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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.

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

  1. This is a beautiful reflection. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful commentary — a heartfelt and important reminder.

  3. I suggest that every member of our “NATIONAL SYNOD” go back to God and get confirmation that their vote was His will. Don’t play around with human debate; research God’s Will and join His Way.

    • You think they didn’t prayerfully consider their vote?

    • I did not say that; I said that they should go back to God. If they were all voting God’s Will; they would have all voted the same. I suggest that you read “MIRACLE IN DARIAN.”

    • Thank you for this comment, what’s a church without Bibical teaching, if a church wants to delete Christian Bibical teaching then it shouldn’t call themselves as one. As for me, I will hold all what the Bible says even though I fall short of the glory of God many times yet I know I’ve gone astray and do not try to make it right on my own terms. PTL

  4. I had vowed not to read anymore. Glad I did. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for your spiritual reflection on what must have been a very emotional experience. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would be with all of you and she/he was.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful reflection. I needed it this week.

  7. Thank you, Martha. Your words are a balm to our hurting church. I’m sharing them with my friends in the hopes of passing along a healing blessing. And thank you for your spirit filled leadership.

  8. Powerful and energizing reflection… thank you for your precious effort.

  9. Your experience at the Synod filled me with the awe of the struggle you were facing,then the sinking feeling when the vote off by one,then the mistake and everything swung the other way and yet there wasn’t a celebratory feeling.I pray that God will give each of you the power and strength to carry out His good works.Blessings to you all.

  10. A powerful piece. Thank you.

  11. So beautifully written and indeed, profound. Well done …. and thank you.

  12. We have no religion in the schools they should also get out of the bedrooms

    • Don’t worry they’re in the process of of removing it from the churches as we,these people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. God is even Lord of the bedroom. God and His law is omnipresent.

  13. Beautiful, it’s a charger/ energizer to us all who are facing many challenges in this beautiful world being disturbed by issues that cause divisions and pains. May our prayers be answered especially as we remain faithful to Him who created and loved us.

  14. Thanks Martha, I just advised my wife Roline that I wish St. Catharines was closer so I could be part of Your Congregation every Sunday. You are an Inspiration !!!! George

  15. Well said, Martha. Thank you. I came home, exhausted. I’m still tired. But each day is getting brighter as I reflect back on GS2016. And I am hopeful.
    Thank you.

  16. No matter the occasion or the experience or the issue, you always find the words and the insight to make it so clear. You are truly gifted! ((( )))

  17. This is well done and humbling. I was one of the ones who didn’t stay for all of evensong. I wish I had! Thank you for your witness and reflection.

  18. Thank you, Martha. You share great wisdom and bring blessing.

  19. Thank you for the reminder that the way of the cross is sacrificial love. Your reflection fills me with hope. Loved your Sunday sermon too.

  20. Such a beautiful reflection on the happenings of General Synod; for one who was not there…it gave me an insight into the emotional roller coaster that delegates would have experienced. I am confident that there is a definite purpose in the way everything unfolded and it is now up to Anglicans to figure out what that purpose is. Perhaps we all needed to experience the emotional letdown of the vote results in order to appreciate how the “other side” feels??? ?..not sure. Meanwhile thank you for this insightful reflection of what it felt like to experience both results and somehow continue to go forward.

  21. Martha – such a beautiful post – thank you. Sometimes when holed up in the wee hours of Sunday morning in my homily sail boat with yet no wind, I think of those sisters and brothers in places facing tragedy or autraucity who are hearing the same lectiionary readings and preparing or hearing a homily. How do Jesus’ words of comfort or chastisement, the same words I am hearing in my cozy Ottawa office, land on them? Thank you for articulating such a rich experience of why our tradition of common prayer, of communion is so powerful.

  22. Your words are a gift from God. Thank you.

  23. So helpful for me. Thanks for sharing Maureen

  24. A lovely reflection. It often strikes me that the gift of liturgy is how it allows us to be lifted up on the prayers of the generations who have preceded us and enter into the prayers of those who will come after us, thus allowing us to find our place in God’s in-gathering of all people.

  25. Thank you for a wise and articulate reflection.

  26. Thank you, Martha. I am reflecting on the disciples request “teach us to pray” and the Lord’s Prayer in preparation for Sunday’s sermon. Reading your reflection about General Synod and the evensong in particular reminded me that prayer is one of the things that can unite us as Christians, even when circumstances try to divide us. I especially loved the way you wrote about others holding you up and you holding others up during the prayer service. Thank you for your beautifully written and powerful reflection.

  27. Thank. You. And, Thankyou for your openness to the journey.

  28. I am very proud of your transparent reflections and spiritual discernment of this difficult General Synod 2016. I think you are spot on recognizing the shared suffering by all. We are indeed a broken Body of Christ. “When (we) are weak (we) are strongest.” May the Spirit help us all to go the speed of life. So glad to share Clericus with you.

  29. Martha, you are truly a gifted writer. When I read your writing, it makes me have the feeling like I was on that emotional roller coaster ride with you. It is always a privilege and honour to read your writings.

  30. Martha, you are a great Christian and for that, I am happy to walk beside you.

    I do not know what to think!

    I have been a Christian and an Anglian for over 70 years.

    I don’t have the answers.

    I know we need to stay together.

    I want us to pray together, live together and be Christians together.

    I know we can work this out.

    Thank you for your wonderful commentary, we need people like you.

    Yours in Christianity Kenneth.

  31. thank you for sharing…..comforting words….

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