I was on the blog yesterday of Father John Zuhlsdorf, a Catholic priest and prolific writer on all things Catholic and liturgical. If you follow the link, you'll find an entry concerning altar rails. Apparently, there are churches (even Catholic churches) that are tearing them out, seeking to reduce the distance between a priest and a parish that this physical dividing line inevitably causes. But is this a good thing? Father Z finds this to be a disturbing trend, and he argues for the usefulness of the altar rail. But I want to draw your attention to one of his arguments in particular:
Lay people and the ordained have different roles in the liturgy. They have their own particular places. When you blur those places by making them less distinct, you undermine something important in the hearts and minds of the clergy and congregation. When you constantly tell people that they are being empowered by being given things to do and places to sit or stand that cannot be distinguished from what the clergy do, you are really telling them that on their own they aren’t good enough. They are really not good enough unless they do things priests do, or sit where they sit.
This blew me away because it perfectly describes me. Part of the reason I wanted to be a minister is because it seemed like I couldn't be the best Christian I could be unless I was a minister. All the best Christians I knew were pastors (I now see how wrong that was), which suggested to me that clergy were on another spiritual plane that couldn't be accessed unless on was clergy. Furthermore, if it was acceptable for me to preach as a 15-year-old, then I wasn't doing enough, and was therefore less of a Christian, when I wasn't preaching. The thought never entered my mind that I may have a vital role to play in worship as a member of the congregation.
I wonder if I would have felt this way if there were a greater distinction between clergy and congregation growing up, if the creep of egalitarianism wasn't so strong. What if there were places I wasn't allowed to go on the altar? What if someone had explained to me that there are things the pastor does that the congregation can't do, and things the congregation does that the pastor can't do? What if I knew that both are essential for worship (and, by extension, we do great harm to the worship of the church when we don't show up)? I wonder if I would have valued the sacraments and the preaching of the Word more if I had a better understanding of the differences between ordained and lay.
I'm not necessarily arguing one way or the other; I'm just surprised at how personal this was for me. How do you see it? Are there differences between clergy and lay, and should we maintain those differences, even by physical barriers? This gets at the very heart of what worship is all about, and so I'd be most appreciative of your thoughts.
(By the way, this further goes to illustrate that the buildings in which we worship shape how we worship and what we believe about God; as Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us." Our buildings matter.)
May the Lord bless you and keep you!