“Can I Get an Amen?”

Those familiar with old-time Pentecostalist liturgy will identify the title of this piece as a part of that liturgy.  Not, of course, that tongue-speaking Pentecostalists of the old school would admit to having liturgy.  Liturgy, for them, is what the Catholics have (along with their step-children, the Anglicans) because they do not have God or the Holy Spirit.  Liturgy is usually described by them as “dead liturgy” because the people using the liturgical book are spiritually dead and need such substitutes for true Spirit-led worship.

Nonetheless, I submit that such cries as periodically punctuate their preaching function as bits of liturgy.  It works like this:  the preacher preaches his sermon in an emotional way as he can manage to stir up his congregation.  He occasionally prompts them to speak up by saying, “Can I get an Amen?”, to which a number of the congregants respond by saying, “Amen, preacher!”  or “Preach it, brother!” or “Yes, Lord!”  The point of the exchange is not to bolster the preacher’s ego (which perhaps needs no bolstering), but to unite the congregation in one fervent body.

This is liturgical, for it is exactly how the pre-Eucharistic dialogue functions at the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  There the celebrant says to the congregation, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you!” and they respond, “And with your spirit!”  He then says to them, “Lift up your hearts!” to which they respond, “We lift them up to the Lord!”  He finally says to them, “Let us give thanks to the Lord!” and they answer, “It is meet and right to worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided!”  The words of the exchanges are longer and more poetic, and of course scripted, but the function is identical.  They are intended to reinforce and express unity of celebrant and people at important points in the service.  That is why there are many such exchanges throughout the Eucharistic anaphora.  Scripted or spontaneous, all Christian liturgy contains (or should contain) such exchanges.

It is interesting to note that this dialogic component once attended sermons preached in the early church as well.  In Schmemann’s book The Eucharist we read:  “In antiquity, the assembly responded to the celebrant’s sermon with a triumphal amen, testifying by this to the acceptance of the word, sealing their unity in the Spirit with the celebrant.  Here, in this amen of the people of God, is the source and principle of that ‘reception’ of teaching by church consciousness, of which Orthodox theologians speak so often, contraposing it to the Roman division of the Church into the learning Church and the teaching Church, and also to Protestant individualism.  But if it is so difficult to explain in what this ‘reception’ consists and in what manner it is realized, perhaps this is because in our own consciousness we have almost entirely forgotten that this act is rooted in the church assembly and in the sacrament of the word accomplished in it.”

In other words, perhaps it would be helpful if the congregation hearing the celebrant’s sermon responded at its conclusion, as in antiquity, with a triumphal “Amen!”  This would help us to understand the important role that the laity has in receiving or rejecting proffered teaching.  In the 1848 Answer of Eastern Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX, the bishops declared that “the protector of religion is the very body of the Church, even the people themselves, who desire their religious worship to be ever unchanged and of the same kind as that of their fathers”.  That is, the job of guarding the faith belonged to the laity as a whole, not to the bishops as a group, or to one bishop as an individual (for example, the bishop of Rome).  The laity should take this role more seriously.

As Schmemann noted, the details of the task and the manner in which it is realized are difficult to explain.  But I suggest that this has a lot to do with the laity not speaking up loudly and long when they hear (or read online) things which clearly contradict the truths they have received, whether those truths be doctrinal truths (about the deity of Jesus) or moral truths (about sexuality and gender).  It is easy to fall into the passivity envisioned by the Roman Catholic model of the laity as the ecclesia discens, the learning church, a group of people whose duties were famously summed up by the triad “pray, pay, and obey”.  How could such an uneducated group imagine they could contradict something said by someone dressed in a collar (or wielding a university degree)?  This reluctance to speak up loudly and contradict is increased when the person teaching odd and heretical things wears a mitre and the gorgeous clothing once worn by emperors and when he bears distinguished titles such as “Your Eminence”.  The laity are not eminent.  Hadn’t they better just shut up?

As Schmemann noted, the lay reluctance to speak up might be lessened if they spoke up every Sunday to seal as true the words spoken by the man in a collar by saying, “Amen!”  This might embolden them to have their say—a say which (as the 1848 Answer proclaimed) is actually one of their primary duties as the laity.  The laity need not throw the offending hierarchs into the river (as they were anecdotally reported as doing to some of the bishops who returned from the Council of Florence after selling out the Faith), but they can at least speak up vocally and insist upon making their protest heard.  This is not “Protestantism”, for it is devoid of the individualism characterizing the classic Protestant model.  It is the practice of Christian antiquity, and the stated job of Orthodox laity.

