Of priests, and their bossy, controlling nature

The Topmost Apple has had it.

It was nice – except the Vicar/Officiant/Capo-di-Capi really has no idea how to sing Evensong. He flatted the third note of the Suffrages/Verses – every single time – even though the rest of us kept on singing the major third. Totally oblivious – and totally bizarre; we kept looking at each other with these expressions of amused disbelief.

And then there was this:

OK, but here’s the clincher. Towards the end of the service – I can’t remember exactly during which prayers – there’s a “Let us pray,” at which point the leaflet clearly and plainly says “the congregation kneels.”

So naturally he just had to announce it this way: “Let us pray remain standing.” We are even forbidden to kneel during Lent, it appears.

I’m really very totally sick of bossy, controlling priests at this point; how come so many seem to be that way? I thought the clergy were supposed to tend their parishioners’ spiritual lives, not rip them to shreds to satisfy their own tastes?

A couple of things. First, I agree with much of what you say. There are too many bossy, controlling priests. But, sadly, there are also too many bossy, controlling lay people.
Among clergy, musicians are not exactly known for their gentle, easy-going dispositions. I can say that, having been a professional church musician for two decades prior to ordination. On the other hand, too many clergy do seem to misuse their power due to “control issues.” I don’t know why, and I don’t know how to fix it.

On the second point, I’m a fan of kneeling, especially during Lent. I’d have been annoyed at this impromptu change. I loathe extra words tossed into liturgy. The common one is “standing, let us pray” or “kneeling, let us pray” at the postcommunion prayer. These words are almost never necessary. Hand gestures, notes in the bulletin, or common sense will usually do the trick. Too many liturgical leaders feel the need to explain things that simply need no explanation. So I’m right with you on that one.

Finally, I’m sorry the priest wrecked the suffrages. Maybe he has a lousy ear. Maybe he was sloppy. That stinks, especially in the midst of a nice evensong. I feel your pain. But here we part ways. You say, “we kept looking at each other with these expressions of amused disbelief.” I’ll put it simply. A liturgical leader should never do that. Ever. Period. As choir members, you have a sacred trust to inspire the congregation with your song and to lead God’s people in worship. Looks of “amused disbelief” are not part of the game plan.

As a musician, I kept my poker face through many a lousy sermon or badly chanted prayer. As a priest, I’ve kept my poker face through musical train wrecks and sundry liturgical disasters. If I had seen your choir and their looks of amused disbelief, I would have told you never to do that again, if you intended to sing in the church. If I, as a priest, mess something up, tell me after worship. Write me a letter. Gather signatures for a petition. Phone the vestry. But, for the love of God, do not exchange looks of “amused disbelief” during worship. There. Call me a bossy, controlling priest. Or call me someone who cares about worship, possessed of a desire reverently to bring God’s people a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

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12 Responses

  1. Peter Carey says:

    the thing I worry about is that when there are “mistakes” in the liturgy, Jesus leaves the building … (tongue firmly in cheek)

    …I like your response, Scott, especially about not offering critique or criticism in the midst of worship … Lord knows I’ve made my own mistakes and I pray that God can still work through me!

  2. Peter says:

    If I can’t control my parishioners, who can I control?

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    T.P., That’s awful. Wow.

    Peter Carey, yes, it reminds one of Annie Dillard and the crash helmet she suggests for worship.

    Pax,
    Scott

  4. i’m trying to figure out who printed the leaflet. if it was the officiant, then why did he change his mind that way?

    one suspects–given my experience with evensong services that have been taken over by the choristers–that the musicians printed the leaflet. that shouldn’t be permitted to be repeated.

  5. bls says:

    So you’re saying that when the same mistake is being made over and over again that it’s against the laws of God and man to look over at one of the basses and smile at the absurdity?

    Well, sorry. I don’t think that’s wrong at all; I think it’s completely normal. I’m quite sure we would have done the same thing had the choir been making the same mistake; it’s funny.

    I will say, though, that just winging it through the singing of prayers is a bit problematic; shouldn’t somebody who’s been a priest in the Episcopal Church for 40-whatever years have practiced the prayers a bit? Here’s another question: how come the laypeople knew how to sing them and the clergy didn’t?

