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On “Good morning!”

April 10, 2014

AS ANY CHURCHMAN will tell you, there are few things worse than wandering into an unfamiliar Episcopal church on a Sunday morning, hopeful that the service will be marked by dignity and quiet joy, and finding, instead, that the first words of the service are “Good morning!” It gets worse if a response is expected, or even worse, requested.

It is not incidental that the website Ship of Fools asks all of its church-service reviewers, “What were the exact opening words of the service?” First impressions matter.

The problem with beginning divine service with the words “Good morning!” is that doing so is both annoying and, as a matter of evangelism and ecclesiology, self-defeating. “Good morning!” is how one greets a neighbor, the postman, or even some loathsome acquaintance with whom one hopes not to enter into a proper conversation. If we have come to church seeking God, or hoping to find out more about this fellow Jesus, “Good morning!” isn’t going to tell us anything, other than that perhaps we have come to the wrong sort of place.

As Christians, we should disdain this sort of opening.

The Revd Dr. Mary Luti, a Congregationalist minister and divinity school professor, has written on this subject as well. She points out that, in the early church, worship services began always with an expression of the peace, and her words are worth repeating:

Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians who gathered for worship on the morning of the first day of the week greeted each other in this way: ‘Peace be with you!’ It was the first word they heard in worship, and it was a word from the Lord. They responded in joy, saying, ‘And with your spirit!’ or ‘And also with you!’

In many congregations these days this Christian greeting has been supplanted by a cheerful ‘Good morning!’ to which ‘Good morning!’ is the expected congregational reply–which, if not immediately forthcoming in the same cheery tone, is then ‘tried again’ until the minister is satisfied that everyone has gotten over whatever inhibitions prevented them from being sufficiently sincere and friendly the first time.

I wish we wouldn’t do that. Here’s why.

When we make this substitution, we effectively erase the experiential memory of the Easter proclamation that this quintessential Christian greeting conveyed from disciple to disciple every Sunday, every ‘little Easter’—the unfathomable peace of the Risen One that bathes the human person in glory and ushers us into the 8thand never-ending day of the New Creation with him. It is a gift of unimaginable riches with cosmic reach. Alongside that kind of greeting, ‘Good Morning’ seems a little pale, and a little beside the point.

Moreover, ‘Good Morning’, as friendly as it is, doesn’t pack much of an ethical wallop. It’s warm and welcoming, but it commits you to nothing. Whereas in the realm of Christian deep memory, to say “Peace be with you” and to reply, “And also with you” is to be immediately inserted into a long historical dynamic of blessing with shalom, the divine mercy and restorative wholeness showered on all creation, to whose bestowal upon us sinners in Christ the only proper response is more and more mercy showered on others by us—mercy for all.

And so this peace beyond all understanding, this good news about the character of God, goes out from God through Christ to the church as a transforming gift; and through us it is shared with the world—especially to the most objectionable, to the marginalized, and to the enemy; and then back it goes again to God in the form of grateful praise from givers and receivers in one unending cycle of joy.

All this is in a phrase: ‘Peace be with you!’ and its rejoinder, ‘And also with you!’—the most ancient Christian greeting we know, the most ancient greeting the church ‘remembers’ in this ritual way.

Whether we Anglicans, who have no history of beginning our liturgies with the peace, so begin a service is not the point. What matters is Dr. Luti’s correct observation that “Good morning!” is a greeting of the world, which provides not a shred of insight into the Christian life or the Gospel that we proclaim. Those who cross the threshold of a church to worship should be shown something apart from their daily experience, away from their engrossment in a world that is, as St. Paul says, bound by the law of sin and death. Much effort is expended making people feel “comfortable” in church. But if the world is broken, and if people feel comfortable in the world (which, by and large, they do), should we not try to make people feel distinctly uncomfortable in church?

Even the Diocese of Sydney, that body of extreme Low Churchmen, comprehends the very wrongness of the “Good morning!” school and the false allure of comfort. On the website of their excellent Better Gatherings initiative, they write:

Churches have different ways of making clear that a service is about to start. Ordinary greetings such as ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Welcome’ make people feel comfortable and link what we do with everyday human encounters. But biblically-based prayers, or reminders of our purpose in meeting together, focus our attention on God and what we might expect from him. God has called us together and we should acknowledge that from the beginning, in the way we speak to him or speak about him. A well-chosen hymn or song may also fulfil some of these introductory functions.

Introductions can be extended to give a seasonal or thematic emphasis, or lead straight to an invitation to confess sins. There may be special events in the life of the congregation to be noted. But, above all, it is important to focus attention on God and the prospect of listening to his word and responding with prayer and praise. We have not come together merely to have fellowship with one another or to encourage one another, but to meet with God.

