Returning to an Episcopal Church during college after some years worshiping in different traditions, I was surprised that the various creeds and dictums came back to me quickly. It was so assuring to hear the words that I had been so familiar with growing up, finding them still there in the recesses of memory. When the pastor said, “Hear these comfortable words” after the Confession and the Prayers of the People, the scripture then, and also the familiar liturgy throughout, really were that to me: comfortable words. Dwelling on them in content was important, no doubt, and a few teaching series I’d heard had done just that, but the context of the words was also apparent. The liturgies brought out what it meant to be in a church for me; they were tied to a routine and a pattern in my week, an anchor, and they helped bring meaning to a place. Episcopal theologian Robert Farrar Capon points out these words are invaluable in carrying the full force of what a church space can be and mean; furthermore, they can be a key part of any locale, religious or not.
In Bed and Board (one of five books from the Episcopal theologian that we will be re-publishing around Christmas time!), the priest extends this same logic of liturgies to the household. Liturgy is especially important to the table, “the one and often the only place where the family meets in fact.” A great proponent of food, wine and conversation at every meal, Capon calls us to set aside this space for real, caring interaction.
The Board will always give birth to liturgy. I don’t mean specifically religious liturgy here. I mean liturgy in the old sense that the word had before Christians picked it up. In that sense, liturgy is not simply a function of religion but an inevitable feature of the life of the city. The Greeks were, I think, the first to define it. In the small city-state of antiquity, each citizen was assigned a portion of the material work of the city as his personal responsibility: the repair of so many feet of wall, for example, or the construction of so many yards of drainage facility. The word they used for this assignment was leitourgia. They saw that community of life meant community in things, and that unless the citizens joined in the doing of the things, the city could not thrive. Each was to have this peculiar liturgy; but it was to be his as a member of the body politic, not on the basis of his private tastes.
Making the comparison between the small Greek city-state and the dinner table, Capon shows the value of taking ownership of doing the peculiar things as a family member like getting places set and food on the table or holding hands to say a prayer and offering up conversation throughout the meal. These are the real things that go into making the table a rich space, and, as Capon writes, “Only the real things of life can enter into liturgy.” He continues:
The Church needs only priest, people, table, bread and wine; the union of those remains the taproot of all its liturgy. So also with the family. Parents and children, table and food are the fundamental pieces. Given these, there will develop, with absolute inevitability, a way of doing business native to that Board and its distinctive materialities. “At our house, we always have icebox cake on Daddy’s birthday.” That is genuine liturgy. The key to its true rationale is the phrase “We always do. . . .” The test of its germaneness is not its conformity to some abstract standard of perfection, but simply whether it constitutes an honest doing of the work of the city with the materials at hand.
I love that Capon assigns real value to those little family quirks, the ones that we all have and cherish but don’t necessarily think much of until we’re at someone else’s house and they’re doing things differently. God is in those little traditions and shows of love and care that arise inevitably from sharing bed and board. The chapter closes with a final call from RFC to keep it real with our household liturgies:
We need good liturgies, and we need natural ones; we need a life neither patternless nor overpatterned, if the city is to be built. And I think the root of it all is caring… True liturgies take things for what they really are, and offer them up in loving delight. Adam naming the animals is instituting the first of all the liturgies: speech, by which man the priest of creation picks up each of the world’s pieces and by his wonder bears it into the dance. “By George,” he says, “there’s an elephant in my garden; isn’t that something!” Adam has been at work a long time; civilization is the fruit of his priestly labors. Culture is the liturgy of nature as it is offered up by man. But culture can come only from caring enough about things to want them really to be themselves – to want the poem to scan perfectly, the song to be genuinely melodic, the basketball actually to drop through the middle of the hoop, the edge of the board to be utterly straight, the pastry to be really flaky. Few of us have very many great things to care about, but we all have plenty of small ones; and that’s enough for the dance. It is precisely through the things we put on the table, and the liturgies we form around it, that the city is built; caring is more than half the work.