Following on Mandela: how a small church can hold a vigil

Last time, I mentioned I took my prayerbook to the South African embassy to pay my respects after the death of Nelson Mandela; I used it too, reading part of the funeral office near the embassy.

On my walk back I thought of all of the public calamities and thanksgivings and losses a church might face, and thought of the problems it would have putting on such an observance. Not that a church should have an act of worship at such times, but the very practical issue of how. Sitting and hearing a sermon thoughtful words isn’t gong to cut it.

I think a procession would be a good way for a small church or pair of churches to hold such an observance. With a single church, the participants could meet near the front door making a statement of purpose rallied around some relevant artifact, like the photo of the deceased or basket to collect goods for some disaster plagued area. The group then could process to the front of the church with their artifacts and hold the ceremonial parts of service. With two adjacent churches, the joint congregation could start at one, process to the other, and there end the service. If the commemoration is likely to spread past the particular congregation(s), and the buildings are not hidden, then an outside garden is the better place.

And what to say, sing? It can — indeed, should — be simple: movements make up the heart of the service. After the statement of purpose, the participants draw close to focal point. The leader may pray in commemoration of the event, then lead the people in their procession. If there is a suitable prayer, hymn or chant, let it be sung. It should be simple and rhythmic. At the destination, be it an altar-like space at the one church, or at the second church if there are two. A brief passage of praise, but if there’s a sung anthem it should be stirring and short. We have participants here, not an audience. And let the participants make their offerings — flowers, food. candles. notes. A blessing may follow, at which the leader should withhdraw. But keep the space open for silent prayer and — as may happen — tears.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. Scott, your ministry really keeps budding and blossoming on this blog! Thank you so much.

    This reflection updates the Fast tradition, which goes back to the Torah, if memory serves. Certainly, in this nation, it was a hallmark of Puritanism that deserves this kind of liturgical upgrade. Too often, what started as fast days — usually public memorials, including Dr. King’s holiday — have deteriorated into shallow calls for “days of service.” Most recently, we saw this on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysberg Address. I have no doubt that the people who perform service on these days are those for whom service comes naturally, comfortably. Many undoubtedly are kinesthetic thinkers, whose thoughts are indeed both opened and expanded by laboring in community, on land.

    But for those of us whose spirits open liturgically, what can be done? Your post meets the basic need we face, which is the need to be respected and honored for the work we do with liturgy and ritual tools, at times that call for reflection.

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