    Anyway, perhaps you haven’t been following along with this story; there’s much more to it than a one-line one-off mention of Suffrages. And of course, that wasn’t the point of the post, anyway, which is called “Another pitiful kneeling episode.” Which, you know, implies that something has happened previously?

  6. bls says:

    (FYI, this particular priest has announced from the sanctuary that “We have to let you kneel, since it’s in the prayer book.”

    He’s also an interim who came in and decided he was going to remodel the sanctuary because he didn’t care for it. Tear out the high altar and tear down the rood screens, and re-make us into Gregory of Nyssa (just about the last thing anybody wants to be).

    An interim vicar. So tell me: who’s going to tell him “never to do it again”?)

  7. Scott Gunn says:

    bls,

    You say, “So you’re saying that when the same mistake is being made over and over again that it’s against the laws of God and man to look over at one of the basses and smile at the absurdity?”

    No, but I am saying that’s not acceptable behavior for worship leaders, whether clergy or lay. If nothing else, Christian charity might have compelled empathy for one who might be embarrassed.

    Then you say, “Here’s another question: how come the laypeople knew how to sing them and the clergy didn’t?”

    Believe it or not, ordination does not confer unlimited knowledge and wisdom. Oh that it were so. Why did the laypeople know how to sing them? Because you are gifted musicians? Because the priest isn’t? I don’t know.

    Finally, you say, “He’s also an interim who came in and decided he was going to remodel the sanctuary because he didn’t care for it. Tear out the high altar and tear down the rood screens, and re-make us into Gregory of Nyssa (just about the last thing anybody wants to be).”

    I assure you that in Episcopal Church polity, an interim vicar (if you’re using the term in its technically correct sense) was not responsible for these purported atrocities. He might have wanted to do it, but the decision was either the wardens’ or your Bishop’s.

    You did not handle a bad situation in the most graceful way. That’s OK. We all make mistakes, and sometimes we make mistakes in the way we respond to the mistakes of others. My point was that the underlying attitude is a problem.

    During worship, our only concern should be “soli Deo gloria.” Mocking the ways in which others fall short has no place. Period.

    Pax,
    Scott

  8. bls says:

    I honestly find it quite shocking that you’re more interested in lecturing me about a minor incident you know nothing about (and that you have a totally erroneous idea about, BTW) than you are interested in understanding the major disaster of destruction that is going on in my parish.

    Oh, well.

  9. bls says:

    (And let me add that if you think that flatted thirds at Evensong constitutes a “bad situation,” then our understandings of what’s important in life are really quite different.

    And BTW, there was no “mocking” going on; that’s your interpretation, but it’s not at all accurate. And further, when I said “laity,” I meant the congregation, not the choir; that’s another inaccuracy in your post.)

  10. Scott Gunn says:

    bls,

    This whole exchange is unfortunate, at this point. It’s the sort of thing that if we had been face-to-face, we’d have probably said a couple of words and then both laughed about it.

    I’m sorry things are lousy at your parish. Really, I am. If it’s all the vicar’s doing, I hope you can urge a change in personnel.

    Sorry about ascribing “mocking” to you when that wasn’t the case. My last comment was harder than I meant it to come across, as I re-read it.

    Though I think the looks of “amused disbelief” were not appropriate, I won’t comment on things — as you say — that are not in my knowledge.

    I hope things get better. Hope we can get on blogospheric good terms after this. I am listening to St. Thomas music now, thanks to your recommendation.

    Pax,
    Scott

  11. bls says:

    No, you were right; my post could certainly have looked as if I were mocking the Officiant. That wasn’t the case, though; we just found it funny (and it really wasn’t obvious, I’m sure of that). I’ve added a little note to this effect on the post.

    I am just very angry at what’s happening to my parish right now for no good reason. I shouldn’t have snapped at you, though, or at anybody who disagreed with my post, because you and they are not the cause of it. I agree with you, too, that parishioners can be very bossy as well.

    Sorry for my rash comments here, and for the misunderstanding. You were right to say what you did.

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