On the 6th Sunday of Easter I attended Sunday services at St. Paul’s within the Walls, the Episcopal Church on the Via Nationale in Rome, Italy. When I entered the church I was surprised to see the Episcopal Bishop of Europe for the second time during my sabbatical. I had seen him in Paris on Easter Sunday and now he was in Rome for services of baptism and confirmation.
When I arrived the church was packed. I was able to find a seat only by moving up near the front of the church on the far left side. I was surprised to see the church so full but I soon figured out that most of the people in the congregation were non-Anglican Italians who were there for their friends baptisms and confirmations. The Italians in attendance had a different view of worship than I do. They talked to each other while the bishop preached. The phone of a woman behind me rang and she answered with the customary “Pronto.” She then talked loudly on the phone for the next 5-7 minutes. As soon as she had hung up the phone of the woman next to me rang. Her phone was buried in her purse so it rang for what seemed like an eternity. Then she too answered with “Pronto” and talked for a while though at a lower volume than the woman behind me. During the sermon video cameras on tripods with bright lighting filmed him and selected members of the congregation, the camera folks moving all over the place at will. When the bishop began to the baptisms and confirmations a hundred or more family members and godparents went forward to stand in front of him. But after folks had been baptized they moved to the front of the crowd of people standing in front of the font and facing the congregation posed for photos while the bishop baptized others. When the bishop finished the baptisms and confirmations and said “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” a mass exodus of people began. Two women in front of me picked up two or more large shopping bags full of items and got up to leave. Suddenly the church which had been full of people was more than half empty. I got up and moved to the center left of the parish where I sat for the remainder of the service. The second half of the service was quite peaceful and reverent.
There were a few surprises, however, during the second half of the service. When the congregation sang the Lord’s Prayer it was sung in Spanish to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s song “The Sound of Silence.” There were also songs sung in Spanish, Italian, and Swahili reflecting the international nature of this congregation.
I had attended a Roman Catholic Service in Rome on another Sunday and the people in attendance were far more respectful than they were in the Episcopal Church in Rome. I saw folks answer their phone during the service but they quickly exited the church to talk at length. The service at the Episcopal Church was conducted in English and Italian, and the bulletin printed the service in both languages, so the behavior of the people cannot be blamed solely on their inability to understand what was going on. Part of it was a lack of respect for a different tradition and part I think was based on the lack of a relationship to a church community, the behavior of people who no longer attend church regularly but do so only for family occasions and who view it as irrelevant to their life except as it affects a family member or friend. The combination of these factors led to some of the behaviors I experienced.
In the United States we often have to remind folks that the worship service is not the place for distractions – photography, answering cell phones, or drinking coffee. The worship service is not a spectator sport, but a place and time in which both clergy and congregation participate fully and actively together. We film everything now, even what we are about to eat in a restaurant, on our smart phones. Distractions in the worship service were viewed as disrespectful until recently where formality has given way to informality.
Think about what it means when you give someone your undivided attention. It means there is nothing more important than what is happening. It means you are listening with your whole being. It means you respect the people around you, behind you, and in front of you. It means you are actively participating in praising God, hearing God’s word, and listening to God’s promises to God’s people.
I was a little disappointed by what I interpret as a lack of respect shown during the worship service in Rome, but nonetheless was happy to see how my fellow Episcopalians worship and live in another country in circumstances very different from my own. I also made me appreciate the genius and beauty of Episcopal worship as it finds expression in different places and times.