Of course this means that laity speaking up need to familiarize themselves with their actual faith and the issues under discussion.  This involves more than mindlessly repeating what your grandmother once said or what you read online.  It involves reading history, using discernment, and listening to many of the Church’s teachers, including one’s parish priest whose words you regularly seal with an “Amen!”  It is easy to imagine that one is defending the True Faith when one is simply being an unthinking conservative idiot.  After all, thinking is hard—much harder than speaking, as Facebook abundantly proves.  But such hard work and hard thinking are a part of the laity’s task, and must precede whatever words they loudly speak, whether those words are words of approval or protest.

One thing is clear:  as the days get stranger and crazier, and as folly and apostasy are so easily shared with millions online, the task of the laity to exercise their role as guardians of the faith grows ever more acute.  Now is the time to think and then speak up when strange and crazy stuff turns up in Church.  Can I get an Amen?

 

 

9 comments:

  1. Amen! And I will add, the Laity have the responsibility to listen to each other. Too often people being people shut up their ears if what someone says goes against the majority opinion, or reasoned belief that can be supported by someone wearing a clerical collar or sporting a high degree from a prestigious university. The Covid 19 pandemic is a poignant example. Dialogue and a dissenting view from lay or professional medical people was discounted as misinformation and people were silenced. In Christian history, dissenting opinions were labelled blasphemy or heresy by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. I can’t speak for the Greek Orthodox. However, when I recently (September 2019) spoke out in favour of burning Fossil Fuel with Carbon Capture, putting my research skills and my faith into the formulation of my presentation, a Ukrainian Orthodox member of this WCC sponsored event, chastised me saying that the Ecumenical Patriarch says that the burning of Fossil Fuel is sinful. Another member from a European Protestant Church quickly used that fact and tried to keep my presentation from being recorded in the Conference Proceedings. Then when it came to light I had a Doctoral Degree, others on the editorial committee demanded that I qualify my degree and asked whether or not my degree was an internationally recognized one and if so was it a theological degree or a scientific one or what?

  2. AMEN! Excellent article about why the laity, men and women, must participate and be heard and considered in the life of the Church. Whether in reading the Epistle, as essentially a teaching act, or in full participation in the management decisions at the parish level.

  3. Fr. Lawrence, I read this post with interest and it “hit the spot” for me for so many reasons. I’m a convert to Orthodoxy, 12 years in but still unknowledgeable about so many simple things like this. It was good to learn why we have statements such as “It is proper and right” in the liturgy. I’ve often wondered why, and at times it almost feels like it is being sung with a sigh – “yes, we should do this.”

    Having spent many years in the charismatic/pentecostal realm, I’m well aware of the call-and-response of that world, even though I was too shy to participate. So in a way it was a relief for me to leave that world and enter Orthodoxy, where it seems there are none of those spontaneous expressions – and I really mean none. In our church we have a beautiful and skillful choir, but the congregants don’t sing along. At least not most of us, as far as I can tell. I’ve considered joining the choir (despite my life-long debilitating shyness about anyone hearing me sing) so that I might be genuinely involved in expressing the praise that God deserves. We should sing, we should respond. Even the birds sing their morning songs.

    One of the things that led me away from my native-born Roman Catholicism into pentecostalism was the appearance of zeal among pentecostals and the evident lack thereof among Catholics. I’ve since learned that we can’t judge anyone’s zeal, we don’t know what is going on within the human hearts around us, and we should be careful not to draw attention to ourselves during liturgy by graphic gesticulations (e.g. arms raised) or loud vocal bursts. But surely there is some middle ground, which I think you are tilling here.

    I don’t think I’ve made much sense but thank you for writing.

  4. AMEN! I’m in one of those crazy “churches” where the pastor is constantly inventing new ideas and causing turmoil among the laity. But next Sunday, I am going to an Orthodox Church to see what the Divine Liturgy is all about.

  5. Amen! Is it also equally incumbent upon us to withhold our Amen if we hear what is not the Truth? Perhaps taking any temptation the unTruth prompted in my heart into Confession?Including any judgement? Genuinely.

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