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Participation in Worship: More Than Doing

Vatican II called worshipers to "full, conscious, and active participation," which leads us from the doing to being the body of Christ, fully conscious of our encounter with the Divine and open to and receptive of the action the Divine takes on our behalf.

Joyce Ann Zimmerman

One of the most oft-quoted phrases of the Second Vatican Council is "full, conscious, and active participation." It seems like more than Catholics have heard this challenge and have responded with attempts to bring about a more lively and welcoming worship experience-one much more "user friendly." Most denominations have introduced more contemporary music, drama, visual arts, dance, and other full-body, hands-on worship elements. In all this our hearts are in the right place: we want our worship services to touch the individuals who come, facilitate an encounter with the Divine, overflow in praise and thanks, and make a difference in the way we live. There remains a question, however: what did the Council really have in mind when they spoke to a new way to participate in worship?

Many if not most Christian denominations are struggling with what lies underneath this clarion call of the Council for full, conscious, and active participation. It simply won't do to have people come to church and be bumps on a log; worship is definitely not a spectator sport! We are concerned with our young people who don't seem interested in established worship patterns. We are scrambling for solutions to the contemporary vs. traditional worship style battles. At the same time, "participation" in worship actually raises some deep issues to which we must attend if we continue on our journey of worship renewal. Some of these issues will become clear as we reflect on what it means to participate in liturgy fully, consciously, and actively.

"Participation" in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

Although the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (the first document promulgated by the Council, on December 4, 1963) is a document produced by a Roman Catholic body for the Roman Catholic Church, in many ways it has truly become a significant document providing the blueprint for worship renewal in a wide spectrum of Christian denominations. The Constitution has even become something of an ecumenical document. So it is not surprising that it is quoted well beyond Catholic circles. It might be well, however, to take a closer look at what the Constitution says about participation.

No fewer than five paragraphs (a numbering system used in official documents of the Catholic Church; "paragraph" can actually include more than one grammatical paragraph) address the issue of participation by all the congregation in the worship experience. Only one paragraph, however, uses the full phrase, "full, conscious, and active participation" (no. 14). One other uses "full, active participation," thus repeating two out of three of the adjectives for participation used in no. 14 (see no. 41). In all other cases the Constitution refers only to "active" participation (see nos. 27, 30, and 50). The most interesting paragraph perhaps is no. 30, which even lists the envisioned active participation: everyone actively participates through acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, actions, gestures, bodily attitudes, and reverent silence.

This brief survey of data from the Constitution raises a simple question: what, really, is intended when we speak of worship participation? In the next section of this brief reflection we explore the three synonyms used to describe participation in no. 14 of the Constitution. We conclude with some comments about how this helps us come to a new self-understanding.

"Full, conscious, and active"

Is it simply of fluke of the Constitution that only one paragraph mentions three adjectives for participation? It would seem that exploring each of these three words might give us deeper insight into what is truly demanded by worship participation.

"Active" participation. We begin our reflection in reverse order intentionally. As noted above with the worship elements/activities listed in no. 30, one understanding of participation does unfold at the level of actively engaging all those who are present in the worship experience. It won't do to have a choir sing all the hymns; at some point the whole congregation must be invited to open with full throats their hearts to God. It won't do to have a priest or minister lead the worship service in such a manner that it is clear he or she is doing the worship and the rest are there to watch; worship leadership cannot function apart from those who are being led, namely, the whole congregation.

In a little different vein, it won't do only to use one's head in a worship service. The Constitution's no. 30 also makes clear that the whole body must be engaged in worship. Particularly interesting is the inclusion of attitudes and silence in this list of active worship elements.

First, let's attend to attitude. Sometimes we are not aware how our attitude affects others: if I am bored, this rubs off; if I am angry, this rubs off; if I am enthusiastic, this rubs off; if I am grateful, this rubs off; if I am filled with praise, this rubs off; if I am genuinely concerned for others when I make intercession, this rubs off; if I am committed to being there, this rubs off. All this makes a difference not only by affecting others' participation ability, but it also affects how we are as the church, the body of Christ. If one member slacks off in participation, two things simultaneously happen: first, the body is weakened; second, the others who are participating lift up that slacker. Thus, the attitude of congregants actually is a give-and-take situation.

Second, let's attend to silence. We might think of silence as a time to do nothing, to vegetate. Silence included with elements of active participation suggests otherwise. In the silence something is to happen actively. Silence, in other words, is a time to do something (pray, contemplate, encounter) and to be someone (creature still before the Creator). Ironically, the moments of silence which we build into our worship services may well become the most engaging, active participation!

