Liturgy should serve life

The Rev. Cláudio Carvalhaes (centre) says the liturgical calendar means less to marginalized people. Photo: Diana Swift
The Rev. Cláudio Carvalhaes (centre) says the liturgical calendar means less to marginalized people. Photo: Diana Swift
Published April 30, 2013

The Consultation on Common Texts-an ecumenical roundtable of U.S. and Canadian churches that seeks interdenominational agreement on the language of worship and the cycle of prescribed scripture readings at services-held its annual meeting in Toronto on April 15.

A panel of speakers touched on intercultural issues in worship and the need to make liturgy meaningful to Christians from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

The Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes, a Brazilian-born Presbyterian minister and an associate professor of liturgy and worship at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, outlined the challenges of immigrant ministry. He served six years at a U.S. church whose congregation consisted largely of undocumented persons (illegal immigrants) of Portuguese origin. “All the congregants were undocumented. Only the pastor was legal,” he said.

“For undocumented people, life unfolds in unexpected ways. Time is very different for them, and to an extent, their chaotic lives take place outside of time.” So there’s a disconnect between the systematic order of the church calendar and the chaos of these people’s shadowy lives. “It’s hard to hold onto liturgical patterns when peoples lives don’t flow according to a similar sequence,” Carvalhaes said.

“How can they celebrate the resurrection, for example, when if feels to them as if they’re arriving too early, or after it’s taken place-away from when things are happening?” The challenge is somehow to connect the patterns of liturgy and readings meaningfully with the instability of their lives.

And connected these two divergent narratives must be, since ritual and readings are not enough to sustain those for whom a good day is escaping the notice of the police, having their false social security documents accepted without question or getting through work without being sexually harassed. “Sometimes it’s a long distance between Good Friday and Sunday-with no resurrection in sight,” said Carvalhaes.

For marginalized people, questions of when it’s appropriate for clergy to wear red in worship or for people to say “alleluia” are of minimal concern. “How can they celebrate the festivals of the church when life is so uncertain?” Or when minor daily victories of survival are always the occasion for alleluias?

Carvalhaes added that undocumented communities always appear to be “Advent communities-waiting for lives of peace, joy and hope, and the manifestation of God.” He added that often the Bible itself, rather than prescribed readings from scripture, is of more help to these congregants in making sense of their life situations. “Sometimes the reasonings of the lectionary are not enough to give sustenance to their lives.”

What helped Carvalhaes in his immigrant ministry was to provide a church that gave congregants unconditional support-without even knowing their names. “Only when we have the undocumented surrounded by the documented do the scripture, liturgy, symbols and calendar have meaning for them,” he said.

As for sacred music, Dr. Swee Hong Lim, an assistant professor of sacred music at the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College, illustrated how one hymn does not fit all when it comes to Korean congregations. He had attendees sing ” O So So,” a sacred song written in Korean in North America by Geon-yong Lee and beloved of North Americans.

“But when we sang this for the Koreans, they asked, ‘What is this? ‘Where is it from? Who wrote it?'” he said. “So the songs we know in North America may not be known in Asia and may not have the same power as they have here. It’s an issue of identity.”

On the other hand, when they sing the line “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee,” he said, “tears are flowing from the eyes of Asian people, while it may do nothing for us.”

Similarly, scriptural passages that work for North Americans and Europeans can have different effects in Asia.

The varying meanings of sacred music and scripture is “a major issue we need to talk about,” Lim said. “We need more sensitivity in consulting around the table about what will work in a particular context.” Will it bring down the powerful and liberate the oppressed, or will it reinforced the practice of colonialism?

A case in point is a Christian hymn set to the tune of the Japanese folk song “Sakura.” Lim pointed out that during the Japanese occupation of Asian countries, this tune was constantly played, but with the occupiers’ military/political words. Lesson: don’t assume that people of different ethnicities will react to sacred words or music the same way Europeans or North Americans do.

The meeting drew leaders from the United Methodist Church, United Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church U.S.A,, Anglican Church of Canada, Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Polish National Catholic Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, North American Lutheran Church, Christian Reformed Church, Calvin Institute of Worship, and American Baptist Churches.




  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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