By Michael Thompson - Archdeacon, Assistant to the Primate of Canada
Published: February 2010
Related Topics: Leadership, Lent, Liturgy, Spirituality
Tomorrow morning I will wake up, put the kettle on for tea, and start the process of getting ready to go out the door. I will do all that in the dark, because it's that time or year. The darkness doesn't make it any easier.
I will be the first or second person to arrive at the church. Maybe the Assistant Curate will be there ahead of me. He usually is. It will still seem awfully early to me in either case.
Gradually, people will gather out of the still-quiet world into the circle of light and warmth, into that community unique, I think, to Anglicans—the Eight O'clock Service. In some churches, the Eight O'clock takes place at Eight-Thirty. In the first parish I served as rector, it was at nine.
The Eight O'clock is hard to love in anticipation. It is the reason I go to bed before the game is over Saturday night. And sometimes I envy (just for a moment and only a bit) the few people I see as I drive the five kilometers between our home and the church on Sunday morning. Especially in the summer, when I am about to spend the best part of the day indoors. For three months over the course of three summers, when I served the summer community of St. Peters on-the-Rock, Stony Lake, I could go for a swim in the dark cool waters of that lake after the Eight O'clock.
In some places with lots of clergy, being at Eight O'clock is optional for those not actively involved as presider or preacher. A warden some years ago persuaded me that I'd be missing something important if I missed the Eight O'clock, even if all it did was sit and listen. So even when others are in charge of leading worship, I show up.
One Sunday not long ago, I was so thoroughly surplus to the event that I did not need to administer chalice or paten. Others took responsibility for sharing the bread and wine. I sat with my eyes closed and listened to the footsteps of the faithful. It was a holy sound, those feet clacking and squeaking (leather or rubber) on their way to and from an encounter with the Holy, kneeling along a padded step, leaning on a carved oak rail. Or standing, knees long past kneeling. The sounds people make as they move are—well —moving.
Mostly Anglicans don't sing at the Eight O'clock. Sharing the peace is about as gregarious as it gets, and sometimes—and for some people—even that ancient liturgical encounter is too much. That isn't to say that there is no sense of community. This is, after all, the most stable worshiping community in almost any parish, and if someone is absent for more than one Sunday, people notice, and phone. But the community doesn't impose. It doesn't require anything but presence and the lightest touch of participation.
If the whole Body of Christ were like this, it would just be wrong. But it would be no less wrong if this gathering stopped happening, if in the stillness of the early morning, there were no still place to celebrate the eternal mystery of life and death, gift and loss, dream and memory. We need this meal on the menu, this community sustained by minimal discourse and ancient roots.
Tomorrow morning they will gather, as they have gathered for centuries of mornings. Born out of a profound attachment to the mystery of the incarnation made known in the ordinary holiness of bread and wine transformed, born into a world in which the Office—Morning Prayer—dominated prime time, this is the gathering that has kept alive the weekly ritual in which the offering of our lives is blessed, broken open, and shared, becoming, by the power of God's Holy Spirit, the living presence of Jesus among us.
Over the next few weeks, Lent will shorten the nights and lengthen the days. Eight O'clockers will notice. By the time Easter arrives, we'll be waking up in daylight, and our bodies, our eyes will help us prepare for the mystery by which life's triumph over death intersects with vernal Equinox. If the Eight O'clock is a hard pull through the dark months, there are rewards in the spring.
You may not be an Eight O'clock person, and if you're not, there are rich veins of spirit and truth in the other times and ways that the people of God gather for worship. Your children may enliven a later celebration, or the buoyant song of the church may support and enliven your journey.
You may not be an Eight O'clock person, but if you have a sense that the space you enter has already, this day, been warmed by human encounter with the Holy One, it is because the Eight O'clock broke open the first day of the week to the presence and purpose of God.
Among the elements of our Diocesan vision is "life-changing worship". On the faces—some lined with age, some youthfully fresh—that I encounter at Eight O'clock I wonder if the change isn't the kind of change that a rivulet can make over a decade. I've seen the floods that change the landscape instantly—in what the Bible calls "the twinkling of an eye". And "life-changing worship" can sound like some kind of instantaneous transformation—the "first-kiss" spirituality whose transformative authority comes from freshness, surprise, and the unexpected. But, having woken up for north of twenty-six years with the expected Eight O'clock ahead of me, with its familiarity and sameness, its grooved and holy sameness waiting for me in the circle of light we enter from the darkness, I know there is life-changing authority in something we have done so often that it becomes second nature.
Second nature. Transformed nature. Not, as it turns out, the same old thing, but the same thing turning out to be new. In the silence and sameness of Eight O'clock, I wonder if we can find the long and patient transformation that habit shapes into holiness, that fills early Sunday mornings with ordinary people so deeply habitual in their acknowledging of the world of the holy that, almost without knowing it, they stand against the terrifying dark emptiness of the night with the fragile, flickering and ancient light of the merest candle in their hands.
Tonight I will probably go to bed earlier than I otherwise might, and tomorrow I will get up earlier than would otherwise make me happy. For all that, the universe and its Holy God will give me a gift in the morning—a circle of light and warmth, of habit and hope, of long faithfulness and quiet buoyancy—will give me the gift of Eight O'clock.