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February 10, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 10

Assoc. Prof. James Weiss (Theology)

Extra Credit

Historical re-creations, like Sturbridge Village or the reenactment of a Civil War battle, are usually appreciated for their educational or entertainment value. But a program spearheaded by Assoc. Prof. James Weiss (Theology) that explores traditions of Episcopalian worship is viewed as a potential source of comfort for a church wracked by dissension.

Weiss is chief architect for the Boston-based Emmanuel Church's Historic Liturgy Program, which holds worship services using the nine Anglican-Episcopal Books of Common Prayer from the 16th century to the present. These rites reflect some of the watershed events in the church's early history, from its reform by King Henry VIII through the sweeping Protestant reforms of 1552 and the revolutionary American Prayer Book of 1789.

Drawing upon his expertise as a church historian of the Renaissance and Reformation period in organizing the monthly series, Weiss has produced a printed program containing the full text of each liturgy with an accompanying historical introduction. An ordained Episcopal priest, he also has served as celebrant during the historical liturgies.

But Weiss says he conceived the program less as a scholarly exercise than as a means of offering perspective on the recent crisis in the worldwide Anglican Communion, in the wake of a decision by the American branch, the Episcopal Church, to nominate an openly gay priest to become bishop of New Hampshire.

"Discovering the divisive but superable diversity in our traditions of worship should help us face the divisive diversities in our present situation," he said. "Essentially, we are asking, 'What is the tradition about?' Let's look at worship and how core meanings have changed dramatically over time. You'll see six different theologies in nine services."

Through the Historical Liturgy Program, worshippers revisit other flashpoints in the church's history, such as the post-reformation discord over whether Christians needed to offer themselves in sacrifice at Mass. In each case, Weiss says, the church found the inclusive theological language to bring factions together.

"The history of the community, church or otherwise, is always to some extent a matter of studying the past in order to discover points of identity and purpose. That isn't the exclusive goal of history, or church history: Of course we have to study it for its own sake, before we study it for ours. But the 'dialogue' between those two dimensions is essential to the self-understanding of churches."

Weiss cites Boston College's Church in the 21st Century project as another example of "presenting church history as a resource for present purposes."

Whether Anglican or Episcopal, Weiss says, "we've never had a common understanding of faith. Yet we've asked, 'How is Christ present in the Eucharist? What is the nature of the Bible's authority?' These are religiously more significant questions than whether people of the same sex can have a relationship together. If we could keep from splitting over those issues, then it seems we can somehow hold together now as well."

The research for the Historical Liturgy Program has often been highly detailed and specialized, Weiss notes: what kinds of vestments to wear, how to position the altar or table, what gestures were used, and so on.

"Our high point came in the first Mass, the late medieval Latin service," he said. "At the elevation of the host and chalice at consecration, the altar boy held a black flag behind them to enhance visibility, because folks believed if they clearly saw the host on a given day, they would not die."

The program at Emmanuel, located at 15 Arlington Street in Back Bay, takes place at 6 p.m. the second Thursday of each month through June (except for April). Each evening opens with a lecture to attune the congregation to the rhythm of this worship service. A dinner after the service offers the opportunity for open discussion, and often draws faculty and graduate students from around Boston, as well as members of other Episcopal parishes. Weiss says the turn-out for the program has been satisfying, especially given the interest shown by the attendees.

Weiss emphasizes that the program is a relevant part of the Emmanuel Church's worship. "The bishop of Massachusetts has authorized these services to be authentic services of Holy Eucharist. As one parishioner proudly said, 'We're praying, not playing.'" -Sean Smith

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