Participation in worship

A week ago I had the opportunity to visit St. Anne Orthodox Church (OCA) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The beauty of the chanting during the service surprised me, as I had visited months ago and hadn’t been as impressed. Perhaps the larger 10-15 member choir helped the sound fill the church. Perhaps it was just that the music was more familiar to me now that we’ve been using more of it at St. Athanasius. Whatever the reason, the chanting certainly helped me worship.

It struck me as I was listening to and singing some of the hymns that I had room for people not saying or doing anything in particular during a service. As a Protestant (Methodist/Wesleyan technically, but close enough) convert to Orthodoxy, I had carried along this need for “active participation”. It wasn’t a conscious thing, just an uncomfortable feeling that everyone should be doing the service together. In some of the more traditional methodist services, there’s an unstated rule that said you better stand and at least pretend to be singing along during the hymns. And everybody knows you need to bow your head when someone leads in prayer. I guess I’d just carried this along with me when I became orthodox. I don’t think this was about judging others’ behavior, just a kind of expectation that people would participate in the same way.

So there I was, worshipping God in the middle of an orthodox church and I suddenly realized it really didn’t matter what I or anyone else was doing. It was okay if some people weren’t singing; the choir was voicing our prayers. I know some people can’t sing well or are uncomfortable doing it. Fine. Let them pray. It was alright if some crossed themselves and others did not or if they did it differently. It just hit me that there’s a great freedom in worship. It is so hard to describe what participation looks like.