Christian worship in denominations that follow liturgical practices is rich with symbolism and tradition. Growing up as a Methodist, with moderate (not conservative) Baptist on the side, I was familiar with solid liturgical traditions, thanks to John Wesley, who “was an Anglican priest all of his life,” as my grandmother continually said.
When I arrived in graduate school and auditioned for five part-time church positions (two Congregational, two Lutheran, one Episcopal), I took the Episcopal job because it was the least amount of work and responsibility for the most money, as best I could tell. It included one Sunday liturgy, one Wednesday choir rehearsal and a handbell choir directed by a volunteer who did not want or need my assistance.
Great! I could then concentrate upon my studies.
Then came the overnight conversion: The third century Eucharistic texts we were studying appeared as BCP Rite Two every Sunday morning, almost verbatim. Something clicked in my mind. I dove in head-first and have never looked back.
Many things that we do in Episcopal liturgy are rooted in scriptural or historic tradition. “This do in remembrance of me” comes to mind, as we reenact the Eucharist each week. Early Christians passed the Peace, inspired by Jesus’ numerous appearances after the resurrection and his greeting “Peace be with you.” Our Eucharistic Visitors, who take the sacrament to the homebound each Sunday, are mimicking an early practice, also from the third century.
However, many things in our liturgical rites were merely practical. The verger’s wand originally had a point at the top so the procession leader could poke cattle out of the bishop's way as he entered the cathedral. Academic hoods and white albs with hoods, like the ones our altar servers wear, were worn by monks to keep their heads warm. And the Gradual Psalm (We dropped the word “Gradual” in our service leaflets for simplicity.) was sung from the top chancel step, or gradus in Latin.
As a new Episcopalian in graduate school, I soaked up as much as I could - and quickly - but was slightly disappointed to learn some of the practical reasons for why we do what we do. The practicality of many of these liturgical practices makes them no less important or beloved. But you know me: I wanted it all to be firmly rooted and grounded in scripture, reason and tradition, not practicality.
I am just Presbyterian enough to believe that things do not happen by accident. So, when the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee’s annual visit to this parish conveniently lands on the fourth Sunday of Easter (affectionately known to church musicians as “Sheep Sunday”), I will immediately find meaning and symbolism.
If the rector is the shepherd of the parish flock, then the bishop is chief shepherd of the entire countryside. Our diocese is comprised of the all of the land between the rivers, the Tennessee and the Mississippi, but “all of Hardin County.” There is one little chunk of Hardin County on the other side of the majestic Tennessee River. (Can you tell that I read the diocesan history many years ago?)
I would say that Bishop Johnson is a practical chief shepherd. You will see him donned (pun intended) in grand, appropriate ecclesiastical attire - the ornamented cope or chasuble and mitre for confirmations, ordinations and consecrations. You will also see him in a flannel shirt on a weeknight at our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Interim Restaurant & Bar, having a glass of wine and watching the ballgame on the big screen. (Lee and I saw him there just last week.)
As Bishop Johnson has called for the election and consecration of the Fourth Bishop of West Tennessee in 2019, this Sunday will be one of his last official visits to this parish. I am humbled and honored to count this pastoral man and his beloved wife as personal friends.
Is the chief shepherd’s visitation on “Sheep Sunday” a God-thing or a stretch of liturgical symbolism? Perhaps a stretch, but I still like it.