I remember sitting in chapel twice each week in my distinctly secular New England school. Any mention of the word “God” would make us all freeze in place, silent and at attention. It was more awkward an utterance than anything the chaplain could have said about sex, drugs, or rock and roll, and we were desperate for him to move on to something else. God was simply not part of the fabric of the school, not someone with whose Word we were engaged, and speaking the Name of the Lord was jarring to our secular, morally relativist teenaged selves. God was too singular, too universal, and too uncompromising for the obedient political correctness that we all observed in public. He was beyond the comprehension of any language that we possessed, and we dearly hoped that each mention would pass without demanding a response from us.

I’m not making this up. “God” was simply the weirdest thing that could be said in that place. We would have much preferred “Good morning!” At least, then, we would have known how to respond.

SAYING “Good morning!” does indeed put people at their ease. But it also, perhaps without the speaker’s intending it, takes the wind out of anything theological that follows. It makes ease and comfort and joviality the true order of the day, and everything else – all of the God stuff – just a kind of quirky sideshow. It says, in effect, “Welcome to this place! We want you to feel at home and to come back soon. Now we’re going to say a few weird-sounding things about God and Jesus (which begin on page 355 of the Prayer Book), but really we’re open-minded, non-dogmatic people, and we’ll catch up with you at coffee hour.”

If this seems like an exaggeration, consider the inverse: when a service begins with the words, “Bless the Lord who forgiveth all our sins,” what does that say to the visitor, to the seeker? At the very least, it lets him or her know what we’re about, which is worship of God. Even if it puts that visitor off, it must cause him to think, even if the thoughts are along the lines of “Hey, what’s all this? I haven’t sinned that bad. I’m a good person!” It lets all those who enter the church know that we are serious about our faith. And even given that seriousness, we’ll still catch up at coffee hour and offer greetings and a warm welcome.

To begin with “Good morning!” is to take the teeth out of the liturgy, to degrade it as if divine service were a somewhat embarrassing appendage to the hootenanny, rather than the fundamental task of any person of faith. As the Sydney Anglicans suggest, divine service is not a prelude to coffee hour. We gather on Sunday mornings to fall down in worship before the one, true and almighty God, not to feel good about ourselves and not to engage in some jolly camaraderie. The opening words of any such service should point toward the Lord and the humble service that is his due, and indeed it is a privilege – a joy! – for any Christian to hear those words.

“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
“And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. AMEN.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2014 13:48

    Thank you for this. The way we begin says a lot about how we understand what we have gathered to do. That a certain unbecoming unctuousness seems to characterize our openings (and not our openings only) should give us pause.

    Your piece calls to mind two thoughts that are related to but distinct from the “Good morning” problem.

    The first is a passage from Dean Ladd’s “Prayer Book Interleaves”, in an article entitled “Exits and Entrances.” His specific target is the accumulation of introductions at the beginning of the Office—Processional, Opening Sentence, Confession and Absolution, Lord’s Prayer, and then finally “O Lord, open thou our lips.” But the following sentence seems very much in the spirit of what you have written: A bad, drawn out beginning “is like the preacher struggling to get to the point through one opening paragraph after another, or the embarrassed lover who wants to pop the question but only stammers.”

    The second thing I’m reminded of is the advice a friend learned from his father-in-law (a priest in the Church of England). It was to the effect that actors in a drama don’t stop after the curtain rises to say, “Good Evening. I will now recite Act I, Scene I, Line I of the play that you have come to see.” They just SAY it. The drama of the liturgy—in which the whole congregation are fellow-actors with the choir and clergy, and not an audience—should be the same.

  2. May 9, 2014 12:53

    I accept “good morning” as a preface to necessary instructions but otherwise I’m pretty much on the same page as your friend’s father-in-law.

    I’ve noticed a definite trend of priests who apparently hate any kind of solemnity, so they do everything they can to break the mood. We had an interim whose tactic was a constant string of unnecessary instructions, including a against-the-rubrics instruction for everyone to be seated at the start of communion. I ignored this because, being in the choir, it would have required me to sit down and then almost immediately stand up again.

    • May 9, 2014 17:32

      I agree about the necessary introductions part; it’s fine at announcement time, especially if part of a construction like, “Good morning, and welcome in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

      Your larger point is well said, though: fear of solemnity really does seem to be the animating feature of so many clergy-folk, and it is rather bizarre. In very few other institutions is ritual so deliberately undermined as in the church. It doesn’t happen at the baseball game, or at the club (can you imagine a DJ stopping the music to tell everyone where the bathroom is?), or at a cocktail party.

      Someone has done a number on these priests. They seem afraid to teach or to proclaim, and instead do everything they can to say that “We don’t take this all that seriously!” It is, frankly, despicable.

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