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The hardest worship—common prayer reflections from the floor of General Synod 2016

Martha TatarnicEvery cell in my body was in flight mode. I wanted out. It was not that I didn’t know that the vote on expanding the Marriage Canon would be difficult and divisive. It was clear throughout the process of careful listening in our break-out groups, and then the long legislative session in which sixty members of Synod went to the microphone to speak to the motion, that we are ultimately a broken body, that at the end of this day, that the story we would be lifting up to the world would be one of sacrifice and pain.

And yet there had been much about our General Synod to that point that had led me to a place of wild hope going into this marriage motion. We had received stories of God’s beauty and transformative power shared from across the communion, we had seen truth and reconciliation emerging as our Indigenous voice was heard and was heard in a way that offered an exciting dream of a renewed church for all of us. Our “Neighbourhood Groups”–the break-out sessions in which we reflected on our concerns and hopes regarding the Marriage Canon–were difficult, but in many of our groups, the voice that was heard most clearly was a desire to stay together, to continue to walk together, to find our relationship with one another marked by Christian charity and abiding generosity, even in the face of pain and division. If this was true, then what could hold us back from doing this?

Now that hope and expectation felt like a distant memory. The outcome, one vote short in one house, fell on our assembly with a thundering silence. Somehow I had not been able to imagine myself here. I had come into this vote thinking in abstracts and principles: we need to listen to the LGBTQ2+ voice; we need to be respectful of one another; no matter what, we must reach out to those who are feeling most vulnerable, disenfranchised, and alone; and we must honour the voices that are different from ours. Now abstracts and principles were made real. I was in a place of crushing disappointment for me–for my friends and fellow parishioners who I carried with me to General Synod knowing how deeply they needed to hear that their experience of how their committed relationships indeed bear the same marked of covenant and sacrament as a heterosexual marriage, for the new friends I had made at General Synod as fellow members of Synod who had bravely and beautifully shared their stories with us all.

And so I wanted out.

I wasn’t just there as a delegate, I was also at General Synod as Chair of the Worship Committee. I had felt myself grinding against the liturgical nature of our church’s worship at times throughout our planning. It could feel an impossible task to plan our worship months in advance, trying to guess what might be needed or required as our meeting unfolded. We had considered many different possibilities for Monday night of General Synod, imagining that after such a difficult afternoon legislative session, it would be appropriate to clear our evening agenda and to simply dwell in a time of extended corporate worship together. I had imagined a sort of free-form, non-liturgical time of extemporaneous prayer and hymn singing. But the wisdom of the group settled instead on a traditional service of Chorale Evensong, hearkening back to the older language and prayer that had been common to the entire body of Anglicanism for centuries.

Now here we were, almost 10pm, the conversation having swelled far outside of the scheduling confines we had initially imagined, all of us exhausted, not one person in that assembly showing any outward signs of celebration and happiness that “their side had won,” and clearly I wasn’t the only person who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. “We’re not still going to do Evensong, are we?” my neighbor whispered harshly to me.   “Let’s just have a hymn and a prayer and get on with it.” He sounded as frantic as I felt.

But our Evensong Officiant was already standing up, already vested, the bells were beginning to ring, and we were going through with the prayer plan we had.

“It was too much,” someone commented to me the next day. “It was too long, it was too heavy after everything we had been through.”

True. It was all too much. It was too much, and I spent a lot of our worship crying, leaning on the person next to me, existing in choked up silence, or trying to absorb the tears and devastation all around me. I came in and out of being able to join in the responses and song of the church, and when I did, my voice was frayed and fragile. I was trapped by my own big proclamations from earlier in the week about needing to continue to walk together. I didn’t want to walk together. I wanted to leave.   But somehow I understood that I had made a promise and now payment on that promise was being asked of me.

It was the hardest worship in which I have ever participated. It made me angry and sad. And it confronted me with truths I didn’t want to hear and needed to more than ever. We began with words of confession, and I understood in a new way why we choose to acknowledge our sins before God together: because our inability to see God’s goodness in one another is a reality that we bear collectively, and because ultimately a new path must be found through God’s grace and in one another’s presence. My voice failed me, and the voices of others lifted me. I was held up by others, and at times I realized I was able to be part of how others in that space were held. And through those ancient words and in that most broken of places, I felt this strong sense that we were being joined in our prayer by the angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven–this great cloud of witnesses surrounding us–and there was a depth and a yearning and a resonance to our voice that I had never heard before.

I don’t know exactly what the Spirit was up to with us through the confusion of General Synod that ended up being our headline story. Yes, there was human error that led to the mis-filing of one vote. But we had also made the commitment to one another that we were placing ourselves in the embrace of the Holy Spirit in going forward. “The Spirit will speak,” one prophetic voice had said in Monday’s break-out group. “And then we need to attend to how we respond to that.” When a new outcome to this vote was announced within minutes of the close of General Synod, when we discovered that the motion had indeed passed, there were still glimmers of grace and loveliness at work in our collective disbelief:

  • again it was a thunderous silence that fell over us, there was nothing of the unbridled victor present in that room.
  • every single person in that assembly would walk away knowing what it was to be hurt and disappointed. Every person there had now been faced with a choice – to let that hurt and disappointment rule, or to stay together.
  • and before us again was the invitation of our common prayer. Now it was God’s table to which we were called. Our liturgical Anglican character asked that we trust in how God’s Spirit might be present, not through our spontaneous prayer, but in the ancient signs and symbols, stories and prayers, that have always needed to be big enough to hold and bless every human fear and hope and loss and joy.

Where do we go from here? was the question posed to us by our remarkable Primate, Fred Hiltz, through this most painful twenty-four hours of our church’s life recently.   It strikes me that the great teacher of the church, Thomas Merton, reflected on this question decades ago:

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is a resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them. There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate. Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion. But love by the acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.”

At the end of the day, the body is undeniably, visibly, broken. There is no victory, except in the cross of Christ. These are not new realities. And the way forward is always the same: trusting that the Spirit has our back, and allowing ourselves to hold, and be held by, one another.

Martha Tatarnic

About Martha Tatarnic

The Reverend Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines. Previously, she has served in congregations in Orillia and Oakville. Her focus in congregational leadership has been in empowering justice initiatives and outreach in the small church, starting a new service, the possibilities and potentials of Anglican-Lutheran partnership, and forming disciples through the power of music. As a young mother navigating family life through the continually changing waters of modern-day life, she is passionate about connecting the dots between faith – worship - Scripture, and exploring the concerns, joys, questions, stresses, worries, celebrations, of Right Here, Right Now.
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