lines.
(4) A sense that music and the arts are key for bringing individuals into worship community; and for the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and psychological benefits of individuals.
(5) We seek a high level of engagement and participation by every person in liturgy, i.e. we do not gather that the majority may worship as a congregational audience “from the pew” while individuals perform the rites and rituals on their behalf. We are all makers of liturgy.
(6) Desire to hold in appropriate tension our experience of the Holy – its mystery and awe – with the intimacy, spontaneity, and fun of human fellowship. We do not separate “fellowship time” from worship time, but bring the two into the ritual. We enjoy the dignity and gravitas of formal ritual together with sharing our thoughts, questions, and emotions.
(7) Demand for intellectual honesty.
Because Polycarp (ca. 69 – ca. 155),
represents the desired diversity by his very name, which means “many bodies”;
represents a crucial and necessary transition from the loosely interconnected early church, held together largely by the leadership of the original apostles, to an international and institutionalized church with liturgical and governing structures suited to a different era;
represents the necessity of enculturation in the church’s adaptation to its broadening cultural reach.
Irenaeus, Polycarp’s pupil and the church’s first systematic theologian, and Tertullian, often deemed “the father of Latin Christianity”, testify that Polycarp was a disciple of the apostles; they mention John in particular. Polycarp is considered one of the three great Apostolic Fathers of the church, together with Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome.
Caveat: The St. Polycarp Worship Society is not offered as a substitute for a congregational or denominational affiliation.