"Active" participation challenges us to get involved, be engaged, do the worship service.

"Conscious" participation. The challenge to "conscious" participation only occurs once in the Constitution (no. 14), but this doesn't make it something unimportant or not worth our serious reflection. As the word "conscious" implies, we are speaking here of awareness, of deliberate effort. The very word "conscious" derives from the Latin noun conscius which means having a common knowledge with another, to be privy to. This etymology suggests, first, that conscious participation involves more than ourselves. In fact, in the very call to worship we are invited to gather and present ourselves before the Lord-ultimately to say yes to the divine activity in which we are about to engage ourselves. "Conscious" participation requires of us a surrender of ourselves to the worship event.

A second implication of the etymology: since "conscious" is a common knowledge, even our yes, our surrender is possible only because of the others who are present with us at worship. We can become privy to Divine presence only when we surrender ourselves to the bigger action which is not what we as individuals do, but what God does in us. The very word "liturgy" comes from two Greek words meaning "the people's work." The real work of worship is not so much our active participation (as challenging and demanding as that may well be) as it is the work of surrendering ourselves to God's presence and God's action.

Most importantly, this surrender means that we let go of our individuality-with our likes and dislikes, our needs and desires-and surrender ourselves to be the body of Christ at worship. Conscious participation in terms of common knowledge isn't something that takes place in our heads; it's not a matter of gaining a new insight. Rather, common knowledge takes place in our surrender to being someone other than our individual selves-our surrender to being the visible, worshiping body of Christ.

"Conscious" participation challenges us to surrender to being the body of Christ where God works through us and within us.

"Full" participation. Two paragraphs of the Constitution mention "full" participation (nos. 14 and 41) but give us little clue about what the Council bishops had in mind. We might take our clue from our previous two reflections. Active engagement and conscious surrender both take us beyond ourselves. As characteristics of our worship participation they render us able to allow God to work within us. Full participation, then, has to do with how God transforms us through the worship event into being more perfect members of the body of Christ.

Worship involves a bi-directional giving. We give God ourselves in praise and thanks; God gives us Godself as a share in divine life which transforms us into an ever-deepening identity as children of God. Participation reaches its apex when God transforms us. Thus, worship is always a life-threatening experience: through our engagement and surrender God makes us other than we are when we begin worship. Interestingly enough, while we often think of worship as what we give God, full participation implies that the most important gift of worship is what God gives to us. This does not mean that our gifts are not important-either of the offering or of ourselves-for they are! It does mean that God, who receives our sincere and true gifts, transforms them with divine life.

Moreover, this transformation of ourselves at worship is not simply for our own sake. Indeed, this transformation is precisely what enables us to be sent forth from worship to transform our broken and fractured world as we ourselves are transformed. Full participation, then, thrusts us toward mission. We are transformed in order to continue Jesus' saving ministry.

"Full" participation challenges us to be transformed by God into ever more perfect members of the body of Christ; as we are transformed, so is our world transformed.

Participation in worship: more than the doing

Our reflections on a broader meaning for "full, conscious, and active participation" help us realize that worship is far more than doing, as important as that is. This kind of participation leads us from the doing to being the body of Christ fully conscious of our encounter with the Divine and open to and receptive of the action the Divine takes on our behalf. This is ultimately the source of our deepest praise and thanksgiving-what God continues to do in and through us.

Moreover, in order for participation in worship to be fully realized, we surrender ourselves to being the body of Christ. This means that there are ecclesial (church) implications for what takes place at any given worship service. The Church is at once the body of Christ made visible in our world today and at the same time is the way Christ continues his saving ministry. Full, conscious, and active participation, then, always leads us to mission on behalf of others. This kind of participation always takes us beyond ourselves and the gifts God bestows on each and every one of us, to the realization that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. When another is in need, I am in need. When another is hurting, I am hurting. When another is encouraged, I am encouraged. When another is graced, I am graced.

As all of us Christians come to a more full, conscious, and active participation in our own separate churches, perhaps we will also come to a greater realization that in Christ we are all made one. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, a document of one Church, and its challenge to full, conscious, and active participation, has the potential to draw us together as one body in the one saving ministry of Christ.

Joyce Ann Zimmerman is Director of the Institute for Liturgical Ministry in Dayton, Ohio and member of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Renewal Grants Advisory Board.